the best advice so far: up

I’m not a film critic—at least that’s not the point of this blog, though I do seem to have snuck a few reviews in from time to time (e.g., Beauty and the Beast, Singin’ in the Rain, Cinderella, and a few others) where they illustrate a best-advice-so-far kind of observation.

Well, as it turns out, it’s another movie—Mary Poppins Returns—that has me posting again for the first time in six months.

Why the absence? Well, I’m actually going to save that for perhaps another post. My mood is too cheery at the moment to relive the trials of the last half year through words. So allow me to “trip a little light fantastic” for now and simply tell you where my thoughts have been since Mary popped back into town.

And for those yet to see this gem of a movie, I’ll be careful not to drop any major spoilers.

Again, life’s been rather topsy-turvy (or, as Meryl Streep’s wonderfully quirky character puts it, “turning turtle”) since late August. On New Year’s Eve, I came down with a stomach bug on top of things—one more thing beyond my control. Yet I did have choices to make nonetheless (because, of course, “You always have a choice.”)

As it happened, I decided to go out with friends. After all, I could sit in a comfortable recliner at a move theater with a stomachache just as well as I could with it at home. And so it was that we headed off to see Mary Poppins Returns.

Now, I’ll admit—I was a little skeptical. The 1964 film starred the inimitable Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke. I understand that it ran in theaters not merely for months, but for years. And the profits on this one film alone were enough to have allowed Walt Disney to purchase and develop the Florida property that today is Disney World.

How could a sequel released 54 years later ever measure up?

Well, color me surprised.

Not five minutes in, my spirits were already lifted, with “nowhere to go but up.”

Yes, the characters were on point. Every song remarkably managed to capture the spirit of the original. There are show-stopping dance numbers. There are plenty enough Easter eggs and references to the first film for trivia buffs. There are even a number of cameo appearances that are sure to delight Disney fans.

But none of these are what I want to write about here.

The truth is that the movie connected with me on a deeper level. It got me thinking. It restored a sense of purpose amidst hardship. And it inspired action—including breaking the blogging dearth.

Let me share just a few of those personal takeaways. Whether you see the movie or not, I’m hoping these reflections will encourage some of you who may be feeling stuck at present.

Perspective is Everything

The scene opens in the wee morning hours on a foggy, wet London street. Ominous clouds hang overhead as far as the eye can see. Everything is grimy and dark and cramped. Oily smoke rises from concrete factories. Bleak, bleak, bleak.

Have you ever been in a bad place so long—whether with health or finances, career or responsibilities, relationships or loss or fear—that you’ve forgotten what life was ever like before? You have this vague memory of yourself laughing, or of feeling awake or creative; but it’s been so long that it seems more like a dream, or like some movie you saw long ago, than anything that was ever a reality.  And you find yourself thinking, “This is it, the new normal; it’s never going to get better.”

I get it.

Listen, I have pondered and written and spoken and taught a lot about choices, and done so for a long time now:

“You always have a choice.”

“Being miserable is a choice.”

“Practice positivity.”

“You have to start from where you are, not from where you wish you were.”

“The sooner you accept that life is not fair, the happier you will be.”

I’ve got these core principles and many more ingrained in my thinking patterns and have practiced them for decades.

I believe them to the core of my being.

I’ve got an inner circle of friends who are supportive and encouraging.

And yet, I still find myself in places where it feels like I’m in a perma-fog. Like the sun is never coming out again. Like the best I can do (which is really quite a lot) is to try to redefine what happiness looks like “from here out.”

So there I am, being ushered cinematically into just such a mood cast by a dingy, pre-dawn London… when here comes Jack the leerie, singing his heart out about “the lovely London sky.”

I’ll be honest. My first thought was, Doesn’t look too lovely to me. In fact, it looks downright awful. Weird setting for this song. I think I’m irritated.

But then I listened more closely to Jack’s words as he continued to sing:

Don’t believe the things you’ve read—
You never know what’s up ahead,
Underneath the lovely London sky.
Have a pot of tea;
Mend your broken cup.
There’s a different point of view
Awaiting you
If you would just look up.

Ah. OK. We’re not ignoring the reality. We’re changing perspective.

The Best Advice So Far: Don't believe the things you've read—you never know what's up ahead.

In fact, this was a running theme throughout the movie:

A house is literally upside down every other Wednesday. It’s disorienting, dreaded, the worst day.

A family is in the middle of great loss and sadness, with the promise of only more to come.

As everyone is (again, quite literally) “lost in a fog” later on, our friend Jack and the leeries get to singing (and dancing) again, with this to offer:

And when the fog comes rolling in, just
Keep your feet upon the path.
Mustn’t mope and frown—or worse, lie down—
Don’t let it be your epitaph.

There’s more to it all, of course. But what came ringing through loud and clear to me throughout was that when things were bad with no hope of getting any better, it wasn’t Mary who fixed them. It was a new choice someone made, however small, to not just “lie down” and give in.

The children pick up a torch and join the march that leads them home.

The frazzled and frantic gypsy stands on her head, and things seem right-side-up again.

And, of course, it’s the choice to step outside with an old kite, despite the raging storm all around, that ushers in the magical nanny herself in the first place.

We Already Know How

The new Banks children are hungry with not enough money for dinner. They’re soaked to the bone and filthy. Mary suggests a bath. With bubbles. But the brothers and sister are just fine, they proclaim as they stand there, shivering miserably. And they are certainly too big for bubbles!

Mary’s (musical) response:

You three know it’s true—
That one plus one is two;
Yes, logic is the rock of our foundation.
I suspect and I’m never incorrect
That you’re far too old to give in to imagination…
Some people like to splash and play—
Can you imagine that?
And take a seaside holiday—
Can you imagine that?
Too much glee lives rings around the brain;
Take that joy and send it down the drain.

It’s said that “Misery loves company.” And while I know this is talking about the tendency to seek out other people with whom to share our woes, it occurs to me that misery enjoys its own company plenty well, talking to itself and becoming self-absorbed if we aren’t careful.

I found myself convinced once again, while watching Mary Poppins and the kids fall headlong into wonderful worlds of their own making, that the biggest problem we grown-ups face is a lack of imagination. That is, we use up all of our mental energy on what we already know is wrong or hard, rather than saving any of it for enjoyment and silliness and play.

Believe me: I know how hard it is to muster energy when you’re weighed down by life. But part of us knows how, or at least used to.

I remember being a kid and being sick. I mean fever, wheezing, snot-chapped, need-the-humidifier-and-Vick’s-VapoRub sick. And yet I still recall being able to find the joy in a fantasy book or coloring or solving a puzzle—right from my bed.

We were poorer when I was growing up than I’ve ever been since. But we somehow found fun things to do for free: making flip-book animations or backyard “zoos” or Muppet Show dioramas from scrap paper.

Yes, we were younger. And with youth comes a certain level of inherent vigor. “Kids are resilient” and all that. But I’m not convinced it’s entirely physical. In fact, I’m sure a fair degree of it comes down to cumulative choices regarding focus.

As adults, it becomes all too easy when we’re sick to see only our sickness.

When we’re poor, to fixate solely on what we lack.

When we’re tired, to talk mostly about how exhausted we are.

I tried an experiment recently. Having been struck by how often I was saying “I’m exhausted” (however true and warranted), I made the very short-term decision to cut those words from my conversations. The plan wasn’t to do the buck-up-camper routine or pretend to feel better than I did. It was merely to use greater restraint and creativity in expressing it. Unless someone directly asked how I was feeling, I didn’t tell them. And where they did ask, I said, “I’m a little sleepy” or “I think I’m ready for a nap.” Something about these words felt lighter. And before long, so did I. I didn’t magically get better. But I wasn’t feeding the beast, so to speak. And it helped.

In fact, as I said, on top of the months-long ailment I’ve been dealing with, I was sick to my stomach the night I went to see Mary Poppins Returns. No one would have blamed me if I’d stayed home. Instead, I decided that particular night, that I just couldn’t look at the same four walls any longer. I needed to be out where things happen, sick and all.

The next thing I knew, I was breathing underwater, swimming with dolphins and a massive rubber ducky. And I sort of… forgot?… even if just for a while, how sick I was.

You’re Never Too Old

That feeling that things will never be good again often comes with prolonged hardship. But, at least for me, it’s also compounded by getting older. By aging.

When I was a kid, I snapped my collar bones. I can still remember the pain, both of the break (once the shock wore off) and of the doctor pulling on my little bird-like frame to reset the bones. I was fitted with a harness that I was to wear for the next six weeks.

The very next morning, in fact, having stayed awake all night so that I could start in early enough that my mother wouldn’t interfere, I maneuvered myself—inch by painful inch—out of bed and out of that harness, all by myself. And when my mother finally did find me, it was at the piano, playing (however gingerly) and exclaiming with set jaw (i.e., lying through my teeth) that it felt better and I didn’t need the brace.

There was never a single second where I thought, “This will never heal. It doesn’t get any better.”

But as adults, we have this tendency to stop living in the present and to start marking our existence by how much time is left. And that gets us thinking—expecting—that age means broken bodies and ailments and a slippery slope to the grave.

Again, it’s true that our bodies age and things don’t heal as fast. But I don’t think negative expectations help us any, particularly those of the self-imposed variety.

And this doesn’t just apply to health. We seem to want to tell ourselves that there’s a certain age that’s “too old”…

to have fun or be silly

to go to the gym

to write that book

to sing or play music

to learn a new language

to start being a world traveler

to get a degree or take classes or change our career

I, like Mary Poppins, say, “Folderol, all.”

A fact about which I myself need more frequent reminders.

There is a scene in the movie where a 93-year-old man appears to suddenly jump straight from the floor to the top of a mahogany desk, where he does a merry jig. Very convincing special effects, I thought.

Come to find out… it wasn’t special effects. And he really was 93.

Another woman we all know and love later sings one of the most uplifting songs of the soundtrack. And she too is 93.

Both still smiling. Both still doing what they love most in life to do.

What an encouragement they were to me.

None of us knows what may lie ahead. Why not expect the best, rather than the worst?

Speaking of one of those nonagenarians, it seems appropriate to end with some of her words from the films closing number:

Life’s a balloon
That tumbles or rises
Depending on what is inside;
Fill it with hope
And playful surprises
And oh, deary ducks,
Then you’re in for a ride…
Choose the secret we know
Before life makes us grow:
There’s nowhere to go but UP!

The Best Advice So Far: Choose the secret we know / before life makes us grow: / There's nowhere to go but UP!

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