Growing up, we didn’t have much pocket money, and so most of our birthday and Christmas presents were made by hand. Being a lover of presents, I would begin with this “making” in October, hoarding things I made in an old hat-box under my bed that (I think) was discovered at a retiring missionary garage sale.
I often had GRAND plans for what my gifts would be. The gold-standard was if my created items looked “store-bought”. This was a phrase that was bandied about with much pride. “I’ve just finished making your present! And I can’t tell you what it is, but it looks store-bought!”
Of course, they never came out as great in real life as in my imagination, whether it was a jewellery holder made of egg cartons and toilet paper rolls which had looked much more promising in the craft book, or the time I tried to sew my sister clothes for her doll that were so disastrous my friend’s mother kindly saved me from myself and re-did the whole thing. (They actually did look store-bought that year! I LOVED it).
I took comfort in the line from Little Women, “Being still too young to go often to the theater, and not rich enough to afford any great outlay for private performances, the girls put their wits to work, and necessity being the mother of invention, made whatever they needed.”
Thriftiness. Creativity. Making what you need. These are values in my family, and it was so comforting reading a story of how these sisters figured out ways to create within the limits of their money – repainting boots a more fashionable blue like Amy, or covering over burnt curls with a different hair-style like Meg.
This making, and making-do, is perhaps undervalued in the world at large. Especially in our over-specialised, over-mechanised and over-professionalized world where we see airbrushed social-media influencers filling our feeds.
In light of this, I love the resurgent emphasis on craft these days. It’s quite hipster to make your own clothes or farm your own honey, or hand-make your own journals. Suddenly making things is not just for people who can’t afford to buy something – it’s for people who are so rich they can buy whatever they want but have lost all sense of meaning. I wondered if now that rich people are doing it, too, if I’d feel a bit more validation in my home-made ways.
Because, let me be honest, when you’re not an expert, your stuff just isn’t going to be as good as something you see in the internet. Sometimes, necessity is the mother of invention, and your invention falls apart because you’re not a professional. Sometimes you try sew doll clothes and you can’t fit them over the doll’s head, let alone figure out a sleeve. The imperfections can be charming, marks of an individual’s hard work – or they can just be irritating, a reminder that this thing you’ve made is not as good as it was in your head. Maybe if you’re rich enough, you can make without having to “make-do”, your lack of skill compensated for by super expensive materials.
Of course, there’s also the problem of other people. Things which you were pretty proud of making on Monday in the comfort of home when you exclaimed over your ingenuity suddenly look a bit shabby and shoved together on Thursday when Sally Moffat is coming over for tea.
It’s one thing to hand-make some crooked doll’s clothes for a Christmas present, and another to show up at a friend’s birthday party with a hand-made card and hand-made gift and feel the embarrassment of how yours looks in the pile. No matter what your friend says (or the exclamation of their parents), isn’t it true that they’d much rather have a princess Barbie than a hand-made basket for imaginary pet cats? (I never quite gave that exact gift…but almost).
I know that people say it’s the thought and love that goes into handmade gifts that matters and makes them so special, but… really? I mean, I’m glad to spend time showing someone I love them, but at the end of the day, wouldn’t they rather have something that works? But maybe other people are more gracious than I give credit for. Maybe they don’t mind at all, maybe I’m the one projecting my own dissatisfaction on them. Maybe I’m just a heartless materialist who wants nice things.
Perhaps, though, it’s a matter of sticking in my lane. I can have a brilliant idea for a sewing project but my skill is so sadly lacking that it wouldn’t be very good. But maybe I could write someone a pretty good birthday poem. (But who wants a poem? When you could have a princess Barbie dream house??)
Then again, is there something human and holy about risking the vulnerability of making? And especially making for other people?
I think of this sometimes when I look at photos of our house, or walk across the worn patch on our plywood floor. My husband and his dad built our tiny house. His dad is very good at construction, but this was my husband’s first project. He got a lot of help. He learned so much in the process. (I was no help. Apparently sewing and building are a bit too related) And the finished product is not just a strangely painted egg-carton that we are all pretending is a house. It’s actually a house. That was actually built by the same hands that tuck my boys in bed at night and make us pancakes on Saturday morning. For the first year we lived in it, my husband was often antsy, noticing corners that were not straight, or regretting building decisions he made that he wishes he could do-over. I was ignorant of the whole process and was just ecstatic that he made my tiny house dream come true!
The tiny house works. It does for us what we wanted it to do — gives us a way to be together as a family, to live within our means, to have more time to pursue other dreams. It’s homey, it’s light-filled, things are positioned exactly where I want them. But it was also built on a budget. When we meet people and tell them we live in a tiny house, they often talk about the HGTV shows, or Pinterest accounts they follow. My husband can’t watch those shows. They’re not inspiring, they’re depressing. Watching professionals coming in and completing a build in 4 weeks with marble counter-tops just isn’t fun.
We learned a lot, but we’re not professionals, and it shows. It shows in our cheap floors where the wheels of our storage cubes have completely worn away the paint. It shows in our water-damaged cladding, a result of not having the correct building supplies in South Africa and having to “make-do” with what was there. It shows in the blinds on our patio that are staked down with tent-pegs.
And so sometimes, when people come see our tiny house, I find myself wanting to apologise. “This won’t look like the ones you see on TV. It’s not perfect. We made it.”
But then, when I get in my bed, lofted on a pulley mechanism my husband invented (and hunted for parts in seventeen different shops — because automatic garage-door openers like you see on the internet are just not available here) — when I see how the light falls through the windows, when I see the wonder and excitement in the eyes of every kid who visits and gets to climb up to the boys room— I think maybe there is something in the making. Maybe there is something in the process, even if you aren’t professional. Maybe there is something beautiful in making something to shelter your family yourself, the way human beings have done for centuries (the way many of our neighbours literally still do).
Maybe one day we’ll be rich and live in a fancy house built by an architect that can execute all our imaginings. But for now, I’m grateful for the house we built. Maybe the gap between imaging and what we make is just a reminder this world is not yet all that it should be. One day, God will make all things new. In the meantime, we risk making as an act of faith, as a step of vulnerability, as a way to learn, as a way image our creative God even in the midst of our frailty and failings. Maybe in the new creation there will be no making-do, just making.
But then again, maybe any human act of making is an act of making-do, of renovation, of taking the tools and resources that we have in our hands – however large or small they may be – and making something better.
It won’t look like the ones you see on TV. It isn’t perfect. But we didn’t just consume. We made. And maybe there’s meaning in the making.