I held the wooden statue in my hands, the smooth contours and simple lines etched deeply to carve an enigmatic expression on its face: a straight line for a mouth and eyes wide and round.
Arms, sage-like, perched on bent knees, its back arched slightly forward so that the statue seemed to lean in a little. Like it wanted to hear what you had to say.
The dark wood was about the shape and length of your average banana, and I’m not even sure what wood the statue was carved from, but the male figure seemed to be a prevalent character in Dominican culture.
The small but heavy figure could be found everywhere—in paintings, in statues of various sizes, on key chains—in every tourism kiosk and shop throughout Cabarete, Sosua, and Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. This is where I found myself recently catching up with a long-time girlfriend, sitting in the sunshine, toes in the sand, and drinking wine—something we hadn’t had the chance to do together for a long time.
We never know when and where we are going to see our much-loved people again, and for us, it had been five years since we’d been silly and adventurous. Back then, our reunion had been in Nicaragua.
But I digress. The little wooden man I kept picking up off dusty shelves in open markets in the coastal Dominican towns seemed to be a hot piece of culture to pocket. I wanted to understand his significance. Was he a god? What was he the god of? The sky? The crops? Fertility?
Besides my own curiosity, I was interested in the significance because I intended to buy a gift for my vet. There will be more stories of Roo, my (now) three-legged puppy, but for 12 days, she was in my vet’s care while she underwent and recovered from a pretty intense surgery. My vet has been thoughtful enough to send me video updates on how my little girl is healing. He’s also operated on my cat Tino’s hip in years past, performing surgeries that aren’t all that common. I wanted to extend my gratitude toward him with a gift from the DR.
This little wooden man seemed like a unique gift—something my vet could perch on his desk and be reminded that his veterinarian (and humanitarian) efforts were appreciated.
But it would be extra cool if the wooden statue of this Dominican figure I was drawn to turned out to also be a deity of some kind, like…maybe the god of wildlife or something. Something fitting to my vet’s profession and overall kindness toward me and little Roo.
So I began to direct my questions to the local shop owners.
“Quien esta el?” I asked the first shop owner. That’s likely okay-ish Spanish with less-than-okay grammar, but I was understood by most. Who is this guy?
“No se,” They said nonchalantly. A Dominican god, sure.
But the god of what, I wanted to know. “Que esta la significado?”
Shrugged shoulders and “I don’t care” expressions were my response. Go ask someone else.
I was given versions of this reply more than once. No one knew for sure, and no one it seems had bothered to discover who he was. However, some shopkeepers were engaged enough to make up an answer for me.
One shopkeeper told me the statue was the god of the sky, but when my Google search revealed images of Dominican deities, none looked like my little wooden man.
A second shopkeeper replied with a lavish story, pointing at how big and round the eyes of the Dominican man were, and that the story of the Dominican man is that no one ever sees him, but he sits quietly in his place, and with his big round eyes, he sees everyone and all.
That was an intimidating interpretation laden with politics, history, culture, and shopkeeper number two’s depth of character. But I wasn’t sure his answer was widely accepted, so I moved on to another shop.
The third shopkeeper seemed more interested in us chatty, inquisitive tourists, so I asked again, “Que esta la significado?” I held up another wooden statue I had removed from shelves cluttered with wooden statues of men, giraffes, and elephants.
“El Dios del Dinero.” The god of money, I was told, the eyes of the shopkeeper as wide and round as the statue as he expressed to me in earnest that the statue symbolized divine cash.
Maybe this statue was a god of money for this particular Dominican shopkeeper, based on sales, but there was little truth in it. Wikipedia’s short entries on the island’s indigenous culture and religion did explain the local gods and their stories—but my little wooden man was not part of this traditional folklore. None of the images I found of local deities resembled him at all.
But he was traditional. An indigenous, traditional Dominican man with resting arms, a content smile, and wide-staring eyes, and not a god of anything,
After several attempts to understand “Que esta la significado” of the wooden statue, I decided to just buy the darn thing and present it to my vet as a gift anyway.
At a beachfront bar serving burrata cheese, carpaccio, and focaccia appetizers, our toes again in the sand, my friend and I casually watched kite surfers sailing through the air in the turquoise bay before us. I expressed my disappointment in not discovering the meaning of the statue to my friend.
The meaning was important to me. If possible, I wanted to connect his story or his responsibilities to that of the vet so that my vet would not dismiss my gift as a cheap, touristy trinket but appreciate the connection and the thought behind its purchase.
I railed about this for probably a few minutes before my friend interjected.
Knocking back a swig of vino blanco, she gestured her arm dramatically through the sunshine, and laughing at me said, “Just create your own significance!”
Whelp. That made the decision so much simpler than I was making it. Just create my own significance.
When I think about it, I create my own significance in pretty much every item I own. It’s heartwarming to walk through my house, but also anxiety-fueling, because if one thing is chipped, dropped, knocked, or broken, I react as if a human life has been lost. The art of detachment is an art I’m still practicing.
But I suppose, because I cherish the events connected to all that decorates my house, that emotional bond creates significance too.
Every ring on my fingers has a story or significant memory fixed just as snuggly as the gem fits the silver.
My Azul Agate reminds me to “go with the flow” because I purchased it at a time when I was traveling through Guatemala and I wasn’t going with the flow. My travels went from bad to worse until I gave up trying to control everything and then my situation improved.
Another ring I had custom-made of silver and deep green Aventurine after a breakup was to remind me to be courageous in love (including being strong enough to love myself). A recent creamy blue Larimar ring I was inspired to buy connects me to abundance and limitlessness. And it goes on and on. I create my own significance.
Perhaps I could have continued to interrogate locals in the DR and persist in my questioning “Que esta la significado” of so many statues.
Or: I could choose to just be drawn to a thing, think about the significance it means to me, and layer that with meaning. I could create my own significance.
In the end, I never learned more about the Dominican man, except that he was Dominican before Dominicans were Dominican. (FYI, he was Taíno, a people who canoe-ed from Belize and the Yucatan Peninsula between six to eight thousand years ago.)
But I have created layers of significance around him. Searching for deep meaning, choosing him, connecting with who he is, the gratitude he’s meant to carry from me to my vet. He’s so damn significant now, he should probably be worth more than what I paid.
On my last day, I bought him in a shop near our Airbnb. I traded my pesos for their culture, and off to home we went, all the significance having been created that I and the wooden man with the simple mouth and wide round eyes could have hoped for.