Edith Sullwold  Creative Threshold
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"Clouds and Creative Imagination" by Edith Sullwold, Ph.D.
Reprinted by permission of Psychological Perspectives, Los Angeles, CA from
The Child Within/The Child Without, Issue Twenty-One by Margaret P. Johnson,
Ph.D., Co-Editor-in-Chief, copyright © 1989 C. G. Jung Institute of Los Angeles.

As the clouds shift shape,
we are reminded that we too can change and move from a
seemingly fixed frozen place...
healing through the emergence in us
of new and vitalizing images.

Some years ago a friend of mine – a scholarly, poetic collector of myths – shared with me a teaching he had received from his three-year-old daughter. While in his study reading one day, he was interrupted by a knock on the door. Knowing that his daughter had been outside playing, he called to his wife to open the door. Twice more came a disturbing knock. His wife, upstairs resting, had not heard.

The next sound he heard from his daughter was a loud wail. Closing his book, he went to open the door and invite her in. To this invitation she screamed, "No!" "All right, then, stay out," he suggested. She responded again with an equally loud, "NO!"

Then he looked at her sternly and presented the situation to her logically. "You cannot both refuse to come in and stay out at the same time. You have to make a choice."

To his surprise, she stopped crying immediately. Standing very still on the door step, she smiled at him, turned her head to the sky and said, "Look, Daddy, look at the beautiful clouds."

The poet in my friend told this story with great appreciation of the wisdom of his daughter. She had moved him, startled him, out of a rational approach to a conflict of opposites and brought a third, transcending option to the situation. These clouds – mist-gatherers, rain-bringers – were seen as a beautiful source of pleasure. Making no demands for rational decision-making, they could be experienced as beyond duality: they just were. The third option presented to the father was just to be in the presence of shared beauty.

Twenty-five years ago I was privileged to spend time with a little girl of six and to learn from her poignant stories told in painting, sandplay, poetry, song, and drama. She was first described to me by her mother, who experienced her as "moody," "withdrawn," and "explosive." More alarmingly, she had been talking of suicide recently, although she was also afraid of death. Her mother summarized: "She doesn't face reality and she doesn't want to grow up. She says we aren't real – that life isn't real."

Genuinely concerned about the unhappiness of her daughter, the mother was also extremely honest about herself. She had not wanted a child, but once born, she had tried to raise her in the best way she knew: by supporting the skills which would be required in life, as defined by the cultural standards. She had taught her to read fluently by the age of four, would tell her whenever she wasn't doing well at any task, and would consistently scold her for not "speaking up." Admitting that she was often too critical, the mother sincerely explained, "But I am so concerned that she has no sense of what is realistic in life."

The little girl's school report continued the same theme. "She is not being realistic about being in school and in a group. Yesterday she ran crying from the game circle because she didn't want to go into the mushpot." The game was not familiar to me, but I wondered how it would feel to a sensitive six-year-old to go into a "mushpot." I remembered being asked as a six-year-old child to play the part of the spider in "Little Miss Muffet" at a time when I had an enormous fear of spiders.

It is important to acknowledge that the concerns of the mother and the school were not necessarily "wrong" or of bad intent. Preparation for living successfully in the culture is fundamental to any training or educational system. Emotional and psychological survival may depend on it. For individual children, however, this training may constitute a cacophony of demands to be more "realistic" – with realism defined only in terms of collective values. Jung, at age 12, had to make a conscious decision to temporarily leave behind what he experienced as his real self and re-enter the world of school, which he saw as unreal, in order to eventually live and work independently in the world.

But here, as with Jung, is a child whose full reality cannot be encompassed by the system. Her life vitality, her individuality, her creativity are in danger of suiciding. Such loss is profound, surely for her, but for the culture as well. Among those whose reality does not fit the shape of life defined by culture are many who can bring potential change and expansion to the collective. Thus not only her health is at stake, but potentially the health and balance of the society.

Soon I saw her for myself. She was tiny, wore pigtails, and there was a wise-owl look about her face. She had a self-conscious way of talking with an adult vocabulary and style, which at times betrayed itself in little giggles. Stiff in her body, there was little sense of play in her movement. All seemed very cautious.

She was frightened and crying when she came in. I could imagine that she anticipated another situation in which she had to do it "right." But just as she entered, I took the cover off a sandtray and discovered it filled with water, paint, and flotsam. In my surprise I said, "Yuck!", sending her into a fit of giggles. My unexpected response caught her humor and that yuck became the secret password throughout our friendship.

Shyly, as if giving a report to a doctor or a teacher, she then said, "I try to be realistic." I nodded in silence. Continuing through the room, her eyes took in the possibilities of sandtray and its figures, colorful paints and soft clay, and she suddenly whispered as if to herself, "We can make believe in here, can't we?"

Deciding on paints, she began to make a lovely pallet, mixing colors until she got just the right blends. Then another question came, this time quite firmly. "Is it bad to pretend?" I knew then that the pretender was still alive, sneaking cautiously out of its withdrawn hiding place to see if this was a place where the "unreal" world of fantasy and imagination could be lived.

Presumably she felt the safety confirmed, because she began to record in her first painting a rush of imagery which grew and grew, flowing outward as the floodgates opened. She called the painting "Clouds, "naming each as its shape appeared:


"It's a cat . . . a bird going higher. . . a rocking chair rocking. . .
Grandma getting younger. . . a fish swimming and
it's getting longer. . . a dark blob creeping. . . a bat wing. . .
a balloon blowing up. . . a wave splashing over. . .
a leaf falling. . . an old rock. . . a baby crying with its mouth open. . .
a flower blowing in the wind. . . a clown hat and a monster."



Especially striking in this amazing series of images corning from her was their movement. Growing older, growing younger, splashing, falling, swimming, creeping – all were words of action, fluidity, and change. Here is the gift of the imaginative function at work as it shows the richness of potential options for growth. Nothing need remain stuck, fixed or static. However, when this enormously dynamic flow of images breaks through a dam built of rigid definitions of reality, the light of consciousness may be temporarily lost in the flood. Just before going off to school as a young man, Jung had a dream in which ". . . Dense fog was flying along everywhere. I had my hands cupped around a tiny light which threatened to go out at any moment. Everything depended on my keeping this little light alive..." 1 

Although these clouds can be full of potential, they can also create a "dense fog." So it may be with children who have had few means of expressing this vital dynamic. The demand for survival can overwhelm and flood the fragile ego which is needed to adapt to the world as it is presented to the child. Here an appreciation and validation of the world of images by another can act like a lighthouse beacon. And, if the worlds of "realism" and "imagery" can be reconnected, the energies of body, mind and psyche become available for the developing ego. Previously used to build up a protective dam, the natural life forces can now lead to growth and exploration. Instead of suicide, new birth is possible.

The girl then moved to the sandtray to play. She created a hospital, which she said was right next to the ocean. "You have to have a hospital there when you are in danger of sinking in." Inside the hospital a new baby had just been born. The whole family came to visit – brothers, sister, aunts, uncles, grandparents. Nurses, doctors, teachers, and priests also came, as well as a mailman who delivered flowers and cards of congratulations. An entire personal and collective community celebrated this new birth. Not all was totally paradisical in this scene, however. There was one small girl visiting who wanted to sit on the new mother's lap. The mother refused.

Here was a hint of this child's isolation from her mother and of her feelings of smallness, vulnerability, and a poignant individuality. Acceptance would need to come from some source in order for this potential new birth of self to flourish. I could surely provide some of this support to the child, as well as helping the mother to see her child more clearly. There was also the possibility of discovering resources of nourishment from her own inner world. The archetypal forces which appear in personified images of mother, father, teacher can serve to support, nurture, and instruct. This action of the psyche provides great hope for healing when the outer sources are not sufficient.

Stepping back from her play for a moment, she seemed to call upon these archetypal forces when she announced, "Next time I'll make a story called "Organization Goodness." It will be a place where everyone comes to volunteer their help for neglected children. Each person will do what they can do and like to do best – each different. There will be teachers, farmers, bakers, nurses, priests, mailmen, policemen, bankers, musicians, and dancers. They will all help take care of the children, including the teenagers, who will try out many of the jobs."

It seemed that the acceptance of the "pretend space" from which the moving, growing cloud painting had emerged was offering her a potential for a new beginning – a new birth which needed protection against "sinking in." The protection was well pictured in an organized system of support and nourishment.

Having established a sense of safety, she went back and looked again at her "Cloud" painting. Reviewing all the images, she paused at the final one of the monster. It was the one image that did not have a moving quality; it was neither growing older nor younger. Indeed, this last image was almost like a stop sign.

Pointing to it, she looked away from me and said in a small voice, "You know, it's a Monster of Love. Besides, we can't be alive because of the Monster of Love. It makes a rose that is so beautiful that we can't help loving it. But if we pick it we die, and so it is the Monster of Love."

In the next hushed moments it was as if a big secret had been shared. The other images, moving and full of potential, had danced around this last one. Behind the seemingly static image of the Monster was its story – a story which told in metaphor of the experience this little girl had of love – its quality of poisonous seduction, a story of false promises.

As I was entering with her into this tragic sense of life's betrayal, she spun around and, looking straight at me, said passionately, "They won't let me be who I am!" In her one cry I heard all the cries of all the children, the rich variety of growing beings who were not being allowed to live their own stories. Her own clear declaration of this issue set us both on a path of discovery. Where could she find the way to validate this individual self that she knew she was?

She chose the geography for the first stage in her journey in her next story. She called it the "Strange Land of New," and described it as a country of wild animals and sea creatures. These were all given personified positions of authority and service, as in "Organization Goodness." For example, the fox was the teacher, the octopus the jailer. The peacock was the Queen and an owl was the King, who treated his Queen with gentleness.

Having carefully established the structured organization of this new land, she stepped back to look and said, "They don't look natural." Picking each one up, she bathed the animal and sprinkled sand on it, commenting, "I'm being a good mother to them. Dirty animals look more natural. You only need to be clean sometimes." Looking at me with a sly grin she said, "Like me, I don't always stay thinking so well these days. Just only when I need to."

In her movement toward the "Strange Land of New" she begins to go back to an early stage of development where, as Erich Neumann describes in The Child,
2 the animal and vegetative forces are most active. The growth-producing forces are at the level of instinct. Here the new birth shown in the beginning goes through a natural development. However, because of the need for order and structure, perhaps to keep her from sinking, the animals are personified in a human system of law and order. Her sense of "mothering" also enters as she actively participates in creating a more natural setting in which the dirt of the earth is honored and accepted.

The next chapter of her story returned the animals fully to their own habitat, where the order became the order of the natural seasons and growth, not the imposed order of organized government. Played out in the sandtray, it was called "Rushing Stream." A stream began to flow, making lakes for the animals. At first, the animals were pleased and came one by one to drink freely. Then, knowing that winter was coming when the waters would be frozen, they began to burrow into the earth to sleep and wait. Bears, lions, apes, turtles all dug themselves in. The baby elephant had to dig its own hole, because it had no mother to do it. Some animals laughed at the beaver, because he built his protective house over the ground. "But he didn't care," she stated emphatically, "he did it his way."

Soon all was frozen and quiet. Even the Rushing Stream was silent. Everything slept for "six years and a half hour." Slowly, slowly it began to warm up, to thaw, and soon the Rushing Stream began to flood the land. The animals stirred and awakened as they felt the water and poked their heads out. Feeling the warm sun, they stretched and went outside and saw that the waters had receded. To their surprise, many trees and flowers were coming up. The seeds also had been sleeping and were watered by the now flowing stream. So many trees were coming up that each animal "eventually" had its own kind, which it loved. Only the orphan elephant had no tree, so the Father Bear gave it his tree. Now, all can continue to live in this forest where there are so many differences and "everybody lets it be so." Even the especially different beaver.

Here in this story, hope is reborn. After "six years and a half hour" of hidden protection, the natural forces are awakened as winter 's frozen water of life thaws. The flood, instead of overwhelming, nourishes the animals and fructifies the land. In this grand spring awakening, all can celebrate and claim this as their land. It is a land in which differences in style (represented by the beaver) and differences in fate (represented by the orphaned elephant) are compassionately accepted.

The telling of this mythic story began to give reality to her awareness of differences. As the animals are different in nature, so is she, so are we. When the story can be truly heard by another, it begins to validate a reality which may not be acknowledged by the particular story of reality which exists in a family or a culture. Here in her story, she creates a flowing, growing land which has as its basic law the acceptance of differences.

This story seemed to allow the creativity in her to flow even more vividly, shaping itself now into poem and song. She came in one day humming a tune and then proceeded to share two songs – one about winter, one about spring – continuations of her "Rushing Stream" story.

I could never really go
Like those fluffy flakes of snow
Falling, trickling down the lane
My winter time was not the same.

All these snowflakes, different kinds
To different brains and different minds
Now my winter is just the same
As they trickle and fall down the lane.

Here again, the lesson of differences is learned from nature – different snowflakes, different minds. Where before she could not join this reality of nature, now her awareness is "just the same" as the snowflakes.

Having learned the lesson from winter, it too can change.

In The Springtime
Flowers bloom in the springtime
Flowers bloom in the summer
Because of all these flowers
Winter's getting warmer.

In the springtime flowers bloom
You can hear the robins sing
In the spring the sun does shine
The robins mate, just like mine.

As she sang I kept thinking about the other flower, the rose which the Monster of Love planted but which when picked, caused death. Was there some transformation going on in these new flowers that the animals seemed to love and that warmed the winter?

As I wondered, she began to mix two colors of paint together, contemplating them as if to study the blend itself. Then, apparently referring to the last line in her song, "The robins mate, just like mine," she asked, "Do you know about mating? It's about two different things coming together – like a man bird and a woman bird coming together to make a new bird. Like opposites, dirty and clean, dry and wet, right and wrong – do they ever get together and unite? Do they ever have two babies in the same stomach?"

"Or is it like this?" she continued as she chose two new colors and put some of both on each half of the paper. "Is it like good and bad ? Perhaps there is a little good in the bad side and a little bad in the good, and it keeps changing around and moving." (What a perfect description of the symbol of Yin/Yang!)

"But perhaps," she continued, "something really new that is not good or bad comes when they love and mate and make a new egg." Seeming satisfied with her own answer, she used a new color to make a large egg, calling it "New Beginning – A Surprise."

Accepting the reality of differences, she now asks the profound question, "How can differences relate?" How can one move from the cold winter isolation of withdrawn difference to the warm springtime of mating or relating...to a community where love serves to bind and renew, to blend and transform rather than wearing a false face that separates and kills.

The next time she came in joyously with a painting she had done at home, and a song. Excitedly she showed me the image, saying, "It wasn't an egg, it was a big seed – you know, from mating! In the seed was this big tree!" The painted tree was sturdy and tall, with strong, overarching branches that were flowering at their tips.

"It is the Tree of Love," she said, "and here is its song."

Meet Me Under the Tree of Love

Meet me under the tree of love
The tree of love, the tree of love
Meet me under the tree of love
Under the tree of love.

Meet me under the tree of dreams. . .

Meet me under the tree of wealth. . .

If you walk with me
If you talk with me
Under the wonderful tree
We will love and dream and live
Till we're growing in the breeze.

Meet me under the tree of love. . .

This tree, like the cloud-looking of the little three-year-old, was born out of the impulse of the psyche to move beyond dualism and opposition to an experience of totality. The tree, neither good nor bad, just is. This wonderful tree of love, dreams, and wealth was a visionary picture of herself natural, rich and flowering. It was a tree that could stand against the Monster of Love, under whose branches others could join, taking her from the isolation and loneliness of differences. It was as if her neglected being had been given its own tree by this action of her psyche, just as the Father Bear had given the orphaned elephant its tree.

Day 1


Next she asked me to join her as she directed the painting of a remarkable series of the six days of creation, each one mandalic in form. Nothing was painted on the seventh day. She declared it not only a day of rest, but one in which all creation could be carefully looked at and appreciated "in the time off."

 Day 2  
  Day 3
 Day 4  
  Day 5
 Day 6  

In this emergence of her own tree, she had touched the place of ultimate human creation: the Self. This return journey to her own original nature raised the fundamental question, "How did it all begin?" This question took her into the mythic realm of creation stories – of cosmology. It is a place children enter easily in their search for answers to where they came from and where life began. In many cultures, to tell the creation story is to take one back into harmony, into the original order which has been distorted in the particulars of personal and cultural history. A favorite of mine is the story of Vδinamφinen, a Finnish epic hero. He can only heal his hand, cut by an axe, by the telling of the creation of the axe from iron and wood, connecting it finally to all organic and inorganic life.

Here, as she tells the creation story in image, she connects herself to such an original order where opposites take their balanced place in the totality and are subject to change and renewal. It is a creation process in which she is a participant by the retelling of the story. The imagery comes out of her personal interior world and out of the vast collective world of the unconscious. It is a story begun in the creative release of cloud-looking.

I remembered the closing statement by James Kirsch in an article on clouds in Quadrant magazine: "The cloud is one of the most important symbols in the collective unconscious. Frequently its appearance indicates that an intensive activity has started in the unconscious, the final goal of which is to bring the realization of totality."
3 These numinous moments when the individual self is experienced in relation to the larger totality are not only renewing arid strengthening, but also allow for new perspectives on old issues and old wounds.

This was evident in the play she now wrote and wanted us to perform, called the "Evil Source." I can only summarize it, since it was quite long, with clear dialogue and directions for stage sets and sound effects.

A King and Queen live in their castle. The Queen hears noises that frighten her. The King, mostly asleep, mumbles to her, "It's only your imagination." The Queen enlists the Joker, who takes her seriously. Together they explore the basement of the castle, discovering a cache of her stolen jewels.

"See there!" the Queen shouts. "Here lives the Evil Source" It was night and she carried a candle.

From the dark they hear a cry, "Oh, no, not the light."

This made the Joker laugh, and they heard another cry, "Oh, no, not laughter!" And, as if a wind had blown away some dust, the voice disappears.

In celebration they all had strawberry wine in the Royal Chamber. Then the Queen announced: "The first new law will be to always carry a little light into the dark basements, and the second is to keep the laughter ringing. That is our best guard against the Evil Source. And that, King, is not only my imagination—it is my imagination," the Queen concludes as the curtain descends.

Here enter light and laughter, elements of the human spirit belonging to the true nature of childhood. The candle carried by the Queen reminds one of Jung's little light of consciousness, which he described as "the sole treasure I possess, and the greatest. Though infinitely small and fragile in comparison with the powers of darkness, it is still a light, my only light." 4

And, here, the treasures that had been stolen and hidden in the dark are reclaimed in the Kingdom of the Imagination by a wakeful Queen and her wise Joker. How frequently Shakespeare uses the Joker as the one who can safely tease the King out of his narrow vision, his mistaken and sleepy view of the realm. Here the King acts as the ruling principle of this child's cultural context which repetitiously proclaims: "It's nothing but your imagination. Be realistic!" With childhood wisdom, the Queen carries the knowledge that the Evil Source is not vanquished forever but must be constantly guarded against. I have seen this wisdom in many children: the awareness that life's story does not "live happily ever after," but is full of challenges and potential dangers as well as victories. Growth thus includes both the capacity to enjoy life and to protect it.

For this girl the establishment of the new tree of Self and the acquisition of tools for dealing with the Evil Source seemed to release much life vitality and playfulness. There was a new freedom in her body and a desire to be with friends.

She had joined the Girl Scouts and came in one day very upset about a girl the others called "Fatso." "She's only different," she explained, and she proceeded to paint for her a "teaching gift." It was a tulip, "which all little girls like." This was a special flower because it had a beautiful smell that wafted away in the wind but came back again to the flower, so that it could enjoy being itself. It also had nettle-like leaves to protect it from being picked and hurt.

For the other girls, she created a new set of rules, as the Queen had done. In a triptych she painted three symbols. The first was a sun, for FRIENDLINESS, as the sun was to the stars. The second panel had several flowers and a butterfly for DISCOVERY. The butterfly discovered something different about each flower, especially the tulip. The third panel was a beehive representing HELPFULNESS. The bees make something for everyone to eat and enjoy from the beauty of all the flowers.

Thinking about this compassionate action for another child experiencing the pain of her difference, it occurred to me that this little girl's work had been an initiation. The steps are common to all initiatory processes: one leaves the old, dies to it, enters into a sacred space for teaching, testing and renewal, and then returns to the collective world to share what has been learned.

Simply said for this girl, she had come with the pain of not being able to be herself, not being able to live with her life and its demands. And she had come with suicidal feelings. Entering her own interior "place of pre-tend," her clouds had begun to take shape, her river to flow. Tested by her capacity to deal with the Evil Source, she was now able to reach out and help her friends, sharing what she had learned. By this rich telling of herself in story, she had been able to validate her differentness in such a way that was not isolating but instead strengthened her to enter the world of others' differences.

This intuition about her return to the ordinary world was confirmed by her own statement the next time I saw her. She said she wouldn't need to come any more because she wanted to use the time to practice jumping rope. Her best friend was the captain of the Jump Team and wanted to play with her. She showed me how she had learned to jump 116 times now instead of just 43.

She planned the celebration of our last meeting. I would bring the food and decoration and she would bring the gifts. She came wearing her own gift – a small image of herself made in felt and worn on her dress as if it were her signature. Her gift for me was a felt mandala shape of many colors, which I was to wear. It seemed a reminder of her own experience of the Self, an experience I had been privileged to share, and an experience I had been able to validate.

Her gift to the sandtray was a new small ball, which she placed in the center of the tray where she said, "The oceans meet the sand." It was a simple and profound statement of the totality of her Self, balanced and safe between the opposites. The story had come full circle: now there was no danger of sinking in, and no danger of isolation from the life-giving waters of the psyche.

The final gift was for both of us. It was a painting called, "Magic Twilight Hour." As we looked at it she said softly, "I'll meet you here between night and day, dark and light – where we can see things change – like looking at the clouds."

In the deeply shared silence that followed, I remembered a lovely Hawaiian legend about a small bird that carried a tiny light in the dark, guiding those who were lost in the forest or whose canoe had overturned in a stormy ocean. Most especially, the bird enjoyed coming out at twilight to play with the children, who also carry their own tiny lights.

For this moment of her life, the gift of the changing, shape-shifting quality of the imagination – which could take her from suicide to new life, from the Self-denying stance of "I try to be realistic" to the play of light and laughter – had been received. If a child can experience this dynamic, healing quality of the inner cloud-watcher in a context which reflects back its value and its reality, then this natural life resource can be used forever. This gift is not given to solve all problems, but to bring options for their solutions. It is not given to cure all wounds, but to unlock healing possibilities.


  1  Jung, C. G. (1965). Memories, Dreams, Reflections. New York: Vantage Press.
  2  Neumann, Eric. (1973). The Child. New York: C.D. Putnam.
  3  Kirsch, James. (1977). "The Symbol of the Cloud in European Literature of the 19th and 20th Century." Quadrant, 10, 5-16. Published by the
      C. G. Jung Foundation of New York.
  4  Jung, C. G. (1965). Memories, Dreams, Reflections. New York: Vantage Press.

Edith Sullwold, Ph.D., was the Founding Director of the Hilde Kirsch Children's Center at the C. G. Jung Institute of Los Angeles and of "Turning Point," a professional group working with seriously ill children.  She also helped found the Center for Healing Arts in Los Angeles.


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