Over the years my sister has gifted me with treasures on paper, found paragraphs and quotes and song lyrics, words that spoke and meant much to her. She traces them in her beautiful writing and folds them into cards or envelopes, something for a Birthday or a Christmas i can read and then come to know. In the knowing there is learning, which often leads to loving, because my sister knows me rather well. One time she sent me an excerpt on what it is to be real.
What is real? The dictionary is full of definitions: true, actual, not imaginary, serious, worthy of its name. But since a definition is simply a beginning, we are gifted with tales that accept the invitation…and continue. This is the stuff of which stories are made. Here is the excerpt:
“What is REAL?” asked the Velveteen Rabbit one day… “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 [someone] 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 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 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… once you are Real you can’t become unreal again. It lasts for always.”
― Margery Williams, The Velveteen Rabbit or How Toys Become Real
Now my sister has long advocated for children’s stories. She would probably argue that they are more equipped to teach us (and remind us) than much of what passes for literary fiction today. Apparently–for i have not read it–the velveteen rabbit is eventually loved by a boy who falls ill and then moves to the seaside to recuperate. The old rabbit is forgotten when the boy receives a new one, causing it to cry a real tear. This tear summons a fairy who explains to the rabbit that it is only real to the boy. Thankfully, the said fairy takes Velveteen to the woods and kisses him, and the rabbit becomes real to everyone. Knowing that he is real, Velveteen can now live happily with the other rabbits.
Again: what is real?
Isn’t it mind-bending that a real tear cried by a toy rabbit summons a magic fairy, and that it takes a magic fairy to make the rabbit real? Then again, if you think about it: real means not imaginary, and imaginary means unreal. It’s as if they cancel each other out, as if neither real nor imaginary takes precedence. Perhaps there is no default… Do we start with what is real, or do we start with what we imagine? And which is which? And which is true?
In Reading Lolita in Tehran, an incredible book set in Iran that doesn’t mention a single rabbit, Azar Nafisi says that empathy is essential to a novelist. To me, empathy resides in the imagination. Empathy is what allows us to understand what someone’s life is like, their ambitions, their shame, regret, their happiness and their choices. Without imagination, there is no hope of knowing or attempting to understand another, there is no hope that we ourselves will be understood. I cannot tell you who i am. I cannot even tell myself. That is the business of life: the progress of finding ourselves out. Without imagination, we do not become real to each other. And we will not learn the shifting pieces that we are. What is real? The dictionary definitions are not that different from our names. They are only beginnings.
© Kathryn Martins and kathrynmartins1, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kathryn Martins and kathrynmartins1 with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.