When I think about soul, I think about music. I grew up in the 70s and 80s listening to classic soul: Aretha, Jackie Wilson, Sam Cook, Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye. My parents would play those old records and 8-tracks, while they worked on their latest street rod.
My mom would tell me about secret dance parties she went to as a 60s teen. Twisting the night away, sweating off 10 pounds to Sam and Dave. She’d talk about the older kids ”dirty dancing” in an old barn to music that respectable churchgoing white kids from suburban Frankfort, Kentucky were not supposed to like.
Of course, my parents also played 50s rock ‘n roll. I had a poodle skirt. I knew all the words to Chuck Berry’s oeurve.
I liked Chuck Berry. I mean, what’s not to like about dig, beat, rhythm and blues?
But I loved Aretha.
The people who’ve heard me sing describe my voice as soulful. I sometimes wonder what that really means, especially after reading Gail Carriger’s Soulless last week. The idea of soul as something measurable, and present (or absent) in varying amounts in people is intriguing. It fits the way we talk about soul, when we talk about it as a human quality. I think it’s okay to talk about it as a quality. Nobody believes that when you say someone “has a lot of heart,” you mean that they literally have more cardiac muscle than the average person.
Some people have a lot of heart. Some people are mindful. Some people are full of life. Me, I guess I’m soulful. According to Carriger, that means I’ll never have a werewolf for a husband, but I’m alright with that. There are worse things to be.
Depth psychologist Thomas Moore distinguishes between soul and spirit in his writing. It’s heavy stuff, but he writes of spirit as the human quality that’s airy. Light. Heavenly. Unearthly. He writes of soul as something different; heavier, deeply enmeshed in the tangible, physical world.
Soul doesn’t shy away from the highs or the lows. Soul can be Jackie Wilson, exuberantly announcing “Your love is lifting me higher than I’ve ever been lifted before.” But it’s also Otis Redding, regretfully lamenting that he left a perfectly good home in warm Georgia to find himself stranded homeless on a chilly dock in San Francisco. Soul says we’re big enough to contain both.
Soul makes room for praise and lament. It recognizes the weight of things that are immaterial: Love. Loyalty. Betrayal. It recognizes the physical things that are imbued with supernatural power: Music. Food. Art. Soul tells the story and lets the listener judge what it all means.
I’m writing more now than I think I have in years, maybe decades. But the writing has been tinged with a little fear. For me, writing even fantastical fiction is like opening a vein. I pull out all of these experiences and emotions, and then sprinkle it with a dash of “worst case scenario and wildest dream” pure imagination. It requires figuring out how to insulate my psyche. How do I carry these things safely into my fiction without ending up a basket case with a raging case of PTSD?
Just admitting that the fear is there creates a place for it to be, so it doesn’t have to keep trying to get my attention. Soul has depth; probably enough to hold whatever frightening things my mind can summon.
And if I get too scared, I’m living in an age of wonders. There is music floating through the aether, all the time. All I really have to do is put on some sweet soul music, and dance till the fear is gone.