Margery Williams’ fairy tale, The Velveteen Rabbit, about toys loved so much they become real, has held a special place in my heart for years. I had not heard or read the story until well into adulthood and it took working in a bookstore to get to know what, today, is arguably my favorite book.
The story resonated with me because just like the worn, floppy-eared rabbit in the story, I have a stuffed animal who has been loved so much that he is real. I don’t remember life without him. He’s been repeatedly sewn, washed and patched, he’s lost his eyes and they’ve been drawn and redrawn in place with a magic marker. He has traveled the world in my old, leather backpack, and if he had a passport, would have filled at least three of them by now. Perhaps it’s due to my real stuffed animal that I recognized another such toy.
I was fortunate enough to be on a weeklong travel writing trip to write about the community of Taos, the art scene, the restaurants, the Native American influence, and the three-day music festival known as the Big Barn Dance. It was there, sitting in the back with my dog Gracie, writing notes and taking in the scene, that I noticed the woman and the yellow, plastic toy.
Many of us are familiar with the song, ‘Mr. Bojangles’, I certainly was, although I could not have told you that Jerry Jeff Walker wrote the song. (I can now.) The country music singer has amassed a loyal following and each year that loyal following gathers for music and fun. It was at one of these gatherings where J.J. Basil came to be.
The group decided to have a ‘Yankee Swap/White Elephant’ party and what seemed to be a silly bottle opener in the shape of a bright, yellow bird became the most coveted item. J.J. Basil got his name from the singer, the man (Jay) who initially brought him, and Basil – the name of the restaurant where the party was held. J.J. Basil has been making the rounds ever since – staying with a host or hostess until the next gathering, posing for pictures and traveling in a hand-sewn case.
As I sat listening to music at the Big Barn Dance, I noticed the woman with the plastic bird – seemingly posing the bird with the stage in the background. Intrigued and less-than-shy, I leaned over to the stranger and asked, “What’s up with this bird?” And Tommie began to tell me J.J.’s story. I listened to the story, met her husband, and her friend who had flown in from Maryland and realized I had not only met some genuinely, authentic people but I had also met another toy who was every bit as real as the one sitting in my room. The fact that my Grand and Granddaddy (James Basil) gave me my toy who became real, was not lost on me…two toys, both real, and both shared a connection to an uncommon name.
Over the course of a couple of days, I was honored to make new friends and become enamored with J.J. and the story. Like everything in life, our thoughts make up our experiences and we are all searching for a connection and a purpose. Through the love that this group shows the little toy, traveling around the world, photographing him and even creating his own Facebook page – I witnessed a kinship that we all need. I also witnessed the compassion and unbridled generosity among friends and saw a dear, broken heart heal just a little bit more through these genuine, nurturing friendships.
Devices and technology are, literally, taking center stage in our lives and science has proven that screen time and device distraction has begun to change the way our brains function. Many of us are searching for authenticity in a world that is becoming lost to the latest techy treat. Yet I witnessed a group of people bound by a kinship that stays connected by using technology to come together for something greater than the sum of their parts.
What started out as a plastic, yellow toy in the shape of a bird to open bottles with its beak became real through the spirit of human connection. Just like the Velveteen Rabbit and all the real toys who live in our hearts, J.J. is real enough to help broken hearts mend, to turn strangers into friends, and to form lasting memories. That’s real enough for me.
Thanks for reading,