On Becoming a Skin Horse: The Upside of Aging

Old woman on cobblestone street in Rovinj; the upside of aging

I just celebrated a birthday. The last one that begins with a 5. And although my losses are many – hair, waistline, societal status – I don’t bemoan any of them. Instead, today I’m thinking about that wise old skin horse in The Velveteen Rabbit and celebrating the upside of aging. I’m on a journey to becoming Real.

The Velveteen Rabbit is a story of nursery room magic, as a little boy’s love for his toys brings them to life, making them real. The Skin Horse is the oldest toy in the nursery. “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.” When the fancy mechanical toys snub the Velveteen Rabbit, he turns to the Skin Horse for comfort and advice.

“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?’ asked the Rabbit.

‘Sometimes,’ said the Skin Horse, 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,’ he asked, ‘or bit by bit?’

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

To be honest, I do sometimes miss my hair. But I wouldn’t trade my settled heart for a full head of thick black hair. Here are five upsides of aging I’ve discovered, on my way to becoming Real.

My small circle is enough.

Since retiring, I’ve watched my circle of influence and friendships shrink. It was hard at first, but these days I’m quite content with the quantity and quality of the people in my life. I’ve accepted that some friendships are just for a season. It’s okay to let go. Those few humans who remain constant in my life are absolutely worth the investment, and I work to keep my heart open to new friendships. When to hang on and when to let go? Eventually, clarity comes. I’m grateful for both the seasonal and the evergreen.

Two glasses of iced tea on the patio; the upside of aging

I’ve made peace with myself.

Why is it so hard to be kind to ourselves? In the hard times, I’m learning to speak to myself the way I would speak to a friend in distress – with grace, kindness, hope and acceptance. I don’t require perfection of others, so why do I require it of myself? Of course, I don’t ever want to stop learning and growing, but I’m learning to embrace good enough. If that means I’m a size 12 instead of a 10, so be it. It feels like freedom, baby.

Pelican swimming on a still lake in the Tetons
Image credit: Andy Bartosh

I’m heavy into grace.

I’ve failed miserably and done more stupid stuff than I care to admit. But the sun just keeps coming up, day after day. I may be a screw up, but Jesus still loves me. Always. Because I’ve experienced grace – both divine and human – I’m more willing to extend grace to others. Before I could fully appreciate my own failings, I had less patience and sympathy for the failings of others. I can still be judgmental at times, but my inclination leans more readily toward empathy and compassion. Who among us hasn’t {fill in the blank}? We’re all in this together.

Close up of a thistle with Mt. Moran in the background

I’m comfortable with gray.

I used to see the world as largely black and white. While I still have some strongly held opinions (ask me about Donald Trump!), overall I’m much less dogmatic because I’m much less certain. Most of life is not “either/or” but “both/and.” Common ground exists, even in the most intractable disputes. Our differences often come down to emphasis or priority.

Even in matters of faith, I’m much more comfortable with open questions. I echo the conclusion of Father Cavanaugh in the movie Rudy, “Son, in 35 years of religious study, I’ve come up with only two hard, incontrovertible facts: There is a God and I’m not him.”

View overlooking a green valley from the cemetery of the Castle of Cashel

I lean into today.

Old people tend to like old things, and I’m no exception. I love the patina of antiques and the way a Beach Boys song immediately makes me 13 again. Likewise, I’m fascinated with history, particularly our family stories. I love tracing how my ancestors’ choices led to me. But my fascination with the past has everything to do with how it informs the present and future.

As to the future, I’ve swapped grand goals for a bucket list. The future was always uncertain, but now I know it in my very bones. And honestly, that’s a gift. The clock ran out for my dad while he postponed so many of his dreams, so I prioritize my bucket list in his honor.

But today? Today is mine to enjoy, and I do. I’m not waiting for {fill in the blank} to make me happy. I’m happy today. I luxuriate in freedom from time pressure. I appreciate what my body can still do, knowing the expiration date of every joint and organ is closer than it was yesterday. I embrace silence. I watch birds. I take walks and naps. And every little thing brings me joy.

Children chasing bottles in a green field

So yes, I’ve reached that point in life where I have more girth and less hair. I’ve survived loss and found that life goes on. I’ve failed miserably and found the sun still rises on a new day. I have a small circle of people who matter deeply to me, and I’ve found that it’s all I need. I’ve accepted my own flaws and foibles, and given myself permission to accept them in others, too.

I suspect the Skin Horse understood that everything is temporary – pain, success, friends. He learned to hold it all loosely. But when given the opportunity to pour into a little Velveteen Rabbit, he seized it. Oh please, Lord, make me a Skin Horse.

4 Comments

  1. Ai – what a gracious, grateful look at where we are in life. Given that I’m a few seasons ahead of you (somewhere around 24 seasons😀), I can tell you, it just gets richer and more peaceful. Love you, my friend.

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