Lately I have been noticing many unmistakable signs of aging about my person. Suddenly the never-ending war against gray has gotten a lot more difficult. Suddenly the acne has been replaced with fine lines, the Clearasil in my makeup bag replaced by Oil of Olay. Suddenly I am one of those people who can’t believe how young others look.
And although I fight it, I’m starting to feel old. I expect that being diagnosed with arthritis at twenty-five years old might have that effect on a person, but it wasn’t until the last year or so that really didn’t bother me. I think it’s the combination of grieving my miscarriage, the stress of family members being sick, a pregnancy that leaves me constantly exhausted, and the never-ending achy joints (not to mention looking in the mirror) that has started to make me feel old. Working in a daycare has always felt like it was keeping me young, but lately it’s just been depressing to work with all these young girls.
Something inside me has changed, something about the way I see myself and the world around me. I’m not ready to be old. I don’t necessarily want to be young either. I just want to be real— and to be okay with that reality even as I dye part of it away.
I came across the story of the Velveteen Rabbit the other day, and the reminder couldn’t have come at a better time.
The Skin Horse had lived longer in the nursery than any of the others. He was so old that his brown coat was bald in patches and showed the seams underneath, and most of the hairs in his tail had been pulled out to string bead necklaces. He was wise, for he had seen a long succession of mechanical toys arrive to boast and swagger, and by-and-by break their mainsprings and pass away, and he knew that they were only toys, and would never turn into anything else. For nursery magic is very strange and wonderful, and only those playthings that are old and wise and experienced like the Skin Horse understand all about it.
“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”
“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. 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, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”
“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”
“I suppose you are real?” said the Rabbit. And then he wished he had not said it, for he thought the Skin Horse might be sensitive. But the Skin Horse only smiled.
“The Boy’s Uncle made me Real,” he said. “That was a great many years ago; but once you are Real you can’t become unreal again. It lasts for always.”
The Rabbit sighed. He thought it would be a long time before this magic called Real happened to him. He longed to become Real, to know what it felt like; and yet the idea of growing shabby and losing his eyes and whiskers was rather sad. He wished that he could become it without these uncomfortable things happening to him.
One evening, when the Boy was going to bed, he couldn’t find the china dog that always slept with him. Nana was in a hurry, and it was too much trouble to hunt for china dogs at bedtime, so she simply looked about her, and seeing that the toy cupboard door stood open, she made a swoop.
“Here,” she said, “take your old Bunny! He’ll do to sleep with you!” And she dragged the Rabbit out by one ear, and put him into the Boy’s arms.
That night, and for many nights after, the Velveteen Rabbit slept in the Boy’s bed. At first he found it rather uncomfortable, for the Boy hugged him very tight, and sometimes he rolled over on him, and sometimes he pushed him so far under the pillow that the Rabbit could scarcely breathe. And he missed, too, those long moonlight hours in the nursery, when all the house was silent, and his talks with the Skin Horse. But very soon he grew to like it, for the Boy used to talk to him, and made nice tunnels for him under the bedclothes that he said were like the burrows the real rabbits lived in. And they had splendid games together, in whispers, when Nana had gone away to her supper and left the night-light burning on the mantelpiece. And when the Boy dropped off to sleep, the Rabbit would snuggle down close under his little warm chin and dream, with the Boy’s hands clasped close round him all night long.
And so time went on, and the little Rabbit was very happy–so happy that he never noticed how his beautiful velveteen fur was getting shabbier and shabbier, and his tail becoming unsewn, and all the pink rubbed off his nose where the Boy had kissed him.
Spring came, and they had long days in the garden, for wherever the Boy went the Rabbit went too. He had rides in the wheelbarrow, and picnics on the grass, and lovely fairy huts built for him under the raspberry canes behind the flower border. And once, when the Boy was called away suddenly to go out to tea, the Rabbit was left out on the lawn until long after dusk, and Nana had to come and look for him with the candle because the Boy couldn’t go to sleep unless he was there. He was wet through with the dew and quite earthy from diving into the burrows the Boy had made for him in the flower bed, and Nana grumbled as she rubbed him off with a corner of her apron.
“You must have your old Bunny!” she said. “Fancy all that fuss for a toy!”
The Boy sat up in bed and stretched out his hands.
“Give me my Bunny!” he said. “You mustn’t say that. He isn’t a toy. He’s REAL!”
When the little Rabbit heard that he was happy, for he knew that what the Skin Horse had said was true at last. The nursery magic had happened to him, and he was a toy no longer. He was Real. The Boy himself had said it.
That night he was almost too happy to sleep, and so much love stirred in his little sawdust heart that it almost burst. And into his boot-button eyes, that had long ago lost their polish, there came a look of wisdom and beauty, so that even Nana noticed it next morning when she picked him up, and said, “I declare if that old Bunny hasn’t got quite a knowing expression!”
from The Velveteen Rabbit, by Margery Williams
Sometimes becoming something beautiful, something precious and wise and soft and real, requires a process that makes us feel ugly and useless and stupid. We fight the painful love that causes us to soften and grow and become who we are truly meant to be.
To love– and to be loved– whether by our children, our spouses, our friends, our Father– requires us to be open not just to sweetness and joy, but to grief and confusion and sometimes bitter hurt. And in the middle of that process it is easy to get caught up in the discomfort of it all. Our hair goes gray, our bodies sag, our faces age, and our energy disappears. But iside– if we allow it– we are becoming more and more beautiful– more wise– more real.
One day last December, in the middle of the Christmas rush, I stopped in at our local bagel shop for some toasted cinnamon crunch bagel loving, smeared all over with cream cheese. The shop was busy, so I sat at a table to wait for my order. As I enjoyed this forced break in the middle of a crazy day, I couldn’t help but notice a group of ladies who were laughing and talking at the corner table.
The youngest was probably in her sixties. Most were gray or white, although a few were still fighting the good fight with the help of Lady Clairol. Most of them wore Christmas sweaters, and many had pictures of their grandchildren at the ready. And as I sat there, I found myself feeling jealous of these ladies who had experienced so much of life and now sat at that table laughing and chattering. Undoubtedly each of these women had learned bitter lessons of grief and loss and sorrow, and the sweet lessons of joy and love and family. The stories etched in the lines of their faces could never be erased by Oil of Olay, and those stories made them beautiful. Because they accepted who they were, who they had become, who they were still becoming. Because they were real.
And, as the velveteen rabbit learned, as I am learning, that is not such a bad thing.