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Born to Fly: Mary Poppins, Bruce Springsteen, and the Spell of Immortality

[Editor’s note: Our theme for this last day of North Wind Manor’s Opening Week is film, and this evening we’ll be enjoying a private screening of one of our favorite recent films. Here’s one of the most well-loved pieces from the past few years on the blog that engages with the craft of film: an essay by Jennifer Trafton on the mythologies of Mary Poppins and Bruce Springsteen and what they can teach us about freedom, imagination, and the human longing to reclaim playfulness.]

My husband is a crier in movies; I am not. Occasionally something will tug out a tear or two, but it’s rare. And weeping? Unheard of.

Confession: I was a blubbering mess by the end of Mary Poppins Returns.

I’d been anticipating the sequel for months. The original Mary Poppins is a beloved piece of my childhood, and the trailer promised fidelity to its innocent, playful spirit. When the movie opened to an old-fashioned overture with credits, paintings that hearkened back to Bert’s chalk drawings, and musical riffs on the original score, I settled into my seat for a comfortable ride. So far, so good.

Then a cold wind whipped through the park, and a little boy and a lamplighter were straining to control a rogue kite lost in the stormy clouds, and I was not sitting in the theatre anymore. I was a child on that grassy hill, staring up at the sky, waiting, breathless, yearning with all my might to see her burst through. She’s coming. She’s coming. And when Mary Poppins appeared, following the kite string down to us, I started to cry. You’ve come back to me. Oh, how I’ve missed you.

It was an intensely and unexpectedly personal moment.

And I basically didn’t stop crying for the next two hours.

My own reaction shocked me. This wasn’t just nostalgia. Nostalgia is what I felt when an aging Han Solo and Chewbacca burst into the worse-for-wear Millennium Falcon in The Force Awakens, or even when Dick Van Dyke burst into the bank at the end of this movie, prancing on the desk like Bert the Chimney Sweep reborn.

But I didn’t need Han, or Bert. I needed Mary. Desperately.

And what I discovered when she came flying through that cloud was that the change of face meant nothing to me; it wasn’t Julie Andrews I was longing for. It was the character. Mary Poppins herself. Or perhaps something else, something Mary pointed to—something I glimpse through her.

I sat down this week to write a review of the movie, a defense against the critics who’ve been grumbling about it—to compare it to the original movie, or to other recent crowd-pleasers like La La Land (which I loved) and The Greatest Showman (which I hated). But a sudden weariness overcame my soul. I will let others do those things. I’m no film critic. I’m a storyteller. And the truth is, I loved this movie beyond the reach of all criticism.

Sometimes art is a beautiful lake we stare into deeply, and sometimes it is a stream that carries us forward, and it’s worthwhile to look through and past the art to what it is carrying us toward, and to stop and wonder—why? 

I often find myself reacting to a movie, or a story, or a song, or a painting as if I am a detective looking for clues to a great mystery, or Hansel and Gretel searching for breadcrumbs to lead them through a dark wood. I think the better the art, the more universal the clues, and the best way to respond is to call back to others behind you on the path, “Ho, there! I found another! Have a look!”

Sometimes even flawed art, or art that seems mediocre or forgettable to other people, drops personal bread crumbs for me, like slips of paper God has stuck into a crack in my wall: an obscure out-of-print novel, for instance, pilfered from my mother’s bookshelf decades ago, which as far as I can tell no one on earth seems to have read but me, and which certainly no one on earth loves more. I won’t tell you the title because it would spoil the little secret between me and God.

I happen to think the new Mary Poppins movie is excellent art, well-written, well-crafted, well-acted, and that it has something universal, not just personal, to say. But I’m not going to try to convince anyone of that. It doesn’t matter. Instead, I want to call back to my fellow travelers on the path and tell them of the bread crumbs I’ve found, because perhaps these aren’t only for me.

Tucked away in my library of children’s book paraphernalia is the transcript of a talk P. L. Travers gave at the Library of Congress in 1966, in which she described her friendship with the Irish poet William Butler Yeats, her fascination with the archetypes and meanings of old wives’ tales, and her gradual realization that the flying nanny in her imagination had flown straight out of the world of myth and fairy tale; that she had a family tree. An editor friend remarked to her that Mary Poppins, “had she lived in another age, in the old times to which she certainly belongs, would undoubtedly have had long golden tresses, a wreath of flowers in one hand, and perhaps a spear in the other. Her eyes would have been like the sea, her nose comely, and on her feet winged sandals.” But having come to the modern age, she arrived in proper English dress, umbrella in hand.

The denouement—the gift of the nanny-goddess-fairy-angel—is a sky opening, a door opening, something that was bound finally coming loose again. Jennifer Trafton

Travers was tapping into primal human longings—longings that find embodiment in larger-than-life beings who visit us from beyond the veil of our world and bring a bit of wisdom or magic, a spoonful of sugar or of salvation—Superman, Doctor Who, Greek gods, Celtic fairies, angelic messengers. As Tolkien would say, she was drawing her ingredients out of the great Cauldron of Story that is swirling with the images, characters, and conflicts that have haunted the human psyche for thousands of years. Mary Poppins flew out of the Pot and has passed back into it again, and if we retell her story in new ways we do so as Cooks tending a sacred stew. When you play with archetypes you are playing with fire, and you can’t complain when the fire rages out of your control. I am sorry, P. L. Travers, but Mary Poppins isn’t yours anymore. She was a feral thing, always—a wild being from the realm of myth, and she belongs to the world now. She belongs to me.

One of the things Walt Disney added to the Pot when he got his hands on Travers’ character was, I think, the fact that she comes for the adults as much as she comes for the children. It is a sign of the angst and disenchantment of our modern world that the theme of grown-ups reawakening to the wonder of childhood has become a sentimental cliché. Find your inner child again! Remember the magic! But what does that even mean? Adults realize they are missing something, longing for something that they’ve lost—but, I suspect, they don’t really know how to define it. I find the language of childlike “wonder,” as it’s often used, unhelpfully vague. It so easily descends into whimsical cuteness, and certainly Disney as a domesticator of fairy tales is sometimes guilty of that. I don’t think “wonder” is enough, but I’ll come back to that in a minute.

In Mary Poppins Returns, Mary is no Superman. She’s not there to save the family from their circumstances. The subplot of the imminent foreclosure, the missing share certificate—all of that is beside the point. The crisis is that Michael Banks has put aside his childhood memories, his paintings, his imagination in his grief over the death of his wife and the subsequent collapse of his well-ordered little world. His children have had to grow up too much and too quickly in order to take care of him. They’ve become the adults in the family, as they quickly assure the nanny they don’t think they need. (“Well, we’ll see what we can do about that,” quips Mary Poppins). That is the conflict; the resolution has nothing to do with the house, except in so far as the house is, throughout the movie, the embodiment of the lost mother: “She’s everywhere here.”

What I love about the movie is not just that it’s about the rediscovery of imagination (music to a children’s book writer’s ears), but that, in each successive scene and song, it unpacks slowly the variety of gifts that imagination offers us, even in—especially in—our grief and confusion and need:

Imagination frees us from the tyranny of logic and enables us to see life as an adventure (“Can You Imagine That”).

It turns us upside-down in order to give us a new perspective on broken things (“Turning Turtle”).

It helps us see behind outward appearances (“A Cover Is Not the Book”).

It reconciles us with mystery, including the mystery that what is lost is not lost forever, though we cannot see it now, and that spring will return even though it lies beneath the snow (“The Place Where the Lost Things Go”).

It offers light when the path ahead is uncertain, helping us to rise out of the gloom and envision new possibilities (“Trip a Little Light Fantastic”).

It lifts us in hope above the past into a future that has not yet been written (“Nowhere to Go but Up”).

After such revelations, a physical house is just the gravy. The denouement—the gift of the nanny-goddess-fairy-angel—is a sky opening, a door opening, something that was bound finally coming loose again.

Reaching middle-age has felt to me like walls closing in—like that scene in the garbage compactor in the first Star Wars movie, or like Alice when she nibbles the cake and grows too big for the White Rabbit’s house. Life feels scrunched. Years whiz by. Worries press and pinch. Bones ache. Dreams shrink. I yearn for the space to let my heart and my imagination stretch out again. That’s what childhood feels like to me now: plenty of room.

Freedom can be remembered but not seized, or created, or even chosen; it is something granted to us. Someone else has to loosen the chains and throw open the door. Jennifer Trafton

Just a few days before we went to see Mary Poppins Returns for the first time (oh yes, there was a second time, and it won’t be the last time), Pete invited a bunch of guys over to watch Bruce Springsteen’s one-man Broadway show on Netflix. Now you have to understand that anyone who knows me would vote me Least Likely To Be a Bruce Springsteen Fan. I’m more of a Peter, Paul, and Mary girl myself. I don’t think I’d ever actually heard a Springsteen song all the way through until I married Pete and he made me sit and listen to every word of “Thunder Road.” But after hearing his gravely voice tell stories of his life with melancholy wit, after listening to the earthy poetry of his ballads that have sprung from a distinctly American cauldron, swirling with heartbreak and hope (“like something’s ending and something’s beginning,” Pete said)—I get it. I totally get why so many people like my husband have heard their own restless ache echoing in the chords of the E Street band.

After spinning tales of his childhood in New Jersey, Springsteen remarked, “The one thing I miss in getting older is the beauty of the blank page—so much of life in front of you, its promise, its possibility, its mysteries, its adventures—that blank page just lying there daring you to write on it.” And later, he painted a bittersweet picture of marriage that has haunted me ever since:

Cause in this life you make your choices, you take your stand, and you awaken from that youthful spell of immortality where it feels like the road’s gonna go on forever. And you walk alongside your chosen partner with the clock ticking. And you recognize that life is finite, that you’ve got just so much time. And so together you name the things that will give your life in that time its meaning, its purpose, its fullness, its very reality. And this is what you build together, this is what your love consists of. This is your life, you know? And these are things that you can hold onto when the storms come. As they will.

That phrase “youthful spell of immortality” lodged itself deeply in my midlife-crisis-weary brain. So perhaps it’s not surprising that it was still there when I watched a certain nanny descend from the sky three days later, and why the two are now inextricably linked to me. “Thinking is linking,” P. L. Travers said in her Library of Congress speech, and my brain is an incurable linker, forever connecting dots no one else sees any connection between, and, well, that’s okay with me. I’m just following the bread crumbs.

Mary Poppins came to London, to the heart of a land soaked in centuries of faërie, not to Chicago or Los Angeles; the American landscape feels as unmagical and unmythical as a cigarette butt on the New Jersey turnpike. Springsteen songs sound like sweat and dusty boots and engine grease—but there is the echo of something else as well.

Big wheels roll through fields Where sunlight streams Meet me in a land of hope and dreams . . .

Dreams will not be thwarted Faith will be rewarded Hear the steel wheels singing Bells of freedom ringing

Springsteen fans can correct me, but this is what I, the bystander, the uninitiated, hear in those songs: a blessing—a kind of hallowing—of the very grit and grime of our relentlessly prosaic American lives, while at the same time a longing for something transcendent to redeem them. He, like me in the movie theatre, is stuck on the ground staring at the wide stormy sky above, waiting, breathless, yearning.

Sky of blackness and sorrow (a dream of life) Sky of love, sky of tears (a dream of life) Sky of glory and sadness (a dream of life) Sky of mercy, sky of fear (a dream of life) Sky of memory and shadow (a dream of life) Your burning wind fills my arms tonight Sky of longing and emptiness Sky of fullness, sky of blessed life

The point—the connection between these dots in my brain—is not really childlike wonder as much as childlike freedom. It is freedom we long for. The open sky. The open door. The open road. We were born to run.

Wonder is easy to recapture, I think. And forget again, and recapture, and forget. The problem is not our capacity for wonder, per se, but our capacity, period. We run out of space. We are giant Alices in a shrinking rabbit house. We are Luke and Han and Leia struggling to wedge a saving grace into the rapidly closing walls of our lives, our hearts. We are characters in a Springsteen ballad wishing we could just throw a suitcase in the trunk, get out of this smothered town, and drive somewhere, anywhere, to the promised land. Our blank pages are cramped with scribbled failures. It is fear that crowds us—endless worries over money or health or family, the threat of foreclosures, responsibilities and cares that cast looming shadows over our fleeting days. It is our very mortality that crowds us—dead mothers and dying dreams. “Live life as if you’re going to die tomorrow,” we’re told. “Memento Mori.” The clock is ticking. And I think, Of course, and then, What a horrible way to have to live. There’s no room to play when you’re on death row.

Freedom can be remembered but not seized, or created, or even chosen; it is something granted to us. Someone else has to loosen the chains and throw open the door. A nanny. A time lord. A superhero. A droid. An angel. A Messiah.

In his wonderful little book Theology of Joy, Jurgen Moltmann quotes an old slave spiritual: “How can I play when I’m in a strange land?” In order to truly enjoy life, to laugh without burden and without fear, we must be free. “Only the innocent, namely children, or those liberated from guilt, namely the beloved, are able to play,” Moltmann observes. When we play, create, imagine even within our bondage, we anticipate the day when the chains will finally come off. “We discover with a laugh that things need not at all be as they are and as we have been told they have to be. When the fetters are suddenly removed, we try to walk upright.”

Without this clear hope, without the actual promise of a future liberation, all the messages in the world about finding our inner child or reawakening childlike wonder are nothing but sentimental nostalgia. Moltmann warns, “Games [and I might add, Disney movies] become hopeless and witless if they serve only to help us forget for a while what we cannot change anyway.” But Christ suffered so that we might laugh again, he writes, and our memories of childhood offer us the gift of images of a new creation—brief experiences of innocent trust and unhindered joy that foreshadow what is to come. “Life is not a struggle but a prelude, not preparatory labour but a preview of the future life of rejoicing.”

I realized after I left the theatre that Mary Poppins is the patron saint of those of us who are called to nurture the imaginations of children—all the children, not just the chronological ones. It starts with them, perhaps, but it doesn’t end with them.

“I’ve come to look after the Banks children,” she says when she arrives.

“Us?” the kids respond.

“Oh yes, you too.”

If there’s one theme that links both the old and the new Mary Poppins movies, it’s that you can’t get through to the adults unless you get through to the children first—and even when they grow up, they will need new children to remind them.

For we do need children to remind us, not to look backward in nostalgia, but to look forward to a freedom that childhood merely prefigures. Art—imagination—has the power to temporarily let us romp on the other side of the prison door, and audiences of Mary Poppins Returns were given the gift of two hours to rest in pure, childlike delight, to experience a tiny glimpse of what will someday become our own happy denouement:

A beloved, long-missed face, a dance in the sky together, and then, a return—to a familiar home suddenly made new. “I remember! It’s all true! Every impossible thing we imagined . . .”

I’m looking to the clouds. I’m waiting, holding my breath.

Maranatha. Come back soon.


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