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Commentary: Getting Real

By Amy Ludwig VanDerwater


Buffalo, NY – It's the first day of my first job. Sun streams through stained glass fish, making rainbow puddles on the carpet. I'm ten, a new acolyte at church, wearing a linen robe, ready to learn how to light candles with a long pole. Our minister shows us how to push up the wick, how to hold up our heads and walk slowly, how to light the big candle up front. Close to this big candle for the first time, I notice something. It isn't a candle; it's plastic. I ask, "Don't we light a real candle?" "Oh no, it's not real," my minister answers. "It has oil inside. It looks like a candle, but this is much cleaner and less expensive." It's my first job, lighting candles. But I don't light candles. They just look like candles.

Push-up bras. Faux wood floors. Plastic cranberry garlands. In big box stores across our land, we can purchase many artificial things sold to look real, advertised to contain all the goodness and none of the inconvenience of real. Pumpkins that don't turn black, candles that don't burn, little computer pets that don't need food or love. It's true: real isn't always convenient. While artificial stays the same, real changes. Real Christmas trees drop needles and real jack o'lanterns rot. Real breasts droop, eyes sag, woodstoves make ash, brown hair turns gray. Yet even with its chores and decay, real holds honest grace and hope. Real connects us with nature. Real reminds us that life is fleeting and helps us to accept our own ever-changing, ever-flawed selves.

In this world, where we can screen-bowl or golf in our living rooms, we must make time for our families to see, taste, touch, and smell real objects from the natural world. When we place a vase of dandelions on our counter or line our bathroom windowsill with shells, small daily tasks tie to the web of life: animals, trees, living systems that swirl with or without us. A bowl of pinecones gathered on a windy autumn day whispers to us all year long of falling leaves, squirrels, and our time gathering them. So different, this, from a catalog decoration: silk lilies forever-bright in a vase of plastic water. Touching nature reminds us to be gentle with our earth's resources. Stacking firewood into a huge pile gives us of the gift of trees and the ash we shovel after many winter fires goes back to that same ground. Our days are richer for having scattered milkweed seeds, for cutting pine boughs, placing them in a basket. We remember, just a bit, that we, too, are animals, long ago from wood and meadow.

At a funeral, we hear whispers, "He looks like he's sleeping." But just as our friend in the casket is not sleeping, our fascination with false perfection is not real. Dirt is real. Change is real. We humans are real. In spite of preservation medication and workout routines, we, like leggy spider plants and limping hamsters, will slow down and die. One day we will be unable to read the paper easily, open a jar, or shovel a whole driveway at one time. Life is fragile. And in this fragility we have one gorgeous today to be the person we are at 32, 57, 74, 90. Perhaps by accepting peeling paint on real wood and wilting dandelions on our tables, we will kindly allow our own slower gaits, will see our wisdom wrapped in wrinkles. Understanding the fleetingness of real life, may we wake ourselves at midnight to watch a meteor shower or watch a lit candle make tiny rivers of wax.

Perhaps I have a need to think that real is beautiful. After all, our home was built in 1845; it is full of real surfaces falling slowly and quickly into disrepair. Yet, even as a little girl, I believed what the skin horse told Margery Williams' Velveteen Rabbit, "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 your 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."

Listener-Commentator Amy Ludwig VanDerwater is a writing teacher who lives in Holland.

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