Today, I am forty-two. I had to bump around the calculations to figure out the correct age. I lost track around 29. I know that seems cliche, but it wasn’t ever that way for me, like it is for some. I never worried about getting older. Maybe it was because my youth was forever secured when on my 21st birthday, the waiter handed me a kid’s menu. Maybe it’s because at 29 I felt like I finally became who I was made to be…
Maybe that’s just the romanticized version. Because a few years later, at 31 (I’m getting good at subtracting 1977) we adopted the girls, and I lost track because it didn’t really matter, since it didn’t seem like I was much of me anymore. Maybe I just stopped counting, because it was hard. I was getting older and it was getting harder, harder to be a momma, harder to be a teacher, harder to be a writer…harder to be me.
I pressed on, because that’s what you do in your 30’s. You don’t know better; at least I didn’t. I didn’t know there were options other than organized chaos and strained contentment. I did my best to fight for joy and to cling to gritty celebration. Those years, they mattered. They left me shabby, but better.
I think they made me Real. When I was a senior in high school, at a leadership retreat, I memorized a lengthy quote from The Velveteen Rabbit. It just came swirling back to me, after all these years.
“‘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, 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.'”
-Margery Williams Bianco, The Velveteen Rabbit
Margery Williams Bianco penned these words in 1922 when she was nearly forty-two. She published a couple of books before, and then gave up writing while she raised her children. The Velveteen Rabbit was the book that marked her return to writing.
We all know it’s about more than a toy.
My mom read me The Velveteen Rabbit enough times that the words were easy to memorize when I was 17 and still linger in my heart at age forty-two. I used to worry about getting sick and what might happen if I had to give up my Cabbage Patch Kid. Mom reassured me that people didn’t get Scarlet Fever like that any more. There are antibiotics, she said.
What she didn’t tell me is that it still hurts, even in a new millennium, to become Real. I am forty-two and I think I’m finally beginning to understand 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…you are very shabby.
I’m not tattered because I’ve done something wrong, but because that’s what happens when becoming Real. I can’t think of a better birthday gift than this.