Tania Luna: How Mary Poppins Secretly Shaped My Life

Tania Luna
photo: Zack DeZun

Tania Luna is the co-author (with her business partner Leeann Renninger) of Surprise: Embrace the Unpredictable and Engineer the Unexpected, a book about the positive benefits that can come when you don’t know what’s going to happen next—and how you can cultivate the potential to be surprised in your professional and personal life. (And, too, how to delightfully surprise others; there’s some lessons in here that I’ll be doing my best to incorporate into this site and other projects in the future…)

For this Beatrice guest essay, Luna tells us about a time that she was recently surprised by a book… and about the deeper, underlying principle of surprise she recognized in its pages.

Recently, I decided to stay away from fiction. That sentence sent a chill down my spine, but it’s true. I am an obsessive story reader (I’m also an obsessive chocolate eater and workaholic, but that’s a different conversation). As a kid, I used to skip school to finish a novel. As an adult, I’ve postponed meetings and missed more train stops than I can count just to soak up a few more chapters. My life had gotten so busy that I decided to stick to nonfiction. The resolution worked reasonably well. That is, until I glanced up at my bookshelf one night. Before I knew it, I snatched up a book, and in my hands I held the soft, worn pages of Mary Poppins.

When I was a child, my grandmother made me a swing from a broken lawn chair that she suspended from the ceiling. I would hang in the middle of the room, kicking my legs in and out, as she read me Mary Poppins. I looked at the book in my now grownup hands, and I could remember my grandmother’s voice, the way she’d clear her throat, the rustling of the pages, the swing pressing into my thighs, the way the lamp light danced in her reading glasses. But I couldn’t recall the story. My fiction ban notwithstanding, I decided that a quick dip into a children’s book couldn’t hurt my productivity all that much.

I was wrong, of course. As soon as I read the words “Chapter I, East Wind,” I was transported to P.L. Travers’s strange, whimsical world, and I didn’t come back up for air again until there were no words left to read. From beginning to end, Mary Poppins filled me with surprise.

Of course, the story itself is surprising. Tea parties hosted in the air. A painted plate that serves as a portal to another universe. A cow searching the whole world for a fallen star.

But the biggest surprise of all was that I was left with the unshakeable suspicion that Mary Poppins shaped the course of my life. The more I read, the more I realized that I had learned some of the most important lessons of my life from Mary.

1. Unapologetically Mary
P.L. Travers’s Mary is not Disney’s Mary. She is not beautiful. She does not sing or dance. Mary is strict and impatient. She is also vain. There isn’t a single mirror she passes without taking a moment to admire her reflection. Mary isn’t perfect, but what makes her magical is her total acceptance of herself. Just like the children and animals she surrounds herself with, it never occurs to her to question whether she should be anyone other than Mary Poppins.

2. Adults forget
The most heartbreaking aspect of the story is the idea that children know all of life’s secrets. But as we get older, we become preoccupied with what we ought to do rather than what we might do. When Mr. Wigg’s landlady walks in on him floating in the air, she is outraged. She calls his behavior undignified—especially for a man his age. It made me wonder what behaviors we scoff at as adults that we found irresistible as children. It made me realize that I’ve spent my life trying so, so hard not to forget.

3. A balance between surprising and serious
Lastly, Mary exemplifies a balance that I strive for in my personal life, and even the balance we help our clients find on a company-wide level. She makes time for play, wonder, and adventure. And she also sets rules, boundaries, and expectations. She reminds us that we don’t have to choose between being kids who play all day and adults who work all day.

I am an adult who designs adventures for a living and teaches companies how to be skillfully surprising. All this time, I thought I was the one who brought this love of surprise into my life. But it turns out maybe it was Mary. And just as Mary tends to do, she flew in and flew out of my life to remind me that there is always enough time for a good story.

5 April 2015 | guest authors |