Time for a good fairy tale…
I have two favorite stories that I’ve read to my children over and over again. They were, “The Emperor’s New Clothes”, by Hans Christian Anderson and, “The Velveteen Rabbit”, by Margery Williams. Reading “The Velveteen Rabbit” when I was a little girl was life changing, so I made sure I read it to my children when they were young. If you are not familiar with the story, it is about a stuffed rabbit that was snubbed by the other toys because he wasn’t mechanical, or made out of special materials. Kind of how I felt in the 1960’s because I didn’t have blonde hair, blue eyes, and was a little pudgy.
The question that haunted the Velveteen Rabbit was, what did it mean to be real? His friend the skin horse said it took a long time, and that is why it doesn’t happen to those that break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. By the time you are real, you have lost your hair, your joints don’t work right, and you are kind of shabby. (Hmm, except for the hair part, that pretty much describes me now, so I guess I am finally real.) The skin horse said you became real because you were loved so much. Towards the end of the story, the Velveteen Rabbit is in pretty bad shape, doesn’t look like much, and his nanny and parents want him to have another toy, but the little boy won’t give him up, because to him he is real. You’ll have to read the story to find out what happens at the very end.
Do you think you are real?
I suppose it is a similar theme to Pinocchio, the quest to be real. We see similar themes in science fiction; Data’s journey to become more human was what many people liked about “Star Trek, The Next Generation”. I value this story because it is the antithesis of our society. Advertising and peers tell us that we can’t have gray hair, can’t be overweight, have to be a certain skin color – all to be loved, get ahead in life, look pretty… you get the idea. At the time I first read this book, I was in first or second grade. I had an older sister who was the 1960’s ideal beauty; blond hair that flipped perfectly, blue eyes, petite with a little turned up nose. My mom used to introduce us as the beauty and the brains. I had mousy brown hair that wouldn’t behave, so Mom cut it short and the other kids made fun of me. When I read this book, I thought it didn’t matter what I looked like, as long as I was real. So I started a lifelong quest on what it was to be real.
What would it be like to always tell the truth?
The Emperor's New Clothes (Kejserens nye Klæder) was written by one of my favorite authors and fellow-Dane, Hans Christian Anderson. It is the story of two con-artists that convince the emperor that they can create clothes out of magic material, which are invisible to those who are either unfit for their job or hopelessly stupid. And of course no one, including the Emperor, would admit to not being able to see the clothes, because they wouldn’t want anyone to think they were unfit or stupid. It took a child to reveal their scam, crying out, “but he isn’t wearing anything”! There is a story that Anderson recalled that as a boy, standing in a crowd with his mother waiting to see King Frederick VI, he cried out, “He’s just a man!” Perhaps this was why he used that ending to the tale.
How much do we stress and struggle in life because of what we have been indoctrinated into accepting as the status quo? The challenge is to strip away all those layers and discover who we are, what do we really want to do, and what mind set is keeping us from doing it? Thoreau wrote in Walden, “I would rather sit on a pumpkin and have it all to myself than be crowded on a velvet cushion”.
My thoughts and actions have sometimes isolated me from the crowd, but when I look at what the crowd is doing, the fashions they follow, the things they want, I am okay with that; as long as what I am doing is striving to be real. Find a quiet place, quiet your mind, center yourself, and just listen. Watch the grass grow, a bumblebee pollinating a flower, snow or rain falling against the window, the wind moving the tops of trees. You will find a great release in silencing your mind and just observing nature for awhile. And then perhaps you can answer the question, what really matters?
Here is the version I recommend of Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy tales:
These are the original versions, not the ones that have been toned down for cartoons and movies, I don’t think there are any pictures – this book is meant to be read by an adult to children. Good reading for adults also, for all those who missed these stories when growing up.
(One of my coworkers had actually never heard of Hans Christian Anderson, any of his stories, Aesop’s fables, none of the myths and stories I grew up with. What are they teaching kids today?)