As a child, Julie Andrews was imprinted on my brain. I spent twenty years doing my best to follow in her footsteps as I went from being a preschool teacher to a piano teacher, always trying to adopt the Spoonful of Sugar method of making learning fun. One of my most cherished belongings was the soundtrack to Mary Poppins, and as a five year old, I warbled my own rendition of " If you want this choice position..." . Two years later, I did my darnedest to learn how to spell Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. So I was pleasantly disposed to see a film about the making of the movie which has loomed so large in my consciousness
The previews of Saving Mr. Banks had prepared me for an amusing confrontation between the stuffy P.L. Travers (delightfully played by Emma Thompson) and the irrepressible Walt Disney (Tom Hanks, with his ever present boyish charm); what they did not prepare me for was the catch in the throat and the ache of yearning.
For what this film is really about it the desperate, lifelong desire of the author to save her imaginative, playful, loving father from the demons that ultimately destroyed him.
The film is a triumphant look at the power of narrative therapy. Nothing can alter the fact of her father's alcoholism, and nothing Travers could do could save him from his early death. But rewriting the ending of Mary Poppins in such a way that the beleaguered, exasperated father of the film reconnects to his longing and lonely children may well have saved her own troubled soul. Thompson is brilliant as she slowly melts her armor of iciness and scorn, revealing the grief stricken and guilt ridden little girl who yearns with all of her unconscious might for a happy ending.
The sounds of sniffles were very loud in the cinema at the end of this movie, and I saw men and women alike openly weeping. In the film of Mary Poppins, Mr. Banks needs to be liberated from his workaholism and the tyrannical notion that money alone will buy happiness, security and well being. His redemption comes when he mends his children's torn toy and they "go fly a kite", a potent symbol for an attitude of free flying imagination. In real life Travers' father was not nearly enough concerned with the tangible well being and financial security of his family. His fantasies got away from him and he was so full of "spirit" ( at the literal level) that it killed him and left his family destitute. Where is the middle way of the masculine that can allow both duty and dreaming? That via media , I think. is captured in the character of Walt Disney himself., who never loses touch with his own imaginal life, but has his feet on the ground enough solidly enough to do whatever it takes ( and in this case, it is quite a lot!) to keep the promises he made to his daughters.
The question for the collective I was left with as I exited the theater is, "What is it about fatherhood or the Archetypal Father that needs saving right now? And just what might that look like?"
This week in the Red Book class, we've been pondering what it means to give yourself over to something much bigger than yourself, to something so big that it will inevitably defeat you.
The Red Book was such a thing for Jung- he worked on it faithfully for sixteen years before setting it aside, unfinished. In old age, he returned to it once again but could not finish it then, either. It was still too big for him. I love that the manuscript breaks off mid-sentence, reading, " I knew how frightfully inadequate this undertaking was, but despite much work and many distractions I remained true to it, even if another possibility never..."
I am reminded in this of Mozart's unfinished Requiem Mass, the Cathedral of St' John the Divine in New York (still incomplete after 100 years) and how my own quest to master playing Bach's Goldberg Variations will never fully be realized. It is a wonderful thing to give yourself to something larger than you are.
In this image from the Red Book, Jung captures the act of surrendering to the spiritual life.
Rilke also knew this state well, and his poem, "The Man Watching", is a moving meditation on the theme.
What do you give yourself to
The Man Watching
by Rainer Maria Rilke
I can tell by the way the trees beat, after
so many dull days, on my worried windowpanes
that a storm is coming,
and I hear the far-off fields say things
I can't bear without a friend,
I can't love without a sister.
The storm, the shifter of shapes, drives on
across the woods and across time, and the world looks as if it had no age:
the landscape, like a line in the psalm book,
is seriousness and weight and eternity.
What we choose to fight is so tiny!
What fights with us is so great.
If only we would let ourselves be dominated as things do by some immense storm,
we would become strong too, and not need names.
When we win it's with small things,
and the triumph itself makes us small.
What is extraordinary and eternal does not want to be bent by us.
I mean the Angel who appeared to the wrestlers of the Old Testament:
when the wrestlers' sinews
grew long like metal strings,
he felt them under his fingers
like chords of deep music.
Whoever was beaten by this Angel
(who often simply declined the fight)
went away proud and strengthened
and great from that harsh hand,
that kneaded him as if to change his shape.
Winning does not tempt that man.
This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively,
by constantly greater beings.
If you live in the Bay Area, I urge you to run and go see the Anders Zorn exhibit at the Legion of Honor. This beautifully curated exhibit of one of Sweden's finest painters is a wonderful exploration of a talent that straddled the aims of the Impressionists (with his finely tuned sensitivities to light and water) with the penetrating eye of a realistic portrait artist . But it is also something more: it is the visual map of a life that ran full circle.
Anders Zorn was born an illegitimate child in rural Sweden, and he spent the first twelve years of his life on his grandparents' farm in the countryside. His talent was obvious at a young age: by the time he was 15, he was a student at the Royal Academy of Art in Stockton, where he quickly became a favorite painter in the aristocratic circles. He married a wealthy woman, Emma, and together they travelled the world, establishing a chic residence in Paris where he became the darling of the elite. Eventually, American high society also sought after him as well. Zorn was in such demand that at one point, he made $15,000 a day from his portraits of industrial and business tycoons and their wives, though his keen eye occasionally revealed psychological characteristics the model would have preferred not to show- the interior iciness of a society matron, the troubled gravitas of one of our past presidents. At the end of his extraordinarily successful career, Zorn returned to Sweden, to the very rural environs where he had spent his childhood years. He traded his chic Left Bank apartment for his grandmother's wood cottage. It was in this home of rustic humility, enlarged to accomodate his art supplies, that Zorn spent the last ten years of his life. He returned to the painting of the landscape that had nurtured his young soul, celebrating the simple pleasures of the woods, the light, the grazing of cattle, the bathers by the seashore, the knitter with yarn and needles. The final room is a showcase of a man who had come home- yes to Sweden, but more to himself, to the very act of living and simply being.
I was reminded of this wonderful poem by Mary Oliver:
I see or hear
that more or less
that leaves me
like a needle
in the haystack
It was what I was born for –
to look, to listen,
to lose myself
inside this soft world –
to instruct myself
over and over
Nor am I talking
about the exceptional,
the fearful, the dreadful,
the very extravagant –
but of the ordinary,
the common, the very drab,
the daily presentations.
Oh, good scholar,
I say to myself,
how can you help
but grow wise
with such teachings
as these –
the untrimmable light
of the world,
the ocean’s shine,
the prayers that are made
out of grass?
The Zorn exhibit showcases a wish I have for all of us: that we, too, may return to our essence and find ourselves re-enchanted by our lives, seeing in the undulating waves and the dappled meadows around us how the ordinary is drenched with light and spirit, how the world is saturated with a beauty more luminous than any jewel.
Today is the feastday of Epiphany. It is one of my favorite celebrations of the year: the commemoration of the coming of light and a reminder that you can discover the sacred in the ordinary and maybe even in the awful. Having just returned from a weekend at Bishop's Ranch, I carry in my body the memory that cows are not fragrant and delicate creatures. The manger- depicted here as a barn- was probably actually a cave where farm animals slept. Imagine finding God there.
This is exactly what the tradition of alchemy teaches also us: that the first step of the spiritual journey to transformatio is the descent into the cave, the darkness, the blackness. The first step of the journey is the nigredo, when everything falls apart. We cannot begin the journey to our true self until we've had a sufficient number of disasters, disappointments, failures and humiliations under our belt. In the symbolic lens of the alchemists, two of the first ingredients needed are actually excrement and a fire that reduced things to ash. They alone may provide the heat and intensity to transform your life into a spiritual quest. This is good news! When everything is shitty, when life stinks and everything is in ruins, you know have the raw ingredients to begin the Great Work.
In the Biblical story of Epiphany, three magi travel from afar expecting to find a new king. You can imagine their surprise when they discover that following the Light leads them to an out- of- the- way hovel where a woman has just given birth to an illegitimate Jewish boy. After giving their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrh (not exactly helpful to a new mother, but symbolic of a leader who will master the realms of earthly power, priestly power and overcome death), they head home but are warned that they cannot return the way they have come. Life will be forever different for them after this encounter, and the old roads simply won't work.
Today was the first day of the class I am teaching on Living an Alchemical Life. The painting of Epiphany above can actually be seen as a map of the entire alchemical journey. On the sides, two long line of pilgrims descend through a gateway of a building that is in ruins. One by one, the seekers dismount their regal steeds, a psychological symbol of dismantling the ego (a delightful play on "getting off their high horse"). Now humbled, they encounter the ox and the ass, representatives of the lowly instinctual self on the way to genuflect to the Holy. Above the heads of the Holy Family is a peacock- the ancient symbol of spiritual transformation, beckoning us to learn the art of seeing the world not in black white, but in a myriad of colors and possibilities, all shimmering with divine light. The Christ child is crowned with a halo in the colors of red and gold, signaling the end of the process: a new consciousness has been born (citrinitas) and union with the divine completed (rubedo).
Epiphany is not something that happened once in history to one set of people in the MIddle East somewhere. It is something that is always true, for each one of us. If we treat the story as a dream, where each character represents an aspect of ourselves, Epiphany teaches us that the divine lies waiting to be discovered not in palaces of jewels and wrapped in fine linen, or in the fine horses of our Egoic self- no, it lies hidden where we least expect it: in the midst of darkness, fear, and even disgrace. In the cast off and unwanted parts of ourselves that we have had no room for.
In this season of Epiphany, may you, too, find a light within that guides you to unexpected new and glorious life- where you least expect it.