Marry Poppins and the Puzzles of Paradox

By Helene Vachet

Originally printed in the January-February 2004 issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation: Vachet, Helene. "Marry Poppins and the Puzzles of Paradox." Quest  92.1 (JANUARY-FEBRUARY 2004):28-33.

Theosophical Society - Helene Vachet had a spiritually eclectic upbringing, which included the study of Theosophy, Buddhism, and Liberal Catholicism. She has a BA in history and English from Immaculate Heart College and an MA in counseling from CSUN. Helene has been a teacher, a counselor, an assistant principal, and a writer for New Perspectives Magazine, as well as a contributor to Quest Magazine. She moved to Ojai from Los Angeles with her husband and enjoys antiquing, walking her dog, gardening, researching and writing, listening to audio books, viewing films, and engaging in stimulating conversation.

Mary Poppins is probably the most famous nanny in history. She arrives out of nowhere to apply for a position with the Banks family and is hired on the spot, without references. Mary Poppins is able to evoke in others a recognition of truth, especially in Mr. Banks, who says that she paid them a signal honor by coming to their house. The lesson Mary Poppins teaches is to use our intuition, to look within, to find the truth. This theme continues throughout the stories, particularly in adventures involving the two older Banks children, Michael and Jane. Mary Poppins almost always denies that anything unusual happened, in order to make them think. Likewise, each adventure has an encrypted, paradoxical message to make the reader look within.

The Mystery of Expectations

Going upstairs to see the nursery, Mary Poppins rides up the banister of the staircase, going against gravity. Only the children notice this phenomenon; Mrs. Banks does not. What is the meaning of riding up the banister? Obviously, this establishes Mary Poppins as a person with magical powers and is a preview of the greater magic to follow.

Once in the nursery, Mary Poppins begins to unpack. The children have looked in her suitcase and foundit empty, but Mary Poppins takes out "seven flannel nightgowns, a pair of boots, a set of dominoes, two bathing-caps, a postcard album and, last of all, came a folding camp bedstead complete with blankets and an eiderdown, all to the wonder and amazement of the children." This story illustrates the paradox of expectations: When you expect big things to happen, you get nothing; but when you expect nothing, you get everything. Mary Poppins herself, presents a paradox. Her looks are unremarkable. She is certainly no beauty; she is plain like a Dutch doll. Her role in life is also not powerful—she is a nanny. Caroline Myss, noted medical intuitive, calls paradox the language of the Divine. She says in Spiritual Power, Spiritual Practice that "small is big and big is small—Heaven speaks to us in paradox."

Pamela L. Travers, the Discoverer of Mary Poppins

My encounter with Mary Poppins began with the Disney movie starring the truly magical Julie Andrewsas Mary Poppins, Dick Van Dyke as Bert the chimney sweep, Glynis Johns as Mrs. Banks, and the great David Tomlinson as Mr. Banks. The movie was delightful, but gave no inkling of the real magic of the universe embedded in the stories. To find that mystery, one has to read the books by Pamela L. Travers. Yet somehow Mary Poppins was not part of my childhood reading. It was not until 2002, when I was asked to review A Lively Oracle: A Centennial Celebration of P. L. Travers, Creator of Mary Poppins, that I became intrigued with the character of Mary Poppins and with Travers, who said that she didn"t create Mary Poppins, but discovered her.

Travers was born of Irish descent in the outback of Australia in 1899. Early in life, she becameaware of her gift of storytelling and would entertain her brother and sisters with tales that she created. After a brief career on the stage in Sydney, she went to Ireland, where she wrote for the Irish Statesman and befriended A. E. (George Russell), the famous Irish poet and Theosophist. She became an intimate part of a literary circle composed of W. B. Yeats, Padraic Colum, James Stephens, Lady Gregory, George Bernard Shaw, and others. Later she moved to England and wrote for the New English Weekly. There her circle of friends expanded to include A. R. Orage, P. D. Ouspensky and G. I. Gurdjieff. Meanwhile, W. B. Yeats translated the Upanishads, which was to have a profound influence on Travers, as did Hindu mythology and Buddhism, the lore of the Navajo Indians, and Jungian psychology. Travers wrote numerous poems and articles for well-known journals (later in life, she wrote mainly Jungian articles for Parabola magazine) as well as books, among which are seven Mary Poppins stories produced between 1934 and 1988.

The Meaning of Paradox

Mary Poppins, one could say, resembles a guardian angel, daimon, or cosmic being who comes from time to time to visit Earth. She never settles with the Banks family for very long, but while she is there, she teaches the family, primarily the children, about the deeper meaning of life. She does this through magical outings with the children during the day or at night when the children dream or wake up and seem to leave their room. Joseph Campbell wrote that we must follow our bliss and that to do this, we must put ourself at risk and doors will open. In the Mary Poppins stories, the children follow their bliss, always putting themselves seemingly at risk, and the universe opens for them and, vicariously, for us.

What intrigues me is the interpretation of these adventures. Their meaning is embedded in paradox,like a Zen koan or the wonderful stories of the Upanishads, part of the sacred mythology of India. Rohit Mehta, the Indian and Theosophical scholar, writes in The Call of the Upanishads that "A paradox is the placing of two opposites in juxtaposition. There is no solution to a paradox, a paradox can only be resolved or more truly dissolved" (p.12). Mehta explains that to reconcile a paradox, we must see the two opposites existing in the same place and at the same time. Since the human mind cannot conceive of this, he says, we finally reach a field of nothingness because the two opposites have canceled each other out, leaving nothing. "It is out of this nothingness, out of this negativity that a positive experience is born" and we are able to reconcile the opposites. Again and again in Mary Poppins, Travers asks the question: What will the resolution be when the opposites meet?

The Symbolism of the East Wind

The first chapter of the Mary Poppins series, "East Wind," explains how she arrives at numberseventeen Cherry Tree Lane. Mary Poppins first appears as a shape, "tossed and bent under the wind." Twoof the Banks children, Jane and Michael, notice that the shape is carried by the air and flung at the gate,then lifted by the wind and carried to the front door. Later, Michael Banks says to Mary Poppins, "You"ll never leave us, will you?" Mary Poppins replies, "I"ll stay till the wind changes." In other stories, she descends from the sky riding a kite or her parrot-headed umbrella.

What is the significance of the sky and wind bringing Mary Poppins to Cherry Tree Lane and determiningthe duration of her sojourn there? This reference is reminiscent of a passage from The Voice of theSilence by H. P. Blavatsky, a treatise derived from The Book of the Golden Precepts, studied by mystical students in the East. In fragment forty, the text says, ""Tis only then thou canst become a "Walker of the Sky" who treads the winds above the waves, whose step touches not the waters"(p. 9). The glossary excerpt for this fragment refers to this siddhi, or spiritual power, as being a "sky-walker" wherein "the body of the yogi becomes as one formed of the wind; as a cloud from which limbs have sprouted out," after which the yogi "beholds the things beyond the seas and stars; he hears the language of the devas and comprehends it and perceives what is passing in the mind of the ant" (p. 77). Known as the Great Exception, this aptly describes the powers of Mary Poppins, meaning in this context that she has gone beyond the evolution of humanity and her life now stands in contrast to those who have not yet reached this stage.

Discerning the Nature of Free Will

In the chapter entitled, "John and Barbara"s Story," a starling, a wise bird, visits the nursery at Cherry Tree Lane and communes with Mary Poppins and the babies, John and Barbara. Through their conversation, we become aware that the babies, the starling, and Mary Poppins understand the language of the wind, the stars, and the sunlight. However, the starling laments that the children will soon forget everything about where they came from. The children, of course, vehemently protest. Soon, however, they do forget.

This theme is explored further in the chapter entitled, "The New One" in Mary Poppins Comes Back. When the baby Annabel is born, the starling makes another visit, and he turns somersaults on the windowsill, clapping his wings wildly together each time his head comes up. "What a treat!" he pants, when at last he stands up straight. (Now he had someone to whom he could speak again.) The starling asks Annabel to tell the fledgling that accompanies him to tell where she came from:

"I am earth and air and fire and water," she said softly. " I come from the Dark where all things have their beginnings. I come from the sea and its tides, I come from the sky and its stars, I come from the sun and its brightness—and I come from the forest of earth. Slowly, I moved at first always sleeping and dreaming. I remembered all I had been and I thought of all I shall be. And when I had dreamed my dream I awoke and came swiftly. I heard the stars singing as I came and I felt warm wings about me. I passed the beasts of the jungle and came through the dark, deep waters." "It was a long journey! A long journey indeed!" said the starling softly, lifting his head from his breast. "And ah, so soon forgotten!"

This episode is reminiscent of the soul's encounter with the river Lethe in Greek mythology. Thesouls of the dead bathe there before they are born, so they will not remember their previous history and choices made before birth (karma) until their life is over. If we knew what happened in past lives with the people we know in the present, we might avoid these people and many of life's experiences. How can we operate with free will and choice if we know our sacred contracts, asks Caroline Myss, author of Sacred Contracts. In The Secrets of Dr. Traverner, Diane Fortune, the occult fiction writer of the early twentieth century, wrote about a character who refused to come completely into her body because she knew her fate and was afraid to face it. This presents the paradox that from ignorance we exercise free will; from knowledge we forfeit our right to choose.

Exploring Moon Magic at the Zoo

One day Michael mentions to Mary Poppins that he wonders what happens at the zoo at night. After the children are put in bed that night, a disembodied voice calls to Michael and Jane and tells them to get dressed and leads them to the zoo. There everything is the opposite of the usual: the animals run the zoo, the people are in cages, and all of the animals coexist in perfect accord. Although the lion that the children encounter says that he is the king, the real king is a hamadryad, a huge hooded snake that Mary Poppins calls "cousin." This evening is an occasion for the meeting and the resolution of opposites, ostensibly because Mary Poppins's birthday fell on the full moon. The climax of the activity was the grand chain when all of the animals circle around Mary Poppins in dance. The hamadryad escorts the children to the dance, and he gives Mary Poppins a snakeskin as her birthday present. The next day, she wears it as a belt, proving to the children that the adventure was real.

What lesson was Travers trying to convey with this story? The idea of rebirth may be demonstrated bythe imagery of both the moon and the serpent, the former having phases and the latter shedding its skin.The moon dies with each cycle and is resurrected anew. The snake sheds its skin and is renewed as life is renewed by the progeny of each generation.

Another aspect of the story is reflected in Mary Poppins calling the hamadryad "cousin." Heinrich Zimmer, the great German scholar of Eastern religions and their iconography, explains that in South India, a nagini or naga (snake deity) in the family tree gives it greater importance. It is believed in Indian mythology that nagas are genii, guardian spirits, considered to be superior to humans, and they are renowned for their cleverness and charm. They traditionally wear a precious jewel in their heads, and they dwell in resplendent palaces studded with gems and pearls at the bottoms of rivers, lakes, and seas. They are the keepers of the life energy, he says, that is stored in the earthly waters of springs, wells, and ponds as well as being the guardians of the riches of the deep sea: corals, shells, and pearls.

The story of Nagarjuna is a favorite of both Heinrich Zimmer and the noted Theosophist Joy Mills. When the Buddha began teaching his doctrine of nirvana, he soon realized that humankind was not prepared to fully accept his doctrine of the void. They shrank from the implications of his vision. Therefore, he entrusted the deeper interpretation of his doctrines to the nagas, who were told to safeguard it until people were ready to understand. It wasn't until seven centuries had passed that the great sage Nagarjuna, Arjuna of the Nagas, was born. He was initiated by the serpent kings into the "truth that all is void." He brought to humanity the full-fledged Buddhist teachings of the Mahayana which illustrate the paradox of emptiness being full and fullness being empty.

Buddhist scholar Malcolm David Eckel says that the verses of Nagarjuna can be interpreted to mean that emptiness is a state of awareness, not just a state of being. However, a most intriguing resolution was demonstrated by Don Campbell, author of The Mozart Effect, at the Theosophical Society in the Ojai Valley. He filled a metal cup with miscellaneous objects from his pocket and then hit it with a gong. The resulting sound was faint and muffled. When he hit the empty cup with the gong, the sound that resulted was a beautiful and melodious chime.

Discovering the Magic of the Sun

In "The Evening Out," Jane and Michael are able to walk in the sky, where they are invited to aheavenly circus, the polar opposite of the earthly circus at the zoo. Here the animals are theconstellations and the circus master is the sun. Instead of dancing the grand chain, the animalsdance the "Dance of the Wheeling Sky," apparently all in honor of Mary Poppins"s evening out. Michael is given the moon to hold, presumably because he had asked for it earlier during the day. When it begins to wane and shrink in size, Michael says to the sun,

"It couldn"t have been a real moon, could it?" The sun replies, "What is real and what is not? Can you tell me or I you? Perhaps we shall never know more than this: that to think a thing is to make it true." And so, if Michael thought he had the Moon in his arms—why, then, he had indeed. "Then," said Jane wonderingly, "is it true that we are here tonight or do we only think we are?" The Sun smiled again, a little sadly. "Child," he said, "seek no further! From the beginning of the world all men have asked that question. And I, who am Lord of the Sky—even I do not know the answer!"

Joseph Campbell in his elegant prose describes this situation of the sun being all light without darkness, containing only the shadows of those who do not open to the light:

What we all want surely, is to know the truth, even though its full knowledge may comeonly with the dissolution or stilling of the activity of the world. And so, whereas we have a deluding creation, maya [illusion] on the one hand, we have an illuminating destruction on the other, and between the two flows the enigma of the universe (p.264).

This story is also reminiscent of the paradoxical iconography of the Hindu deity Shiva. He is surrounded by circles of flame, rings of fire representing the sun. Shiva"s dance is the universe. A skull and a new moon--death and rebirth at the same moment, the moment of becoming-- adorn his hair. In one hand, Shiva holds a little drum that goes tick-tick-tick. That is the drum of time, the tick of time that shuts out the knowledge of eternity. We are enclosed in time. But in Shiva"s opposite hand is a flame that burns away the veil of time (the veil of maya), and opens our minds to eternity (truth).

Finding One"s Shadow on Hallowe"en

In Mary Poppins in the Park, the last chapter is called "Hallowe"en." The events of the day foreshadow the events of the evening. Mrs. Corry, a friend of Mary Poppins, accuses Michael and Jane of stepping on her shadow. Jane tells Mrs. Corry that she didn"t think that shadows could feel. Mrs. Corry replies that this is nonsense and that shadows feel twice as much as we do. She warns the children to take care of their shadows or their shadows won"t take care of them. Finally, she asks them how they would like to find out that their shadows had run away. "And what"s a man without a shadow? Practically nothing, you might say!"

Much later, Michael arouses Jane during the night because he woke up and saw their shadows outside the house. They leave their bedroom and follow their shadows. When they finally catch up, Jane asks, "Why did you run away?" The shadows reply that it is Halloween, the night when every shadow is free. Also, this is a very special occasion—there is a full moon and it has fallen on the Birthday Eve (Mary Poppins' birthday, of course). The two shadows flit away with the children not far behind, on their way to the park for the party.

This episode brings to mind a passage in The Sorcerers' Crossing: A Woman"s Journey by Taisha Abelar. She was a student of Carlos Castaneda and gives us a glimpse of the American Indian perspective of the shadow. Since Travers had been initiated into the Navajo mysteries and given a secret name, this knowledge was hers also:

"I have news for you," Clara continued. "You"ve seen shadows move before as a child, but then you were not yet rational so it was all right to see them move. As you grew up, your energy was harnessed by social constraints, and so you forgot you had seen them moving, and only remember what you think is permissible to remember" (p.74).

At the party, the children have a conversation with the Bird Woman regarding the nature of shadows. Jane says that shadows aren"t real because they go through things and that they are made of nothing. The Bird Woman responds, "Nothin"s made of nothin", lovey. And that"s what they"re for—to go through things. Through and out on the other side—it"s the way they get to be wise. You take my word for it, my loves, when you know what your shadder knows—then you know a lot. Your shadder's the other part of you, the outside of your inside—if you understand what I mean."

During the party, in further conversation with the Bird Woman, the children ask her why Mary Poppins"sshadow and that of Mrs. Corry were not free like the others. The Bird Woman replies that Mrs. Corry wasold and that she had learned a lot. "Let "er shadder escape—not she. And as for Mary Poppins"shadder—It wouldn"t leave" er if you paid it—not for a thousand pound!"

Once we acknowledge our shadows and cease to lie to ourselves about who we are, we will have the greatest protection against evil. Then we will be able to utilize the creative energies of the shadow to assist us on our journey toward inpiduation. Carl Jung said that our first contact with the unconscious is always with the shadow. From the perspective of Jungian psychology, the shadow is the part of ourselves that is unknown, a paradox in itself. How can a part of ourselves be unknown to us? To become whole and fully conscious, we must integrate our unknown self, our shadow, with our conscious selves. To do this, we must search for clues in the secret recesses of our being—our deepest desires and our greatest fears. We must analyze the reasons for our mirth, our sadness, our illnesses, and our addictions and address those parts of us, however unpleasant or diminishing they may be to our persona, the face we present to the world. There is a positive aspect to this investigation, say Connie Zweig and Steve Wolf in Romancing the Shadow: "The shadow reveals its gold in creative works, which build bridges between the conscious and unconscious worlds" (p. 41).

To express the inexpressible in a form both enjoyable and meaningful was Travers"s task. We are both entertained and prodded to look within while following the adventures of her famous nanny, Mary Poppins, and the Banks children. If we are successful in decoding the messages, perhaps for a brief moment we can still the cacophony of voices in our mind to hear the truth.

Mary Poppins books by P. L. Travers: 

Mary Poppins (1934)

Mary Poppins Comes Back (1935)

Mary Poppins Opens the Door (1944)

Mary Poppins in the Park (l952)

Mary Poppins from A-Z (1963) 

Mary Poppins in Cherry Tree Lane (1982)

Mary Poppins and the House Next Door (1988)



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Blavatsky, H.P. The Voice of the Silence. Adyar: Theosophical Publishing House, 1992. 

Campbell, Joseph. Myths to Live By. New York: Penguin Compass, 1993. 

Campbell, Joseph. The Power of Myth. New York: Doubleday, 1988. 

Campbell, Joseph. Baksheeh and Brahman. New York: Harper-Collins, 1955. 

Draper Ellen Dooling, and Jenny Koralek., Eds. A Lively Oracle: A Centennial Celebration of P. L. Travers, Creator of Mary Poppins. New York: Larson Publications, 1999. 

Eckel, Malcolm David. To See the Buddha: A Philosopher"s Quest for the Meaning of Emptiness. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1992. 

Hillman, James. The Soul"s Code: In Search of Character and Calling. New York: Random House, 1969. 

Mehta, Rohit. The Call of the Upanishads. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1970. 

Myss, Caroline. Sacred Contracts: Awakening Your Divine Potential. New York: Random House, 2001. 

Myss, Caroline. Spiritual Power, Spiritual Practice. (Part of 6-CD Set Audio Collection.) Boulder, CO: SoundsTrue, 2001. 

Zimmer, Heinrich. Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization. New York: Pantheon Books, 1953. 

Zweig, Connie and Steve Wolf. Romancing the Shadow: A Guide to Soul Work for a Vital, Authentic Life. New York: Ballantine 1997.

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