Tarot and Mary Poppins   

I read Mary Poppins and Mary Poppins Comes Back by P.L. Travers as a child in the early 1980’s in Bulgaria, but when I reread the stories in their original versions a few years ago, and discovered the other books in the series, I was amazed by P.L.Travers’s imagination. As a child I enjoyed the magic in the stories, but I did not give much thought to the author, although the name was on the cover of my book.  

As an adult, however, I wondered where P.L. Travers got her whimsical ideas from. When asked about the origin of her magical nanny, she never gave a straight answer. This may be partially explained by her desire to keep people away from her private life. Afterall, she did say in one interview that Mary Poppins was the story of her life, and that she had taken every precaution to cover her tracks. But then in other interviews she said that no one really knows where ideas come from. Her statement about the mystery of the creative writing process is echoed by other contemporary writers such as Philip Pullman and Elizabeth Guilbert. 

In Creativity, the Psychology of Discovery and Invention, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi brings light to some interesting facts about our human creativity, such as the existence of certain commonalities in the personality traits of creatives.  

Csikszentmihalyi explains in his book that the creative process does not occur in a vacuum. Most of the time we build on old ideas by combining and reorganizing them in new ways, or by applying ideas from one domain to another. However, the mystery of creation remains. How exactly we combine ideas and morph them into new ones in our minds and why they take the forms they take is still a conundrum. 

All P.L. Travers’s writings are sprinkled with esoteric, mythological and fairy tales’ references, as these were her literary and spiritual pursuits. I love dwelling in the world of Mary Poppins and P.L. Travers, and I find the process of uncovering these references in the stories most enjoyable. Yet, I am fully aware that I can only uncover some of the components of the stories and link them to her personal beliefs and interests, without ever being able to explain how she incorporated and organized them into the whimsical Mary Poppins adventures.  

I believe that she herself was not entirely conscious of the creative process. Her writing was, at its core, unconscious writing. Her ideas sprang from deep within and then she polished the form. This is at least how I understand her statement about writing Mary Poppins because she was there to be written about. Besides, the adventures in the books all have a dreamlike quality to them, and I doubt this can be achieved to such an extraordinary level of artistry only by rational thinking. 

 This blog post is about an esoteric reference in Robertson Ay’s Story, a story from Mary Poppins Comes Back, the second book in the series published in 1935. This esoteric reference is the Tarot card of the Fool. I found a few more Tarot references in the Mary Poppins stories but they will be the subject of other blogposts.  

As a young writer P.L. Travers gravitated towards the renowned Irish poet and occultist W.B. Yeats, and her literary mentor, the mystic writer, poet, and painter George W. Russel (AE) who was also one of Yeats’s closest friends. Both men knew Pamela Coleman Smith, the illustrator of the most popular Tarot deck today, the Waite/ Ryder deck which was first published in London in 1909. It is also said that W.B. Yeats was an advisor to Pamela Coleman Smith on the mystic symbolism to be incorporated into Waite’s new deck. 

Pamela Coleman Smith was a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, the secret magical society to which W.B. Yeats also belonged. Between 1903 and 1904 she published, edited, and illustrated the magazine The Green Sheaf which focused on Irish Celtic folklore and mysticism. Both Yeats and AE, who were leading figures of the Celtic Revival, were literary contributors to her magazine. 

W.B. Yeats and AE also called Pamela Coleman Smith “Pixie”; a name first given to her by the Victorian actress Ellen Terry. Then some twenty years later, AE began to call P.L. Travers “Pixie” probably because he noticed certain similarities in their personalities and interests. Both women were orphaned at an early age, both loved fairy tales and magic and were interested in theatre, and both displayed a mischievous streak. 

The two Pixies were thus connected, although I suspect they never met in person because by the time P.L. Travers entered the artistic/occult scene, Pamela Coleman Smith had abandoned it and converted to Roman Catholicism.  

 Because of her connections to W.B. Yeats and AE, and her regular attendance at their literary salons, P.L. Travers was familiar with the archetypes of the Tarot. This is what she said about the Tarot card of the Fool to Jonathan Cott during an interview at her house in Chelsea, London. 

Who is Robertson Ay? What is he paid for? He does nothing but sleep? He turns out to be the Fool. Yes, he does, but I didn’t know he was going to turn that way when he cropped up in my mind. 

Not unnumbered, but Zero, which is all numbers and no numbers. The Fool is omnipresent, serenely passing through the world – as I said in “The Youngest Brother”- here and there are alike to him.” 

The Wisdom of Mary Poppins: Afternoon Tea with P.L. Travers, in Pipers at the Gate of Dawn, The Wisdom of Children’s Literature, Jonathan Cott, 1981 

The Tarot is composed of seventy-eight cards, twenty-two Major Arcana cards and fifty-six Minor Arcana cards. The Minor Arcana cards are divided into four suits, each associated with one of the four elements: fire, water, air, and earth. The suit of Pentacles is associated with the earth, the suit of Cups with water, the suit of Wands with fire and the Suit of Swords with air. 

The twenty-two Major Arcana cards (meaning Big Secrets) are considered to represent cosmic, energetic patterns that manifest in our human world as opportunities or obstacles to our personal growth, and the Minor Arcana cards (Little Secrets) relate to our individual struggles and challenges in our daily lives. All Major Arcana cards are numbered except for the Fool. The number of the Fool is zero, signifying nothingness, the void from which all things proceed, the field of pure potentiality.  

The archetype of the Fool represents pure potential. He lives in the here and now without placing judgments and looks at the world with a childlike innocence and wonder. The Fool in his positive aspect, is the playful, joyful child within us all. When The Fool appears in a reading, he heralds a clearing of the senses and announces a brand-new beginning. His advice is to go with the flow, just go with what is happening and learn from experience.  

In the Wait/Ryder deck The Fool is depicted standing on the edge of a precipice or a cliff suggesting that the path regenerates itself with each step; he encourages us to take a leap of faith and trust in life and in ourselves. Notice that the Fool carries a small bundle on a stick as he only takes with him what he needs and nothing more. His advice to us is one of release; to release what no longer serves us. He tells us to keep only the habits and lessons that will help us along our journey.  

Mary Poppins tells three fairy tales to the Banks children during her stay with the family. I find it interesting that she does not tell these fairy tales at bedtime as most people do. She only tells a story when the occasion calls for it and as it happens, she tells the story of Robertson Ay in the park during one of their outings.  

It is a sunny day in the park and Mary Poppins is sitting on a bench knitting, Anabel and the twins are in the perambulator and Jane and Michael are busy enacting the nursery rhyme I am the King of the Castle and You Are the Dirty Rascal, when out of nowhere a strange figure appears on the path at the edge of the Lake and catches their attention. 

“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.” 

Robertson’s Ay Story, Mary Poppins Comes Back (1935) 

The man stops by the bench to greet Mary Poppins, and the children learn that this is the Dirty Rascal, and Robertson Ay, but that is revealed to them only at the end. The children are mystified by the stranger whose face is hidden underneath the large-brimmed hat. When he leaves their company, and to the greatest delight of Jane and Michael, Mary Poppins offers to tell them the story of the Dirty Rascal.  

The story is in fact the story of a King who is extremely stupid and uncapable of fulfilling his royal duties. It is the Queen, and the Lord High Chancellor who must step in and do the work. However, they spare no amount of effort to impart some wisdom to the King, alas to no avail. As a last resort, the Queen and the Lord High Chancellor offer a generous reward to whomever succeeds in teaching the King some wisdom.  

As is the custom in fairy tales, the reward comes with a steep price for those who fail at the task. The professors who fail to teach the King wisdom are all doomed to have their heads cut off and spiked on the Castle Gates.  

All the teachers who come to test their luck lose their heads. The King is crushed by the events and his inability to learn. Then an unexpected visitor arrives, pushes past the sentry at the gate and walks up to the King. The King presents himself as the King of the Castle and the visitor as the Dirty Rascal. They immediately form a strong bond as the Fool shows the King that he does not have to conform to other people’s expectations nor to their understanding of what it means to be intelligent. 

 In Robertson’s Ay Story, the Fool appears in its positive aspect, a carefree, playful, childlike creature capable of imparting wisdom to the hopelessly stupid King. But he does not teach him in the way all the other teachers tried to. Instead, the Fool incites the King to burn all his books and simply enjoy life. They sing and dance, and laugh to the horror of the Queen and the Lord High Chancellor who see their behavior as being completely foolish and crazy. This highlights another aspect of the Fool archetype. The Fool is the outsider, the one that does not conform to pre-established norms.  

At the end of the story, the King is tested by the Chief of all the Professors, the wisest man in the kingdom. The questions asked by the Chief Professor are met with unexpected, but practical answers and the Chief Professor has no other choice but to declare the King to be wise. Wisdom, as P.L. Travers believed, cannot be taught, it can only be acquired through lived experience; a dance through life. To understand something, she said one must stand under it. Factual knowledge can only get us so far, something else is required of us to live an authentic life.  

When the Fool appears in a Tarot reading, it often signifies a new journey, a new beginning and this is exactly how the story of Robertson’s Ay ends with the beginning of a new journey for the King. Once the King realizes that what others think about him has no importance whatsoever, he realizes that he has no desire to be King. Together with the Dirty Rascal, the King climbs on a rainbow that has suddenly appeared in the sky and throws down his crown and scepter, thus shedding his old identity.  

Interestingly, the rainbow appears on another Tarot Card, the 10 of Cups, and I am thinking that I will have to explore this element of the story in a future blog post. For now, I hope you enjoyed reading this blog post as much as I enjoyed writing it.  

Shadow Play

I used to play with my shadow as a kid. I tried to run away from it, but no matter how fast I ran, I could never outrun it. Every time I looked down there it was, glued to my feet, sometimes in front of me, sometimes behind, sometimes on my left side and sometimes on my right. I was never certain of its position, but I was certain of its presence, even on rainy days. I knew that it was there, only, it was invisible for the time being.  

Occasionally, my shadow games involved other children in the neighbourhood. We chased after each other’s shadows and screeched with delight as we stepped on them, something that Mrs. Corry teaches the Banks children in Hallowe’en, a story from Mary Poppins in the Park (1952), is not a wise thing to do. I did not know that back then. I had read Mary Poppins (1934), the first book in the series in the early 1980’s in Bulgaria and I did not know about the other books until I read P.L. Travers’s biography in 2015.  

 I enjoyed my shadow’s shape-shifting tricks, how it changed its size, and how sometimes it climbed on walls and ceilings. One evening, to my enchantment, shadows of animals and birds appeared on the walls in the living room of my grandparents’ apartment.  Amazed, I kept shifting my eyes from the lively images on the walls to my mother’s and grandfather’s strangely positioned hands. They looked nothing like the shadows on the wall and I marvelled at this mysterious transformation; it was pure magic.  

However, despite my enjoyment of shadow games I doubt that I would have been as courageous as Jane and Michael Banks in Hallowe’en and followed my shadow out in the night should I have seen it run out of the door. Certainly not, if this had happened after I read Andersen’s fairy tale The Shadow and learned that a shadow without a body is the most dangerous thing of all. Suffice it to say that Andersen’s fairy tale put an end to my shadow games.   

The shadows in Hallowe’en are friendly. I wrote about P.L. Travers’s concept of the shadow in a previous blog post. If you are interested, you can read it here. In this blog post I want to spend some time exploring a contradiction in the story.

Yes, this is what happens when you read the same story repeatedly; you see things you did not see the first time, or even the second time around.  

It is the night of Hallowe’en, and everybody is fast asleep when Jane and Michael Banks wake up and find mysterious messages written on leaves left on their pillows. These are the leaves that the wind blew into their hands on their way back home from a stroll in the park. Mary Poppins had taken the leaves away before they could see the words written on them, but now they can read the messages. One leaf reads “Come” and the other “Tonight.” The children accept the invitation and follow their shadows to the park where other shadows are having a party.  

At first, Jane and Michael are a little scared, but the Bird Woman’s shadow reassures them. There is no need to be afraid, a shadow never did any harm to anyone. Then, after Jane and Michael Banks accidentally step on Mrs. Corry’s shadow, she tells them to pay attention, because shadows are extremely sensitive.

Mrs. Corry, an ancient crone and a friend of Mary Poppins, and Mary Poppins herself are the only people at the party with their shadows firmly attached to their feet.  

Mrs. Corry advises the children to take good care of their shadows or else their shadows will not take good care of them. This to me sounds much like a warning and reminds me of the perfect example of what happens to someone who does not take care of his shadow. 

The Shadow by Hans Christian Andersen begins in a hot country where the sun is very strong. A learned man from the cold regions is trying to acclimate to the heat but it is difficult. He loses weight, and his shadow shrivels to nothing. It is only in the evenings that it comes to life on the walls of the learned man’s room and stretches itself to regain its former strength.  

The learned man spends his evenings sitting on his balcony where he can observe the hustle and bustle of the city below, but he is mostly curious about the house across the street. Nobody ever comes out on its balcony, yet it has beautiful flowers that could not survive unless someone waters them regularly. 

One night, the learned man awakes and sees a light coming from the mysterious balcony. A beautiful maiden, all aglow, is standing amidst the flowers. The learned man jumps out of bed and creeps behind the curtain to get a better look, but it is too late, the maiden is already gone. 

One evening, not long after this brief vision, the learned man notices that his shadow is cast on the maiden’s balcony. Jokingly, he suggests to his shadow to slide through the half-opened door and have a look around and come back to tell him who lives there.  The shadow accepts the learned man’s proposal and disappears into the confines of the house but then, it does not return. 

Many years pass, the learned man is back to his cold country where he spends his time writing books about what is true, good and beautiful in life. Only, no one cares about such things and the learned man is deeply grieved. Then one evening his shadow, now with a fleshed-out body and wearing lavish clothes, shows up at his door. From this moment on, the story takes a dark turn. The learned man gradually becomes the shadow of his own shadow and then dies by its hand.  

However, before this tragic end, the shadow reveals all about his solo journey. The learned man discovers that Poetry lived in the house opposite theirs.  It is there that the shadow learns all that there was to be learned, although it had to stay in the twilight of the antechambers, or it would have been consumed by the light. 

Despite its human body, the shadow retains its ability to change its shape and size and that is what allows him to peak into other people’s homes and discover their darkest secrets. The knowledge of people’s dirty deeds allows the shadow to manipulate them to give him all he wants in exchange for his silence.  Andersen’s story is clearly a metaphor for the dark side of the learned man’s psyche and his refusal to acquaint himself with his own darkness.

I do not know if the contradiction between the words of the Bird’s Woman shadow and Mrs. Corry’s advice in Hallowe’en was intentional on P.L. Travers’s part, but it is possible, she liked indirection and Andersen’s fairy tales were part of her childhood readings. The idea of free roaming shadows, I believe, was inspired, consciously or not, by Andersen’s fairy tale.  

I wish I could ask P.L. Travers about all this and more. Are our shadows good or are they bad? 

I will never know what P.L. Travers’s answer would have been, but I found mine most unexpectedly one evening after work, as I was walking in the parking lot towards my car. The light from the lamp posts hit my body at a fortuitous angle, and I saw three shadows stretching at my feet in three different directions. I had never noticed this phenomenon before, and I was awestruck by its revelation.  

We have more than one shadow! We have them all, the good, the bad and the ugly. Both P.L. Travers and Andersen are right, we better pay attention to them or else…  

Happy Halloween! 

The Adventures of a Witch

AE Exhibition 4

This month’s blogpost is a guest post by Brian McKernan who has a specialist knowledge of George (AE) Russell – the literary mentor of P.L. Travers.

Brian says that although he had heard of AE since the days of his undergraduate Irish history tutorials, no-one seemed to be properly aware AE’s significance during the ‘birth of modern Ireland’ period. Within thirty years of AE’s passing, and across the following half century, AE became largely overlooked and regarded as a minor peripheral figure. Over the last four years Brian has played a central role in creating and developing an AE Group and the ‘AE Festival’ in Lurgan (Northern Ireland) where AE was born. Following the work of McKernan and his associates, the truth of this forgotten genius is once again beginning to be heard.

The group, known as The Lurgan & North Armagh George Russell Festival Society hold their festival in Lurgan each April to mark AE’s birth. The festival, which includes talks, walks, tours, creative workshops, exhibitions, school events and live music, has been developing at pace and aims to place AE back alongside some of the more readily recalled names in Irish history. The AE group have published articles and books on AE, created an active Facebook presence (AE Russell Appreciation Society – Lurgan), and have various local authorities now interested in supporting AE heritage. Plans for the creation of a large ‘AE Centre’ are currently at an early stage.

Brian McKernan’s post:

AE was a great believer in reincarnation and held that the ultimate purpose in life is perfection of the soul. Accordingly, he devoted himself to others, to society, to making the world a better place for everyone. He sought no fame, wealth or recognition for his brilliant talents and constant outpouring of good deeds.

My interest in Pamela Travers resulted from my research on AE. She made barely an appearance in my early studies – the chief AE biographer only giving her a passing mention at the end of his book, as a ‘young poetess who appointed herself his devoted nurse‘ when AE was dying. In hindsight, it is a wonder that I ever discovered the truth that Pamela and AE were immense friends from the time they met, up to his death, and for Pamela – across the following sixty years of her life. I have no doubt that both benefitted greatly from their mutual companionship, and now I sense that their bond is eternal.  As Pamela, a girl from so far away, became AE’s close friend in life, Lina (author of ‘The Mary Poppins Effect’) and I have reunited them in memory through our cross-Atlantic connection.

George William Russell, known simply as AE, was a benevolent genius who dedicated his life and energies to advancing a number of causes, in the main, related to the well-being of the people of Ireland. He did this through the Arts, Politics/Economics, the Co-operative movement, Social Reform, journalism, and his deep beliefs in the connectivity between the inner and outer worlds. And into this mix, in 1925, came a bright and lively young woman, who had more questions than answers, in her search for purpose, identity, love, home and success. AE loved unearthing, promoting and supporting new energetic and vibrant talent. Pamela was right up his street!

She was soon embraced by the Dublin literary scene,  where AE opened doors of opportunity for her both in London and America.  In the words of Pamela, “AE fished up friends for me from his inexhaustible cauldron.” AE understood that Pamela had an interest in mysticism and fairy tales long before she left Australia, so he helped her along the spirtual path and introduced her to the study of the spirit world, theosophy, mythology and Eastern Religions – all of which fascinated Pamela for the rest of her life.

AE liked her poetry and her Irish connection which was not just some romantic childhood fantasy. Her father’s parents were Irish, and he had been schooled in Ireland before eventually going to Australia. Pamela had relatives in Ireland, and she became acquainted with them when she visited AE in Dublin. After AE’s death, Pamela’s associations with Gurdjieff  and his followers can be seen as the continuum of the mystic elements she first explored with AE. 

Pamela was an exceptional person, determined and forthright, creative and intelligent, yet also delicate, unable to heal her childhood wounds, and searching for meaning in her life. AE was greatly impressed by her imagination and her fiercely rebellious nature. She was by no means an empty vessel into which he poured his ideas, but he had answers and directions which from the start helped her to explore and crystallise her core.

She was never his trainee or follower. He helped her. He connected with her. He raised her spirits and she raised his. Pamela admired AE, loved his company, and valued being educated by him. Such a warm and loyal mutuality grew between them that she became AE’s closest companion and comfort during his final days, taking charge of his personal affairs and final letters. She later wrote a beautiful piece about his passing, in ‘The Death of AE: Irish Hero and Mystic’

Pamela  accompanied AE’s remains from England back to Ireland, and was at his side as the mile long procession of mourners walked from AE’s famous office in the heart of Dublin, to his burial place close to 17 Rathgar Avenue where he had lived for thirty years. A little later, grieving deeply, she went back to Ireland and spent six weeks in Donegal, staying where she and AE had holidayed, to absorb what lingered of his spirit there. This was a special coastal place, complete with a fairytale cottage, hidden in a deep wood which overlooked the scenic Marble Hill Strand, where AE loved to paint and write poetry, and where they had been able to be alone together. In ‘The Death of AE: Irish Hero and Mystic’ Pamela offers glimpses of this holiday:

I stayed with him often in his beloved Donegal, at Janie’s-on-the-Hill above Dunfanaghy – a white washed cottage where at night one would hear the cows moving about in their stalls below the attic bedroom and in the daytime Janie churning butter or clanging the lid of the iron cauldron that swung on a chain above the peat fire and in which everything was cooked: bread, meat, cake, soup. … From Janie’s, he would take me with him on his excursions to friends in the neighbourhood or to those parts of woodland or strand that set up in him the strongest vibrations. Was he intentionally educating me, I wondered! No matter: it was being done, with or without intent.

Ninety years later, I went in search of these places, no doubt drawn there by AE’s spiritual gravitation. I found Janie’s farmhouse, fully matching Pamela’s description. I walked through the bog looking for the boots  she had left behind after getting stuck in the mud on a walk with AE, and I climbed up the trees overlooking the strand. I asked at Janie’s for directions to the fairy house but was told that it had been removed after it had fallen into disrepair, and the stone reused elsewhere. Despite this setback, I wanted at least to stand at the site of this sacred oasis where Pamela had soaked up AE’s strongest vibrations following his death. I made my way into the woods to the general area and walked in every direction, stopping and stirring – searching for any clue to its original location. I was drawn to a clearing in the woods with fairytale trees – magically shaped, like no trees I had ever seen before.

Tree near the Fairy House

However far I went, in any direction, I kept returning to this spot, as a fixed point to guide me safely back out of the woods. After a most unsuccessful and tiring hour, I decided to take one last look from where I now stood. I would turn round, one full circle on this spot, and then give up my quest. Halfway round, and looking as carefully and intently as possible, I saw something that seemed to be out of place. It was something ‘blue’. AE’s favourite colour was blue, and this looked like his favourite shade of blue.

As I tried to focus on this through the wiry tangled thicket, what I saw began to resemble a post, perhaps an old direction sign. I pressed slowly forward trying to get closer to the sign, one difficult step after another, trying not to get too badly scraped by thorns. My eyes scanned the tangled mass of branches and briars to the left of the post, and as I neared, things suddenly began to appear which I had not seen from further back. Right in front of me was a metre high wall. I clambered around the post and recognised (from my memory of an old photograph) that the post and the wall were parts of the porch of the Fairy House. I had found  it, on my very last attempt, and as I forced my way closer so much more became clear. The roof had collapsed in on the building and some parts of the walls were missing. Although the forest had worked hard to gobble up this magical abode, I was able to clamber into the large room, examine the crumbling fireplace and peer out through a side window. I was completely alone, but bursting to share my discovery. I thought of AE and Pamela being here and wondered if they had somehow played a part in my finding – could this have been spiritual gravitation at play?

Fairy House

I took photographs of these places and sent some to Lina along with a brief account of my Donegal adventure. We exchanged a series of emails, back and forth between Canada and Ireland, in which we shared our knowledge of Pamela, the Mary Poppins books and AE . I found myself seeing more and more of AE and his connection with Pamela in the Mary Poppins books.

Although AE spent much of his time writing thousands of serious journalistic articles about society, political turmoil and economic issues, it is practically impossible to find one complete piece which is not warmly wrapped in a blanket of spiritual wonder and mystical magic. He was tremendously imaginative and creative, and whimsical beyond compare, and exceptionally witty.

Myriad hidden spiritual thoughts, talking objects, life within pictures and a oneness with nature, flowed effortlessly and constantly from his mind. AE helped Pamela to explore unknown possibilities and imaginations primarily in conversation across the ten years friendship which saw her become a highly respected writer. They also wrote numerous letters back and forth across the Irish Sea when they were not together.

In early 1932 AE suggested in a letter that she should write a fantastic tale about a young witch.

When you go to your Cottage drop me a postcard with the address of that abode of the vulture witch with her broomstick. It would be rather a nice subject for a fantastic tale of a young witch who found that by white magic the broomstick would fly as well as by the black art & she went here and there doing good deeds or looking at loveliness & wonders. So think over a tale which would use all your powers of fantasy ‘The Adventures of a Witch’ and it may be the idea for letting you say all you want to say.

I see so much of AE and Pamela in the characters of Bert and Mary Poppins. From their first outing in a short 1926 story, in which Mary is a young and inexperienced nanny and where the magic emanates from Bert the Matchman, to the end of the second Mary Poppins book, when Mary has transformed into an older, wiser, and self-assured magical figure, I see how Pamela herself had grown aided by her great friend AE. At the close of Mary Poppins Comes Back, completed shortly after AE’s death, Pamela creates a personal element of closure between herself and AE. In 1926, in the story Mary Poppins and the Match-Man and then in 1934 in the story The Day Out, they rode the Merry-go round together, she on a black horse and AE on a white one, but then in 1935, with him gone, Pamela (Mary Poppins)  rides alone on a dappled horse, possibly symbolising a shared spiritual unity. The text includes utterances denoting finality – ‘Never again! Never again!’ .. ‘If only we could have gone on forever!‘ .. Mary gazes down at the children – ‘Her eyes were strangely soft and gentle in the gathering dusk‘ (AE’s favourite time of day) and says for the second time that day ‘All good things come to an end.

Mary Poppins chooses a return ticket (which is a strange option for such a ride, but may well relate to AE’s deep belief in reincarnation) thoughtfully saying ‘You never know’. The Merry-go-round spins and rises up beyond the trees and soon a new star appears in the night sky. Could this new star be her AE? On the final page Pamela writes –‘And high above them the great shape circled and wheeled through the darkening sky, shining and keeping its secret for ever and ever and ever…

On one occasion, Lina asked me if I had any thoughts on who Pamela could have been referring to when she dedicated Mary Poppins Comes Back ‘To PIP This Keepsake’. I immediately swung into action, thinking this would be a nice puzzle to try solving. I noticed that Pamela had also written ‘P-p! P-p!‘ to describe the sound  made by  Mr Bank’s pipe and I was drawn to the similarity between ‘PIP’, pipe, and P-p. As AE was very much on Pamela’s mind during the writing and completion of the book I wondered if this could all relate to AE. I factored in my belief that Pamela used to refer to AE as ‘the matchman’ due to him constantly leaving a trail or puddle of spent matchsticks wherever he went or sat. This messy habit was common knowledge to all who knew him, and he even had to have a special supply of matches arranged in advance of going on holiday to an isolated location. AE was never without his pipe, and I suppose his two most noticeable features were always his marvellous beard and the pipe. Then I remembered how Pamela had been the one who had sorted through AE’s belongings after he died, and thought that the best keepsake she could possibly have would be his pipe, as I believe he had taken his beard with him to the grave. I think the answer lies within these thoughts and would love to ask Pamela if that is correct. Of course, I could not ask her, so instead I asked Lina, who appreciated my imaginative proposition.

Perhaps a light sprinkle of AE  and Pamela’s magical stardust helped me to discover the connection between them, and find my way to Lina’s blog. But if so, it may not be the first time this magic has come my way. Considering how I only really came across Pamela Travers through my uncommonly rigorous approach to studying AE’s life, I have recently discovered my own personal connection with her, which also links to AE. Remembering how  says, ‘Your own will come to you‘, I must tell you – the first poem AE published by Pamela was titled Christopher, and my son, named Christopher, was born on the very day  Pamela died – 23rd April 1996.

Midsummer’s Eve with Mary Poppins

Bulgarian Mary Poppins in Cherry Tree Lane

Cover illustration by Piers Stanford, 1994

Yesterday, as a celebration of the summer solstice, I read the Bulgarian translation of the fifth Mary Poppins book, Mary Poppins in Cherry Tree Lane. The Bulgarian edition in my possession was published in 2004 and is translated by Anelia Ianeva.

It is Midsummer’s Eve and Mary Poppins takes the Banks children for an evening picnic in the park.

Mary Poppins in Cherry Tree Lane

Illustration by Mary Shepard

There, in the furthest corner of the park, in the herb garden, they feast and dance with celestial constellations who have taken the shape of their appellations:  Orion, Castor and Pollux, the Bear, the Fox (or Vulpecula in Latin) named in the late 17th century by the astronomer Johannes Hevelius, and the Rabbit (or Lepus in Latin), a constellation that was listed in the 2nd century by Ptolemy. PL Travers was interested in astrology and like a pastry chef fond of sugar, she sprinkled her Mary Poppins books with stars and constellations.

Mary Poppins celebration Midsummers Eve

Illustration by Mary Shepard

Down a lane in the park comes Ellen, the maid, strolling backwards with her eyes closed. She had put herbs under her pillow the night before and now is on her way to meet her true love.

Ellen the maid Mary Poppins

Illustration by Mary Shepard

The lonely Park Keeper decides, rather uncharacteristically, to try his luck. He follows suit only to bump into Mary Poppins. Afterall, opposites attract. What better match for a rigid man overly concerned with rules.

Mary Poppins and the Park Keeper

Illustration by Mary Shepard

The Bulgarian translation of the story, just like the translation of Mary Poppins, is loyal to the original text, but there is one interesting modification. Midsummer’s Eve is translated for the corresponding Bulgarian folk holiday Eniovden.

On Eniovden, according to old Bulgarian beliefs the celestial lights “go crazy”. At midnight, the sky opens and miracles happen. The stars descend on Earth and bathe in the cold waves of the sea. People gather herbs because on this day the herbs’ healing powers are at their peak. Young women perform divination rituals and put herbs under their pillows in the hope that their dreams will reveal their husbands-to-be. On Eniovden there is also a custom of making offerings of fresh cherries to the deceased. 

Surprisingly, these old Bulgarian customs are reflected in Mary Poppins in Cherry Tree Lane, first published in 1982. Aren’t these similarities of beliefs between two different cultures fascinating? I am certain P.L. Travers would have been interested to hear about Eniovden. Then, maybe she did.

I have two editions of Mary Poppins in Cherry Tree Lane but none of them contain any illustrations. The Bulgarian one does! What a nice surprise for a Mary Poppins nerd like myself.

Happy Summer Solstice!

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.   

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!

About 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!

 

Is There a Love Connection between Mary Poppins and Bert the Match-Man?

Mary Poppins and Bert Movie Poster

Movie Poster, Walt Disney’s Mary Poppins

The 1964 Disney movie Mary Poppins certainly suggests such an interpretation. However, Mary Poppins’s author P.L. Travers had a different opinion and denied any romantic relationship between these two fictional characters. Who was right? Disney’s screenwriters or the author herself? The answer is not as straightforward as you may think. With the help of Irish historian Brian McKernan, I will attempt to offer a possible answer to this question.

The first Mary Poppins book was published in 1934, but a character in the name of Mary Poppins first appeared in 1926,  under the pen of twenty-seven years old P. L. Travers, in the short story  Mary Poppins And the Match-Man, published on November 13, 1926 in Christchurch’s newspaper The Sun. The story is about a seventeen years old girl, Mary Poppins, the underneath nurse of Jane and Michael and John and Barbara Banks, who on her Day Out, embarks on a magical adventure in a picture drawn by her friend, Bert the Match-Man.

A few years later P.L. Travers redrafted the story and included it in the first Mary Poppins book under the title “The Day Out”.  (If you want to read the two versions of the story side by side, click here.) “The Day Out” is also the basis of the song-and-dance sequence “It’s a Jolly Holiday with Mary” in Walt Disney’s Mary Poppins movie.

Mary Poppins and the Match Man

Valerie Lawson, P.L. Travers’s biographer, wrote that the fact that Disney chose this particular story as an important scene in the movie always irritated P.L. Travers.

She later called “The Day Out” chapter “false” and the weakest of all her Mary Poppins adventures, but never explained why.    

Mary Poppins, She Wrote, by Valerie Lawson

Both versions of the story are rather similar. Bert has not made enough money from his paintings to take Mary Poppins out for tea and raspberry-jam-cakes. Mary Poppins tries to hide her disappointment behind a smile “with both ends turned up” and then Bert has an idea. Why don’t they go into one of his pictures? “Puff!” They go into a picture where it is “all trees and grass and a little bit of blue sea in the distance”. There they have tea, eat raspberry-jam-cakes and go for a Merry-go-Round ride. In the first story they also eat two plates of mussels which in the second version of the story are transformed into two plates of whelks. In one story the tea is served from a brass urn, and in the other from a silver one. In one story they each ride a black and white horse and in the other black and grey. In one story the Merrie-go-Round takes them to Margate and in the other to Yarmouth. But these are minor changes.

Mary Poppins and the Match Man modern

Illustration by Julia Sardà

However, there is one significant change, and that is the way P.L. Travers portrays the relationship between Mary Poppins and Bert. In the first story the romantic aspect is clear:

“Mary!” he cried, and you could see by the way he cried it that he loved her.

Mary Poppins smoothed out her dress and looked hard at her shoes and smiled at the Match-Man all at once, and you knew by that that she loved him too.                                                                                                      

In comparison, the 1934 version is not as explicit.

“Mary!” he cried, and you could tell by the way he cried it that Mary Poppins was a very important person in his life.

Mary Poppins looked down at her feet and rubbed the toe of one shoe along the pavement two or three times. Then she smiled at the shoe in such a way that the shoe knew quite well that the smile wasn’t meant for it.

Why did P.L. Travers change the story? Why was she so adamant about the absence of romance between Mary Poppins and the Match-Man? The answer, at least in part, can be found in McKernan’s reading of the 1926 version of the story.

Mary Poppins board (1)

According to McKernan, the character of Mary Poppins is a personification of young P.L. Travers and Bert the Match-Man the embodiment of her literary mentor George W. Russell (AE). The romance between Mary Poppins and the Match-Man reflecting Travers’s heart felt love for AE at that period in her life. (insert a link to previous post about AE)

McKernan combines other elements from AE’s life to support his interpretation of the story.  It appears from his research that young P.L. Travers nicknamed AE the “Match-Man” gently mocking his habit of leaving behind a trail of spent matches from the constant relighting of his pipe.

AE himself discussed his matches problem in a letter to his friend Lucy Kingsley Porter:   

I think I’ll get my own matches in Letterkenny. I would exhaust any stock you would lay in. I know myself. It’s nearly a box of matches to one pipeful. Mrs. Law used to know where I had been painting when she found a box-full of burnt out matches around a center where I had been sitting. I will let you provide the floor space.

Bert’s painting of pictures on the pavement also supports McKernan’s interpretation of this fictional character. AE had many talents and painting was one of them.  He loved to paint landscapes as well as magical figures inspired by his spiritual visions, and he used to carry chalks in his pockets and draw on pavements, walls and rocks.

AE loved to spend his summer holidays in the northwest county of Donegal in the village of Breaghy, where he rented a room in a hillside cottage, Janie’s-on-the-Hill.  At twilight he would gather his crayons and sketch pad, and head for the hills. 

8MB Women on Hillside.jpgWomen on Hillside, by George William  (AE) Russell

Young P.L. Travers accompanied AE on a few holidays during the 1920’s and went on painting excursions with him. She wrote about how he would paint “no sooner finishing one picture than starting on another. But one felt that this was less a series of emotional excursions than his way of finding out about the world he lived in.

Once, AE offered P.L. Travers a paint-box, chalks and sketchbook affirming that if one has one gift then one has them all.

So, having arrived at his chosen position, a long yellow tongue of sand, laced with a thread of moving water that changed its colour as the sky changed, I sat beside him, making an occasional sweep of a crayon but more intent on watching his way of working than on what was in my sketch book.

The Death of AE: Irish Hero and Mystic, P.L. Travers

P.L. Travers not really interested in drawing herself, climbed on the branch of a nearby tree to observe AE’s crowding the canvas “with creatures from some other world”.  Somehow, busy as he was painting his visions, AE managed, without her noticing it, to sketch a picture of her resting on the tree branch.

…and there was I upon my branch, not at all a part of the scene but in a way a witness to it. As if one stood, unseen, at the portal of Paradise.

The Death of AE: Irish Hero and Mystic, P.L. Travers

Pam sketch by AE

Maybe on that particular day she was not able to see what he saw but she did become part of the magical scene in the story Mary Poppins And the Match-Man. 

Why then did P.L. Travers deny the love connection between Mary Poppins and the Match-Man? Well, by the time she wrote the stories for the first Mary Poppins book, her relationship with AE had evolved and deepened without ever becoming a romantic relationship. And, I also believe she had an additional reason. Mary Poppins had changed too and so had P.L. Travers.

In the first story Mary Poppins is not magical, the magic adventure clearly initiated by the Match-Man, and she dreams a very human dream of a life shared with a partner in a small house with a garden:

 They passed a little red house with sun flowers in its front garden.

“Just the sort of little house I always wanted! said Mary Poppins kissing her white-gloved hand to it.

Mary Poppins And the Match-Man, P.L. Travers, 1926

In the books Mary Poppins is no longer the shy young girl in need of a mentor. In the books Mary Poppins is herself the initiator of the magical adventures and the one dispensing the lessons. She is a self-sufficient, magical creature beyond the laws of our world. She is the “Great Exception”, the Starling in the story “John and Barbara’s Story tells us. She is the only human who has transcended its human nature and accessed to a higher state of being.

P.L. Travers imagined Mary Poppins as a self-sufficient, independent and mysterious creature who feels at home wherever she goes. There is simply no place for the Match-Man next to such a powerful Mary Poppins. At least not in the mind of P.L. Travers.

Hope you enjoyed this post and that you will come back to read more about P. L. Travers and her magical Mary Poppins.