Resolve, the Fire behind Resolutions

Janus-Vatican

Janus, Roman god of beginnings and endings

 

It occurs to me as we draw close to year’s end and I think about those seemingly obligatory, and too often perfunctory New Year’s resolutions, that what may be lacking for myself and others who struggle with following through with New Year’s goals is contained in the root word of the thing in question: resolve.

Resolve, as a noun, means “firm determination.” Flipping to its verb form, and researching the etymology, we find:

late 14c., “melt, dissolve, reduce to liquid;” intransitive sense from c.1400; from Old French resolver or directly from Latin resolvere “to loosen, loose, unyoke, undo; explain; relax; set free; make void, dispel,” from re-, perhaps intensive, or “back” (see re-), + solvere “loosen” (see solve). Early 15c. as “separate into components.” (Online Etymology Dictionary)

It’s interesting that there are opposing senses of the word: “firm determination” suggests solidity and uniformity of purpose, and a kind of bracing or tensing up for anticipated effort, quite a difference from the verb meaning (or its root meaning anyway) of loosening, breaking down, undoing. But maybe the two senses are related after all. Perhaps the key to building the force of resolve, that unwavering resoluteness of purpose, is to spend some time first on reflecting on the past year, and the past in general, breaking down (analysing) and letting go of what is asking for release, including resentments or grudges, feelings of shame or guilt, baseless fears, limiting or unkind self-talk, unreasonable expectations, and past goals that may have been concocted out of such a dubious substrate.

Alchemically, in the stage of dissolution, we may face painful realizations and feelings of grief and regret, but it is out of this state that a healthier, more authentic, and more productive outlook and focus can emerge:

A key to the stage of Dissolution is the awakening of passion, and the harnessing of the energy of emotional pain toward an object of creativity. We do not just passively witness the reality of our inner pain; we redirect its energy, wedding it to our authentic personal desires and constructive aims. In so doing we are participating and aiding in the dissolving of our false self. We are using the energy freed up by letting go of old, stale ego-positions, in the service of re-aligning our life in the direction of our higher purpose. (See: Psychospiritual Alchemy.)

Without doing this sort of resolving, this dissolving and reforming, before setting resolutions, I don’t think we resolve the question of how to best direct our energies in the coming year. This oversight may lead to misdirection: it’s easy for anyone to get caught up in resolutions that don’t really serve them. For instance, you might initially come up with a host of resolutions that relate to a business you’ve started, but upon deep reflection realize you don’t enjoy or believe in this business–maybe you got involved with it to impress or please someone–and need to do something else altogether. Or you might initially plan on some hard-core gym workout regime, but, thinking deeply about it, realize that this is really a self-punishment scheme for some presumed failing, and that mildly challenging hikes in nature would feel much better as a route to self-care.

My guess is that, in most cases, when resolutions are in line with true desires and needs, rather than external pressures and/or feelings of self-doubt or unworthiness, our unconscious selves will not be as inclined to sabotage us in their implementation. With the right attitude, which is never grandiose, self-flagellating, superficial or myopic, resolve will be burgeoned with the force of our whole selves, budding and developing naturally rather than being artificially injected by our latest “self-improvement” schemes.

My New Years wish for myself and my readers is that we make sacred time in the coming year for what matters most to us, whatever that is, and no matter what we think we “should” be doing.

Thanks for reading–see you in 2015!

Hold me tight, and fear me not: The rescue of Tam Lin

http://www.wyliebeckert.com/

Image “Tam Lin” by Wylie Beckert. Used with permission Please click on image to visit her portfolio.

 

Since I first became acquainted with the story of Tam Lin (or Tamlin), I’ve run across some different iterations of the tale in song and prose (to see the Child Ballad [39] in full, go here). Essentially, the story runs that Janet, a well-to-do but lonesome and rebellious young lady, sets off one day on her own to Carterhaugh, where she longs to be, despite the warnings of her father or parents. Once there, she offends Tam Lin by plucking roses, and after a little row between the two over this in which Janet asserts her rights to Carterhaugh and general independence, the two become lovers. The result, naturally, is that Janet, as her father suspects, becomes “with child.” But how can she love this baby, begot in such an unnatural way? She returns to Carterhaugh and declares to Tam Lin that she won’t bear the child, but that if it were a fully human baby, fathered by a man and not some otherworldly being, she would love and cherish it. Tam Lin then reveals that he once was human, before he was abducted by the fairy queen, and that this Halloween she may be sacrificing him as a “tithe to hell.” On the other hand, he tells her that if she can wait in secret until the fairy procession arrives on Halloween night, pull him from his white steed, and hang onto him as he turns into all manner of frightening creatures in her arms, that he will again, at the end of the ordeal, be a man, and she will be able to love him, and their child. Janet, of course, succeeds in this rescue. Afterwards Tam Lin reverts to a “naked man,” and Janet wraps him in her cloak and takes him home to be her true love.

I don’t want to analyse the images in Tam Lin too much, but rather let them continue to work in me as they have done since I first discovered the story. There are many elements of the tale I find compelling, including Janet’s defiance of her family, and following of her impulse–I don’t see this necessarily as healthy rebellion mind you, but I rather sense it as a giving in to what begins as an unhealthy longing or obsession, as when we do something rash out of loneliness and/or temptation that might end very badly. But this is a redemption story, and what is most touching to me is Janet’s bravery in not letting go as her fairy lover shapeshifts into multiple terrifying creatures.

This reminds me of the Jungian advice to pin down an image that comes to you in active imagination, to not let it go until some understanding of its meaning has been reached. More deeply though, I feel this motif of holding on to the shapeshifter to redeem him (seen in other tales as well) is a moving depiction of what it’s like to endure harrowing emotions without letting them run away with you, nor shutting them down. Sometimes it is scary to live in this world, and scarier still to face that we have brought on our own misery or ruin. Yet there is something deep in the mystery of it all that waits for us to recognise and love it, to cut through enchantments and disenchantment and hold on bravely no matter what. Then what began badly can end in the triumph of human love: at the end of the story, Janet manifests the positive, redeeming side of mother-love, wrapping her naked lover in her cloak. Such maternal love is probably the most healing form love can take, towards others and ourselves. The fairy queen, as a counterpoint, seems to embody destructive, possessive, dark mother-love. This is how she reacts to Tam Lin’s rescue:

The Queen of Faery turned her horse about,
Says, Adieu to thee, Tamlene!
For if I had kent what I ken this night,
If I had kent it yestreen,
I wad hae taen out thy heart o flesh,
And put in a heart o stane.

Yikes!

The following rendition of the ballad, for me, while leaving out the fairy element of the rescue plot, captures the soul of the story of Janet and Tam Lin. Enjoy!

 

What to ask me about my baby . . .

 

image from Wikimedia Commons

image from Wikimedia Commons

 

As a new mother, I have been the recipient ofttimes (sometimes it feels more like the target) of questions about baby milestones, most typically: “Does she sleep through the night?”;  “Is she walking yet?”; and “Is she talking yet?” I realize these questions are asked innocently enough, most of the time, although sometimes they are asked as a set-up for a brag about how early the questioner’s son or daughter slept through the night, walked or talked. I know part of my annoyance with these questions is my own projection: I am anxious about these “milestones,” reading about them constantly and wondering if I need to do something more, or better, to ensure my daughter’s development. I’d prefer to think myself above all that, so it’s psychologically easier to bemoan all “those people” badgering me about milestones, than it is to examine critically my own focus on them.

The tonic, generally, to these anxieties for me is to remember that when I was pregnant, development, for the very most part, took care of itself. All I needed to do was relax, eat, drink, sleep, move my body some, and look what happened: I grew a baby! More accurately, she grew herself through some highly complex, mysterious and sacred process that we may never fully understand, nor necessarily may wish to. So although I certainly have more to do as a mother now that we are separate beings, my daughter is still growing herself and the process is as complex, mysterious and sacred as ever. My job is not to program her (to develop, succeed, accomplish, i.e. to do specific things at specific times) but to nurture her, which is as much, or more, about observing and appreciating as it is doing. In all the world, of all people everywhere, she is unique, and will find her own way in her own time, and become what she is meant to become, i.e. fully herself. In this vein I like James Hillman’s “acorn theory,” which posits that we all come into this existence with a particular and utterly individual purpose:

We overload parents today, as if they owned and were totally responsible for their children’s entire fates. Mothers feel that if they do one thing wrong when the child is three, their poor child will have to go to therapy for four years later on in life. This is a heavy burden. The story of the acorn is that you have your own destiny, and that your parents’ tasks are to provide a place in the world where you can grow down into life and to help make it easier for you to carry the destiny you have, which as a child is hard to carry. (http://www.personaltransformation.com/james_hillman.html)

Notice he talks about growing down, rather than ascending through predictable stages of development or maturation. Parents, myself included, also need help in feeling grounded and rooted in their experiences of parenting, so that we may help our children come into themselves.

So, in the interest of helping me, and other parents reduce anxiety about what we are or are not doing and how our babies are “progressing,” here’s a set of alternative questions to ask:

* What is her favorite toy or game right now? What do you think she likes about it?

* How does she communicate? What does she communicate about?

* What makes her laugh? What makes you both laugh?

* What is it like to be her mother? How is it similar to and different from what you imagined?

* What will you remember most about this time in your lives together?

I’m sure you can come up with some other thoughtful, open-ended type questions that show genuine interest in and respect for the uniqueness of my baby, and my family, instead of reflexively asking the typical questions. (And if you’d like to leave me some in your comments, I’d appreciate it–it’ll help me when I work on her baby book.) I think this approach will in turn be a tonic to your inevitable boredom with the typical chit-chat about babies you may be accustomed to making. And remember, if all of this feels too onerous, you’re not obliged to ask anything about my baby: I appreciate conversation about other topics too!

 

 

Back to the Soul of Things

Psyche,_A_Book_of_Myths

 

Image from Wikimedia Commons

 

One of the core elements of a depth psychological perspective is the notion of, or perhaps it is better to say sensitivity to, the soul of things. “Soul” can be a confusing term, however, because for so many it has the singular meaning of an incorporeal, etherial, non-material kernel of one’s personality. Under this view you either “believe in” souls and related ideas like the existence of an afterlife, or you don’t. But depth psychologists use the word soul differently, or at least strive to much of the time. Instead of a “thing” (albeit an immaterial “thing”!), I think of soul as a way of sensing the world that involves attending to dreams, fantasies, and fleeting thoughts/images/feelings that surface and submerge again. It involves noticing patterns, intuiting significances, allowing for mystery. These modes of ensouled experiencing require giving weight to inner experience, equal to that of external events.

For me, being open to the soul perspective enriches my life and imbues it with a sort of reverent wonder. Of course, keeping this perspective alive is not an easy or simple thing much of the time, so I live in the superficial a lot of the time. But doing that tends to make me feel soul-sick, until I find my way back, usually though a kick-in-the-pants dream or nagging recurrent dream. Lately it was the latter: I dreamed over and over that I’ve missed a class in school, that I need to go back and learn the material, start over.

So here I am starting over, coming back: renewing the blog, a modicum of the writing life, and attention to soul, however it should manifest.

 

Pursuit of Spirit in “The Golden Bird”


The_Golden_Bird_by_znodden

Image by znodden, a.k.a. Susanna. Visit her here.

For this month’s inspiration I’ve selected the fairy tale, “The Golden Bird,” (read it here, so I don’t have to summarize!) a story collected by the Grimm brothers and falling under the category of “supernatural helper” in the Aarne-Thompson classification system. The helper is not the golden bird of the title, but rather a speaking fox, who deserves the supernatural helper award of merit for his patience with the hero, who ignores his advice more often than he heeds it, and thereby gets himself into some very bad scrapes. Through the course of these predicaments, many other motifs arise as well, including the seeking of a princess and betrayal of the hero by his siblings.

One of the motifs I have focused on before in my post about “The Maiden Tsar” is falling asleep. In “The Golden Bird,” the youngest brother (son of the king’s gardener, not the king himself, which is interesting) is the only one of his siblings who can stay awake overnight to witness who is stealing the apples from the king’s “pleasure garden.” It turns out to be the radiant golden bird:

The gardener set his eldest son to watch; but about twelve o’clock he fell asleep, and in the morning another of the apples was missing. Then the second son was ordered to watch; and at midnight he too fell asleep, and in the morning another apple was gone. Then the third son offered to keep watch; but the gardener at first would not let him, for fear some harm should come to him: however, at last he consented, and the young man laid himself under the tree to watch. As the clock struck twelve he heard a rustling noise in the air, and a bird came flying that was of pure gold; and as it was snapping at one of the apples with its beak, the gardener’s son jumped up and shot an arrow at it. But the arrow did the bird no harm; only it dropped a golden feather from its tail, and then flew away. The golden feather was brought to the king in the morning, and all the council was called together. Everyone agreed that it was worth more than all the wealth of the kingdom: but the king said, ‘One feather is of no use to me, I must have the whole bird.’ (“The Golden Bird”)

Much later in the tale, when the hero is compelled to accomplish yet another impossible task, he must not stay awake and work to overcome the problem, but instead must sleep and let the trusty fox do the work. I would call this kind of helpful symbolic sleep, “the sleep of trust,” versus the harmful “sleep of carelessness” the hero avoided at the start of the tale. There is a time, suggests the story, for the ego-mind to be watchful, attentive and active, and a time for it to step aside and let another aspect of mind take charge. Creatively speaking, there is a time to stay sharp and do one’s work, however grueling it may seem, and a time to rest and incubate, secure in the fact that your inner storyteller, painter, poet, etc. is working with you and for you on the problem/project.

Coming back to the start, the psychological key to the story appears to be this golden feather, which is “worth more than all the wealth of the kingdom.” It represents, I think, a brush, a tickle of transcendence, a token of a psychic state or inner dimension of the psyche or soul that is unfettered, complete in itself, and indestructible. Those touched by this feather–for example, those who’ve had “near death experiences” or transcendent interludes during meditation, drug use, etc.–often value their experience, however fleeting, above all else. They too typically long for “the whole bird,” i.e. a way back to the experience, and a way to deepen it and integrate it into everyday life. In a bit of a different vein, taken as a metaphor for creativity, we might consider the feather as a glimpse of inspiration, with the golden bird representing a full-fledged gift of the muse. Whatever its precise meaning, as it is with spiritual things in general, the glorious bird is difficult to access and retain, and therefore its brief appearance precipitates a difficult quest involving many tests, for those who are willing.

Another theme in the story I’d like to highlight is the idea of shabbiness, that is, the quality of being well-worn, ordinary,  plain, mundane, cheap, perhaps even ugly. In the story the fox alerts the hero that he must enter the “shabby” inn rather than the bright and slick one, stick with the wooden cage for the golden bird (not the gold one), and the leather saddle for the golden horse (again, not the gold one). Inevitably the hero does not listen, and complications ensue.

This “embracing the shabby” instruction is, I would say, some good advice about grounding one’s spiritual impulses, aspirations or insights in the everyday, and not letting the gold one has found lead to pretentiousness, or becoming too “precious” for the actual lived world. Creatively, down-to-earth detail, disorder, and rough edges of different kinds are often what make a work of art sublimely interesting, rather than boringly perfect. Simply gilding the lily will not do, for as the alchemist Gerhard Dorn said, “our gold is not the ordinary gold.” It’s of a higher order, and conversely, it must have some muck in it. After all, what really begins our tale, if you think about it? It’s the earth from which the trees grew that bore the apples, which attracted the golden bird. And I’ll bet the gardener who dug in the earth and fathered the hero looked a bit shabby.

Finally, dismemberment figures in the tale, as it does in others, and often, as it is with the indispensable fox in our story, it is the supernatural helper who requests being slain and cut to pieces:

Then the fox came, and said, ‘Pray kill me, and cut off my head and my feet.’ But the young man refused to do it: so the fox said, ‘I will at any rate give you good counsel: beware of two things; ransom no one from the gallows, and sit down by the side of no river.’ (“The Golden Bird”)

It seems the hero’s refusal leads to the fox becoming more cryptic in his advice, which had previously been quite direct. For although it is repugnant to the hero, he must concede to dismembering his friend and companion. But why?

Dismemberment is a mythopoetic rendering of the process of fragmentation and dissolution, which may lead to differentiation and renewal . . . Surviving dismemberment  initiates one into the intimacy between sacrifice and creation, suffering and transformation. (The Book of Symbols, ed.s Ami Ronnberg & Kathleen Martin, 2010)

Putting things in psychological terms again, why would one consent to dissolve or fragment the very element of one’s psyche that has so enriched one’s life? The fairy tale’s answer is that it must be done to break a spell or curse, free the princess’ brother. Through dismemberment, the helper is not obliterated but humanized; what was before a wise, instinctive factor working mainly unconsciously or semi-consciously now enters full consciousness, in integrated fashion. Instead of lamenting and hoping the fox will show up to save the day, presumably our hero can now easily consult his brother-in-law before there is cause to lament. Psychologically speaking, with integration comes the possibility of consulting our own wisdom, or creative intuition, before taking action, rather than waiting for insight or inspiration to visit out of the blue.

Of course there are always those characters and animals running loose and wild in the forest of our stories and dreams who have no desire for full integration or humanizing, and it’s probably best to let them be, stay respectful, and heed their advice when it’s granted. Some of them may not be as patient as the helpful fox!

Are Fairy Tales Bad for Children? Part Three: The Promise of Redemption

800px-Mikalojus_Konstantinas_Ciurlionis_-_FAIRY_TALE_(CASTLE_FAIRY_TALE)_-_1909

Image by Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis, in the public domain (see Wikimedia Commons)

It is the mark of a good fairy-story, of the higher or more complete kind, that however wild its events, however fantastic or terrible the adventures, it can give to child or man that hears it, when the “turn” comes, a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears, as keen as that given by any form of literary art, and having a peculiar quality. (J.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories”)

Ultimately, many traditional fairy tales, if not offering straightforward “happy endings” do frequently embody in their outcomes the themes of restoration, transformation, and redemption, and while perhaps complex themes for children to absorb, they are, psychically and spiritually speaking, indispensable ones that foreshadow the individuation struggles to come. Marie-Louise von Franz says that “[i]n fairy tales redemption refers specifically to a condition where someone has been cursed or bewitched and through certain happenings or events in the story is redeemed.” (Psychological Meaning of Redemption Motifs in Fairy Tales, p. 7) Why does this matter? Because all of us are bound to become doomed, cursed or “bewitched”—in other words, held back, distorted and tormented by something in our own psyches. Fairy tales dramatize this in a spare, elegant, but powerful way, and generally provide certain formulas for overcoming this predicament, and achieving redemption.

In the process of getting to that outcome, it seems to me that the message (not moral!) is usually that: 1. Things will not be easy or fair; 2. Being brave and bold, even a little foolhardy, is necessary to overcome this; 3. At the same time one should be humble, compassionate, observant, attentive and trusting (this is normally how to gain favor with the helper or “donor” character); 4. Things will not resolve right away, and one normally must fail multiple times (usually at least twice) in one’s goal. I think these messages can be taken as guidance for both outer and inner life, and are useful for both children and adults.

Not all fairy or wonder tales are of this caliber, though. Some promote values of obedience, conformity and punish intrepid characters for their initiative and curiosity. These are the sorts of tales (along with the overly “cleaned up” cutesy fairy tales that swamp us today) that I find more objectionable from a psychological point of view. I believe they may pose a different but significant sort of danger to children, because they undermine values of individuality, initiative, ingenuity, and choice. I tend to agree with Guillermo Del Toro when he says, “I don’t like fairy tales that have a moral teaching at the end; I like them with a more subversive teaching.” (Read more here.)

I will, for one, indubitably be reading fairy tales to my children, and to myself, and will probably continue to write them as well.

Let me leave you with Neil Gaiman’s Instructions, which does a better job than I have in expressing what is essential and life-affirming about fairy tales, for children and adults both:

Are Fairy Tales Bad for Children? Part Two: The Wonders of the Fairy Tale Helper or Donor

Image

“Dreaming of Snow White,” by Franz Schrotzberg, in the Public Domain

Tolkien states in his essay, “On Fairy-Stories” (read it here) that fairy tales are not more suited to children than adults, particularly, and that ”

in fact only some children, and some adults, have any special taste for them; and when they have it, it is not exclusive, nor even necessarily dominant. It is a taste, too, that would not appear, I think, very early in childhood without artificial stimulus; it is certainly one that does not decrease but increases with age, if it is innate.”

I think he’s right. Personally speaking, I don’t remember being read fairy tales as a child—I rather came across them on my own, and then sought them out myself throughout grade school. I would say that from about age 8 through 12 years old I was somewhat obsessed with them, reading the Grimm’s tales and the whole gamut of Andrew Lang’s colored fairy books, as well as books about Greek, Roman and Norse mythology.

Short film versions of “The Happy Prince,” and “The Little Mermaid” (original story!) were shown on Canadian television every year around Christmas when I was a girl, and they held great sway over me: it’s impossible to articulate what a profound effect they exerted on my young soul. Had they been sanitized—e.g., the little mermaid is never faced with her dilemma of either killing the prince or being obliterated herself; the swallow in the Happy Prince makes it to Egypt and all is well in the Prince’s city—these stories would have meant nothing to me. (Even as a child I was not big on the moralizing about good and naughty children at the end of Anderson’s tale, although I did love the idea of “the daughters of the air”—they just should have been left as mysterious beings.)

Here’s the rub: children face difficulties, and heartaches, however we strive to protect them, and must make sense of a world teeming with loss, suffering, unfairness, immense challenges, and yes, also tragedy, cruelty and death. And it’s important to acknowledge that the reality of dark forces is both external and internal (the original “Star Wars” series captures this idea very well): some of the great minds of psychology have emphasized the intrapsychic nature of such stories, the fact that they symbolize universal aspects of the psyche and the particular internal dynamics within individuals:

Children feel anger and hostility, violent emotion and feelings of helplessness and fairy-stories enable them to realize that they are not alone, that others have such feelings and living involves a struggle between good and bad, fortune and misfortune. Fairy tales appeal to both sides of reality and help children deal with their own deep inner conflicts. Often dreams have a fairy tale quality about them and you can help children work through nightmares by making this connection. (Dream Time with Children: Learning to Dream, Dreaming to Learn by Brenda Mallon, p. 70)

I find fairy tales gratifying because they are for the most part balanced, incorporating dark, evil, or ignorant characters or elements as well as those who are eminently good-hearted, wise and brave. Usually, although not always, the latter types of characters prevail. More often than not they do so with the aid of some sort of magical helper, e.g. the little doll in “Vasalisa the Brave,” the grey wolf in the Russian story “The Firebird,” the spirit of a dead thief in the Norse tale “The Companion,” the kind and mysterious old woman in the German tale “The True Bride.”

I’ll write more about this element of fairy tales in a subsequent post. For now I will say that this element was probably one of the most important to me, psychologically, and I don’t think I’m alone in this. How comforting to have help from a magical “other” at your service, in your time of great need? (This is probably a variety of the “religious impulse” of the psyche at work.) When you are older, more academically-minded perhaps, you can understand these others as “just” or “only” aspects of yourself. But at the time that you read them, imagine them, or dream them, they are potently real, autonomous, mysterious, and a little spooky: anything but “just” or “only.” And I’m guessing that for young children this potency is not yet diluted, lucky for them. (Not because they can’t distinguish reality from make-believe, but because for them make-believe has not yet been dismissed as unimportant.) This helper or donor element of fairy tales is anything but “bad” for children, in the sense of polluting their young minds; it is rather a source of awe and a beacon of hope and trust in the midst of an inherently dangerous world, both inside the metaphorical world of the tale, and in the outside world of literal realities.

Stay tuned for Part Three of “Are Fairy Tales Bad for Children”. . .