My phone said the temperature was 35 degrees as I was preparing for my run in Prospect Park yesterday, so I dressed in my usual cold-weather running gear: my thickest running socks, tights, a camisole, a running top that zipped up my neck, a windbreaker, a hat and gloves. About twenty-five minutes into the run, as I was cruising steadily down the lower drive with Beyonce lilting in my ears, a guy ran past me going the other direction, wearing only a stocking cap, a long-sleeved cotton t-shirt, and shorts. He had the wiry physique and spindly calves of someone who runs every day, who probably did the New York marathon a few weeks ago and will run it again next year (one of my fondest ambitions), and I thought Wow, that guy's a real runner.
And then I thought: Dammit, I'm out here running in 35 degree weather too. Am I imaginary? No! I'm a real runner as well!
And this got me thinking about the way we use the word "real" to connote -- what? Physical existence? Identity? Membership in a group? People talk a lot about whether or not they're "real" writers if they haven't been published, or if they don't do it every day, or if they're not writing a specific thing (books = good, blog posts = your existence is doubtful). Fandoms are riven by arguments about whether you can be a "real" fan if you haven't read all the back issues, if you only got into it after the movie, even (noxiously) if you are female. When I saw that guy in the park, I doubted my worth as a runner because I don't have the physical ability to run in shorts at 35 degrees without getting frostbite -- meaning, really, I haven't put in the time to gain that muscle tone and metabolism. But my legs pumping in their tights, my heart pounding in my chest, my hand clutching my water bottle were all as present and powerful as that young man dashing by; and I resolved then and there that I will stop dissing myself about this in future and give myself credit -- that my effort, at the least, was real and deserved respect.
Of course, since I live in children's books, I also thought of this:
"What is REAL?" asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. "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?" 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."
"I suppose you are real?" said the Rabbit. 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," he said. "That was a great many years ago; but once you are Real you can't become unreal again. It lasts for always."
(I should add that I don't think what I'm saying holds entirely true for racial/ethnic/sexuality group identities, which have complexities and histories, and costs and benefits, far beyond mere participation in an activity or fandom. Nor is it true for anything that requires a specific accomplishment.... No matter how much I may love cheering at marathons, I can't say I'm a Real marathoner, because I haven't done one! But for activities and fandoms, this is my new standard for Real.)
And if you have all of those qualifications, and then some people tell you you aren't a Real __________, then they are the actual frauds; because part of love is generosity, the desire to see this good thing grow, and they don't have enough love in them to be a Real ________ themselves. Ignore them and go on.
By this measure, I am a Real runner, knitter, cook, yogi, writer, and editor. I do remain objectively not very good at the running, knitting, and yoga. But there is something about merely being Real that makes me feel better connected and more committed to my chosen activities--that I know I belong to them and they to me, that no one can take my Realness away from me. As Beyonce gave way to Bonnie Tyler and the sun set over the lake, the wind died down. My speed picked up. I felt again the exhilaration I discovered years ago, that I can run, that I am a runner, that this is a superpower I carry in my own two feet. And I ran out of the park, as Real as I wanted to be.