Mary Poppins Opened the Door

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.Mary Poppins

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.marypoppins

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.

Once I was a Grandmother


WordPress provides me with these “stats,” daily, weekly and monthly, that give me some idea of how many people are reading this blog, who they might possibly be, how they get here, etc., etc. . . . It also tells me what I write that people tend to read most, and although I suppose this is a “Sufi blog,” I post some personal observations here as well, and the most popular one is the one I wrote when I became a grandmother.  Clearly there are lots of people out there who have become grandmothers and want to hear how it is for other grandmothers.  I remember it well, although currently, I suppose I’m not a grandmother.

I wrote two posts here called “Always Endings” ( and “Living Forgiveness” ( and I imagine it was fairly obvious that the persons they were about were my oldest daughter and my first grandchild.  Recently someone read them and commented to me that they had the tones of a “Greek tragedy,” and I suppose that could be a valid statement, but to me they were terribly important, because they were about the most profound and painful spiritual lesson I’ve ever had to learn, the one called “accepting the unacceptable.”  It happens to most of us sooner or later:  someone dies unexpectedly and possibly violently, someone terribly important to us leaves us, we are traumatized in some way…any or all of the above.  And there is nothing we can do about it.  Nothing.  If you read the definition of “posttraumatic stress disorder” in the DSM-IV-TR of the American Psychiatric Association, you will note that the most prominent features of such an event are their unexpectedness and the fact they are completely uncontrollable.  We like to believe, in this world, that we have control over what happens to us:  if I get enough exercise, eat enough flaxseed, meditate daily, save enough money, etc., etc., etc. . . . all will be well.  But it isn’t always, is it?  Sometimes things happen that are so unexpected, so uncontrollable, so utterly unacceptable. . . and they just are.  We are backed into the corner.  Don’t have a leg to stand on.  Can’t do nuthin’ about it.  All we can do is to try to make something of the pain.  To make friends with it.  To let it stand for something.  Hopefully, to let it make us great.

Well, that’s what happened when I “broke up” with my oldest daughter and my first grandchild.  After 33 years of trying to rain on the desert . . . I stopped.  I truly believed it was my only choice, and I still believe that.  When I made the decision, I’m sure my daughter will never understand this, but I made it because I felt that she would never be able to become the person she really wants to become as long as she continued to hold me in a death grip, alternately tearing away piece by piece of my heart and clutching me to her in overwhelming waves of rage and love-hatred.  The first book I read about what have been called borderline personalities was that classic “I Hate You:  Don’t Leave me!” by Kreisman.  The first time I saw it, I sensed that the title said it all, and after those years with my daughter, I still think so.  I was a sitting duck for the experience I had:  I was raised by two personality-disordered parents, and my first husband–the father of this girl–had the same diagnosis she eventually did, so I was probably the worst possible parent she could have had.  I was the classic codependent.  And she never forgave me for it, nor let me forget it for a moment.  I’m sure she feels the same about me.  And I’m sure that, on some deep level, because we bonded like a real mother and child when she was young, neither of us will ever get over it.  Yet finally, it was time to leave, and so I did.  I had this granddaughter by then, too, and our whole family loved her dearly, for which her mother could not forgive us, because she continued all the years I knew her to believe that none of us loved her, because none of us could ever give her what she thought she wanted, something that I’m not sure she ever figured out.

Breaking up didn’t solve much, of course, although I continue to hope and pray that it will help her draw herself together and love her child well.  As for us, her “family of origin,” I don’t think any of us expects ever to truly resolve this, although I am grateful for the first time I’ve ever had to myself to live and grow and heal:  the first time in my life, really.  I had, during the “terrible years,” married a wonderful man, and we had a second lovely, wonderful daughter who was kind enough to show me that I could love and be loved normally and wholey, and who, to this day, is my best friend.  The break-up affected my husband and that daughter profoundly too, of course:  my second daughter has had time to find herself as a person without the constant message of “Mom loves you best, you’re the one who caused all these problems by being born, etc., etc., etc.,” the messages she needed to send her little sister’s way in order to bear herself during those years.  None of it was my daughter’s fault, truly:  she simply isn’t “wired” in what is considered to be a normal fashion, and her pain is much worse than any of ours; I truly believe that.  This is what I mean by “accepting the unacceptable.”  It is what it is, and it was what it was.  My good husband ran interference, and my second daughter and I did our best to survive.  I’m pretty sure that daughter will survive:  she has largely recovered, although it took her some time to learn to trust others; and she goes from strength to strength.  As for me, well, I too will and have survived, in the way that I can:  I have used these lessons I have learned, and my body bears the marks of the ongoing stress and trauma of raining 24 hours a day on the desert:  my immune system is compromised, and I have rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia.  Nothing new there.

And. . . I’ve used this tragedy.  I won’t say what I said above, that I’ve “let it make me great.”  The results aren’t in on that one.  But there is much to be said for having one’s heart broken repeatedly and thoroughly.  There is much to be said for having no choice but to accept the unacceptable.  In this case, what that means is not only walking away from an adult daughter, but walking away from an innocent child who loved me and her aunt and her grandpa.  I didn’t know whether her mother would be able to care for her adequately.  Her marriage had already broken up, and I didn’t have much respect for the father, either.  And they, in turn, had demonized me quite thoroughly.  It is all my fault.

Accepting the unacceptable.  Accepting being misunderstood, over and over again.  Accepting being hated by someone who was my first experience of the Divine Child, when I held her in my arms at birth and got up with her at night and walked her to school and mothered her endlessly, to no avail.  Living with having to walk away from a child I adored, not knowing whether she would survive her upbringing at the hands of someone with such profound problems.

Saying goodbye.

It’s been over a year now, and yesterday I was in her old neighborhood for the first time in those months.  We had avoided all the places that bore such poignant memories for us, but yesterday we drove by the house.  We didn’t know if she still lived there.  The father had sent us a blank email with the subject line “she’s moved,” because for awhile we tried to send cards and little gifts to our grandchild, and I guess they couldn’t allow us even that small pleasure.  I knew that there would come a time when we would run into them, and I knew it would be unbearable, but I hoped it wouldn’t happen before I could bear it.

But yesterday, when we drove by, the yard was neat.  Everything looked pleasant and lived-in, instead of that certain disarray that always illustrated the only atmosphere this young woman could seem to live in.

Except for one thing:  in the backyard, I could see my grandchild’s little “turtle sandbox.”  You’ve seen them.  In fact, I had bought one just like it for her mother when her mother was little.

So I have been suffering quietly since then, and suffering is good.  It is possible that good may eventually come from this tragedy.  It is possible that this little girl will grow up happy and whole.  It is possible that some day her mother will find herself.  And I can use this experience:

Out of the shell of the broken heart emerges the new-born soul.  –Inayat Khan

Once I was a grandmother.