Read an Excerpt
Her husband, a white-haired man dressed in khaki pants and a flannel shirt, was small, alert and quite fit. He had pushed her wheelchair with relative ease and then knelt next to her. He pushed back the sleeve of his shirt, revealing a very old tattoo of a buxom young woman - maybe it was Betty Grable - and stroked his wife's hair. As he adjusted the plastic tubing for her oxygen supply, he spoke softly in his wife's ear. Whatever he said made her smile.
As I peeked over my magazine I became strangely jealous. Here she was, at the end of her life, physically debilitated and struggling. But she was not shy or embarrassed. Instead, she exuded a peaceful sense of certainty about who she was and her inherent value. It was clear that her husband adored her and cherished every moment they spent together. I considered his tattoo and thought of the time when he was young and probably quite obsessed with pretty women. And who knows, maybe his wife was once the girl who had fulfilled his fantasy. But in the moment I witnessed, what he loved was the true and essential person inside the body, the invisible beauty he may not have seen in younger years.
In the weeks after seeing that couple in the doctor's office I struggled to understand why I had been so envious. I had a husband who loved me. I felt good about my work and about my two children, Amy and Elizabeth. But I felt, deep in my heart, there was something that older woman possessed that I wanted. It was there in her face, and in the way she interacted with her husband, but I just couldn't name it.
The answers we need often come to us at unpredictable moments and from surprising sources. This happened to me on a summer evening as I prepared dinner. I was in the kitchen, taking vegetables out of the refrigerator and grabbing pots and pans from the cupboard while my daughters sat together reading on the sofa in the next room. Elizabeth, age six, was reading to two-year-old Amy. Amy had her favorite blanket in her hand, her best bear, Lauren, in her lap and her thumb in her mouth. Elizabeth's stuffed bear, Ted, was propped next to her. They had reached page sixteen of The Velveteen Rabbit, Margery Williams's story, which was one of their favorites.
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?"
"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," 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 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 those things don't matter at all, because once you are real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand."
In the kitchen, I was suddenly flooded with emotion and understanding. The Rabbit and the Skin Horse, I realized, were talking about the difference between superficial beauty and the kind of Real, inner beauty that we all possess as unique human beings. They were saying that in a life well-lived, where we are true to ourselves, all the struggles and challenges only make us more Real and more loveable. Others can see this quality in us, and make us even more Real with their love and nurturing.
At last I understood my reaction to the older woman at my doctor's office. She was loose in the joints. Her hair was thinning, and her clothes were shabby. But she showed no anxiety, no shame, no worry. She accepted herself fully. She knew she was precious and irreplaceable. She was Real. She loved and accepted herself as a Real, and therefore imperfect, person.
The scene at the doctor's office was made all the more poignant by the fact that the woman's Real value was clear to her husband as well. To him she could never be ugly, because she was simply herself. At a moment when anyone else might have been supremely self-conscious, he was so Real that he was almost carefree. He had thoroughly overcome the superficial attitude reflected in his old tattoo and come to adore his wife for her deepest, inner self.
As the pages of The Velveteen Rabbit turn, the main characters teach us how to find the peace that comes when we focus on what matters most in life: love, relationships, and empathy for ourselves and others. The Skin Horse is a wise and experienced elder who is generous with what he has learned. The Rabbit is, like all of us, insecure and searching for his place in the world, a place he eventually finds in a rather unexpected new life.
As in so many children's books, the human beings in Margery Williams's tale are mostly oblivious to the intense drama affecting the toys in the nursery. In this case, the little Velveteen Rabbit stays with his owner - the Boy - as he suffers through scarlet fever. When the Boy recovers, the doctor insists that the bunny - "a mass of scarlet fever germs!" - be replaced. Though the Rabbit is discarded, it is not the end of the story. As he lies in the yard waiting to be burned with the trash, the Rabbit is transformed from a toy that was Real only to the Boy into an actual living creature who is Real for all to see. He hops off to live a splendid life with other Real rabbits, who become his friends. The words of the Skin Horse, who was wise, secure and content, are proven true. Being Real transforms us.
Out in the living room, Elizabeth and Amy paused and looked at their own stuffed animals. Elizabeth's bear, Ted, was missing an eye. The white fur of Amy's bear was dingy gray. Its pink thread nose was a little ragged. The two stuffed animals had both been loved so much, and so deeply, that the girls agreed that they must be Real. What was so obvious to my young daughters - that you don't have to be perfect to be worthy - was a revelation to me.
A Realistic Point of View
Over the next few weeks I noticed that the message of The Velveteen Rabbit had stirred some long-standing and painful feelings. Even though my life was good, at least as other people might measure it, I didn't posses the confidence, the completeness, the self-awareness of that woman in the wheelchair. As a young woman, mother, wife and professional, I was filled with insecurity and self-doubt. Every day I wore the facade of being sure of myself, but deep inside, I wasn't sure of anything. I wasn't completely Real.