A Rose for Mary Poppins and P.L. Travers

Mary Poppins Rose

The rose was P.L. Travers’s favourite flower. For her it was “the flower of all flowers, furled and curled, never giving anything away.

A daisy is the child’s favourite. It’s so open. The daisy and the rose are the two ends of the stick. The rose is never, until the last moment unfolded.

P.L. Travers, Saturday Review, November 7, 1964

This is what P.L. Travers told Haskel Frankel on a gray November day, sitting in “a darkish corner” of a New York restaurant.

If Frankel knew about P.L. Travers’s spiritual life, her comment about “the two ends of the stick” would have, undoubtedly, prompted him to ask different questions, but Frankel was unaware of P.L. Travers’s allegiance to G.I. Gurdjieff and his spiritual teachings.

Two ends of the stick” was an expression used by Gurdjieff to illustrate the polarities of life. P.L. Travers used it often in her interviews, and in her writings.  In this instance, she uses the differences in the physical attributes of the daisy and the rose as an illustration of two radically different attitudes towards life: that of the child, and the other of the adult. On one end there is innocence and trust, and on the other, vulnerability and the need for self-protection. However, if we choose to look at this metaphor not as a fixed image but as a flowing movement from the daisy towards the rose, we can understand something about the way P.L. Travers might have experienced her own process of maturation. It would have been interesting to discuss with her the possibility to use both ends of the stick, just like a funambulist.

Before the interview P.L. Travers’s publisher Harcourt, Brace & World sent Frankel a copy of the then newly issued, one-volume edition of Mary Poppins and Mary Poppins Comes Back. He found a note in the book with P.L. Travers’s conditions on interviews. He had to read her books and he was not allowed to ask personal questions.

P.L. Travers explained to Frankel that she does not want any personal questions because “they take away from the feeling of anonymity which I need for my writing.”  And, at the end of their meeting, she left the restaurant leaving behind the following statement: “Intimate life is the only life I can bear. I’m not interested in the passing scene because it passes.” She knew how to exit a scene on a dramatic note.

Despite her refusal to talk about her private life, P.L. Travers revealed one of her intimate wishes. She told Frankel that her greatest joy would be to have a rose named after her. “A Pamela Travers rose. Wouldn’t that be nice? Or even better, a Mary Poppins rose.

P.L.Travers Rose

A beautiful wish that came true. Dr. Dennison Morey, a rose grower from California, happened to read P.L. Travers’s interview in the Saturday Review,  and he wrote to her. A correspondence ensued, and two years later, he bred two roses: one named Pamela Travers and the other named Sleeping Beauty. Why Sleeping Beauty? Because Sleeping Beauty was P.L. Travers’s favourite fairy tale, and because in some versions of the story Sleeping Beauty is called Briar Rose. And let’s not forget that her sleep in the castle is guarded by a thick hedge of thorny roses.

A year later, in 1967, Dr. Morey bred a third rose. This time he named it Mary Poppins. 

This occurrence in P.L. Travers’s life is pure magic at work. The fulfillment of her whimsical wish is just so serendipitous. It makes me wonder, is it just a question of luck, or is there some secret process to manifestation that cannot be set into motion without a sincere, heartfelt wish? There is also something else, something that deserves to be pondered on, something about the necessity of making the wish known to the world.

May all our heartfelt wishes come true. Happy Valentine’s Day to all!

 

Bad Tuesdays with Mary Poppins

Mary Poppins Bad Tuesday compass.jpg

Original illustration by Mary Shepard

“Bad Tuesday” is a story in the first Mary Poppins book published in 1934 in which Mary Poppins, with the help of a compass, takes the Banks children on a trip around the world. In a flash, Jane and Michael experience the vastness and variety of our human world. With a shake of the compass, they are transported to the North Pole where they meet with an Eskimo family. Then, to the South where they encounter a family with a skin much darker than their own. In the East the children are greeted by a Chinese Mandarin, and by a tribe of Indians on their last destination in the West. All the characters in this adventure are friends of Mary Poppins. The different attires, manner of speech and greeting customs are not experienced by the children as something threatening, but on the contrary, as something extremely exciting and enjoyable.  

Yet, many years after its first publication the story underwent two alterations for socio-political reasons. The first revision, which left the plot of the story untouched, occurred in 1971. Then, in 1980 the San Francisco Public Library removed Mary Poppins from its shelves because of alleged racist references and derogatory treatment of minorities. Lawson, P.L. Travers’s biographer, reports that P.L. Travers was angry with her publisher at that time for not defending her loudly enough. In fact, P.L. Travers learned about the unfortunate event from her friends.  

After pondering whether she should stick to her artistic expression or risk to see her book banished from more shelves, P.L. Travers  decided to rewrite the story. With a stroke of her pen, she changed the colorful trip around the world into a wildlife nature expedition. In this last version of the story, which is now in print, the Banks children meet a Polar Bear, a Hyacinth Macaw, a Panda and a Dolphin.  

Mary Poppins Bad Tuesday Revised.jpg

Original illustration by Mary Shepard

Now, was the original story racist? This is the question that will be explored in this blogpost.  

The major issue with “Bad Tuesday” was brought to P.L. Travers’s attention in 1971 by her friend Dr. Francelia Butler. She told P.L. Travers how embarrassed she felt when reading the story to the black students in her class. Her embarrassment being caused by the words “Negro lady” and “a picaninny baby” as well as the picaninny language used by the characters.    

Beneath the palm trees sat a man and a woman, both quite black all over and with a  very few clothes on. But to make up for this they wore a great many beads – some hung  round their heads just below great crowns of feathers (….). On the knee of the negro lady  sat a tiny black picaninny with nothing on at all. It smiled at the children as its Mother  spoke.  

“Bad Tuesday”, Mary Poppins, P.L. Travers 1934 

P.L. Travers decided to alter the descriptions and dialogues in this section of the story because “if even one Black child were troubled, or she (Dr. Francelia Butler) were troubled, I would have to alter it.” 

 So, the description was redrafted and read: 

Under the palm-trees sat a man and a woman as black and shiny and plum as a ripe  plum, and wearing very few clothes. But to make up for this they wore a great many  beads. (…) And on the knee of the dark lady sat a tiny plum-black baby with nothing on at all. It smiled at the children as its Mother  spoke.  

“Bad Tuesday”, Mary Poppins, P.L. Travers, redraft published in 1972 

This time around the characters expressed themselves in formal English. 

P.L Travers accepted to be interviewed about this first revision of “Bad Tuesday”. The interview was published in Interracial Books for Children in Vol.3, 1974. She said:  

I have no racism in me. I wasn’t born with it. And it’s never happened inside of me. And therefore, I feel perfectly at ease and at home no matter what color anybody’s skin is. I was brought up in a family and in a world where there was no hint of racism of any kind (…) I was brought up by large minded people who never had any sense of racism at all. 

P.L. Travers, Mary Poppins Revised: An Interview with P.L. Travers, Interracial Books for Children, Vol. 3, 1974 

P.L. Travers was just like her Mary Poppins, apolitical, a rebel and a freethinker.  She was completely engulphed in her imagination and her spiritual explorations which had to do with the much larger universal laws of creation. She was not interested in socio-cultural conventions. Hers was the world of myths and fairy tales, and the human experience of life on a larger scale. Not surprisingly, she said so herself. 

Literature and imagination are my world. I don’t like being pulled out from that world and being forced to live in a sociological world of which I am not a native habitant. Imagination is a pure thing. It is envisaging. Imagination does not depend upon the sociology of the time. More functional books do; imagination does not.(…) Mary Poppins is not a contemporary book. It is a timeless book, and probably it goes back a great deal to my own childhood.  

P.L. Travers, Mary Poppins Revised: An Interview with P.L. Travers, Interracial Books for Children, Vol. 3, 1974 

This is P.L. Travers in a nutshell. This was not a statement made for the occasion. I have spent years reading her writings and interviews and listening to testimonials from people who knew her. This was truly her stance in life. It does not matter if you agree or not with her assertion about imagination not depending on the sociology of the time. What matters here is her subjective truth. What matters is the fact that she had no intention of being disrespectful towards other ethnic groups.  Her willingness to alter the story not once, but twice, proves just that.  

It is important here to note that the accusations of racism were raised in the socio-cultural context of North America many years after the story was first written. People in North America assumed that the characters in the story were from Africa. However, it is possible that their assumption was wrong. It is possible that these characters were inspired by P.L. Travers’s memories of or ideas about the Australian aboriginal tribes. Maybe this is what she meant when she told the interviewer that the story goes back to her childhood. P.L. Travers was born and raised in the Southern Hemisphere of the Earth. So, when Mary Poppins tells the compass to take her and the children to the South, that probably meant Australia. What’s more, in the early 1900’s, the newspapers in Australia contained Picaninny Pages and “negro” was not considered to be a socially unacceptable word. It was all just part of the reality of her life back then and it was absorbed into her imagination without any negative connotation.  

“Bad Tuesday” reflected P.L. Travers’s childhood fascination with people and stories. Encounters with people who were not part of her family, mostly the help, stimulated her imagination. These outsiders made her realize that she was living in a world much vaster than her household. And, let’s not forget another important aspect of her childhood. She was an avid reader. She loved to read fairy tales, fantasy and adventure novels. Her childhood readings included Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan and the adventures of Buffalo Bill. 

The descriptions of the characters in “Bad Tuesday” may not have been accurate, but factual preciseness is beside the point here. Obvisouly, P.L. Travers did not use researched information for the portrayal of her characters. She simply pulled them out of the mixture of her childhood memories, readings and musings. Facts were never of a great concern for P.L. Travers. She was interested in big ideas. And, the original “Bad Tuesday” was a big idea kind of story. It was a story about the variety of human life on this planet and the possibility for all human beings, despite their socio-cultural differences, to be friends. It was a lesson in openness and willingness to take part in other people’s customs.  

Isn’t it a sad paradox that a story about diversity and inclusion was relegated to oblivion by misguided reading and interpretation? The story was not promoting racist ideas or making children believe that other ethnic groups were somehow inferior. It was just a story, an imaginative story, and a humorous one at that.   

The Nativity Reimagined by the Author of Mary Poppins

The Fox at the Manger

The Fox at the Manger is a short Christmas story by P.L. Travers, the author of Mary Poppins. It was written on demand, as a service to her publisher.  However, despite its small size and the fact that it was commissioned, this tiny booklet is packed with big questions and pays tribute to P.L. Travers’s ability to say more with less.  

The Fox at the Manger was discussed previously on this blog.  In Pamela L. Travers and the Fox at the Manger (Part I) the story was examined as a possible expression of P.L Travers’s disappointment with the God she believed in as a child.  

In the second post Pamela L. Travers and the Fox at the Manger (Part II) the character of the fox was examined from three different perspectives: the fox as the embodiment of P.L. Travers’s feelings of loneliness and alienation from others, the fox as the personification of P. L. Travers’s spiritual teacher, G.I. Gurdjieff, and the fox as the expression of P.L. Travers’s unsatisfied childhood needs for unconditional love and acceptance. 

In A Christmas Story by Pamela L. Travers I tried to understand the nature of the fox’s gift to baby Jesus. For those who are unfamiliar with the story, the fox offers its cunning to Jesus on the night of his birth. Isn’t this mystifying?  Cunning is not a personality trait one usually attributes to Jesus. What can he use it for? In the story this same question is raised by the ass: 

“But what will you do with such a gift?” cried the ass, in bewilderment. “I’m puzzled at these riddles. What is this cunning? There is something here I do not understand.” 

The answer however is far from satisfying. 

“It is not necessary to understand,” said the Child, gently. “It is only necessary to let it be. Love and let it be.” 

No explanations, only indirection. This is the style of P.L. Travers.  The reader, if willing, is offered a chance to ponder the question for however long, and maybe one day find the answer.  Well, I gave it a try. And then, I took a shortcut. Since the question appeared to be of a theological nature, I reached out to Tobias Churton, a writer and theologian, expert in esoteric mysteries, spiritual history and philosophy.  He offered an interesting theological perspective which I shared in A Christmas Story by Pamela L. Travers.   

So, what is left to say about The Fox at the Manger? Actually, there is still a lot that can be inferred from this story.  For instance, it can tell us something about the workings of P.L. Travers’s creative mind.  

In The Fox at the Manger, we are confronted with the duality of Jesus’s fate. His birth is presented in the context of his tragic death. Time in the story is not linear. It wraps around itself like an ouroboros.  Past, present and future all happen at once. The result is a holistic view of Jesus’s life and a meditation on the nature of good and evil, or more accurately, about our dual human nature.   

But where did P.L. Travers get the idea for her Christmas story? She was often asked about the origins of her ideas, and her interviewers were regularly made aware of her irritation at the question. No one can tell where ideas come from, that was in short, her position on the matter.  

Well, that is not entirely true. In the case of The Fox at the Manger it is possible to trace back the origins of her ideas. Things I’ve read, like pieces of a puzzle, interconnected to form an interesting picture.  

Apparently P.L. Travers explored the idea of Jesus’s dual fate some thirty years or so before she sat down to write  The Fox at the Manger. It was in her poem Noel written in her twenties (or early thirties) and published by her literary mentor A.E.: 

Noel 

Child of the bright head 

Take now your myrrh 

and gold 

and incense as we 

kneel 

With the three 

Child of the gentle heart 

Do you guess that we mean 

To crucify you 

When the leaves are green. 

But what inspired both the poem and The Fox at the Manger? To answer this question we must go back in time and space to one hot, Australian Sunday afternoon. Mrs. Goff, P.L. Travers’s, mother was lying in the bed, reading the Bible aloud. It was the story of Jesus’s Crucifixion and it caused young P.L. Travers great distress.  Grief-stricken, she could not contain her sorrow.  It was her first experience of empathy.  She wrote about this childhood memory when she was in her eighties. Undoubtedly, the story of Jesus’s sad fate left a lifelong impression. And, here we are, the basis of her idea to tell the story of the Nativity within the context of the Crucifixion is rooted in this early childhood experience.  

Now, let’s turn our attention to the character of the wild fox in The Fox at the Manger.

Fox at the Manger engraving 2

Engraving by Thomas Bewick 

P.L. Travers’s friend and collaborator Brian Sibley expressed the shocking originality of the idea to introduce the fox in the story of Jesus’s birth: 

The Fox at the Manger. What a bizzare, almost blasphemous idea: the wild rough, read-haired chicken thief at the place where the mysterious drama of the Incarnation had been enacted.  

Brian Sibley, A Good Gift, A Lively Oracle 

The question again is: What inspired P.L. Travers? Why did she bring the fox at the manger?  I found a clue dated May 1943.  P.L. Travers wrote an intriguing diary entry. She mentioned her fascination with the element of the fox. For a long-time, she wrote in that entry, she had a strong connection to hens but now, she was tired of the hen*.  Reading these words led me to the next logical question: Why was she interested in the element of the fox at that moment in time?   

In 1943 Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, at that time exiled in the United-States, published The Little Prince.  P.L. Travers read the story and in April 1943 she wrote a delightfully insightful review of The Little Prince in The New York Herald. You can read about it in Mary Poppins Meets the Little Prince

Clearly the idea of an untamed fox offering a gift to an innocent child was inspired by another famous allegory. The wild fox who befriends the Little Prince stayed with P.L. Travers. It appears that the idea about the wild and untamed fox becoming tamed of its own free will fascinated P.L. Travers.  

Fox in the little prince

Illustration by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Of course, the differences between these two stories outweigh the similarities. The gifts offered to each child are of a different nature.  The fox in The Little Prince gifts the child with a secret that teaches him to seek guidance from his own heart.   

The fox’s gift in The Fox at the Manger is of a quite different nature. The Child in this story  already knows how to listen with his heart. He needs something else to help him carry the burden of his fate. And, what better gift to offer than cunning to one who is setting out on a perilous journey. Jesus may be the symbol of selfless love, but heart alone is not enough to get us through the uncertainties of life. The gift of the fox is the gift of the mind.      

____________________________________ 

*P.L. Travers associated the hen’s habit of silent brooding with writers’ predisposition for pondering ideas. 

Halloween With Mary Poppins

Mary Poppins Halloween

At this time of the year, here in the Northern Hemisphere, autumn is in full swing. Winds are rising, trees are gradually shedding their colorful leaves and nights are getting longer. Symbolically, we are beginning our descent into darkness, and holidays like the approaching Halloween invite us to honour this shadowy season. So, this is an appropriate moment to write a blogpost about Hallowe’en, a story from Mary Poppins in the Park, the fourth Mary Poppins book published in 1952.  

It is Halloween night and Jane and Michael see their shadows outside in the garden “floating down the front path and through the garden railings”. Encouraged by the sounds of music coming from the Park and the messages left on their pillows – two maple leaves on which are inscribed the words “Come” and “Tonight”- Jane and Michael leave the warmth and safety of their nursery and follow their shadows into the night.

In the Park, under the light of the Full Moon, they attend a strange party crowded with shadows of people they know, and fictional characters from nursery rhymes and fairy tales.  Of course, the children are amazed to see  something unreal, that just goes through things and has no substance, to suddenly have an existence of its own.

But then, The Bird Woman’s shadow explains to Jane and Michael that shadows are more than real. In truth, she tells them, they are the outside of our inside, and they know important things.

And that’s what they are made for – to go through things. Through and out on the other side – it’s the way they get to be wise. You – take my words for it, my loves, when you know what your shadow knows – then you know a lot.  

Mrs. Corry, a close friend of Mary Poppins is also at the party, but just like Mary Poppins her shadow is firmly attached to her feet. She warns the children that shadows have feelings.

They feel twice as much as you do. I warn you, children, take care of your or shadows or your shadows won’t take care of you.

Then Mary Poppins arrives, and Jane and Michael learn that it is not only Halloween, but also the eve of Mary Poppins’s birthday. The celebration begins. However, soon after the dancing starts, the owners of the merry shadows show up in the Park looking for them. Things get even more interesting for Jane and Michael.

The Park Keeper.jpg

The Park Keeper is a character that appears in many of the Mary Poppins adventures. He is always fretting and admonishing people to follow the rules, while living in constant fear of punishment for the irregularities that inevitably occur each time Mary Poppins comes to the park.  On this Halloween night the Park Keeper is particularly frightened. Spooky things come out in the night, and he decides to abandon the Park for just this one time.

Understandably, when Jane and Michael see his shadow at the party, they are quite surprised, but the shadow explains:

Oh. I am not frightened, Miss – it’s ‘im. My body, so to speak. A very nervous chap’e is – afraid of ‘is own shadow.

The Park Keeper, who ignores that he has lost his shadow, but can not bring himself to ignore his duty, returns to the Park. When he sees his shadow dancing, which by the way is against the rules, he orders it to behave like a human being. His shadow replies with a giggle: “But shadows are so much nicer!” Then, the Park Keeper is forced by some mysterious powers to dance with his shadow, but even this shocking experience does not succeed in changing the Park Keeper’s rigid mind. At the end, he gets a firm hold of his shadow, and it is clear that the Park Keeper will remain just as he was before this uncanny incident. Apparently being forced to face one’s shadow is not enough. One has to willingly enter the dance for change to occur.   

Mrs. Boom

Admiral Boom, another frequently encountered character in the Mary Poppins adventures, is aware that his shadow is missing, but he is unwilling to face it. Instead, when he realises that his shadow has gone missing, he sends his wife out in the dark to look for it. Now, this is a rather cowardly act, and one that contradicts his usual authoritative behavior during the day. But Admiral Boom’s shadow knows better. It knows that behind the Admiral Boom’s imposing façade hides an entitled, spoiled child who wants everything on a plate. When things get tough, Admiral Boom gets tough on people. Someone else needs to fixit the situation for him.

I leave him for one night in the year – and he threatens to sink the ship! Now, that’s a thing I’d never do. He is nothing but a spoiled child – no sense of responsibility.

Obviously, the Admiral will remain locked in his anger and his experience of life will remain unchanged.

Mrs. Lark

What about snobbish Mrs. Lark?  She too braves the darkness and shows up in the Park looking for her shadow.  When confronted with it, she is horrified by its behaviour. In her opinion, it is totally unacceptable for the shadow of a woman of her social standing to be dancing around the Park with total strangers. But this is not how her shadow sees the situation:

I’m gayer than you think, Lucinda. And so are you, if you knew it. Why are you always fussing and fretting instead of enjoying yourself? If you stood on your head occasionally, I’d never run away.

Surprisingly, Mrs. Lark does not need a lot of convincing, although she does not quite know how to go about this standing on your head business. Anyhow, she is going to practice on the hearthrug in her drawing-room.

The Professor, Mrs. Lark’s companion, follows in her footsteps. He walks in the Park knowing that he is looking for something, only he does not remember what that something is.  This is much in line with the Professor’s usual absentmindedness. Funny enough, his shadow is just as forgetful as he is.

‘Lost and found!’ He (The Professor) embraced his shadow. ‘How beautiful are those two words when one hears them both together! Oh, never let us part again! You will remember what I forget – ‘

‘And vice versa!’ his shadow cried.

This happy reunion suggests that the Professor is not at odds with his shadow like the rest of the characters in the story. The Professor’s wholeness and alignment with his true nature is illustrated by the affectionate hug he shares with his shadow.

Mr. Banks Sleepwalking.jpg

Mr. Banks, Jane and Michael’s father, comes sleepwalking across the Park with his arms stretched out before him. He talks in his sleep about feeling that there is something missing, although he cannot figure it out. In his dream, he has his bag and morning paper, so what could possibly be missing? His shadow gently comes forward and takes him back to his bed.

                                                ‘There, old chap! I’ll do the counting. Come along back to bed.

Obviously, Mr. Banks is unconscious of his soul searching. Sadly, he is hopelessly trapped in the rat race of his existence, and his role as the provider of his large family. There is no revelation for him on this Halloween night. 

Knowing about P.L. Travers’s spiritual allegiance to Gurdjieff and his teachings, it is easy to make the link between Mr. Banks’s sleepwalking and the functioning, according to Gurdjieff, of the average person. Gurdjieff believed that, for the most part, we are asleep and unconscious of the forces that control our lives. He compared the human being to a machine with three commanding, so to speak, centers: the physical center, the emotional center, and the intellectual center, which act independently from one another. Meaning that Gurdjieff viewed human beings as fractured beings who need to integrate their split off parts.

In interpreting this story, it is tempting to make a parallel between P.L. Travers’s metaphor of the shadow and Jung’s concept of the shadow. In Jungian terms the shadow is the dark part of the human psyche. It contains our unconscious motivations, unfulfilled desires, needs and complexes. Simply put, if completely split off from our consciousness, our shadow gathers up destructive powers which can be harmful both to us and to others.  According to Jung, the only way of becoming mentally and emotionally healthy is by integrating our shadow, by acknowledging its existence and examining its needs.  In this sense, stories about adventures in the underworld can be understood as reminders that we can go into darkness in our lives and emerge on the other side better for it.

However, P.L. Travers’s metaphor of the shadow in this story is one paradoxically full of light. In this story the shadows are aware of the problems and complexes of their owners. However, they are not the embodiment of these forces. The shadows appear to be the repressed inner essence of the characters, their soul, the inner voice of truth. Or why would the Bird Woman’s shadow tell the Banks children that shadows never hurt anybody? “A “shadder” never did anyone harm-at least, not as I know of.”

P.L. Travers’s allegorical tale teaches an important lesson.  Blindly following social rules and norms will never make us happy. Assuming roles imposed from the world outside of us will never allow us to live a life of fulfillment. To experience life fully, we must focus on our inner world, and recognise our true nature, or else, we are setting ourselves up for an unhappy, unfulfilling, small lives. And, now is as good a time as any to bring a little light into the dark corners of our inner worlds.  Will you take on P.L. Travers’s invitation and party with your shadow?  

Happy Halloween to all!

P.L. Travers’s Alternative Interpretation of The Adventures of Pinocchio

Pinocchio

Illustrated by Gioia Fiammenghi

Today P.L. Travers is mostly remembered for her Mary Poppins books and for the clash between her vision of Mary Poppins and the one that Walt Disney had in mind for his film adaptation. Regrettably, the general public is mostly unaware of P.L. Travers’s extensive writings on the subject of myths and fairy tales.

Recently, I had the chance to read her lovely essay The Footfall of a Cat* and I was reminded of P.L. Travers’s fluency in symbolic language and her ability to discern alternative meanings within a single story. The ideas expressed  in The Footfall of a Cat are all interesting and could be the subject of many blogposts, but for the purposes of this particular one, I chose to explore the connection she makes between the theme of the spiritual nature of all craft and The Adventures of Pinocchio, written by Carlo Collodi.

Her comments about Pinocchio’s story are rather brief but, once pointed out, the connection appears evident. This is what I love about P.L. Travers, the originality of her ideas and the assertive ways in which she articulates them.

Unwittingly, seeking only to amuse, Carlo Collodi, the author of Pinocchio, happened upon a theme that he did not clearly understand and one that was older than he knew.

P.L. Travers, The Footfall of a Cat, 1976

She tells us that to see the connection between the theme of the spiritual nature of craft, and the relationship between the craftsman and the material, one must read the story of Pinocchio “on a level other than that on which it is written”.

I have always understood Pinocchio’s story as an allegory of the process of ego-maturation and the relationship between a father and his prodigal son. So, of course, this alternative interpretation tickled my curiosity, and I decided to follow the thread. I reread The Adventures of Pinocchio as the adventures of Geppetto.  And, since in this blog post we will examine the story from Geppetto’s standpoint, the focus here will be on his interaction with Pinocchio at the beginning and ending of the story.

The story begins with old Mr. Cherry busying himself in his carpentry workshop. He is making a new table and he finds, among the material lying around in his workshop, what he believes to be the perfect piece of wood for the leg of his table. But when he approaches it with his axe, the piece of wood begins to talk. It beseeches Mr. Cherry not to strike him too hard. The old man, deaf to the call of the material, gives it a blow anyhow. A cry of pain comes out of the piece of wood and frightens Mr. Cherry out of his wits.  Just as he is composing himself, old Geppetto knocks on the door of the woodshop.

Mr. Cherry in Workshop.jpg

Geppetto has an ambitious idea of making a fine wooden puppet that would dance, fence, and turn somersaults in the air, and with which he wants to travel the world to win his bread and wine.  For that purpose, and because he is extremely poor, he needs to ask Mr. Cherry for a favour. He needs a piece of wood.  

When the talking piece of wood hears about Geppetto’s plan, it enthusiastically approves of the project but, and here is the first sign of the misadventures to come, it addresses Geppetto in a very irreverent manner. It calls him by Geppetto’s despised nickname, Polendina, given to him by the boys in the neighbourhood. And, since Geppetto is short-tempered and does not understand that the voice comes out of the piece of wood, a ferocious fight begins between him and Mr. Cherry. In the end the two old men make amends, and Geppetto leaves the workshop with the mischievous piece of wood.

Geppetto.jpg

Back in his derelict room, Geppetto begins to shape the piece of wood into a puppet. But to his surprise the crafting process does not go smoothly. The piece of wood is acting out. As soon as Geppetto makes the eyes of the puppet, they start staring at him. Then, after he shapes the nose it begins to grow exponentially no matter how much Geppetto tries to shorten it. After the nose, Geppetto forms the mouth only to hear it laugh and poke fun at him. Then, immediately after Pinocchio’s hands are carved out, Geppetto’s wig is snatched out of his head. At this point of the shaping process, Geppetto is deeply disappointed by his creation. So much, that he blames himself for not knowing better earlier. However, he needs to finish what he has started. 

Pinocchio kicks Geppetto.jpg

Right after the puppet gains control of its newly carved legs, Geppetto receives a kick on the nose. The troubles officially begin. Pinocchio runs out in the street where a policeman catches him by his long nose just as Pinocchio tries to slide between his legs. Geppetto is angry and talks about punishment but then he finds himself arrested for mistreating Pinocchio, and sent to jail for the night. Pinocchio, cold and hungry, falls asleep with his feet on the brazier of  burning coal in Geppetto’s room.  The next day, when he wakes up, he finds out that he no longer has legs. However, his distress does not last long. Geppetto returns back home and repairs Pinocchio’s legs.  

Pinocchio caught by the policeman.jpg

Pinocchio wanting to show his gratitude decides that he wants to go to school. The trip around the world is postponed, and Geppetto sells his coat in order to buy Pinocchio a primer. Of course, Pinocchio never makes it to the classroom.  On his way to school he hears music, and he is compelled to go to The Great Puppet Show. From that point on in the story, propelled by a series of bad decisions, Pinocchio goes on a long journey away form home.  A little later in the story, we encounter Geppetto from afar. We find him in a small boat struggling against the waves of a stormy ocean, and then, we hear no more until the very end of the story. All we know is that Geppetto too has embarked on a journey of his own.

Both Geppetto’s and Pinocchio’s journeys unfold separately, but they both end up at the same place, in the belly of a giant dogfish. The story line is clear, both characters have lost their way in life.  And both of them experience a descent into the dark night of the soul. It is their unexpected reunion and the love they have for each other that saves them from annihilation. 

Pinocchio escape.jpg

The giant dogfish is sound asleep with its mouth ajar, and Pinocchio seizes the opportunity. With his father on his back he jumps out into the ocean and swims to the shore. Though, the journey back to safety requires an extreme effort on Pinocchio’s part. At the end, he is rewarded for his bravery by the blue-haired fairy, and transformed into a real boy.

Pinocchio transformation.jpg

P.L. Travers understood that talent and skill, although important components of the creative process, are not sufficient. Real craft, she tells us, calls for something more, something mysterious. To manifest an idea from the realm of the invisible into our physical world one needs not only to have an idea, the right material and the skill to execute, but one also needs to listen to what the material has to say.

P.L. Travers understood the role of the craftsman as one who humbly acts as a bridge between the immaterial world of ideas and their physical embodiment in our world. The real craftsman puts his skills at the service of the creative process.

Evidently, from what the story tells us, Geppetto does not have a clear understanding of his role as a craftsman. He may be channeling an idea and he may be shaping skillfully the right material, but he is not possessed by the right attitude, and that is because he is not consciously aware of the deeper meaning and purpose of his idea.

Geppetto does not consciously answer the call of the material and this is the interesting nuance in this story; the craftsman who possesses the necessary skill does not hear the call of the material. He is handed the right material by someone who hears the call but is not up for the task.

The story of Pinocchio is a warning. There is an element of surprise in the creative process. Each creation has a life energy of its own, and if misunderstood, it can disrupt the craftsman’s life. The disturbances that Pinocchio causes in Geppetto’s life are all necessary for Geppetto to understand that what his soul really wants is not a puppet to help him make a living. Geppetto is lonely and longing for a family of his own. This is why he is visited by the idea of a lively puppet. The existence of this unconscious need is hinted at the beginning of the story, when Geppetto chooses Pinocchio’s name. He names him after a loving family of poor but happy Pinocchios. In this light, the transformation of Pinocchio into a real boy at the end of the story can also be seen as Geppetto’s reward for his courage to face the darkness of his unconscious. 

And this is what I believe P.L. Travers meant when she wrote:

Geppetto answers the call of the wood and presently there is a puppet. And ultimately, through his own suffering and self-searching – he too goes on a night journey in the belly of the dogfish – his puppet becomes a real boy.

P.L. Travers, The Footfall of a Cat, 1976

I think she meant that Geppetto unconsciously answers the call of the wood. Or else, why would he go on a self-searching journey? I wish I could discuss this further with P.L. Travers.  People really did not ask her the right questions. Of course, she was not known for giving straight answers either. Those who knew her sometimes compare her to Mary Poppins, who never ever gives any explanations. But this is not completely accurate. P.L. Travers did not give lengthy explanations but she gave hints. And this can be enough  for those who want to find the answers.

__________

* published in 1976 in The Way of Working, The Spiritual Dimension of Craft

 

Two Pairs of Shoes by P.L. Travers (Part II)

Sandals of Ayaz 1

Illustrated by Leo and  Diane Dillon

The Sandals of Ayaz is a retelling of a Middle Eastern tale by P.L. Travers. As mentioned in my previous post, this story and the story Abu Kassem’s Slippers first appeared in Parabola (a magazine P.L. Travers helped co-found in 1976) under the theme of initiation, and then, in 1980 in the illustrated book Two Pairs of Shoes.

P.L. Travers saw a connection between these two stories, but she only gave a hint of it and left it to the readers to find the meaning by themselves. A firm believer in the virtues of teaching and learning by indirection she wrote:

These two stories have been lying around for hundreds of years in the minds of men, yet no one has thought of linking them and showing how each reflects the other. Fate left it for me to do. What a piece of luck.

P.L. Travers, 1980

Before I tell you what possible link P.L. Travers might have made between these two stories, let me tell you the story of The Sandals of Ayaz.

Ayaz was King Mahmoud’s Treasurer and most trusted man. One day the King decided to test the honesty and loyalty of his courtiers. He offered to each one in turn a beautiful pearl and then ordered them to break it. To the King’s surprise, the courtiers could not bring themselves to destroy such a beautiful and valuable object. Only Ayaz, without any hesitation, obeyed the King’s order and crushed the pearl between two stones.  The King praised Ayaz’s loyalty and the courtiers frightened for their lives, as they realized they were put on trial, began to lament themselves.

Sandals of Ayaz 3

Illustration by Leo and Diane Dillon

The King’s anger was mighty.  He signaled the Executioner and if Ayaz did not intervene on the courtiers’ behalf their lives would have been lost. But, instead of gratitude the hearts of the greedy courtiers were filled with jealousy. And as jealous people often do, they scrutinized Ayaz’s every action in the hope of finding something to destroy him with.

Thus, they noticed how every day Ayaz spent time alone in his room, and how each time he came out of it, he locked the door and put the key in his pocket. To add to this suspicious behaviour, no one was ever invited in Ayaz’s room.  

The courtiers suspected Ayaz of stealing from the King’s treasure and without wasting much time they sowed a seed of doubt in the King’s mind. But, after a thorough search of Ayaz’s room the courtiers could not find any stolen treasure. What they found instead were the remnants of Ayaz’s humble beginnings as a shepherd boy: a “dusty sheepskin jacket and a pair of tattered sandals”. The evil men had to admit to the King that their suspicions were unfounded.

Sandals of Asyaz 4

Illustration by Leo and Diane Dillon

The King wanted to know why Ayaz was so attached to his sandals and sheepskin jacket. Ayaz explained. These objects helped him remember where he came from. He knew that the prosperity he was enjoying was a gift from the King, and he kept asking himself the question: “Without this gift, what am I?” The humble sheepskin jacket and tattered sandals helped Ayaz to know himself. And, as all spiritual teachings attempt to impart, he who knows himself knows God.

By reminding himself his lowly birth Ayaz avoided the trap of attaching himself to his new identity as the King’s treasurer clad in costly robes. Although he enjoyed his new position, he did not identify with it and he did not fear losing it.  All identities, teaches us the story of Ayaz, are but costumes we change in the course of our lives. And if we are to flow with life and keep growing, we better not attach to our costumes but remember our true essence.

Sandals of Ayaz 5

Illustration by Leo and Diane Dillon

P.L. Travers was a follower of the spiritual teachings of Gurdjieff and his influence on her writings can be traced even in her retelling of this Middle Eastern tale. Gurdjieff taught his pupils self-awareness. He aimed to wake them up from their state of self-ignorance which enslaved them to their passions and impulses. He talked about self-remembrance and self-observation. Without knowledge of oneself, Gurdjieff believed man to be living his life in an automatic machinelike manner, a creature under hypnotic sleep.

I believe that P.L. Travers’s study of Gurdjieff’s teachings helped her to make the connection between these two stories which mirror Gurdjieff’s metaphor of the “two ends of the same stick”: one story illustrating a successful pattern of embracing a new identity without unnecessary attachment, and the other showing us a pattern of a failed initiation.

Abu Kassem was someone who was unsatisfied with  his condition in life and who did all that he could do to improve it. But his shrewdness and cunning overpowered him and caused his ruin. Ayaz was luckier than Abu Kassem. He lived without any ambition and was lifted up to a prosperous position by virtue of his good reputation.  The differences in the personality traits of these two fictional characters make me wonder. Does ambition always lead to a downfall and does integrity always leads to success? In a spiritual sense I do believe that to be the case, but since we  also live on the physical plane, we must find the balance between the inner and outer worlds.

Gurdjieff himself was a self-made man and one that did his best to direct his life in the desired by him direction. Sometimes that worked and sometimes it did not. Moreover, Gurdjieff was cunning, and he defined his teaching as “the way of the sly man”. And if we are to apply his philosophy of cunning and canning (meaning ability) the right way of being in the world  would be a combination of Abu Kassem’s cunning and frugality, and Ayaz’s purity of heart. A fine balance between two seemingly opposite positions: personal interest versus humility and service to others; between outer success and inner growth. Now, how is one to achieve this balance?

Who Are You Monsieur Gurdjieff cover page

According to P.L. Travers, and echoing Gurdjieff, we can achieve it through sustained attention. However, sustained simultaneous focus on our outer world and our inner world is an extremely difficult task.  P.L. Travers suggests that the first step towards the attainment of this sort of all-encompassing attention is our intention to be attentive.

Many are those down the ages who, sorrowing for their own lack of watchfulness, have too late learned what it means to pay attention, that it is not something that simply happens, nor to be had by chance…

 If man has within him the potential, if only as a germ, to share in the consciousness of the universe, even to glimpse at moments certain aspects of the Unknown (behold, I show you a mystery!) above all, to learn to know himself, can this be done without attention?

 And what of that word “pay”? First of all the whole person, all the functions closely cohering—thought, feeling, bodily sensation—must be ready, vigilant, alert; and to preface this ingathering there must be present in us—one can sum it up in one single word: attention’s closest kin, intention.

P.L. Travers, Sunflower, Parabola Magazine, Vol. XV, No. 2, Summer 1990

Two Pairs of Shoes by P.L. Travers (Part I)

Abu Kassem Slippers 1

Illustrations by Leo and Diane Dillon

P.L. Travers is mostly known for her Mary Poppins books but her literary contributions unfold beyond the fantastical world of her magical nanny. She was an explorer of a variety of spiritual esoteric traditions, more interested in experiencing life and extracting the truth as one extracts gold from the earth, than following the prescribed dogmas of organised religions. She weaved her spiritual notions into a spiderlike web of stories and musings about the mysteries of life.

In her seventies P.L. Travers was very much involved within the Gurdjieff Society and the study of the mystical branch of Islam, Sufism. Here is what is written in the Gurdjieff Review  about P.L. Travers:

It was her special skill in connecting or linking the pearls of spiritual tradition which was undoubtedly her greatest and perhaps her unique contribution to the activities of the [Gurdjieff] Society. She helped to set up and index the Society’s library to include not only all Gurdjieff’s books and those of Ouspensky, Nicoll, Walker and others pertaining to Gurdjieff’s teaching, but also a comprehensive collection of major texts and works on Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Neo-Platonism, Gnosticism and so on.

While studying Sufism in the early 1970s, Pamela and her study group presented a dramatized reading of The Conference of the Birds, but only when she was satisfied that enough years had been given to a shared study of The Koran, the Hadith, the historical life of the Prophet, as well as the works of al-Ghazzali, Rumi, ibn Arabi, al-Hallaj, the question of al-Khidr (the Islamic green man) and dul-Quarnein (Alexander the Great).

Thus, P.L. Travers familiar with Middle Eastern tales, wrote her own retellings of two ancient stories for the first issue of Parabola in 1976 (a magazine she helped co-found) on the theme of Initiation: Abu Kassem’s Slippers and The Sandals of Ayaz. These two stories reappeared in 1980 as an illustrated story book under the title “Two Pairs of Shoes” and then in 1990 in the compilation of her essays “What the Bee Knows”.

In this post I want to entertain you with P.L. Travers’s retelling of Abu Kassem’s Slippers*.

Abu Kassem Slippers 2

Abu Kassem is a prosperous merchant who shamelessly displays his miserliness by walking around town with a pair of shabby slippers. One day, as he roams the bazaar for bargains, he successfully acquires a few beautiful crystal bottles and some attar of roses for a fraction of their value. On his way home he decides to celebrate his good fortune by stopping at the public hot baths for a soak. There he meets an acquaintance who tries to convince him to get new slippers. But, Abu Kassem disregards his friend’s suggestion because he lives by the adage: Want not, waste not.

When Abu Kassem comes out of the bath, he finds a pair of beautiful slippers instead of his own tattered ones, and without a shadow of a doubt, he assumes that it must have been his friend who has decided to gift him with these glittering new slippers. So, he happily puts them on and goes back home. Unfortunately for Abu Kassem, from the moment his feet enter the foreign slippers his life is turned upside down.

Abu Kassem Slippers 3

The new slippers were not a gift from his friend, but the slippers of the Cadi (judge) of Baghdad, who of course was not happy to find his slippers missing. Abu Kassem is found by the Cadi’s servants and is fined an enormous sum of money for the offense caused to the Cadi. Abu Kassem is outraged and tries to get rid of his slippers but at every attempt he makes to destroy them,  the wretched slippers come back and cause some sort of disaster for which Abu Kassem is blamed and must pay an onerous fine. At last, Abu Kassem begs the Cadi to free him from his slippers for they have completely ruined his fortune.

Abu Kassem Slippers 7

Why did P.L. Travers choose this story for the theme of initiation?

Because the story of Abu Kassem is one of failed initiation. Deep inside Abu Kassem resists to change his identity of a poor man for a new identity of a prosperous one and thus, fails to reach the next stage of his life. Abu Kassem’s survival fear of not having enough is a self-fulfilled prophecy that takes him right back to the starting point of his journey.

Abu Kassem Slippers 8

His frugality and shrewdness, once helpful to him, have turned into vices holding a powerful grip on his psyche, forbidding him to embrace his new identity. The inner world of Abu Kassem did not reflect the outer conditions of his life, and that conflict had to be resolved either by a conscious choice on his part, or by fate.  

The process of recognising that his values are no longer serving him, and that he is controlled by fear, is a long one for Abu Kassem.  When he tries to get rid of the slippers they just keep coming back. Even the elements of water, earth, fire, and air could not destroy them. Abu Kassem had to realize that the only way to throw them out of his life is through his personal transformation. And the first step of that transformation requires him to consciously integrate his survival fear of not having enough. It is this fear that compels him to hoard material goods and to alienate himself from others.

Abu Kassem Slipeprs 6

Abu Kassem’s story shows us the pattern of resistance and the consequences that ensue when we choose to cling to an out-worn identity. Life is everchanging, and we as part of life are everchanging too, even when we desperately cling to identities that no longer serve us. We have a choice, the story tells us, we either shed our old self to allow the new one to emerge, or like Abu Kassem, we arrest our inner growth and regress in life. There is no middle ground.

Change will occur anyhow, and we must pay attention to the warnings life sends us if we are to avoid disaster. Abu Kassem is advised by his friend that it is time to change his slippers. But he refuses to listen. How familiar is this to you? How many times have you refused to listen to life’s signs and warnings?  Can we all learn from the mistakes of Abu Kassem just in time before our own out-worn slippers teach us the hard way? Surely, P.L. Travers believed that stories could teach us the ways of life. And, maybe it is time to believe her and stop looking at myths, folk tales and fairy tales as means for entertainment.

* retold from the Thamarat Ul-Awark (Fruit of Leaves) of Ibn Hijjat Al-Hamawi

Some Thoughts on the Descriptions in the Mary Poppins Books

The Complete Mary Poppins cover page

The world of Mary Poppins is a whimsical place where inanimate objects come alive and animals talk, where stars come down to Earth and children go up in the sky, or deep down in the ocean. A world where Kings climb on rainbows and cows dance to exhaustion, where people laugh so hard that they fly up to the ceiling, and where fictional characters come out of the pages of their books. Everything in this magical universe imagined by P.L. Travers is alive and endowed with consciousness. It is so vivid and vibrant with life that it begs a question. How did she conceive of it?

Of course, P.L. Travers’s spiritual inclinations play an important part in her creative process but there is something else. There is something particular in these stories that resonates with young children (and with our inner child, if we let it). What is it?

P.L. Travers did not keep it a secret. She said that she remembered herself as a child.

To be aware of having been a child – and who I am but the child I was, wounded scared and dirtied but sill essentially that child, for essence cannot change – to be aware of and in touch with this fact is to have the whole long body of one’s life at one’s disposal, complete and unfragmented.

I Never Wrote for Children, P.L. Travers 1978

P.L. Travers remembered how she perceived the world as a young child and how she explained it to herself. In some of her essays written in her old age and compiled in What The Bee Knows, she shared some childhood recollections and revealed, at least in part, young Helen Lyndon Goff (P.L. Travers’s real name); a deeply inquisitive child with great observational skills and adventurous temperament. 

What the bee knows Mary Poppins

As young children we filter the world through our feelings and sensations and then we begin to apprehend it, from what psychologist term, an animistic point of view.  For young children anything that moves is alive and thus capable of thoughts and emotions.  

The first psychologist to come up with the concept of animism as a developmental stage in children’s cognitive development was Jean Piaget. He observed how his own children perceived the world and he remarked that they often attributed human emotions to inanimate objects.  In a book I recently read, On Looking, the author Alexandra Horowitz gives examples of Piaget’s observations. She wrote that one of his daughters told him that “the sky is a man who goes up in a balloon and makes the clouds and everything and that another explained to him that the “sun goes to bed because it is sad” and that boats pulled out of the water are “asleep”.

Piaget believed young children were making an “animistic mistake”. Today psychologists believe that animism is an expression of the young child’s imagination that shows us the child’s understanding of the word. Simply, the child is making analogies with what she has learned so far about the world in order  to elucidate a new experience.

P.L. Travers kept her childlike ability to perceive the surrounding world in animistic terms and that allowed her to create a world relatable for young children. This ability is displayed in some of the descriptions in the Mary Poppins stories. Here are a few examples. 

All the afternoon the house was very quiet and still, as though it were thinking its own thoughts, or dreaming perhaps.

John and Barbara’s Story, Mary Poppins (1934), P.L. Travers

 

Tick-Tack! Tik-tock!

The pendulum of the Nursery clock swung backwards and forwards like an old lady nodding her head.

Tick -Tack! Tik-tock!

Then the clock stopped ticking and began to whir and growl, quietly at first and then more loudly, as though it were in pain. And as it whirred it shook so violently that the whole mantelpiece trembled.

Bad Wednesday, Mary Poppins Comes Back (1935), P.L. Travers

The summer day was hot and still. The cherry trees that bordered the Lane could feel their cherries ripening – the green slowly turning to yellow and the yellow blushing red.

The houses dozed in the dusty gardens with their shutters over their eyes. “Do no disturb us!” they seemed to say.

Every Goose a Swan, Mary Poppins Comes Back (1935), P.L. Travers

It was a Round-the-Mulberry-Bush sort of morning, cold and rather frosty. The pale grey daylight crept through the Cherry Trees and lapped like water over the houses. A little wind moaned through the gardens. It darted across the Park with a whistle and whined along the lane.

“Brrrrrr!” said Number Seventeen. “What can be that wretched wind be doing -howling and fretting around like a ghost! Hi! Stop that, can’t you? You are making me shiver!”

The Other Door, Mary Poppins Opens the Door (1943), P.L. Travers

The Complete Mary Poppins back cover

The Mary Poppins stories regaled me a great deal as a child. I enjoyed the fantastical aspects precisely because I knew that things did not work quite the way they did in fairy tales. Although, many times I wish they did. Still, I knew, what happened in books remained in books. There was no confusion between the fictional reality and my own reality.

Today, as an adult reader of these stories, I have a quite different understanding. It turns out that the fictional reality of Mary Poppins is connected to our nonfictional everyday reality. What fascinates me now are the hidden meanings of the Mary Poppins adventures and the workings of P.L. Travers’s imagination.

But I still enjoy the descriptions in the books for the same reason I liked them as a child. I like how P.L. Travers creates an atmosphere of aliveness. Anything in the Mary Poppins world has the potential for interaction with its inhabitants. Anything can become a portal to another dimension of time and space.

And, all this thinking about the aliveness of the Mary Poppins world made me think about our own “ordinary” world and how it may appear dull in comparison. Yet, is it really less alive and beguiling than the magical one imagined by P.L. Travers? How much of the aliveness around us do we dismiss each day?

Just because animals and vegetation do not use human language it does not mean they do not communicate. And even if we know that inanimate objects do not have feelings we can still stop and notice what feelings they invoke in us. Could it be that by being oblivious to the aliveness of our surrounding world we become oblivious to our own aliveness?  

It is unfortunate that so many of us lose the ability to wonder as life experience accumulates and familiarity sets in. The child that once was in a state of discovery ends up shut off from the mystery of the world. I recently came upon this quote from Einstein:

 The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all true science. Whoever does not know it, who can no longer pause to wonder or stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead.

Albert Einstein

The child you once were will show you marvels hidden in plain sight.

 

Mary Poppins, Rainbows, the Psychology of Hope and the Virtues of Joy and Serenity

Robertson Ay Story Mary Poppins

Drawings of rainbows are popping up, like mushrooms overnight, on many windows in my neighbourhood. As I count them on my walks, I realize that the rainbow has become our modern-day symbol of hope. Our rational minds know that the ultimate salvation from the COVID 19 pandemic will come from a scientific breakthrough in the form of a vaccine, but in the meantime, while science is wanting, our hearts need hope.

According to findings in the field of positive psychology, the emotion of hope is a result of our hopeful thinking. The hopeful thought induces feelings of hopefulness. Then, our hopeful thoughts and emotions transform into a belief in the possibility for our wishes to become a reality. Which in turn makes us resilient in the face of adversity and prompts us to action towards the desired result. But, in the flood of bad news and scary images how are we to think hopeful thoughts? The fear can be so overwhelming that our brains are paralysed like a deer caught in the headlights of an upcoming car.  And if we cannot think hopeful thoughts then there is no hope to feel hopeful. Or is there?

Actually, there is a way of simultaneously nudging our thoughts and emotions into the desired direction. Symbols are the tools used for that purpose since the dawn of humanity.

The rainbow is the perfect illustration of the wordless, yet effective, communication of a symbol. Its message is clear. Be patient and resilient because just like a bad storm this pandemic too shall pass, and something beautiful will come out of it.

A rainbow path appears at the end of Robertson Ay’s Story in Mary Poppins Comes Back (the book, not the movie!) and although its meaning is not one of hope, I believe that the story is interesting to examine in the context of the current pandemic.

Robertson Ay Story

Mary Poppins takes the Banks children to the park where they encounter a peculiar character.

Along the path at the edge of the Lake came a tall, slim figure, curiously dressed. He wore stockings of red striped with yellow, a red and yellow tunic scalloped at the edges and on his head was a large brimmed red and yellow hat with a high peaked crown.

He was whistling loudly and as he drew nearer they saw that the peaks of his tunic, and the brim of his hat, were edged with little bells that jingled musically as he moved. He was the strangest person they had ever seen and yet-there was something about him that seemed familiar.

Robertson Ay’s Story, Mary Poppins Comes Back, P.L. Travers

This is the Dirty Rascal from the Nursery Rhyme and Robertson Ay from the Banks’ household. The children are intrigued and want to know more about him. So, Mary Poppins tells them the story of the Dirty Rascal’s visit to the King of the Castle. Here it goes.

The King of the Castle has everything in the world except wisdom, and because of his lack of wisdom he is disrespected not only by his people but also by the Queen. Eventually, the Queen and the Lord High Chancellor take over rule of the kingdom. In the meantime, professors are summoned to the Castle to teach the King some wisdom. As is the custom in fairy tales, a generous price is allotted to the professor who successfully completes the task. Of course, those who fail will see their heads cut off, and in this particular story, spiked on the Castle gates. Many professors try to teach the King some wisdom but to no avail. They all lose their heads while the King sinks deeper into his depression.  

One day the Dirty Rascal shows up at the castle. He becomes the King’s Fool and only friend. Together they set on fire all of the King’s books and spend their time singing and dancing joyfully around the castle.  Obviously, the Queen and the Lord High Chancellor do not approve of the King’s behaviour, which in their minds only confirms the King’s poor judgement.

When the Queen and the Lord High Chancellor learn that the Chief Professor will be visiting the Kingdom, in one last desperate attempt to reason the King, they invite the Chief Professor to the Castle.

A witty discussion takes place between the King of the Castle and the Chief Professor.

“How deep is the sea?”

“Deep enough to sail a ship on.”

Again, the Chief Professor stared and his long beard quivered. He was smiling.

“What is the difference, Majesty, between a star and a stone, a bird and a man?”

“No difference at all, Professor. The stone is a star that shines not. A man is a bird without wings.”

The Chief Professor drew nearer and gazed wonderingly at the King.

“What is the best thing in the world?” he asked quietly.

“Doing nothing”, answered the King waving his bent sceptre.

Robertson Ay’s Story, Mary Poppins Comes Back, P.L. Travers

At the end, the Chief Professor tells the Queen and the Lord High Chancellor that the King does not need his services and that the price goes rightfully to the Fool, who after all, has taught the King how to be wise.

At that moment, a rainbow path appears down from the sky and the King of the Castle follows the Dirty Rascal on it, throwing down his crown and sceptre. The King leaves behind his old identity and all that no longer serves his higher good. Power, prestige and riches are no longer important to him. Nor is the approval of the Queen and the Lord High Chancellor.

Midway through the climb the King decides to sit and rest for a while.

 “You won’t be lonely?” the Fool enquired.

“Oh, dear, no. Why should I be? It is very quiet and pleasant up here. And I can always think – or better still, go to sleep.”

Robertson Ay’s Story, Mary Poppins Comes Back, P.L. Travers

Rainbow me-time.jpg

Whimsical as Robertson Ay’s Story may appear at first, and amusing as it may be to young children, it is in truth an allegory meant for the adult readers.

P.L. Travers tells us, in a nutshell, that books alone cannot bestow wisdom. Accumulation of factual knowledge is not enough to help us live the good life. For that, we must consider the virtues of playfulness and the benefits of spending some alone time. Both, attributes that are currently undervalued in our modern-day societies.  In truth, we can aspire to gain wisdom only if we practice mindful alternation between periods of activity (while adopting a playful attitude) and rest and self-reflection.

P.L. Travers wrote this story in 1935 when she was in her mid-thirties, and today positive psychology confirms that the emotion of joy (playfulness) gives us momentum and optimism, it makes us eager about the world and open to new experiences and opportunities.  Joy allows us psychological flexibility and gives us courage to explore new avenues. By having a playful attitude in life, we are more willing to let go of old preconceived ways of thinking. To be playful is to be fully alive, alert, curious and available for an authentic connection with others.

At the same time, we also need rest to process our experiences internally. We are creatures dwelling simultaneously in two different worlds. That is not, as we all know, an easy task. Often times there is a great gab between our inner world and the outer, visible, collective world. Wisdom is the bridge that can help us unite and harmonise our experiences of these two worlds.    

Maybe the disruption of our habitual ways of living caused by COVID-19, will bring some positive changes. Maybe we will come out of this experience with a better understanding of what really matters to us.  Maybe this forced quiet time at home will allow us to see that there is no need to rush life, it is already short as it is. Maybe we will admit that we need to make more space in our schedules for those we love and for the things that feed our souls even if that does not translate into dollars. Maybe we will come to see that business is a distraction, the greatest waste of our precious time on this planet. Maybe we will truly understand that the pursuit of ever-increasing profit is alienating us from each other and from our planet.

And, maybe it sounds absurd and insensitive to talk about play and rest in a time of great suffering, but for those of us who are privileged with health and sheltered away from the front lines, let us use this time to connect with ourselves and hear the music to which we want to dance. Each individual choice has an effect on the collective.  Because this too shall pass. Then what?

I am willing to be hopeful.

 

Celebrating Easter with Mary Poppins

Mary Poppins Easter Eggs

As I write this post all of humanity is under lockdown. Our frantic, busy, profit driven societies are stopped in their tracks. Survival fears are blowing around the globe and no one really knows how things will play out in the end. Of course, we all hope for the best but fear the worst. Facing the unknown is always scary. But we must, in spite of all this madness, be patient and courageous. And above all, we must find ways to keep our spirits high.

As usual, I find comfort in Mary Poppins, P.L. Travers and nature.  This blog is my grounding rod amid the storm of bad news. Daily walks outside remind me that despite our ongoing struggles the regenerative powers of nature are in motion, trees are budding, birds are singing, and the squirrels are jumping from tree to tree. Spring is here and Easter is just around the corner. 

I know, it feels absurd right now to celebrate rebirth in the midst of a global pandemic. Yet, it is what we need to celebrate. We need to remind ousrselves that life is cyclical and that we are part of the larger living fabric on this planet. We are all guilty of focusing on the tiny picture of our individual lives. This is human and understandable. But civilizations have come and gone before us. What looks unprecedented today has happened, in some form or antoher, before. This too shall pass, and I want to believe that there is a seed in this crisis for a positive change. 

I was not raised religiously and although we do celebrate Easter in my family, it is mostly a celebration of the coming of spring, and an occasion to get creative with Easter decorations. This year because of the lockdown I am celebrating both Easter and the coming of spring with Mary Poppins.

How? Simple, I drew some characters from the Mary Poppins stories on white plastic eggs and I baked an Easter Cake. But not just any Easter cake. I baked Mary Poppins’s Easter Cake from the cookery book Mary Poppins in the Kitchen.   Although, Mary Poppins may not be impressed by the result. My baking talents being limited, the outcome was not extraordinary. Regardless, the process was enjoyable.

Mary Poppins Easter Cake 2

Mary Poppins Easter Cake

Mary Poppins Easter Egg

Balloon Lady Easter Egg

St. Paul's cathedral Easter Egg

Once the eggs and cake were done, I reread Nellie Rubina, a whimsical story about the coming of spring from the second Mary Poppins book, Mary Poppins Comes Back published in 1935.

 Mary Poppins Comes Back cover page

Outside it is a snowy winter. Jane and Michael are being stuck for a week inside the house.  Jane can’t take it anymore, while Michael doesn’t seem to mind it that much. He is busy arranging the animals of his Noah’s Ark.

‘I wonder why they never have any relatives’ he remarked presently.

‘Who don’t?” said Jane crossly, for she didn’t want to be disturbed.

‘The Noahs, I’ve never seen them with a daughter or a son or a uncle or an aunt. Why?’

‘Because they don’t have them,’ said Jane. “Do be quiet.”

And the fight begins.  Of course, the discord does not last long. Mary Poppins walks abruptly in the room and interrupts the altercation. Now the children are instructed to get ready because they are going out.  

In the park Jane and Michael start a snowball fight and a misguided snowball falls right on Mary Poppins’s nose. In a typical angry outburst, she announces that this is the end of the snowballs. Then she throws a tiny snowball forward a few times and follows it until she  and the children arrive in front of a strange building. There is no door, only windows and a deck. The building, writes P.L. Travers, looks more like an ark than  a house.   

Noah's ark

Mary Poppins leads the way along the deck to a notice that reads “KNOCK THREE AND A HALF TIMES’’.   

Immediately, as though it had been listening and waiting for the signal, the roof of the building flew back on its hinges.

Once inside the ark Jane and Michael meet Nellie Rubina and Uncle Dodger, two strange characters made out of wood and propelled by the motion of round flat disks at the very bottom of their bodies. Reading the description of Nellie Rubina, I immediately thought of Russian nesting dolls.

From her face and size she seemed to be quite young but somehow she looked though she were made, not of flesh, but of wood. Her stiff, shiny black hair seemed to have been carved on her head and then painted. Her eyes were like small black holes drilled in her face and, surely that bright pink patch on her shiny cheek was paint!

Russian Doll Nellie Rubina

It is actually possible that P.L. Travers based her two magical characters on these little Russian wooden dolls. They were very much in vogue in Russia at the beginning of the twentieth century and P.L. Travers must have seen them while in Russia on her Moscow Excursion in 1933.

Inside, the ark is filled with tree branches, flowers, butterflies, clouds, and little lambs all made out of wood. But the purpose of these objects remains mysterious to Jane and Michael. As the story unfolds the children learn that Nellie Rubina is the Eldest Daughter and a Direct Descendant of Noah while Uncle Dodger, older and less cheerful, is only an Uncle-by-Marriage. On Mary Poppins’s request Nellie Rubina offers her guests some Conversations from a jar (sweets with inscribed messages). The children are amused.  

Jane pulls out a star shaped sweet that reads “You’re my Fancy”. Michael’s is a pink, shell shaped sweet saying: “I love you. Do you love me?”.  But the most mysterious one is of course the message addressed to Mary Poppins: “Ten o’clock tonight.”  The children realize that something is about to happen and that they must stay awake to witness it.

What happens at ten o’clock is exactly what Mary Poppins announced earlier in the park. It is the end of Jane and Michael’s snowballs. The children witness a magical ritual as Mary Poppins, Nellie Rubina and Uncle Dodger summon Spring.

Nellie Rubina

All over the park went the three, jumping up to the tallest branch as if they were on springs. And in no time every tree in the park was decked out with wooden spays of leaves and neatly finished off with dabs of paint from Uncle Dodger’s brush.

And now Nellie Rubina and Mary Poppins took up in their arms the flat white wooden clouds. With these they soared higher than ever before, shooting right above the trees and pressing the clouds carefully against the sky.

The next morning Mr. Banks exclaims “The Spring is here!”

P.L. Travers was spiritually inclined and sensitive to the invisible. She was a true master of the language of metaphor, allegory and symbolism.  It is by these indirect means that she communicated in her writings her knowledge, beliefs and questions about life. And, this is why I believe that the Mary Poppins stories, just like scripture, myths and fairy tales are primarily designed to teach. Therefore, we should not think of the Mary Poppins stories as fantasy meant to amuse children, although they certainly serve that purpose too.

The magical characters in Nellie Rubina are symbols of the invisible life forces at work during the seasonal transitions. The children in the story are learning about the natural cycles of life. But there is something more in there, something for the adult reader. It is interesting to note  that P.L. Travers chose to incorporate the concept of seasonal rebirth into the biblical story of Noahs’s Ark, an allegory about another cycle of death and regeneration. This is  a perfect example of P.L. Travers’s indirection. She was always hinting and never explaining.  

I wonder how P.L. Travers would’ve seen the current pandemic situation. Maybe she would’ve made the same connection to Noah’s story. Maybe she woud’ve told us about the esoteric interpretation of the story and about Noah being a symbol of the human soul, and the need for all of us to develop our souls. Maybe she would’ve told us that we are living out a mythical story. Only, we are finding out that real myth is not meant to entertain and that it does not feel pleasant. Maybe she would’ve told us that there is a seed in this crisis for the birth of a different and better way of living.  

And, maybe, just maybe this pandemic will be the death of greed and consumerism and the birth of authentic connection and collaboration.  Only time will tell,  but we must remember  that we have a part to play in the collective actions of our societies. 

May better days come soon! Stay safe!