As truths are the fictions of the rational, so fictions are the truths of the imaginal. –James Hillman
Recently, we went to see the Disney film “Saving Mr. Banks,” not because it was a Disney film, but because when I was a child, I simply loved Mary Poppins. For a wonderful interview with her real author, P.L. Travers, go here:
As to the film, it is somewhat corrective as to what these books and their author were really about, but only somewhat. It is important to realize that the real Mary Poppins is NOTHING like the sugar-coated Disney film. The real Mary Poppins was somewhere between a Sufi mystic (in fact, I think she may have been the first Sufi I ever met) and a gypsy shaman. It had never occurred to me to research P.L. Travers until this film came out–I’ve got to give Disney that!–and when I finally did, I realized fully why I had considered her an early teacher.
I have always said that I was raised by books. Coming from the archetypal Family from Hell (as did Travers, evidently), I had no one to teach me about morality, about honor, about beauty, true love and the other essential lessons that a child ought to learn at its parents’ feet. But what I did have, early on, was a love of reading, and it was books that saved my life, quite literally, because when the hellish atmosphere of the alcoholic and personality-disordered home I grew up in boiled up and over, I could sneak off to my room or, if it wasn’t too bad, I could curl up in a corner of the couch and read, read, read. I read at the table at meals, I tried to get away with reading in school, no doubt teaching myself far better than the teachers tried to; I read under the covers at night with a flashlight, far into the night. To this day, I have several books going at a time, and while I spent a number of years in Academia, to this day, what I most love and value is, simply, stories. And it seems that what I valued most was what the stories I read became inside that appealed most to me, because to this day I can’t even watch a television show without a book in my hand. I prefer the written word to someone’s idea of what I ought to make of it hands-down. The Wind in the Willows, the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, Louisa May Alcott’s books, and so many others taught me how to live, comforted me and showed me what it truly meant to be human.
I remember that I continued to read children’s and young adult fiction–not exclusively, but often–into my twenties, when The Little Prince by Saint-Exupery wandered into my psyche and did a little more healing work and validated my inner world. The best thing about having children and–almost–grandchildren–was discovering the old favorites and some new ones. In fact, if I see something that looks appealing, I continue to insist that well-written children’s literature is every bit as valuable as that written for adults, and a great deal more valuable than much of the garbage that is supposed to appeal to so-called grown-ups in this day and age. The vast popularity of the Harry Potter books, of the Lord of the Rings books during the past and again recent dark ages, as well as the whole fantasy genre that has mushroomed while my children were growing up must be proof of this. I was fortunate to work in a large urban public library at my very first job in life, so books of all kinds passed under my nose daily, and I read more than ever. My daughter, who is in graduate school for library science, tells me that the popular genre for young adults these days is what is called “dystopian” literature, focusing on the dark side of the fantasy worlds it creates. She reads things like The Hunger Games, but admits that she continues to maintain the much sunnier view of life that the children’s fantasies she loved engendered in her as a child.
Inayat Khan–among others, no doubt–remarked that the parents are the first God in a child’s life: the God ideal, after all, arises out of what seems greater and better than ourselves, and we look to our parents to model for us, to mirror in our own souls, that which wants to develop. If that ideal is not before us when we are small, or is a stunted and malformed one, we have to find some version of it, if we want to grow up whole. And even then, if we have to create that ideal for ourselves, it isn’t easy to get past not being adequately parented and taught what love is. Perhaps, in a way, Mary Poppins was my first Roshi (and P.L. Travers did study Zen, as I found out recently), teaching me that life is suffering and that nothing lasts. Other books taught me more sentimental and romantic concepts about love, but Mary Poppins is about the love that shatters and heals, the love that goes on forever, but is completely transient in its myriad temporal forms.
People often comment, about these posts, that I am extremely self-disclosing. This is the most self-disclosing post I’ve written yet. And it has constantly fascinated me that these wonderful writers who have meant so much to me often came from families not unlike my own.