On Jung and family symbols, including some of mine: black cats and mugwort, acorns and oaks, cardinals and quartz, clover and seashells. Also singing.
Carl Jung is probably best known for the concept of the collective unconscious, the idea that our subconscious minds are filled with symbols and associations common to all of humanity, back to our first ancestors. “Our souls as well as our bodies,” he wrote in Memories, Dreams, Reflections, “are composed of individual elements which were all already present in the ranks of our ancestors. The ‘newness’ in the individual psyche is an endlessly varied recombination of age-old components.”
Jung arguably also believed in the possibility of a more particularized unconscious, unique to the individual through the meeting of their lineages and experiences, the kind of thing we tend to contemplate these days in connection with the emerging field of epigenetics and its frustrating limitations. I won’t connect these Jung dots here, but if you’re interested, see The Red Book, Lament of the Dead: Psychology After Jung’s Red Book, and ideally my book when it’s out! Sandra Easter’s Jung and the Ancestors: Beyond Biography, Mending the Ancestral Web may also be of interest.
I’m not a disciple of Jung. To me, he’s as problematic as Freud. Still, as with Freud, and maybe more so, I’m always glad to have engaged with Jung’s ideas, even when I think they’re hogwash, even when they make me bristle. And symbols have become important to me.
Apart from the tropes of evangelical Christianity—the cross, the pearly gates, the manger, the serpent, the angels, and so forth—and some more specific to holy rollers like my mom, I didn’t grow up with symbols. But as my interest in ancestors has become more explicitly spiritual over the years, various objects and elements, creatures and plants and places, have asserted themselves in connection with different lines of my family. Some I always associated with a grandparent; some I never did. They all feel irrefutable and necessary to me now. I no longer care whether I’m making them up. They’ve become allies.
With my mother’s mother’s maternal line back through time, I associate black cats and mugwort, dusk falling over mountains, women congregating in ceremony in a clearing below. My mother’s father’s fathers connect me with acorns and oaks and the taste of mullein tea, all grounding elements, a surprising sense of stability from ancestors I have always considered my most chaotic. That grandfather died before I was born. He was said to have married thirteen times, and while I haven’t found records for that many, I’ve confirmed more marriages than for anyone else I’ve ever heard of.
To my father’s mother’s maternal line, also a fraught lineage for me historically, I connect cardinals and cabbage white butterflies, rubies and quartz and blue lace agates. Beyond the anxious motion I’ve always seen of my grandmother in myself, I have a sense of access (sometimes) to an ease and lightness of being, a strange and beautiful kind of empathetic detachment.
From my father’s father’s fathers, there are clover and green fields, outcroppings and seashells. Grandpa was my most musical grandparent. As far as I know, none of my other ancestors of that generation really sang. But as a toddler in an unhappy and otherwise strict household I was allowed to sing myself to sleep, the most delightful and soothing feeling. Later I sang solos in churches and still later in musicals. I sang rounds in choral groups. I sang with friends in cars barreling down the highway and I sang in the woods by myself.
In recent years, I’ve nearly lost my singing voice to disuse, a development I associate with living in New York City, a place I struggle to be calm, a place I’ve learned to clip my vocal range to a crabby half-octave. But as we enter year two of the pandemic, I’m doing my best to remember how to skip through notes again.
Until next time, I’m wishing you ease and good sleep, with fun dreams full of strange rich symbolism that feels personal to you.