The peril of place and the beauty of Real

Every place you go, there is or is the possibility of something unpleasant.

Where I live it is sometimes humid. Most everyone thinks of humidity as something bad. One morning last year I was playing tennis with a woman from Tennessee. It was about 7:30, and shaping up to be a scorcher of a day. In Virginia that means mid-90s or so. This particular morning it was also humid, and we both were feeling it — but one of us not in the usual way. Of this I am certain because at one point, as we were energetically whacking the ball back and forth, she said to me in such a way as you would have to think she really meant it: “Don’t you just love this humidity?!”

I don’t usually stop the ball but I stopped the ball. “Did you just say you love humidity?” I felt sure I must have heard her wrong. She assured me she had indeed just said that. Well, aren’t humans the most unpredictable creatures? Whoever heard of such a thing? But to her, humidity is not a bad thing. “It reminds me of home,” she said, “and I like home.” Huh. Maybe a thing I always thought a negative doesn’t have to be.

Where you live, there might be the risk of hurricanes or wildfires or tornadoes. It might get to 20 below in the winter, or colder. Maybe the black flies buzz around your head for a few weeks in the spring or the Japanese beetles eat your garden produce. Maybe you do not walk through the safest areas on your way to work, or you have to listen to someone else’s music blaring from their apartment, or your taxes are really high, or there is no good bakery!

Black snakes are harmless but creepy, I grant. Twenty below is very cold. Black flies are irritating, humidity is sticky, and if you ask me, hurricanes, wildfires and tornadoes are downright scary. I am sure you have your own feelings about unsafe areas, bad music, high taxes and the lack of excellent bread.

Every place has its risks and annoyances. Every place has its quirks too. In two corridors of the hotel where I work, there are wide carpet runners going the full length of the space. All around the carpet there are beautiful old floor tiles imported from Europe to lend authenticity and character, which they do effectively. But during my tours I have fun telling guests that when the staff was doing the installation 20+ years ago, they discovered they did not have quite enough, meaning that under the carpet is plain concrete. Think about it, I say. You all have somewhere in your own homes where you know it isn’t perfect but you covered or patched or ignored it and said That’ll do!

The imperfection makes it real. Very often, when something is Real, it’ll not only do, it’s better.

The very best description of Real that I ever read came from Margery Williams’ version of The Velveteen Rabbit. In it, the Rabbit is feeling troubled, insecure and out of place, and the Skin Horse comes along to comfort him.


         The Skin Horse had lived longer in the nursery than any of the others. He was so old that his brown coat was bald in patches and showed the seams underneath, and most of the hairs in his tail had been pulled out to string bead necklaces. He was wise, for he had seen a long succession of mechanical toys arrive to boast and swagger, and by-and-by break their mainsprings and pass away. He knew that they were only toys and would never turn into anything else. For nursery magic is very strange and wonderful, and only those playthings that are old and wise and experienced like the Skin Horse understand all about it.

         “What is REAL?” asked the 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 a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”

         “Does it hurt?”

         “Sometimes.” 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, or bit by bit?”

         “It doesn’t happen all at once. You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t often happen to people who break easily, or who 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.”

         “I suppose you are Real?” And then he wished he had not said it, for he thought the Skin Horse might be sensitive. But the Skin Horse only smiled.

         “The Boy’s Uncle made me Real. That was a great many years ago; but once you are Real you can’t become unreal again. It lasts for always.”

         The Rabbit sighed. He thought it would be a long time before this magic called Real happened to him. He longed to become Real, to know what it felt like; and yet the idea of growing shabby and losing his eyes and whiskers was rather sad. He wished he could become it without these things happening to him….

Just like weather and insects and corridors and Rabbits, places are real. Home is real. Like the woman from Tennessee, I like home. I’ve always liked home. I have lived in four states and spent some time feeling quite at home overseas as well. Not a single place has been perfect. I know this. I accept it. Every place has something about it that must simply be tolerated.

But perhaps I did myself a disservice when I wrote a few weeks ago about the black snake. Worse was adding a photo of the fellow. Today I received a note from a dear friend who does not live locally. She said, “If I could get that picture of the snake in front of the cottage out of my mind, I might consider driving down to see you!”

Oh dear. This is a little bit like the proverbial opening your mouth and inserting your foot. I did post that. And I cannot take it back. But as I think of it, I don’t want to. Illusions are pretty and clean and perfect, and they look great on magazine pages and in films, but our everyday worlds are clearly imperfect and we all know it. Occasionally, the Midwest gets a tornado, the Northeast gets a blizzard and the West gets a drought. Occasionally, my mother in New Jersey sees a black bear scampering across her front lawn and my son in San Francisco deals with street crime. This week, my sister in Phoenix is trying to keep cool in temperatures well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

Somehow we all manage. Somehow we sidestep (literally perhaps when it comes to critters) the inconveniences and imperfections of the places where we live. Somehow I deal with the occasional black snake, even if I don’t like it (and let there be no illusions — I don’t like snakes!). But in a world that’s Real, somehow we get by. The lucky ones — some would say the smart ones — do more than that. The lucky and smart ones are like the Skin Horse. They prefer wisdom and grace and they gladly (if sometimes reluctantly at first) accept the various imperfections about their worlds and themselves. They understand that regardless of its downsides, imperfect is better. Imperfect is Real.

One thought on “The peril of place and the beauty of Real

  1. Words of wisdom from a child’s book! We sometimes forget those words of wisdom as the years pass. Thank you for reminding me that people and places are imperfect but that’s ok. It’s REAL and the acceptance of it is what makes us adapt. Makes us grow and not live in a world of illusions and disconnected from what’s REAL!


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