In some ways I took it as a mixed compliment. When I left the parish where I served as curate some good friends gave me a copy of The Velveteen Rabbit. If you’re unaware of this book, it’s a charming morality tale of how love brings us alive and makes us ‘real’. Centred on the toy of the title, we learn that in becoming real we tend to get rather well-used and worn.
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.Margery Williams, 1881-1944. (2003). The velveteen rabbit : or how toys become real. Leesburg, VA :GiGi Books
Like many children our daughter had a favourite toy. Not a velveteen rabbit, but a cotton one named ‘Vicky’. As the years went on, grandmothers had faithfully repaired bits and replaced parts, but the love for this rabbit never diminished. Sadly, on a holiday in the Yorkshire Dales the toy was left on a bus – traumatising her parents even more than our daughter! I still think of Vicky Rabbit riding around the beautiful landscape in a bus full of children.
Repairing much loved things is an activity as old as humanity. Very often we aspire to ‘invisible mending’, and attempt the great skill required to conceal a fault. Sometimes it can be done – but for those who know what happened it may never seem the same. When a visiting vicar commented to my grandmother on a fine new piece of needlework hanging in her hall she couldn’t suppress the need to tell him where the fault was in the tapestry. Invisible to everyone else, Bessie felt that any admiration needed to be qualified by her knowledge that it was imperfect. The picture needed to be truthful.
Not everyone aspires to this kind of good-as-new restoration. Reading Andrés Neuman’s new book fracture I was reminded of the ancient art of Kintsugi, when a pottery repair is accentuated by the use of gold. Rather than concealment, the crack becomes a rich vein within the ceramic work, adding interest and individuality. There is a lot of fracture in Neuman’s novel, set as it is against the backdrop of the 2011 tsunami but also connected to other events. It’s a book that feels very pertinent as we begin to see the scars exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
A question that emerges as we live through this extraordinary health, wellbeing, economic and political emergency concerns the way we respond to these multiple assaults. Perhaps we could try to conceal some of our unlooked-for experiences, and rush back to a limping version of our former ways? Alternatively, we could learn something important about how we live and relate to others. Learn to become more realistic in our living by stopping the pretence that we can behave as if we are unconnected to others on the small planet we share. To recognise that some of the things which shatter our self-assurance are not imperfections, but necessary interruptions in the smooth glaze of our story.
As the months roll on there will be much to repair and to heal. Perhaps some of this cannot be put to the good, reconstituted or restored. Yet there will be moments when we can choose to ennoble our repairs – to make life and the structures of society fairer and more caring. There will be glimmers of good amongst the pain that many are feeling, and we need to reveal the fractures that have allowed things to change for the better. Whether it’s a growing recognition of how support for older people has been neglected, or the daily injustices that have energised ‘Black Lives Matter’, there are some fractures in our common life we should seek to repair – but never conceal.