My son, who is three, loves little things.
He collects colorful dice, tiny bouncy balls, miniature plastic figurines, pom poms, poker chips, googly eyes, fake gem stones, run-of-the-mill rocks, magnets, marbles, and guitar picks. For his birthday, a friend gave him a palm-sized treasure chest filled with wooden buttons that he, when asked, named as his favorite present. He spends lengthy stretches of uninterrupted time stacking the buttons, spinning them, dropping them through the slots of tables and chairs, and skidding them across the floor.
Peter insists on wearing pants with pockets so he can jam as many little things in them as possible, and throughout our home, there are several containers in which his treasures are corralled, most notably: a soft-sided dinosaur lunch box, a clear case once used to store sweaters, a zip pouch that looks like a monster when opened, and a plastic candy jar outfitted with a scoop.
There are individual bouncy balls floating around in our junk drawers and dice in Peter’s bed sheets. And a trail of little things always leads me to my boy, tinkering away with objects that might normally be an afterthought or an annoyance — things without a place.
Most moms I know would be driven crazy by this ceaselessly organic accumulation of doodads. And for a while, before I came up with the jar-with-scoop plan, things were, admittedly, getting a little out of control.
But even then, there was something different about this collection than all the other things crowding our playroom. Our delight in Peter as he plays, and his delight in these simple, collected items, is so unimposing, so fully encompassed by joy.
Peter has two sisters, aged five and seven, so it’s not as though I am not well acquainted with this sort of inexpensive fun. The girls are tactile in their playmaking, though — focused on art projects with glitter and feathers and shoeboxes and glue. While this is delightful and messy in its own way, their creations get rumpled or torn, tossed or filed away.
An ever-changing collection of found goods, easily parted or bartered with, happily added to or taken from, is something new here, and this holiday season, it’s begun to shape the way I think about gifts, traditions, and what real joy might look like.
I grew up in a household where there was a definite “shock and awe” factor to Christmas, and, as any kid would, I loved every second of it. From the moment the holiday decorations were pulled out of the attic, the anticipation began to mount. Christmas turned our house into a place where magic lived and hope was real; the scent of cinnamon and sugar that permeated the kitchen on those cold December mornings was love itself, a blanket I wanted to nestle into and have wrapped around me forever.
But the feelings one has about a holiday as a child are often non-transferable. As an adult, I’ve spent several Decembers thinking that it just didn’t “feel” like Christmas. The absence of a Moravian sugar cake and “shock and awe” notwithstanding, the holiday itself hadn’t changed — only my role in it had.
Now I was the person who was supposed to be putting that blanket of cinnamon sugar around my children’s shoulders after staying up half the night assembling coveted “big impact” toys and styling Santa’s loot. After a full month of combatting Black Friday e-mails, attending Christmas plays and holiday parties, and shopping for carts full of food, there just wasn’t much magic left to go around.
Where was the mystery I’d felt as a child, the anticipation and excitement? The flicker of hope in the candlelight of our Christmas Eve vigil? In the midst of stockpiling my childhood traditions of Christmas joy and imposing them on the life of my new immediate family, I seemed to have signed up for more than my spirit could handle.
And then Peter began collecting little things. It started with a dice game named Tenzi, given to my oldest child for her seventh birthday last February. Peter quickly appropriated at least twenty of the forty dice, placed them in a plastic colander from our play kitchen and began to use them in myriad un-dice-like ways. Occasionally, we tried to get all the dice back together for the game, but Peter was persistent and undeterred in his mission to collect them. Then the Easter Bunny brought him a tiny canister of red plastic buttons, and he discovered some cardboard discs left over from a game no one had ever really played. At around that same time, our dishwasher’s utensil basket broke, and Peter discovered that it made an ideal carrying case for his collection.
As Peter’s acquisitions grew, my spouse and I delighted in both his simple delight and the looseness with which he held his little things. If either of the girls wanted a pretty bouncy ball for themselves, he let them have it. If a button was lost in a heating vent or a figurine left at a playground, no matter. If a drawstring bag of little things was temporarily misplaced, he didn’t worry over it or throw a fit. Peter had more than he needed, and he seemed to be at peace with the inevitable loss of “things” and how easily the joy that had come with them could be replaced by some other, possibly some better, source of joy.
Which got me thinking: perhaps I’ve been holding on too tightly to what “makes” joy, rather than allowing it to bubble up in the unexpected. Perhaps I have been thinking — even though I believed my heart knew it to the contrary — that joy needs to be reserved for special occasions rather than poured out over our Cheerios and embraced at the end of a long, hard day.
All my adult life, I’ve been scrambling after Christmas joy as though it is some sparkling accessory to complete the portrait of a holiday I’ve always wanted, rather than what it actually is: a moment when the world stops to recognize the joy that is all around us, all the time.
Towles Kintz is a writer and mother of three. When not following a trail of marbles and buttons, she keeps a blog, The Interior Life. She also serves as a co-editor for Proximity Magazine, now accepting submissions on the theme of PLAY. Towles lives in Nashville, Tennessee.