One of my favorite parts of being a father is reading to my children.
The reading itself is fun, but I’m especially fond of the liturgy of sorts surrounding the activity: choosing the right book, finding a comfortable place where all of the listeners can settle in close, then slowly taking in each page together; discovering voices and inflections for each character (or trying to remember ones I’ve used before),1 offering time for each illustration to inform the story, and when necessary, explaining the plot.
But perhaps greatest of all is learning vocabulary of a new story, an act which binds the reader and hearers in dissoluble community for as long as the tale is remembered.
Though much has changed since I last attended my childhood church, I have often felt its greatest gift was similar: providing a cognitive scaffolding and suitcase of tales from which a communal worldview could be built.
The unique responsibility of any adult who reads to children is to choose the characters and experiences that will populate their imagination for years to come, tilling the soil for ever more complex and beautiful stories, fomenting their growth as individuals in a global community. Famously, studies such as this 2013 one from Emory University, show that engaging in reading fictional works improves brain connectivity and functioning, visualization skills, and perhaps most important to me, empathy.
After all, empathy enables us to do more than say, “I understand you’re upset (or happy),” but to actually enter into that sadness or happiness, sharing in it and offering something deeper than thoughts or prayers: ourselves. This entrance into other peoples’ lives is surely what St. Paul meant when he encouraged the Roman church to “rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep” and for my money is the first steps of following the Gospel.
I remember the day a couple years ago when Mikala came home an old copy of a favorite childhood book, The Velveteen Rabbit (Or, How Toys Become Real). Though the plot had become hazy over the years, I had some vague conception of a toy bunny that was at one time new and beautiful only later to grow old and shabby and, judging by the subtitle, he must somehow come alive, but I couldn’t remember how.
So that night, I sat in the rocking chair in Elanor’s room with her in my lap, opened the book and began to read . . . and began crying almost immediately.
See, I had forgotten–or more accurately, what had been sown in my heart years before, waiting for my soul to catch up–was the deep wisdom of this humble story.
I could never have known how much I would resonate with a character who, even at his best didn’t quite fit in with the flashiest toys, what with his unfashionable sawdust innards and complete lack of “clockworks” or technical knowledge.
I’d been too young to catch the acute cultural analysis applied to “Timothy the jointed wooden lion” who, “Was made by the disabled soldiers, and should have had broader views, put on airs and pretended he was connected with Government.”
And I had totally missed the contemplative truths presented by Rabbit’s nursery friend, Skin Horse, when the lonely bunny asks about the nursery rumor of becoming REAL. I missed the fact that the wind-up toys were too prideful of their clockworks, the toy ship was too preoccupied with sounding knowledgeable, and Timothy-the-jointed-wooden-lion was too distracted by trying to seem important to have felt the need for such hairbrained (or maybe sawdust-brained) ideas as being Real. They had it quite nice as the top toys and had little motivation to enter into the struggles of other toys.
And yet the humble Rabbit asks the horse, so learned in nursery magic:
“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender . . . .
“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.”
What is REAL?
How many of us have asked this question? Sitting up late into the evening, moonlight cutting across the room, wondering what in the world we could possibly do to stop feeling as though life were passing us by, as though life were not even truly life but a mere existence of passing the wan torch of one forgettable day unto the next, until we fall apart–not from over-love as Skin Horse had experienced it, but from disuse?
Just me? Okay, then.
Perhaps you, like me, have been lucky enough to have a Skin Horse or two in your life to light the way to becoming. Who can say more than “I’m sorry you feel this way,” but instead, “I’ve been there. I’ve been you. Remember that this ‘doesn’t happen all at once’; be patient, wait. Because, after all, ‘You become. It takes a long time.’” Perhaps you too have had wise mentors and guides who can gently but firmly tell you to “gird up thy loins”2 and prepare for the uncomfortable process of transformation: “That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept.”
Such people are blessings and have earned the right to offer such hard counsel through their own trials of love–their worn seams show through, the shabbiness of their threadbare lives bearing testimony to the marks (and rewards) of such a path. They have seen other toys come and go, toys who were unable to survive the pain of becoming because they were too fragile or sharp-edged. Toys who could not enter into their own struggles, much less those of others.
There is so much more to explore on the process of loving surrender from our clockwork lives 3 into the treacherous path of becoming Real that I want to spend a few more posts exploring the Gospel According to the Velveteen Rabbit. I hope you will join me and perhaps we can all learn together the value of a story to seep into our bones–and our children’s–as we all seek to become Real.
1. Gerald the Elephant from Elephant and Piggie is Tom Haverford and you can’t convince me otherwise. Meanwhile, Puddleglum from The Silver Chair is so obviously a mix between Alabamian and Cockney.↩
2. This idea of “clockworks” strikes me at an interesting time as I just finished A Clockwork Orange. The idea that modern society–whether authoritarian or not–has the power to utterly dehumanize people, taking away both bad or good, or the ability to choose between, also removes from us the power of joys and transformation via suffering. See also Brave New World and the Savage’s bargain near the end.↩
3. Job 38:3. One of my favorite lines in the Bible for both its theological and comedic value↩