Saturday, June 20, 2009

The Nursery Magic

“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.”

“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or but 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 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.”

“I suppose you are Real?" said the Rabbit…

“Once you are Real you can’t become unreal again. It lasts for always.”

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)

My second daughter, Sophia, didn’t sleep through the night until she was two and half years old. For the first few months, she was (read: “we were”) up every ninety minutes during the night. My wife Allison, through sheer fatigue, turned a ghastly gray-green color that alarmed me, and my own mental fog garnered me the worst student evaluations that semester in my entire ten years of teaching.

During the infancy of my two girls, Allison expressed more than once her surprise at how I managed to rise to the occasion of fatherhood. I was surprised myself—I discovered hidden reserves I had no idea I had, and began to feel like a TARDIS—those spaceship/time machines from Doctor Who that are worlds larger on the inside than on the outside.

Fatherhood has been an exercise in Becoming Real. Even Clare, my six-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 difficulties 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 before, 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 had read many times the passage from Matthew in which Jesus reminds his hearers that none of them, if their children asked for bread, would give them a stone, or a serpent if they asked for an egg—and if they, who were evil, knew how to give good gifts to their children, how much more would God give good things to those who ask? Candidly, I had always suspected that, once I had children, I would discover that that was arrant malarkey. God loves me more than I love my children? It doesn’t make a shred of sense; what could be more counter-intuitive? And yet, against all reason, I knew the first time I held Clare that it was all true, and 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!

“The LORD will fight for you; you need only to be still.”

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 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.

Why would God open Himself up like that? Make Himself so vulnerable? Why in the world would God do that?

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.


  1. Oh my goodness Scott, you are such an excellent crafter of prose. Thank you for your willingness to share your interior and exterior life.

  2. Scott this was just beautiful. It echoed so many of my own feeling about being a mother, and the insight that comes when you realize that you are part of something bigger than yourself. I don't think I really understood the abundance of divinity in everyday moments until I had my children.

    i enjoyed this VERY much!

  3. Scott, it is 11:30 and I am listening to our littlest one grizzle in the background, and trying to decide if it warrants getting up. This post feels very apropos. It is a beautiful reminder to think beyond the moment of frustration (or joy) to the larger beauty and joy behind it. Thank you.



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