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Growing Old, Becoming Real

How toys become real. How we become real.

woman with grey hair and wearing a red jumper, sits leaning at a table outside in a garden, reading the children's book. 'The Velveteen Rabbit'. Greenery behind her. Sunlight filtering through.
Me sitting in the garden at Evergreen, reading 'The Velveteen Rabbit'. Photo by Rob.

The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams is the wisest book I know.


Forget the Bible, Anna Karenina, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. They are left choking in the dust thrown up as The Velveteen Rabbit hops to the finish line to be awarded first prize.


The fantasy embedded in the story – that toys can become real if they’re loved, and that a fairy can change a threadbare velveteen rabbit into a real rabbit of the woods with a single kiss – is somewhat maudlin. But there are still treasures within it worth taking notice of, especially as we get older and feel the cold winds called No-Tomorrows blowing on our lined faces.


Skin Horse, who is, in essence, Velveteen Rabbit’s mentor, says to him early in the book:


“Real isn’t how you are made. It’s a thing that happens to you.”


The mystic Skin Horse continues:


“When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”
“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.
“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”
“Does it happen all at once . . . or bit by bit?”
“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time.”


How We Become Real

A newborn baby is real. No one can argue with that. But after reading what Skin Horse had to say, I contend that an old person – like my mother, who is 92 – is more real, more realised, than a baby. She’s not brand new. Bit by bit she has become. It took a long time. And a lot of it hurt.


Skin Horse, being his honest self, admits that becoming real involves things like pain, loss, and disintegration. But, at the same time, he insists that these experiences, which we’d rather avoid than participate in, make us more real. The marks on our bodies and in our hearts are proof that we have become.


I recently turned seventy. My curly hair is grey and thinning, my neck is as wrinkled as that of a hundred-year-old giant Galapagos tortoise, and my eyebrows have almost disappeared, giving me the look of a classic alien invader if I forget where I left my eyebrow pencil. (Inside the fridge is a good place to start the search.)


Some days I feel old, worn, thin, disheveled, just like the Velveteen Rabbit does by page 36 of the original version of the book.


I don’t always feel like this. Just some days, like today, when the sun comes up late and an icy southerly gale, carrying a pungent whiff of elephant seals, blows straight from Antarctic to layer goosebumps on my skin. Outside, flowers in my wild garden are losing their colour, and the vegetables, except for ever-optimistic zucchinis, are hunkering down, praying earnestly for an early Spring.


When this occasional great sadness comes over me, like it did to Velveteen Rabbit when he was put in a sack and left behind the fowl-house, I recall another pearl of wisdom Skin Horse passes onto him:


“. . . once you are Real you can’t be ugly.”


I’ll print that quote off and tape it to my morning mirror.


To me, Velveteen Rabbit isn’t the only hero in the book. Skin Horse is, too.


He’s been through it all. Lived a long time. Suffered. Learned cosmic lessons. Fully become.


Quietly and generously, he passes on his wisdom to Velveteen Rabbit, and to us adults who are busy reading the book to children.


But maybe we shouldn’t be reading the book to children.


Maybe we should be reading the book to each other.


Children don’t need this wisdom. No yet, anyway. We do. We oldies.


Like the Velveteen Rabbit, no matter what happens in our life or how much it hurts, it is helping us become more Real. Of more substance. More useful. Wiser.


And that is a wonderful thing.

A last encouraging quote from Skin Horse:

. . . once you are Real you can't become unreal again. 

Illustration of a toy horse talking to a toy rabbit, who sits on top of a pile of books. A doll sits leaning against the books.
Illustration of Skin Horse talking to Velveteen Rabbit in the original version of the book. Artwork by William Nicholson. Photo by author.

 With love, Marlane

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