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There is something I must dwell on
because I know more than I know and must learn it from myself.

— Marilynne Robinson

 Since my girlfriend Elaine died last year, I have enjoyed spending time reading her poetry. Elaine became something of a prolific poet and I was struck by her ability to capture the delicate and fragile nature of life in all its fleeting beauty. Whilst reading her poetry, I was reminded of some lines from a letter by John Keats, “Call the world if you please ‘The vale of Soul-making’. Then you will find out the use of the world . . .”

John Keats poetic description of ‘The vale of Soul-making’ has inspired the Psychologist James Hillman’s work on the concept of Soul and the idea of Soul in this sense is not a thing but a quality.  Soul is dark, mysterious, moist, associated with the earth, the body, imagination and the feminine. Soul by its very nature is relational and is very much about being in the world.

The idea of Soul can only be fully understood in relation to the idea of Spirit. Hillman sees Spirit as concerned with transcendence, to move beyond, to reach for the sky and heavens. Spirit is dry, it is fire. It likes to distance itself, live in the realm of ideas, clarity and masculinity. Hillman writes, “The Spiritual point of view always posits itself as superior, and operates particularly well in a fantasy of transcendence among ultimates and absolutes.” From the perspective of Spirit, Soul is vague and inferior but Hillman sees Soul and Spirit as a counter-balance to each other.

In our lives we will have many life changing events, such as the birth of a child, falling in love, getting married or divorced, the loss of a spouse or experiencing illness. All these events have the potential for soul-making. In defining what he means by soul-making, Hillman makes a clear distinction between what he calls ‘event’ and ‘experience’. By ‘event’ he means, just what has happened to us and by ‘experience’ he means something that we can do with the things that happen to us. This idea of working with the things that happen to us is what Hillman aligns with soul-making, a turning towards our experience and allowing ourselves to be in relationship to it. Soul-making is not about trying to understand the events that happen to us in our lives but more allowing ourselves to experience them more deeply.     

I feel Elaine’s poem, “Re-potting” has captured this quality of soul-making. It speaks in symbols, metaphors and is in its very nature an act of turning towards the events of our lives and making experience of them.   

Re- Potting

By Elaine Dunstan

I remember now
what my father taught me
with his green and gentle hands
fingernails caked with earth.
The roots need breaking up, He’d say
before re-potting.
Otherwise, the plant won’t grow
because it’s still bound
by the shape
of its first pot.
I would watch, transfixed
as He gently yet firmly
un-binded the roots
some would get torn
ripped apart by necessity
freeing this plant
from it’s rigid shape
I wondered,
did it hurt.

How long I sat
with the same shape
my roots, pot bound
by fear of change.

Prehaps it was fear
of how it might feel
when necessity’s fingers
prised them apart, tearing
at the known, breaking me free
for bigger things.

I re-pot my own plants now
gently unbinding the roots
just like he showed me
tearing where necessary
Shaking the soil from the tangle
as the dirt clods fall
my tears go with them
it does hurt.
Placing the little plant
in a bigger pot.
I smile.