A few Saturdays ago, at the Shore Things Café Market, I was attracted to some small, knitted pouches laid out on the craft table of one of the artisans, Lesly.
“What are these?” I asked.
“Worry dolls,” she responded, opening one pouch to show me a tiny "doll" made of pipe cleaners, wearing a long fabric scrap skirt.
She explained that worry dolls (
muñeca quitapena) originated in Guatemala, where they were used as "confidantes" to which children could tell their worries, before going to sleep. Placed under the pillow, the doll was believed to remove the child’s woes during the night, granting peaceful sleep and wisdom to deal with the issues upon waking.
A tiny note sometimes included with worry dolls reads: “Tell these dolls your secret wishes. Tell them your problems. Tell them your dreams. And when you awake, you may find the magic within you to make your dreams come true."
One story of the worry dolls’ origin cites a Mayan princess named Ixmucane who was granted special powers by the sun god, enabling her to solve any possible human problem. The doll represents Ixmucane.
Another legend tells of some poor Guatemalan children who, when their mother fell ill, gathered twigs and scraps of cloth and made little dolls, with sacks in which they could sleep. Hoping that the dolls would be as magical as the dolls in nighttime stories their grandfather told them, before going to bed, one of the children asked the dolls for help.
The next morning, the children woke with the inspiration to take the dolls to a local market and sell them. When a rich man asked what they were and was told "magic dolls," he was fascinated and bought all of them, which gave the children sufficient money to support their family’s needs.
Similarly fascinated by Lesly’s dolls and the concept behind them, I bought all five at $20 each. Before bagging them, she asked me to choose one for myself. She then put mine in its own special bag and put the others in another bag.
I carried one of the four to my Sunday yoga class, where I was moved to give it to a first-time student – a lovely older woman with physical mobility issues. Her face lit up when I gave her the doll and told her the story behind it. She indicated that it could be useful to her.
A few days later I gave the second doll to a craniosacral therapist after she gave me a complementary session. Her face also lit up when I gave her the doll and told her the concept. It is as if simply receiving the doll is like having a solution placed in your hands.
The other two dolls I gave to two Canadian friends who were holidaying in Tobago and had invited me over one evening. They too lit up upon receiving the dolls, excitedly promising to try them out under their pillows that night.
We agreed that everyone has worries, concerns or hopes of some kind, which is why a worry doll makes such a simple, thoughtful gift.
That night I too decided to try my worry doll (having not even taken it out of its pouch since purchasing it a few days earlier). After telling the worry doll of a situation for which I had no clear solution, I placed it under my pillow.
Upon waking in the morning, I was aware of a shift in my perception of the issue. I left the doll under the pillow and each morning upon waking, a different angle to the situation presented itself to me until, on the third or fourth morning, I woke with new clarity and the apparent absence of concern.
For children who have problems dealing with feelings, processing difficult thoughts, talking to people or expressing worries, these dolls are a simple therapeutic tool – a silent but knowing "listener" with whom they can be completely open and honest; one who will not judge them or tell their secrets, but can help provide a degree of inner tranquility.
Adults can also benefit, once they do not baulk at the concept as "childish" or "superstitious."
When a busy or overwhelmed mind becomes still enough, it can experience peace, "think" of answers and perceive possible ways forward. The doll is a cute symbol. The true power is already within us.