Depressed? Try Building a House for Faeries!
Tedium: It Can Be Medicine
If I hadn’t gotten appendicitis at the beginning of December, 2020, I'm pretty certain I never would have spent seventy hours building a tiny little faerie house as a gift for my stepmom. That’s right, if my appendix, that vestigial organ of the bowels, hadn’t decided to get infected and inflamed and try to kill me, she would have instead gotten a pillow or a scarf or something I found on Etsy— some thirty-dollar tops purchase (times were tough) —and I would have gone another month (or two, or maybe eighteen) before I again hunkered down with my tools at my little workbench building little things meant for magical, imaginary, tiny people.
If you’d asked me when I was a kid what my adult relationship with art and crafting would be, I’d have said that it would be as essential as eating, done at least as frequently as I brushed my teeth. It’s funny how life and work and existential crises can get in the way (of crafting, not teeth brushing)!
As an adult, I’ve gone years between doing a painting or drawing, an entire presidential term without doing a woodworking project. Same goes for building models. As 2020— that horror of year —came to an end, I had not built one in ages. Yet, my crates of unused materials lay dormant: Wood, rope, wire! Moss, string, glue! Who knew they’d come out of hibernation so soon?
Appendicitis to the Rescue!
Even under normal circumstances, I’d be home from work for several days after the surgery. But, for fear that I may have contracted Covid during my hospital visit, the family whose children I looked after (I was a nanny at the time, and side note: as lovely as it is to make finger-paint turkeys and pipe-cleaner spiders with children, it ain't nothin' compared to the high I get from my meticulous, grownup, way-too-serious hours of faerie-dwelling fabrication) didn’t want me around for at least fourteen days, and rightfully so.
That meant I had weeks of nowhere to be and, thanks to the pandemic, nowhere to travel! Faerie-house time!
The Forest: Inspiration, Peace, and Free Materials
Days after having the corrupted organ cut out of me, I went on a hike through the woods behind my apartment. A big, empty tool bag was slung over my shoulder, for I needed to collect some bark and twigs and pinecones and stuff. Because that’s what faeries and elves and sprites make their homes out of (duh).
Snow had yet to fall. The trees were naked, and the forest was quiet and beautiful. It’s that stillness and beauty, I believe, that makes me want to build faerie homes. If it were possible to actually live in the woods myself— away from asphalt, engines, and high-fructose corn syrup —I am certain that I would. Living in a real-life abode made of scavenged bark and leaves would make me feel so gloriously part of nature, and not like the much-removed-from-nature beast that human beings have become. (Being six-inches tall and having wings would be dope, too; I’m neutral on the pointy-ears thing).
Building houses for faeries is me trying to craft something that is both human— for they have architectural hallmarks like windows and awnings —and as simple and crude in its charm as the stretch of woods behind my home.
Make a Mess! Find Some Magic
Like so many of my generation, I suffer from depression and anxiety. To describe how the pandemic (and the isolation that came with it) worsened my despondence would be unnecessary, not to mention boring as hell. What is worth telling is that as the faerie house came together, the nagging feelings of sadness that had gripped me so regularly over the months started to slip away. As bits and pieces and debris spread first across my workbench, then over other surfaces of my apartment, a warm, childlike bliss spread with it.
Sawdust from cutting out the wooden base with my jigsaw was on the floor. Plaster of Paris splotched the kitchen counter. A thin layer of potting soil baked in the oven to make sure it was completely dry before I glued it to the “ground” around the faerie home. On the bench was a box full of mini shingles, hundreds of them. I had split thick fillets of oak bark with a box cutter. Then, as with the twigs that would frame the windows and line the dormers and eaves, I cut them to length with titanium-edged scissors.
Large flakes of birch bark were scattered across the workbench too, looking like a puzzle made of Rorschach inkblots. With satisfying snaps! and no tools at all, these broke cleanly along invisible fault lines, into the shapes I wanted. I fitted the pieces together over the house’s exterior in ways that appeared natural and pleasing to me, as if perhaps those pieces of bark weren’t installed there by me or by tiny faerie hands, but just happened to grow on the surface of the house like that.
Hmm. Maybe faeries don’t build their houses? Maybe their homes are living organisms in and of themselves: They sprout from some magical seed, and when they grow up, faeries take up residence inside, like possums move into the knotholes of trees.
That sort of silly, whimsical postulate is also why I like making these houses. Unlike so many sci-fi and fantasy movies, with their “hard” rules and definitive lores— rules and histories in which flaws can so easily be found through a bit of nerdy overanalyzing —these little decorative treasures let the imagination wander. Faerie houses and Faerie Culture work however the heck the viewer wants them to work! Also, if you’re looking at a seven-inch-tall faerie house, you don’t need to decide how it “works.” You can let there be mystery. Let there be magic. Just like there is mysterious magic in any quiet winter forest.
Focus and Flow: Here Comes the Dopamine!
Crafting for long hours invites that glorious state of “flow” where time ceases to exist, as do all concerns outside the task at hand. For me, snipping away at natural materials means welcoming one mini-challenge after the other: How might this bit of stick, with its curve as it is, fit in this window? Or, What can be done with this unique piece of wood? It could make a fine door, by golly, because there’s a notch in it where I can stick a door handle!
With each of these little “wins” there’s a release of some sort of happy neurotransmitter. The instant satisfaction is better than the MSG in Chinese food. Keep them coming, I say!
For this piece, my favorite little “win,” my favorite “aha!” moment, was in how I chose to construct the chimney. In 2016, I was at dinner with my sister, my dad, and my stepmom before she was my stepmom. He popped the question, and she said, "Yes." I kept the cork from the champagne poured that night, and I hung on to it, not quite sure what to do with it…
I’d gone into this particular faerie house project with no intention of using “human” items in its construction. In fact, I was even conflicted about using metal wire and hinges on the door. But then, at the bottom of one of my crafting boxes, I caught a glimpse of the cork I’d kept with me for four years. In the picture below, THE cork, the proposal cork, is the one with the least “soot” on it.
Suddenly a pretty great Christmas gift became a late wedding present that seriously slapped.
To Find Happiness in Tedium
What this particular faerie house reminded me (other than Don’t wait until you’re rendered house-ridden by surgery and a pandemic!) was that doing something for the sake of doing that thing brings the most happiness and satisfaction.
Did my stepmom like her gift? Yes. Is there truth that the act of giving brings one more happiness than doing things for yourself? Of course! The gifting was a plus, sure, but the whole point of building this thing, really, was to make a mess of my apartment, get my tools out, get my fingers dirty, and focus on just one thing for a long time: carefully fitting bits of organic material together. It’s during such tedious focus that you’re free to ask, perpetually, “How can I make this better?” and “What detail might make this a little closer to perfect?”
Satisfaction, flow, and joy...they all come from this rapt tedium.