If you are a middle class relatively privileged American child there is nearly always a demand – perhaps a coercion? – that you start a collection of something. At birth we’re given toys to entertain us, and then people assume we like those toys and buy us more of the same. Maybe there was a movie that you loved and watched on repeat as a child (mine was Wizard of Oz), so people buy you posters and dolls associated with that movie. Maybe you were into Barbies, or Transformers, or – if you grew up in the 80s with me – My Little Ponies. My sister loved all things New Kids On the Block for a while (thank goodness I was too young for that phase).
I also had a collection of snowglobes as a child. I’m not exactly sure where it came from (I’m sure my parents would be delight to recollect it for me if I ever asked them…not sure I want to, as there will probably be an embarrassing story associated with it), but I probably received a snowglobe as a gift or as a pacifying present on a family trip somewhere and loved to play with it. The first snowglobe I clearly remember playing with was a cheap plastic half dome with the skyline of New York City on it. No idea where I got it or when, though obviously someone got it in New York at some point. After that the collection grew with every birthday and holiday and trip, until it became too large to keep out in my small bedroom. The globes were wrapped and put up in the attic, where the massive heat and cold temperatures caused them to crack and warp and leak (water-filled snowglobes cannot resist the laws of physics!). It was a brilliant way for my parents to get rid of the collection in one fell swoop without being blamed for just throwing them out. And to be honest…I didn’t miss it. This is the first I’ve thought about them in a very long time.
I think the people around us are relieved when we show an interest in one specific thing (provided it’s…you know…not ax murdering or torturing bunnies or something like that). Why does it make others appear more human to us when they show a particular interest in something specific? I’m not sure. Perhaps it’s an easy way to get a peek inside the psyche of another person without having to ask too many personal and invasive questions.
Or perhaps that’s just pop psychology. People like it when it’s easy to buy a gift for someone else. “I have no idea what to get her for Christmas!” “Well, she likes snowglobes.” “Oh, that’s easy. Whew.”
Personally I think there are times when hobbies and collections do indeed provide an insight into a person’s character. My hobbies all center around my desire to produce things. I’ve always liked to build and create, but I don’t have much (any!) artistic talent, and my hobbies are my outlets for creation. I also conveniently like to eat, which is why I enjoy cooking more than my other hobbies, but since you can’t cook in a car or at work I do things like crochet also. However I think my former snowglobe collection shows very little about my character except that perhaps as a child I liked shiny things that move around and pretending I was exploring new places and not sitting in my bedroom. I’m pretty sure that could describe nearly every 5-year-old on the planet.
So, collections. Perhaps they’re pop psychology, and perhaps not. There’s a brilliant insight for you.
My post today is about a collection I started in college that has persisted and grown very slowly throughout my adulthood. Family and close friends who have visited my house know about it, but very few others, because it’s not a central revolving piece of my life. It’s…mildly ongoing. If I’m on a trip and shopping, I’ll look around for a new one. If I don’t get one? That’s fine. Very occasionally I’ll get one as a present, including the one I got yesterday that prompted this post.
During my senior year of high school I deliberately entered a college that was about two hours from my parents and my childhood home. Some other day maybe I’ll write about my college experience, but for now, the distance is important. I wanted to make sure I couldn’t make the trip home on a whim (and that my parents couldn’t just stop by to see me) but that I could get home if I wanted to (a taxi, train ride, bus ride, and car ride later). Going to college was my first time being away from my parents, childhood home, hometown, and my friends for any extended length of time. It was really my first time being forced to make friends with complete strangers. Living in a small town and having parents that both worked in the school system, going through all of my years of schooling with the same couple of hundred kids, I knew everyone from grade school on up. And if I didn’t know them, my parents did. So college was a new experience on many levels.
And quite frankly, I hated it. I didn’t like sharing a room, I didn’t like being forced to be friendly with the girls in my dorm, I didn’t like the public showers or the wait to be able to wash my hands in the bathroom. I never got alone time, which – after the wonderful time I had being a single child over my senior year in high school while my siblings were in college – I really enjoyed. There were too many people, the classes were hard, I didn’t have any friends (being fat and shy is not conducive to making friends), and I missed the comfort of my home and my friends. I felt incredibly isolated and lonely. Not that I could admit that to anyone – I was 17, at a prestigious (and very expensive) school, and all I heard about growing up was how important and fun college was. When I was a high school senior I couldn’t wait to graduate and leave. How could I possibly be so unhappy now that I was here?
Over the next three years I became increasingly depressed, although I didn’t know that is what it was at the time. I moved out of my shared dorm room and into a single midway through my freshman year, and kept a single my sophomore year. My last year (I graduated early) I had my own bedroom but lived in a quad with four other people who became close friends. I began to have panic attacks. I stopped sleeping. I would cry endlessly. I would eat tirelessly. Even though I got used to being alone and even made a few friends, I always think of my time in college as some of the worst in my life. I still have nightmares that I’m back there sometimes. My memories of it are just a blur of sitting in classes, homework, and feeling hopelessly sad. And even though I was living with good friends my last year, I still contemplated suicide often. There seemed to be a tireless loop of my faults and failings playing through my head, and even when times were good, that loop would be background music. It was exhausting, and I just wanted it to stop.
I don’t remember when or where I got my first Buddha. Most likely it was in a tourist trap somewhere in Boston on a weekend excursion my senior year. I guess the important things in your life are sometimes not so noteworthy until you look back at them.
The reason I like Buddhas probably does say a great deal about me as well as the mental state I was in when I started collecting them. Now, when I say Buddha, I mean the smiling guy in the robes with the huge belly – the Chinese Buddha known as Ho Thai, the Happy or Laughing Buddha rather than the thinner, solemn, and more historically accurate Thai one. I love these Buddhas because they are not solemn or sad. The vast majority of them have a huge, delighted grin on their faces. Buddha has a big belly that is a source of joy, and you’re supposed to rub it often for good luck! Buddha also carries with him a variety of things which have different representations:
- beads of wisdom/prayer around his neck or in his hand
- children (hopefully with their parents’ permission) representing fortune in all areas of life and home
- a cloth bag to represent the fortunes the believer will receive or to stuff all of the believer’s worries away in; it can also mean good fortune in travels
- wealth balls to bring good fortune
- a bowl to signify being open to all good fortune to come your way
- a fan to wave away all negative energy or troubles
- a large hat for a long and happy life
Buddha’s postures also have significance:
- Sitting means love, and the balance of thoughts and tranquility
- Standing is riches and happiness
- Sitting on a large gold nugget (how’d you like to do that someday?) is a symbol of good luck or prosperity
- Sitting with his big hat shows enjoyment and good fortune
- Upright with a gold block in his hands is abundant riches and good luck
- Carrying a bag of gold on his back represents prosperity
- Carrying a bag of blessing on right shoulder and fan on left shoulder protects during long journeys
I’ve read somewhere that Ho Thai is not actually supposed to be a representation of the actual Buddha. He was a monk and is the Eastern equivalent to St. Nick, carrying around a sack of treasures for the good people of the world. The word for Buddha is the same word for monk in Thai, and so Ho Thai became synonymous with (or confused with) the representation of the person known as Buddha.
I don’t really care if the Happy Buddha statues I own are actually Buddha or not; they never fail to make me smile. How can you resist grinning while rubbing the belly of a small statue who is so naively, artlessly cheerful, and who only represents a desire for good and wonderful things to come your way?
The Buddhas I began to collect during the darkest times of my life were crumbs of comfort to me. He always smiled, no matter how miserable I was. His belly was always there to rub. His wishes were always of prosperity and happiness for me. As I began to take the small, difficult steps away from depression and towards a better life, my Buddhas have remained a constant reminder of where I’ve been and where I want to be.
As I move through this life of mine, I keep an eye out for Happy Buddhas in my travels. I don’t search for these guys in the same way I don’t search for money, prosperity, and good fortune. I work for those things and enjoy them on my time off. If I am gifted them, I am happy. If I get them on my own, I am happy. I’ve bought Buddhas from flea markets in Florida and tourist traps in Colorado and from semi-authentic stores in Boston Chinatown. They’ve come from gas stations and tourist traps and off the internet. I get Buddha souvenirs from friend’s trips or, like my most recent gift, from a random thought from my mom.
I love this Buddha, and he is unique in my collection. He arrived unexpectedly in the mail on a gray and dismal Friday afternoon. I opened the box after just getting home from a long and boring day at work. Mom’s note to me with the gift said that she bought the bronze one, because the bronze represents wealth and prosperity to the person who receives the Buddha. I love this Buddha because not only is his expression absolutely priceless, but because he is the only naked Buddha that I have ever seen! Is the lack of clothing what makes this guy ‘modern’? Perhaps its the double thumbs up?
I am fortunate indeed to survive those dark times in my life. I am fortunate and proud that I have fought back from the darkness to find happiness and joy in a new kind of life that I built for myself. The further I get from those times, the more I find my own voice, my strength, my unique vision of the way I want to live my life that makes me special.
And Buddha will continue to be there, and be happy for me.