Back to the Soul of Things



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.


Songwriting While Asleep: “Let You Go” Blues Ditty


“Blues” by Jean-Jacques Surian, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. See here.

One of the oddest and indisputably coolest dream experiences I’ve had involved composing this blues song–I was dreaming of writing the verses and hearing the melody. I believe I finished the first three verses within the dream, woke up remembering everything, and finished the last verses: voila, the birth of “Let You Go,” as I’ve titled the song.

The odd thing to me about this experience was not necessarily dreaming of creating something like a song, but the specificity of the melody and lyrics, the clarity of the memory of what I’d composed, and the fact that it came out pretty much whole–I did not really have to edit either the melody or the verses. The other oddness is that the song is fairly foreign to what I normally like singing (I rarely write music), which is typically traditional folk music. Not that I don’t like jazz and blues, but they are on the periphery of my musical sphere.

Which all leads me to the queer feeling like some other person or entity “gave” me the song. (When I think about this, I harken to Stephen King’s Bag of Bones novel with its ghost-of-a-jazz-singer spookiness. Hmm.) I know this is a woo-woo notion, and I suppose there could be a blues musician living amongst the other eclectic residents of my unconscious mind-space, but I can’t quite shake the idea that this particular creative product was channeled, if you will, through me more than it was produced by me. I can’t speak to its quality objectively, but I can vouch that it is many levels better than anything I could have come up with in my waking state!

Here’s the song, which I recorded using the oh-so-fun program UJAM. Please forgive the metronome–I learned the hard way that if you use this function (the audio metronome: there’s a visual one too that’s silent) you must wear earphones, or else it will be recorded along with your voice. I know, I need to re-record, but until I do you can hear the rough version:

Yes, that’s me singing; a different voice would probably do the song more justice, but I think I’m able to convey the spirit of the song fairly well.

So here are the lyrics:

Let You Go

Oh Lord I’ve got to let you go,
Oh Lord I’ve got to let you go:
Gotta send you on your way,
and I don’t know what I’ll say,
can’t wait another day to let you know.

Once I was young and I was free
Then boy you got a hold on me:
Ya, you made me lose my mind,
and your love it struck me blind.
I know I’ll never find what I can’t see

Now don’t beg me baby, I don’t care,
and don’t try to find me, I’m not there:
You don’t love me you just cry,
when it’s time to say goodbye,
but I can’t live a lie to make it fair.

Now that you’re gone I want you bad,
Oh now that you’re gone I feel so sad:
I keep thinking ’bout the past,
Lord I want to make it last.
I never should of asked to make you mad.

Well come back now baby I’ll be good.
Now come back I’ll love you like I should.
Don’t you heed what you’ve been told,
’cause I’ve got a heart of gold,
and now I’m getting old, you know I could.

Don’t you heed what you’ve been told,
’cause I’ve got a heart of gold,
and now I’m getting old, you know I could.

* melody and lyrics © Lisa E. Coté

To My Dream Animals: “Totem”


Engraving of a kit fox by J. G. Keulemans, in the public domain (see here)

I dream of animals frequently, and I dream of a lot of different kinds of animals. Some animals repeat over several dreams, forming discernible series. Some come along rarely. The following is some verse I composed to honor some of these visitors.



© Lisa E. Coté

Those who dream of foxes know the way
Between the world of shadow and of light,
And do not linger when they should not stay
But run, sure-footed, deftly, out of sight.

Those who dream of bears are old indeed:
They know the price of fury and conceit,
But will rise up if there should come a need
To stand against injustice and defeat.

Those who dream of serpents feel no shame
But revel in the earth whereon they move
And bask in pleasures, free of guilt and blame:
Content in life, no impulse they reprove.

Those who dream of crows may swiftly fly
Beyond the dim illusions that are made
When death arrives to blot the earthly sky:
They navigate the darkness unafraid.

Writing Exercise of the Month: Bibliomancy as a Random Input Strategy for Writer’s Block


Alchemical image in the public domain (Wikipedia Commons)

Bibliomancy is an old oracular practice using passages of texts at random to divine something.

Random Input (see here) is a general creativity technique of seeking random images, words, etc. as sparks to solve creative problems.

Why not combine these ideas as a writer’s aid? I’m a great believer in random input and intrigued by the idea of bibliomancy, so it seems like a fun writing exercise to try.

Here’s the situation: I’ve been working off and on with this story of mine about a sort of ugly duckling character and am stuck regarding how to proceed. If I had to describe the difficulties behind this stuck-ness, I would say that: 1. I’m not sure what he wants. He is not, as I’ve written him so far, overly upset by his condition—maybe I’ve written myself into a hole here?; and 2. I want to incorporate a kind of bizarre element, as I think it will make the story fresh, and would keep it truer to the dream inspiration on which the story is based, but I’m unsure of exactly how to do so effectively. O.K., I’m going to go off to my bookshelf to pick three books at random, and from each book I will then pick one passage at random that will tell me something about these difficulties, or others I’m not aware of right now. (I know it’s not real time as you’re reading this, but let’s pretend.) Somewhat arbitrarily, I’ll say that:

  1. The first passage will give me insight about why the story is stuck.
  2. The second passage will give me clues about what is most important about my story.
  3. The third passage will give hints as to how to proceed.

Note: I’m totally making this up right now, but have in mind how oracles like the Tarot, runes, etc. are supposed to operate as “spreads.” Ready? Here I go. (Note to reader: imagine minutes passing while anticipatory clock is ticking.)

Here we are:

1. From Alchemy by Marie-Louise von Franz: “Thus you would interpret sulphur as drivenness, a state of being driven. It would not be right to speak of the drive itself; it is rather the state or quality of being driven or overwhelmed. If you look at it from a certain religious angle, that would naturally be the devil… Sulphur is the active part of the psyche, the part which has a definite goal…To get to the bottom of someone’s problem it is necessary first to find the make-up of such drives. We all have them in us and until we bring them up and face them, we have a hidden corner where they live autonomously.” (pp. 126-127)

2. From Subpersonalities: The People Inside Us by John Rowan: “. . . the ‘totalitarian ego,’ characterized by egocentricity, beneffectance (the tendency for self to be perceived as effective in achieving desirable ends while avoiding undesirable ones), and cognitive conservatism.” (p. 177)

3. From The Secret History of Dreaming by Robert Moss: “In his later years, Mark Twain wrote of journeys into nanoworlds, such as a world inside a stone, or a society of microbes inside a human cell…In August 1898, Mark Twain noted a dream that gave him the idea for one of his most intriguing later stories…In ‘The Great Dark,’ he creates a world inside a drop of water on a glass slide under a microscope. The traveler gets inside it, with an appropriate ship and crew, with the aid of a person identified as the Superintendent of Dreams, who appears by his side while he is musing on a sofa. Once inside the waterworld, it becomes hard to know whether it is this world or the one with the sofa that is real; the traveler’s shipmates know no other reality than the ship and the sea. Mark Twain is playing with a favorite theme, Which is the dream?: the world we inhabit  when we think we are awake, or the one we know when we think we are dreaming?” (p. 207)

Note: I picked the first two quickly, without forethought, trying to subvert conscious choosing, but found myself starting to be deliberate with the third. So I closed my eyes, ran my hand along the book spines, and got around myself that way.

First thoughts:

At first glance, I am feeling pleased that the passages seem to echo and approve of where I was going with my “bizarre element” which I envisioned as my main character meeting up with a seemingly imaginary figure, and I’ve thought of having the so called “imaginary” figure tell my main character that he is the real one, while my main character is imaginary. I do really love the which is the dream? theme! In relation to that theme I like the idea of having a literal superintendent character who assists my main character as a kind of psychopomp. That could be really interesting. I’m also pleased that Mark Twain made creative use of his dreams—seems I’m in very good company!

With regard to 2, I have put my character at odds with the superficiality of his culture, which does amount to a rather stifling conservatism. As I’ve written him, he rejects those values and lives somewhat free of restriction, not caring much what others think but 1, the idea of the sulphur gurgling away behind the scenes, gives me the idea that he really DOES mind, that what he wants is to be seen, acknowledged, even acclaimed, even if he doesn’t know it yet. I certainly want that for him.

I think as a follow up, I’m going to read the Mark Twain story. I found it here on Google Books. 

Something overwhelming needs to happen to my character to awaken this sulphuric action, to ignite his desire and his quest. That’s what I need to dwell on at the moment I think. Then I can think more deeply about the rest of my divinatory input.

Thanks for being witness to my process here. Do you think such a method would be helpful to you? Do you employ a similar exercise yourself? Any ideas for tweaking it?

Are Fairy Tales Bad for Children? Part One: Confronting Darkness

arthur-rackham-hansel-and-gretelImage by Arthur Rackham, in the public domain

As a writer who is in the process of publishing a collection of fairy or wonder tales, an article I ran across in Slate caught my attention rather keenly. It’s titled “Are Fairy Tales Out of Fashion?”  In it, Libby Copeland states more or less categorically that fairy tales (the authentic kind) are not suitable for young children, and that she refuses to read them to her young daughter. (She doesn’t like the Disney fairy tale versions either, for other reasons.)

Many commenters objected to this notion, and someone amongst them was astute enough to point out that when selecting fairy tales to read to younger children the age of the protagonists of the story may provide somewhat of a guide to determining what might be appropriate. Steven Swan makes this point in The Fairy Tale: The Magic Mirror of the Imagination. But bear in mind that appropriateness here does not mean necessarily censoring out the disturbing elements if the child is younger: it just means that the concerns and anxieties represented in the tale are those typically faced by individuals of a certain age. Of “Hansel and Gretel” Swan says that “[t]he problem they face is that there is not enough food at home to feed the entire family. The lack of food may be read as a metaphor for there not being enough love at home. In essence, the children feel unloved and unwanted, as reflected in their stepmother’s desire to abandon them.” (p. 23) I think the point here is that young children are very dependent beings and thus naturally face anxieties about not being loved and protected, even if they are, for the most part, loved and protected.

So does that mean “Little Red Riding Hood” or “Hansel and Gretel” are good stories for all little children to hear? No, not necessarily. I do think Copeland may be prudent in censoring some of the more brutal or scary fairy tales from her very young daughter, depending on circumstances. I’m remembering that the wolfish evil called “The Nothing” in the Neverending Story film gave my little brother nightmares for months after he watched it. (I’m not sure if reading the book, or having it read to him, would have produced the same effect; perhaps having to depict “The Nothing” with his own imagination would have triggered a buffering action in his young psyche. But I suppose the converse might also have been true.)

So, discretion may be a virtue when it comes to a certain age group or temperament. But to categorically banish all non-sanitized fairy tales completely from childhood? In my opinion that is a form of psychic hygiene that is unhealthy, and ultimately untenable. Unhealthy, because darkness is better acknowledged and confronted, not denied; untenable, because it will come out anyway, one way or another, in dreams, most likely, and fantasy-play. Copeland herself admits to being attracted to gruesome fairy tales at about age 9 or 10, and to hoping that when her daughter is considerably older “and possessed of that child’s fascination with darkness” that she reads the original, unsanitized versions of tales like Cinderella. There is ambivalence in her attitude, then, for despite all her discomfort with the supposed anachronistic violence of the fairy tale in general, at the same time she seems to be conceding the point that darkness with have its due. Consider this quote by in Tremendous Trifles by Gilbert Keith Chesterton:

I find that there really are human beings who think fairy tales bad for children. . . . All this kind of talk is based on that complete forgetting of what a child is like which has been the firm foundation of so many educational schemes. If you kept bogies and goblins away from children they would make them up for themselves. One small child in the dark can invent more hells than Swedenborg. One small child can imagine monsters too big and black to get into any picture, and give them names too unearthly and cacophonous to have occurred in the cries of any lunatic. The child, to begin with, commonly likes horrors, and he continues to indulge in them even when he does not like them. . . . The fear does not come from fairy tales; the fear comes from the universe of the soul. (pp. 129-130)

If you refuse the reality of this “universe of the soul” to begin with, or insist on characterizing it as a light-filled paradise of benign cherubs (real angels can be scary too), schmaltzy poetry, or cutesy baby animals, I guess Chesterton’s argument falls flat, but if you concede that the “universe of the soul” is anything but this simplistic or banal, then it is hard to argue with him. So in this vein I suggest that fairy tales are “bad” for children, not in the sense of causing them harm; rather they convey “badness” and “horrors,” as well as wonder, delight, and joy in the service of children’s (and adults’) own souls, to give them an outward reflection and make them, therefore, possible to relate to in a potentially fruitful way. Which tales to select for one’s child at a given stage in their childhood (assuming that fairy tales appeal to them in the first place), is another matter, and there are no parenting rules to help us here: only our intuition can be of service, as well, as, perhaps, taking a cue from what we observe about their fantasy play and their dreams, if we are fortunate enough to hear about them.

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