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.


5 April 2015 | guest authors |

Bonnie ZoBell: San Diego Is My Muse

Bonnie ZoBell
photo by Elsa

As Bonnie ZoBell explains below, the stories in her new collection, What Happened Here, are linked very closely by their geography—one city block, and as you’ll see it’s the block where ZoBell lives. You can read an excerpt from the collection’s novella at The Nervous Breakdown, but before you do that, let’s learn how San Diego has worked its way into ZoBell’s writing as well as her heart.

When I left San Diego for graduate school in New York City in 1979, I was sure I’d never return. I’d had enough of the small-beach-towns-strung-together world for a lifetime. There was no literary community to speak of. Conservatism abounded with all the branches of the military and retirees living here. Nobody quite knew what an MFA was—though in retrospect I don’t think other towns did either. So I researched them in San Diego State University’s library. This was long before the age of computers.

I sent out applications with abandon. Wouldn’t Arizona be cool with all that desert? Bowling Green had history, opening in 1910, and wonderful faculty. The farther away the schools were, the better. Yes, it was expensive to apply to so many, but I had to get out of here.

How wrong I was, I now think thirty years later. I loved living in New York, yes. Twice I told Columbia University’s MFA program that, no, I couldn’t go there because I’d never been east of Utah. And then finally I did. I arrived at the graduate dorm at night in a cab, something I hadn’t had much use for until moving to the East Coast. When I looked out my eighth floor window the next morning, I realized all over again that I couldn’t attend Columbia because I didn’t own a suit, and everyone I saw was wearing one. I couldn’t afford to buy a suit. (Columbia had given me a fellowship.) Not until later did someone explain that the building I looked out on was the law school. Everyone wore a suit was because big firms were interviewing on campus.

That first day, I put on a huge coat that I’d bought in San Diego that made me feel constricted, like I was trying to walk in a mummy sleeping bag. I wore no shoes, as I hadn’t any time I could get away with it in the San Diego beach town I’d moved from. A very tall black doorman in a uniform with epaulets and a military peaked cap told me in a booming voice, “Go put your shoes on!”

I’d never seen a doorman before. But boy was he right. NYC isn’t the place to go barefoot.


4 March 2015 | guest authors |

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