1950s era Toni doll

Mad in Pursuit Notebook

The Velveteen Rabbit Effect: Who Are Your Genial Household Spirits?

(Published Nov. 16,, 2022 as Newsletter No. 4)

My dear, here we are, mid-November. Have you dug out your holiday decorations yet? Do you have a special set of china you use for Thanksgiving? I use my grandmother’s Noritake, even though Thanksgiving is usually just Jim and me. Every time I set out those porcelain plates, I sense the ghost of my grandmother—Kitty Mom—the eternal hostess.

Old things do have spirit, don’t they? If you let yourself go quiet, you sense the spritely vibes. Dolls with messed-up hair and baseball cards with fuzzy edges brim with the spirit of children at play. Dented saucepans with cracked handles overflow with the gusto of many cooks. Books with cracked spines and notes in the margins send signals from the curious minds of past readers.

I like to call it the Velveteen Rabbit Effect—the more a toy is loved, the more a pot is used, or the more a physical book is handled and read, the more real it becomes.

Japanese folklore has its own name for the phenomenon: tsukumogami—“spirit of the tool.” The idea is that “hundred-year-old” things are granted souls. They become alive and self-aware. They are mostly harmless, but beware! A tsukumogami can take revenge if it’s abused or thoughtlessly thrown away.

Getting rid of old things that have become “real” can be challenging. Mari Kondo says you should keep things that “spark joy.” I say you need to cherish things that sparkle with spirit, spirit that the Chinese call qi and the Polynesians call mana. Maybe you can’t save them physically in your home, but you can pass them on to someone who can. Or, before a worn-out, damaged item lands in the Dumpster, you can respectfully tell its story and send the tsukumogami on its way in peace.

A story: During his collecting days, Jim would buy vintage postcards by the lot, pick out a few for his albums, then stack the rest in a box under his desk. After I retired, hellbent on a scorched-earth clean-up of our clutter, I wanted to throw away this pile of scruffy discards. But no. They were already 60 or 70 years old, passed from hand to hand, generation to generation. They refused to be trashed. That’s when I opened my eBay store and laboriously scanned every single one, front and back, selling them for a buck apiece, sending them off to new owners, perhaps with a bit of my own qi attached. 

Still, with all my decluttering zeal, there were a few I couldn’t part with. One was postmarked March 21, 1937, and sent from Auburn NY to Weston Rowe in Macedon Center NY. The message was short.

West, Card rec’d, glad you got home O.K. Was glad you came & thanks for the things. No paper yet, so a card will have to do. Yes, some storm. Ham & eggs for next Sun I guess. No work yet, maybe soon now, soon as weather gets better. No more this time. Good Bye, Coral.

I can hear Coral’s voice, still echoing after 85 years. Plucky Coral, enduring the Great Depression, without work, without a sheet of paper, dreaming of next Sunday’s dinner, keeping in touch with her friend 50 miles away. Weston must have cared for Coral and treasured her strong presence to have saved the card till it was passed along to an heir, who also preserved—and added to—the card’s soul. Call me crazy, but I keep that postcard in a box with other spirited cards and photos.

Anyway, back to old china: The dishes have a 1920-ish design, so I’ll speculate that they are a hundred years old. Definitely brimming with soul! This year, when I set a table for two with Kitty Mom’s china, I’ll be pleasantly haunted by the chatter and clatter of a century of celebrations. And I’ll be reminded of that one Thanksgiving when I had an earache and left the kids’ table to sit next to my grandfather Ewald and slumped over on his lap and he cupped his hand over my throbbing ear to warm it and I drifted off to sleep amid the din of dishes being cleared. Yes, the dishes have become real and their spirit delights me.

How about your spirited things? Have you been sorting through those holiday decorations, wondering what you can pitch and deciding “nothing”? I’d love to hear your story. Write soon!

Till next time,


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Books from Mad in Pursuit and Susan Barrett Price: KITTY'S PEOPLE: the Irish Family Saga about the Rise of a Generous Woman (2022)| HEADLONG: Over the Edge in Pakistan and China (2018) | THE SUDDEN SILENCE: A Tale of Suspense and Found Treasure (2015) | TRIBE OF THE BREAKAWAY BEADS: Book of Exits and Fresh Starts (2011) | PASSION AND PERIL ON THE SILK ROAD: A Thriller in Pakistan and China (2008). Available at Amazon.