On the Real & Second Real
We went to a winter fair at Eva’s school recently, where a girl dressed as a fairy gave her a gemstone. This was a Big Event, much discussed at bedtime. “Maybe you’ll be a fairy one day,” I mused, picturing her as an older girl at the winter fair while unthinkingly crossing a boundary. Until this point in the conversation, the fairy had been a Real Fairy. We were in one reality, and then I stepped into another, expecting her to follow me like another adult.
She got upset, saying she didn’t want to be a fairy; she wanted to stay herself. I explained the fairy was an older girl dressed up. She considered this for a moment then said, “You shouldn’t have told me that, Mom.”
“Would you rather believe she was a real fairy?” I asked.
She made me repeat the question a couple times, like she does when she’s figuring something out, then answered, “Yes.”
“Ok,” I said. “Thanks for letting me know.”
The idea of a “Real” and “second Real” comes from this extraordinary essay by Andrea Long Chu about Margery William Bianco’s The Velveteen Rabbit, a book that broke my heart as a kid. The “second Real,” writes Chu, is:
Bianco’s greatest insight, the one that made The Velveteen Rabbit a genuinely philosophical work — that the true task of growing up lies not in simple self-actualization but in carefully negotiating the delicate transition from one order of reality to another. Central to this transition is the limiting of the imagination to more indirect spheres of experience (dreams, literature, art) in exchange for an independent, more plastic sense of self. But the process, by necessity, will begin with tragedy. Just as the Velveteen Rabbit comes to believe he will be Real forever, he is thrown out. “Of what use was it to be loved and lose one’s beauty and become Real if it all ended like this?” the heartbroken rabbit wonders. A tear drops from his eye and out steps the beautiful fairy who promises to make him Real. “Wasn’t I Real before?” the little rabbit asks. “You were Real to the Boy,” the fairy gently replies, “because he loved you. Now you shall be Real to every one.”
The fairy, Chu writes:
is not a powerful Other but a slantwise aspect of [the rabbit] that emerges from his own very real tears, which already contain all the magic required to effect his final transformation into a real rabbit. He has learned, in the words of one of Bianco’s early novels, “the eternal paradox that only with love comes the strength to do without love.” The remedy for his loneliness will no longer derive from someone else’s imagination but from himself, in all his wildness and mystery.
The first Real, in other words, is what allows us to survive the second Real— what most adults refer to as real, distinct from the imaginary. Yet a child’s imagination is Real to the child, which is easy to forget as an adult. I had forgotten before having kids, although I remembered being deeply absorbed in imaginary play when I was one. But I remembered it as a break from the Real, rather than the Real, which is what it was for me at the time.
“Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning,” said Fred Rogers, “but for children play is serious learning.” The psychologist Jean Piaget wrote, “Play is the work of children.” Both were trying to emphasize the importance of play in terms that adults would understand: “serious,” “learning,” “work.” But all these terms fall short in acknowledging child’s play as Real. That’s why I love Chu’s term "the second Real," since it allows us to separate a child's Real from an adult’s Real while still acknowledging the reality of both.
Before having kids, Joe and I said we wouldn’t “do Santa.” I think we both felt the jig went on too long when we were kids and didn’t really see the point. Last Christmas Eve, as I nibbled carrot sticks to make them look like they’d been gnawed by reindeer, I reflected on how things had changed. I now suspect that such efforts, executed in the space between two realities, are the whole point. My conversation with Eva about the fairy girl confirmed this. Pulling her out of her Real before she’s ready would be just as wrong as trying to keep her there without her consent. Such consent might take the form of a question indicating a more adult understanding — e.g. “Is Santa really real?" When she's able to ask a question like that, I plan to answer honestly. But at 4, she isn’t asking that question, and it doesn’t seem to mean much when I dismiss a source of wonder or fear—e.g. monsters— as “not real.” Her fear at bedtime is real, and why shouldn’t it take the form of a monster? How is a monster different from the fears that keep me awake at night? The distinction is mostly linguistic. (What works for monsters, btw, is "fairy spray" or rose water.)
I apparently had a lot of energy last December. I started this newsletter and also an elf tradition with Eva, inspired by Elf on the Shelf except our elves aren’t cops. And somehow, amidst the holiday chaos, we drove with both kids to DC and back. We’re not doing that this year, and yet I’m still overwhelmed by all there is to do. I wasn’t sure Eva remembered the elves and considered leaving them in the box this year, since the idea of arranging them into different tableaus every night no longer held the same appeal. But then she sat up in bed one night in November and told me her “favorite holiday” was when the elves come and make mischief every night. So they’re here again. And hearing her find them every morning is even better than it was last year. “My elves!” she greets them (one is actually her sister’s but okay). This morning, they’d climbed to the top of a very tall lamp, and she called for us: “I need your help! My elves are losing their minds!” Then she tucks them into beds she’s made so they can rest up for their next wild night. Sometimes she talks to them. “Can they hear me but not talk back?” she asks.
“Yes,” I say.
I may be better at this aspect of parenting than some others because I never mastered the second Real in the way I did the first. It’s probably why I write: what’s in my head often seems realer than what’s outside it. I wrote more about this in an essay for Vox about my miniature obsession (since dissipated along with pregnancy hormones and pandemic restrictions). I loved playing with dolls as a kid, which possibly led me to idealize parenthood, since I thought it might be similar. I can now confirm that it is not, yet playing dolls WITH my kids can sometimes return me to a former state. I’m also more likely to neglect practical matters than a parent more entrenched in the second Real like my husband. I say this because parents face lots of unrealistic expectations over the holidays, so it seems important to point out what we’re NOT doing as much as what we are. I’m doing the elves but I’m not doing Christmas dinner.
Joe recently compared Christmas to a time capsule, in the sense that once it’s over, you pack it all up in a box to open a year later and remember who you were the years before. That’s also how I feel looking back on my first newsletter, written a year ago while under the influence of Johnny Cash and oxytocin. I don’t have the Little Drummer Boy on repeat this year, but I did find a beautifully illustrated version by Ezra Jack Keats. Both girls are really into the nativity story, which in a moment of desperation/inspiration, I dramatized for them with the figures of a little creche I have from childhood.
“Keep telling the story,” Eva said, after the three wise men arrived, which is the point at which my knowledge ends, at least for another couple decades. But I told her what I know, like about some of Jesus’ miracles. Before having kids, I thought I’d have to couch these kinds of discussions in caveats about what I believe, the Real versus the second Real, but now I see that I don’t. They’ve already heard hundreds of stories in their short lives, none of which came with such caveats. They know what to do with stories.
“Jesus,” says Joanna, as she holds up each figure in the creche. “Jesus, Jesus.” They’re all Jesus to her now.
A few days later, I brought home a seasonal stack of library books, and Eva disappeared into her room with one called The Donkey’s Dream by Barbara Helen Berger. She ran out a few minutes later, saying, “Mom, they’re walking on water!” She remembered the story I told her about Jesus, and indeed, this is one of the images in the donkey’s dream. He also dreams he’s carrying a city and “a lady full of heaven.” Then he wakes up and a Real lady, who has just given birth in a cave, calls to him: “See what we have carried all this way, you and I.”
When asked why he spoke to his disciples in stories, Jesus answered: “Because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand.” We’re all children in this view, limited by our physical senses and human understanding. Stories give us a way out. They let us transcend ourselves and perceive the Real.
The frequency of this newsletter will likely drop from monthly to seasonally in the new year. Thanks for reading and happy holidays!
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Beautiful essay. I have a memory—maybe part imagination—that in your childhood home, the Magi figurines would start far off (several feet away, on a mantle or shelf, I think) and move closer gradually until they joined the rest of the crèche at their big moment in the nativity story.
Now I do this with my crèche each year. However incomplete my memory, I credit your parents with a lovely way of playing with the real.