“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you…”
“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…”
“It doesn’t happen all at once…You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t often 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 fur 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.”
…The Rabbit sighed…He wished that he could become Real without these uncomfortable things happening to him.
(From The Velveteen Rabbit, or How Toys Become Real, by Margery Williams)
Fatherhood has been an exercise in Becoming Real. Even Sophie, my five-year-old, has noticed how much gray has recently appeared in my beard. But the “uncomfortable things” of fatherhood, like the ones the Skin Horse described, are keepers. The Sisyphusean hamster wheel of chores, the logistical conundrums of leading a normal life with a toddler to preserve from grievous bodily harm (Sophie still managed to break a leg—on my watch—when she was eleven months old,) the weird abjectness of having a screaming infant on the shoulder and a screaming toddler on the leg, the nightmares about strollers rolling down embankments, the terror when I looked around at a block party at the empty spot where my 18-month-old Sophie had been a moment ago, my fear of the coming years of peer brutality that no parent’s vigilance can ward off—they are all worth it. As often as I ask myself why on earth anyone would open themselves up to the profound vulnerability of having small people utterly dependent upon them, I wouldn’t trade the experiences in for anything. They have moved me farther down the Road to Real than my whole pre-fatherhood life had taken me. I knew the first time I held Clare that parenthood was a window into the heart of God.
I remember trying to change Clare’s diaper as she screamed and kicked and twisted in protest. I found myself yelling at her, “I AM TRYING TO HELP YOU! IF YOU WOULD JUST STOP YELLING AND HOLD STILL YOU WOULD UNDERSTAND!”
And suddenly, I stopped yelling myself, thunderstruck by the realization that I could be God, talking to Scott. Quit your bitching and thrashing—I am trying to help you!
I know an elderly woman who is one of those people who lifts your spirits every time you see her. We were talking about the economy, and she told me of her memories of the Depression, when Philadelphia’s West River Drive was lined with mile after mile of tent city, and people came to her parents’ back door every single day looking for a handout of food which was never refused. When I caught sight of some black-and-white photos of young men in uniform, she told me about her sons, two of whom she has survived—one of whom she was with, holding his hand, as he died of pancreatic cancer. And when she says that no experience, even grief and loss, ever goes to waste—her, I can hear, with shame at my own breathtaking ingratitude.
It doesn’t often happen to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept.
So often when my girls were babies, I remembered a sermon I’d heard years ago in which the priest told us that of course, he had expected to love his children—but nothing could have possibly prepared him for the overwhelming flood of all-consuming love they would awaken in him. And nothing could have prepared him for the pain of hearing them say Daddy, I lost my job; Daddy, I’m an alcoholic; Daddy, I’m getting a divorce. If you want to get in touch with the Passion of God, he told us, you just go and have yourself some children.
The Spirit, poet Mary Oliver tells us, wants to be “more than pure light that shines where no one is.” Maybe God created us in order to experience the Nursery Magic of the Skin Horse: to become more Real.
(A longer version of this post appeared at Little Teaboys Everywhere.)