Painting by Jessica McGhee

Painting by Jessica McGhee

I still remember the first time I saw it.

It was hanging in my favorite coffee shop, back when they still sold hackey sacks and incense and handmade mittens in the lobby. Back when you could still write poetry on the bathroom walls upstairs. Before they installed the tacky neon beer signs in the front windows and banned smoking and stopped doing open mic nights. I’ve forgiven them for selling out; it’s my place, and they are my people. For better or worse. But back then, back when I would still chain smoke at the table painted like a window and make up stories about patrons with friends (everyone always ended up being a spy or a mage – whatever that means), I was becoming.

I’d spent the past six or seven years deeply entrenched in a particularly kooky branch of evangelicalism. Among other things I’d chosen to believe because they were told to me by people who loved me, I had embraced the idea that truth could only ever be found inside the walls of the church. “The world” was full of lies and deceit and the lusts of the flesh – nothing out there could be trusted. My genre books and films (mostly fantasy and science fiction) were actually full of the devil, demons trying to steal glory from God by presenting supernatural realities apart from Him. Several black garbage bags later, my room was cleansed. In a sad twist, though, I ended up on the wrong end of that thinking. I’d started asking the wrong questions. Thinking the wrong thoughts. Believing the wrong “truths.” And eventually there was no room for me at the inn. In a body bag all my own, I was removed from the church so that the house of God could be cleansed.

Now I struggled with whether or not I was allowed to still be a Christian. Could I love Jesus and read the Bible and try to follow Him if the church didn’t want me? I found places that allowed me to be all I was, and to struggle with all I was becoming.

One of those places was Cornerstone music festival. One was a pocket of a ministry near Houston, TX. And one was my coffee shop. I was friends with most of the people who worked there, and I had many of my firsts there. Something about the spirit of the place, the fact that most of the people I met there were living counter-culturally in some way, made me brave enough to own the discord within. I started looking outside of the church to see if maybe my previous people had been wrong. Maybe God was talking to people out there as well.

The first time I saw it, I felt like someone had punched me in the sternum. I’d been impacted by a few paintings like this before. It was a feeling I was mostly familiar with when listening to certain music, or reading certain stories. But for the first time I was starting to understand why people love art. Paintings. Sculpture. A friend had painted a series of puzzle pieces and deep blues and wandering figures that felt like a chronicle of my journey toward Christ. A red and blue series I’ll write about another time spun me into another realm of seeing the world.

Then there was the Velveteen Rabbit. The first time I saw it, I wanted to cry. It took my breath away. I can’t speak to the artist’s intent, but there was such a jarring juxtaposition between the soft, muted colors of the majority of the painting and the harsh, bold colors of the heart and wine. She looks so open, so fully engaged in giving her heart to him as he leans away while never releasing her from his gaze. The letters, floating above her head, “It was only a story,” felt like a gentle condemnation of her offering. Oh sweetie, it was never real. You took it too seriously.

I felt like that painting exposed a deep, private, heartbreaking truth I carried within. That I loved too deeply, took relationships too seriously. It was a burden that, at 20 years old, I desperately wanted to be free from. That painting haunted me, and inspired me, exposed and released me.

Fifteen years later, the artist is a friend of mine. She doesn’t paint anymore, pouring herself into other creative endeavors and attempting to improve her corner of the world valiantly. She is a community hero and a brilliant artist. She just doesn’t paint. I was recently telling mutual friends how me and her met, and was describing the Velveteen Rabbit to them. I told her this last night while wrapping up my tab at her bar. Within minutes of the mundane little story I was telling, she disappeared down some stairs and reemerged with the Velveteen Rabbit in hand. It lives in the basement, she said. I always know when then are supposed to go home, she insisted. After ten minutes of arguing, feeling a torrent of emotions rising up from my belly to my chest, I walked out of the bar carrying her. Carrying the Velveteen Rabbit.

I stared at her for a long time last night. Remembering what it felt like to be that lost, scared, confused kid. Feeling again that hopeless sensation of always loving too much. And realizing that my journey now is learning to love more. Somewhere along this windy road I have come to not only accept my tendencies toward attachment and affection, but to be glad for them. To want to pour myself out more, to give more, to offer more. The story, the lie, was that his leaning away made the offering worthless. But she will always be offering, always holding out her love to him. And if he chooses to move toward her, to follow his gaze and lean in, he will always be rewarded because what she offers is pure and genuine and real. As real as the taste of sweet red wine. Love is the most real thing we could possibly offer one another. And the Velveteen Rabbit, hanging peacefully on my wall, reminds me now to never stop offering.


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