What is “real”?

What is real?” the Velveteen Rabbit asked the Skin Horse.

“…It doesn’t happen all at once. You become. It takes a long time…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 are 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.”

velveteen rabbitThis quote reminds me of my massage clients with Alzheimer’s. They are still very real people with a real sense of humor even though people don’t treat them as such. I see people talk right through them. Just the other day I joked with two of the men. “Jim really likes ladies’ knees,” I told Bill as I was massaging his shoulders. Jim, who has been at the Alzheimer’s center for at least 7 years and seems to have plateaued, sat in the chair near us looking straight ahead as if he hadn’t heard a thing. “Can you believe he even took a bite right out of my knee?!” I said as I pointed to the nasty healing scab on the top of my knee (from a trail fall). Jim turned and looked right at us and asked straight-faced, “How do you think I lost this tooth?” A sly smile spread across Jim’s face. We all laughed a real laugh.
Often when I massaged Debra (who has now passed away) I’d play a CD that included Dean Martin singing “You belong to me”. Every time he sang the line, “See the pyramids along the Nile…” her memory was triggered (or so I thought) and she’d tell me about the time she and her husband sailed down the Nile. I later learned that neither she nor her husband ever stepped foot in Egypt. Debra sure had me fooled—and herself as well. And yet, that vision/experience was so real to her she would recount that story every time Dean sang those lyrics.

This last May a writer for the anti-feminist site “A Voice for Men” wrote a scathing essay entitled, “Amanda McCracken: virgin, chameleon or just plain phoney”. I unfortunately (or fortunately) stumbled upon it in July and felt physically sick after reading only a few paragraphs and comments. In the essay Mr. Jim Muldoon picked apart essays I’ve written regarding my virginity, and he single-handedly declared that all of my claims were false except one—“The only thing I would buy is her claim to be a feminist, because she certainly is an Adept of The Sacred Babble. Everything else requires verification from an independent source.”
I’ve had some very intriguing conversations with my lesbian friends about whether penile penetration defines virginity. And Mr. Muldoon can question my virginity status until he’s blue-balled in the face. Only I know myself. But what rattled me most was him claiming I wasn’t a real writer.

Artists of all sorts (painters, writers, actors, musicians) wrestle with their own self-doubts to firmly own their identity as an artist. Perhaps it’s because we live in a society that doesn’t put on a monetary value on an artist’s profession. In all the materials I’ve received from career counselors, I don’t ever recall seeing a list of career related salaries that included artist or writer or musician. While there is great support among a community of artists, there is also competition artists feel to both stay afloat and rise to the top. You never hear one doctor insult another in saying, “He/she isn’t a real doctor.” There are no state boards or tests to pass to certify you as an honest to goodness writer.
From several angles, Truman Capote’s story Breakfast at Tiffany’s addresses the theme of authenticity. The validity of the main characters’ identities are questioned by both themselves and others.
After breaking into his apartment to escape a “terrifying man downstairs” (the movie clip starts at 2:25), Holly asks her new upstairs neighbor, “What do you do, anyway?”

Paul responds, “I’m a writer, I guess.”

“You guess? Don’t you know?”

Attempting to sounds a bit more confident Paul says, “OK, positive statement. Ringing affirmative. I’m a writer.”

Holly presses, “Tell me, are you a real writer?”

Paul asks, “It depends on what you mean by real.”

“Well, darling, does anyone buy what you write?” asked Holly.

b and f breakdownIn another scene Hollywood agent OJ Bergman (2:45 in this clip) asks Holly’s upstairs neighbor Paul, “What do you think: Is she or ain’t she?….A phony?”

Paul responds, “I wouldn’t have thought so.”

Revealing he knows about Holly’s secret small-town history, OJ corrects Paul, “You’re wrong. She is a phony. But on the other hand you’re right. She isn’t a phony because she’s a real phony. She believes all this crap she believes.” (text from Capote’s book)

Are we all just real phonies defending ourselves against the OJ Bergman’s of the world?

One Wednesday afternoon cross country meet my freshman year in high school, I ran faster than “Joe Thompson”. His defensive response has stuck with me for 23 years. In defense of being beat by a girl, Joe’s response to me was, “You must not be a real woman.” I should’ve responded with, “Well, then, you must not be a real man.” Of course, hind sight is 20-20. Instead, I shut down. It would take SEVEN years before I’d run faster than I did that random Wednesday in 1992.

Insulting another’s identity is such a cowardly way to defend yourself. I was always that student who tried to argue back the points I felt I deserved when marked wrong on a test. Sometimes I won, sometimes I lost. But only one time was I embarrassed for challenging the teacher.

On a “Fact or Opinion” question section of a test in my AP History, I tried to argue that, because of the word “might,” the statement was a fact, “JFK’s death might have been a conspiracy.” The correct answer was “opinion”. The teacher, a very popular varsity baseball coach, responded: “Ok. Fact or opinion? Amanda McCracken might be the biggest slut in Fairfield High School.” There was no doubt in any of my classmates’ minds that this was a false statement—but I didn’t defend myself.

A family member once suggested (in an attempt to understand where I was coming from) that I couldn’t call myself a real Christian if I claim that my reason for remaining abstinent is not because of Jesus. I had never thought of it that way. I thought my decision of when and with whom to have sex wasn’t inextricably linked to my identity as a Christian.How many and which boxes do you have to check to be considered a “real” Christian? Do you have to be “practicing” and what does that mean?

I find myself always qualifying my home ownership in Boulder with, “Well, I feel I should admit that I purchased it through the affordable housing program.” I don’t want to misrepresent myself. But I do own a home in Boulder. And if it were placed on the open market, it would sell for almost double its purchasing price. Shouldn’t I own the title homeowner?

Many of us in Boulder have imposter syndrome. We work with, share fences with, and train alongside many world class athletes. It’s hard to claim we are a real runner, triathlete, cyclist or climber. My running coach Steve Jones set the marathon world record (2:08:05) in Chicago in 1984. A self-proclaimed “journeyman runner”, Jones came to the sport with an iron will and very little money in his pockets. His accomplishments in many ways paved the way for the popularity of the sport. However, his comments were recently the target of an online debate over what it means to be a real marathoner. In an interview with Competitor Magazine editor Brian Metzler, Jones said, “I don’t believe that starting and finishing a marathon makes you a marathoner. I don’t believe that. If you’re racing it to go as fast as you can, that’s completely different than being part of an event and just wanting to get from point A to point B.”

I understood why people were enraged. But I also roughly understood where he was coming from. I say “roughly” because, unlike my coach, I will never come close to setting any world record.)  Having been both a runner simply happy to complete a marathon and a runner driven to break 3:00 (which I’m yet to do), I too believe there’s a difference.

There’s a writer I see more frequently FB posting pictures of her/his trail running adventures and writing about them for big magazines. I often curse out loud when I see these posts. I hear myself saying, “Who does s/he think s/he is calling her/himself a trail runner, when I’ve been doing it since I was 14?!” And then I step off my high horse and remind myself nobody really owns the patent on what makes a real trail runner. I think my judge-bug takes over because I feel somehow her/his claiming an identity I claim cheapens my uniqueness.  Or as my coach said, “It devalued it.”

And yet, our culture encourages us to recreate ourselves, write/live our own story, be whoever we feel like being, etc. This message butts heads with the “Be authentic” message. What’s wrong with recreating yourself? Why is there backlash? Perhaps it’s because we become jealous we aren’t doing the same for ourselves. We feel threatened.

Enter Halloween costume choices and judgements. Fortunately, there’s the occasional: “That’s so you!” or “That has your name written all over it.” But what we usually wrestle with is the question, “Can I pull that off?” We actually worry people will think we aren’t “enough” of our authentic self in that Jack Sparrow or unicorn, Princess Leia, or zombie costume.
supergirlEven I wanted to vomit after I heard myself say to someone last night regarding my Super Girl costume, “I felt called to this costume.” But it was true—part of me identified with Super Girl characteristics. Maybe it was the part of me that has been seeking those characteristics in someone else for so many years. I decided to be her since I haven’t successfully found or (more likely) recognized him. We learn to embrace and embody that which we are looking for—and sometimes that just means embodying what it means to “matter.”

The questions are endless: What is real friendship? Real love? Real commitment? The first couple definitions of “real” according to Merriam Webster are the ones that roll off our tongue when asked for a definition: “actually existing or happening; not imaginary; not fake, false, or artificial.” But it’s the last definition that strikes me: “important and deserving to be regarded or treated in a serious way.”

I think this is what Margery Williams meant when she wrote the Skin Horse telling the Velveteen Rabbit, “…once you are real, you can’t be ugly except to people who don’t understand.” The tattered Velveteen Rabbit was very real to the little boy who loved him. And that is all that mattered.

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