A few months ago, we watched Mary Poppins together as a family for the first time. It was marvelous. I don’t just mean the film itself; the songs were as rousing and the story’s oddities as amusing as they were in my childhood, but my real pleasure lay in watching my daughters’ constant surprise at the inimitable British nanny. They gaped at her tape-measure and bottomless carpet bag, and toppled over giggling at the frenzied energy of the penguin waiters. In the kitchen, I smiled to myself more than once; Little Jo’s laughter takes on an infectious quality when it runs out of air and lapses into rolling chuckles.
But I turned my full attention to the screen when Mary Poppins, Bert, Jane, and Michael began climbing a flight of smoky stairs.
I still remembered how the next scene had captivated me when I was young.
Suspended above the skyline of London, the four explorers watch as the brief, ambrosial benediction of the day’s last light gleams out violet and gold over the rooftops. The bells sing their salute to the sun in the distance. In a low voice, Bert remarks (with his unplaceable Cockney-esque accent, but moved to reverence nonetheless):
What did I tell ya? There’s the whole world at your feet.
And who gets to see it but the birds, the stars, and the chimney sweeps.
His words echoed in my ear as the merry crew passed “out of the night air” and into the madcap revels of Bert’s friends.
The birds, the stars, and the chimney sweeps. Each kind in the place of its calling, doing the work given it to do.
I lingered in the hush of that twilight scene for the next few days. To be sure, I’ve never seen the breathtaking sights of London with my own eyes.
I have seen the center of our neighbors’ tree flame out golden-green in the early evening, as if its heart were laid bare for the slimmest of moments and I could see – if I didn’t blink – the secret joys of past summers stored up within.
I’ve glimpsed fog shrouding the streetlight on my way back from comforting a sick child in the middle of the night: a mist altogether mysterious, brooding, and a little suggestive of 221B Baker Street.
I’ve heard the wind come up through leafy aspen branches like a great sea-swell while sitting in the garden, praying for peace for a shattered mind.
I have rested my hand countless times in the strong and gentle clasp of the one I love, and still marvel that there’s a space there bearing a shape and a welcome that are wholly mine.
I’ve watched my vermilion tulips from Mother’s Day release their petals in a silken splash onto the tabletop, gorgeous to the very end, and woken the next morning to find the petals bobbing in a pan of water – a “flower boat race” left for the girls, by a father who knows how to play.
And who, as Bert would say, gets to see these things but this mother of these two children, and the wife of this husband?
This woman, in this place?
Sometimes I come back down to earth after listening to a song or reading a chapter of a book, and I wish for a time that I lived in England or Italy or Prince Edward Island or the arable countryside. Good artists and authors work this kind of magic as deftly as Arachne’s fingers upon the loom; they draw us in, and widen the bounds of our dreams, our appetites for beauty, our “scope for imagination.”
But God’s trails and hints and glimmers are everywhere. The noblest property of art isn’t its power to create everlasting castles in the air or to make us all into chimney sweeps in Edwardian London, but its ability to help us see what is before our very eyes – and what is lasting.
“A right imagination… will therefore send the man forth from its loftiest representations to do the commonest duty of the most wearisome calling in a hearty and hopeful spirit” (George MacDonald).
If I pay attention, there are small and large windows where I am that display Him day after day. Framed in my workaday routines and trials are beauties that no one else has seen. It’s rather amazing to think that these gems are intentionally placed where only I will clap eyes on them, but the Father of Lights is the giver of every good and perfect gift – and so I take them up, brimming with wonder at such love.
The burnished tree, the fog, the wind, the hand-clasp, the tulips. They are singular places in my life where heaven gleams and flashes upon earth, where eternity calls like a low melody of bells through the very moment in which I breathe. They are my rooftops of London. What are some of yours?
Sweeps Dance on the Rooftops of London, by Peter Ellenshaw on www.world-wide-art.com