lessons from the selkies
art credit: a. len bell @loimestudios
the magic of metaphor
when working with personal spiritual or philosophical enquiry, i tend to think in metaphors and see in pictures, allowing images to form and grow, and accepting the invitation to explore each of the relational parts as they become clear. when companioning others through deep listening, i hear this way too, allowing pictures to pop up in my mind's eye and then using curiosity about those pictures as inspiration for asking deepening questions. angry tension expressed by someone becomes a ball of hot wires in my mind's eye, making it easier to see that, before we untangle it, we have to cool it off, and after untangling it, we ought to ask ourselves how it got so hot and tangled in the first place. by seeing one thing as another, we can often relate more clearly and act more logically and definitively.
as a midwifery educator, i also do this with teaching, using metaphor as a way to help students understand physiological processes. for instance, blood volume expansion in pregnancy, necessary for sustaining two humans rather than one, is hard to wrap your head around until you think about it like, say, making soup. if plasma (the watery part of blood) is the broth and the the red and white blood cells are the veggies and meat, you can imagine that a body trying to bulk its supply pours the liquid part of the soup into the pan quickly and easily. carton to pan. bam. watery part handled. but the meat and veggies take prep. there's chopping, peeling, dicing, and sautéing that has to happen first. that part, like the genesis of blood cells, takes more prep time, and so pregnant people's bulked-up new blood supply becomes temporarily dilute while the body quickly adds liquid and then slowwwwly begins the the prep of actually making cells.
blood? don't understand it. soup? do understand it! soup as metaphor for blood? oooooh, now i've got it!
metaphors are helpful tools, because they are frameworks upon which we can lay new and unfamiliar stories, happenings, or states of affair, substituting one part for another and making sense of the new material referentially. they may also help us look at things differently than we would have ordinarily--they're simultaneously clarifiers and mind expanders. they draw maps and hint at new paths.
the examples i've listed so far are more intrinsic-type metaphors, meaning they arise in and from my mind in reaction to something else i'm thinking about. i didn't see a ball of hot wires or a bowl of soup on my desk--they just came to me while thinking, listening, or talking. they're my subconscious mind's helpful suggestions to my rational thinking mind in an attempt to make sense and to give shape to what's on offer. another word used to describe this type of metaphor or thought might be "noetic", in that the thought originates inside my own intellect, and not from, say, an image that i see near me.
the mind is not the only origin of expansive and enlightening metaphor, though. one of the most common and most powerful extrinsic (coming from outside) sources, and one of my favorite ways to consume metaphor (yum yum) is through story. stories invite us into the skins of other folks--we see what they see and feel what they feel--and if a story does a good job, it tells us something about ourselves (without, strictly speaking, telling us anything about ourselves). a great story does more than entertain--it covertly invites us to consider how the lessons learned (by positive or negative example) may fit into our own lives. it perhaps invites us to consider a picture from a heretofore unfamiliar point of view. it often gives us an opportunity, maybe even without realizing it, to clarify how we think and feel. if we can be open to the cognitive consonance (yes, that hits!) and dissonance (arg! that makes no sense!) we experience alongside story characters, we can extract wisdom, via metaphor, for our own lives.
the importance of story for changing times
i've been spending a lot of time recently, as i'm sure most of us have, thinking about the tremendous transitionary period that we, as americans but also just as humans, are going through right now. we have (oh hi, metaphor) been frogs in ever-warming water up to this point, and for the first time in a long time, we're waking up and jumping out to avoid being boiled alive. just to name a few suddenly-too-hot-water transitions you may be witnessing or experiencing (or may have longstanding, long-suffering perspective on):
people are realizing, after having been temporarily shoved out of the workforce by a pandemic, that they shouldn't have to put up with inexcusably low wages for soul-stealing, thankless jobs
smartphone footage is finally forcing mainstream heads-down white america to take a long hard look at police brutality against people of color and to (hopefully) rethink what it means serve and protect their communities
antiquated and irrelevant ideas about sex, sexuality, and gender are being brought out into the sunlight and exploded into their death throes by lgbtqia2s+ communities and individuals who are claiming and exclaiming their authentic experience
clear and measurable signs of climate change mean that we can't look away or debate ourselves out of the reality of the harm we're causing, and also that we must make the choice between acting and destroying our one and only home
the politicization of community response to illness is snapping us out of the illusion that a democratic two-party system actually has the wellbeing of the populace at heart
and on, and on...
collectively, many of us feel like sleepy people rubbing their eyes in a waking fog. as a society, we're in that weird week between christmas and new years, where everyone wanders around unshowered and overfed in sweatpants wondering what day it is. something big just ended, and something else is about to start, but who the hell even am i, and where am i going? (and when was the last time i washed these sweatpants?)
at foggy, transitional, in-between times like these, when we're slowly snapping out of what doesn't serve us and then slowly into what does, we need more than single-instance metaphors to make sense of the mess--we need whole stories. we need creative suggestions that point out the right way to go to exit the blur and that illuminate, suggest, or inspire the new best path for moving forward. we need templates. we need narratives.
the bad news is that we're all culturally eyeballs-deep in bad stories (i'm pretty sure a prince isn't going to save me--you either--sorry. and the hero's journey? privileged sausage-fest material.). the good news, though, is that there are good stories out there--we just have to find them and share them with one another. we have to get in them, try them on, and see what they show us about where we're going next (or where we could go if we but jumped into the driver's seat).
it is in this spirit that i'd like to share a story, and a story within a story, that's given me hope and perspective recently.
finding a narrative map
i'm the kind of person who has so many books (and a near terminal case of tsundoku due to my lack of free time over the past decade) that i fear some of the piles in my home might actually be architecturally load-bearing at this point. every now and then, though, one stares out at me from the pile and demands to be handled, insists to be read. the experience of it in my body is a little like the compulsion to reach out for and to console a crying child--it's always best to give in.
my most recent compulsion wasn't actually from a physical book though. it was just a title that kept coming up and up and up in conversation, each time unrelated to the last. (synchronicities, like the call of begging books, should always be heeded.) the book, which i wound up buying in audio form to consume on my long drives, was if women rose rooted by sharon blackie. it's a part-mythology, part-natural-history, part-memoire, part-guide written by a english psychologist who explores celtic myth and an intense personal connection to the land as lenses and conduits for discovery both of self and of its relation to place.
one of the stories she tells, and perhaps also the way she tells it, has been rolling around in my mind like a flashing sign, like a lighthouse in the nor'easter-white-out of... *gestures wildly at everything*... like it has something to say to me, or i think (i hope) to all of us. the story, which i will relate here in a much abbreviated form, is one about a selkie, a magical seal-woman abundant in norse and celtic mythology. for the purposes of specificity and of honoring place, this story, specifically, comes from the scottish isle of lewis.
the selkie's tale (greatly abridged)
once there was a fisherman from the isle of lewis. he was very unsatisfied with his ordinary wifely prospects and always held out for something much more magical, something extraordinary. on a fishing trip one day, he found it. under the light of the full moon, he came across a group of women swimming around a rock. they were no ordinary women--they were selkies, the magical seal women who, on the night of a full moon, can slip off their skins and dance and swim in human form. entranced by their beauty, he stole one of their skins and tucked it into his pocket, thus preventing the selkie from being able to return to the sea.
the seal woman asked for her skin back, but the man told her no, and that she must marry him and live with him for seven years, after which time she could choose whether to don her skin and return to the sea or stay on the land. he was handsome enough so she (with, i imagine, a great rolling of eyes) relented, got in his boat, sailed home with him, and became his wife. nine months later, she gave birth to a daughter who was half of land and half of sea.
over the next seven years, the woman's vitality waned and waned until she was a mere shell of her former sea-born self. the selkie woman missed her home and her sisters, and even though she loved her daughter, she knew that life on the land was slowly killing her. her daughter knew it too, and so the daughter's heart was full of understanding when her mother asked, at the end of the seven years, for her skin to be returned so she could go back to sea. the husband, who over the years had become an absent drunk, just laughed and refused. he wouldn't not give her up.
the selkie's daughter, consumed by worry for her mother, made it her secret task after that night to find the lost skin and to bring her mother back to the sea where she could be revived. she searched and searched, but she couldn't find the stolen skin. finally, one afternoon after her search, she collapsed exhaustedly into her father's boat. when she did, she happened upon his old coat under a mess of rope and sail, and in the coat pocket was her mother's seal skin. she was overjoyed to find it, but her joy soon turned to agony when, as she went to unfold it, the old and disused skin crumbled to pieces in her hands.
the daughter shared the terrible news with her dying mother, who soon became bed-bound and overcome by hopelessness. the daughter, out of ideas, then paid a visit to the cailleach, the mythical wise old woman, the hag, to ask for guidance. the cailleach said that the mother must journey far and wide to find the woman of the world, for only she could tell the selkie how to save her own life (and indeed, none but she could save herself). she couldn't bring anything with her, and she'd be given no map and no directions.
upon the daughter's return, the selkie decided to try, with her last ounce of life, to find the woman of the world, and a harrowing journey ensued. (cue "harrowing journey montage", in gray tones, lots of sea spray, maybe some bagpipes, plenty of bare feet on sharp rocks). eventually, the selkie woman arrived at the cave where the woman of the world lived. the hag gave her a brew that revived her, and a fire to warm her hands, and she reflected:
“So, you've come to find your skin?...So your old skin was of no use anymore? That's the way it goes often enough.
I've heard all the stories they tell about selkies who find their old skins and slip them back on and go back into the ocean, just as if nothing had ever happened to them and nothing had ever been learned.
That's all well and good, but it doesn't always work out that way, and sometimes it shouldn't.” (Chapter 3, Islands of the Heart: Embracing the Call, from If Women Rose Rooted)
enlivened by the brew, and warmed to her bones, the selkie set off on the final leg of the quest, at the instruction of the woman of the world, to find a (yet another) certain cave by the sea. on arriving in the cave, the woman entered and looked in horror at the skeletons and skins of her 11 sisters, dead many years ago at the hands of greedy sailors who stashed the skins and then never returned. the grieving selkie lit a fire in the cave and began to sing an old lament song to keep vigil. during her otherworldly song, and old gray selkie in seal form entered the cave and joined her in song. as the two sang the long lost lament, the flesh began to knit back on the bones of the sisters, and they were eventually fully reborn and able to don their skins.
10 of the 11 sisters resurrected, but the smallest and youngest did not. her skin became the gift to the selkie woman who brought the sisters back to life. the reborn sisters and the old gray selkie who joined them then returned to the ocean, and the selkie woman, new skin tucked tightly into her pocket, returned home to take her personhood (selkiehood?) back from her landlocked husband and to say goodbye to her two-worlds daughter.
once back at the home that never really was her home, the woman told her daughter all about her life and about the secrets of the selkies. she shared with her that, if she ever so chose, she could one day join her mother at sea. the woman then walked with her daughter to the shore and donned her new skin which, though it looked different and new, hung over the same bones as her own skin used to. same frame; new adornment. and then she slipped away back to her home in the sea, returning only once a year on that same full moon to visit her daughter and to share the secrets and mysteries of her rediscovered and redefined authentic life.
author and storyteller sharon blackie muses,
"All mourning may be transformed into joy if you have endurance enough to make the journey, and courage enough to face the old woman in the darkness of her cave.” (Chapter 3...)
choosing our skins
i hope you'll trust me when I say that you need to read or to hear blackie's telling of the selkie's tale. there's poetry and depth that's lost in a perfunctory telling, and this, trust me, is the kind of story that you want to stew in. i hope you were able to see though, even in my run-through, the profundity of why we need this story right now.
we've all been hoodwinked--we've been conned--we've been sold a lie, and we've been trapped. our skins have been stolen, and, because he was handsome enough, we were the selkies who said, "meh, what's seven years... and he's good for his word, right?" in the most real and terrifying way, i've spent the last year, as have many of us, in the premature deathbed of the selkie.
LANGUISHING. that's what adam grant called it. what a great word.
i've been languishing because the world whose walls i can see around me is not a world where i belong. it's not a world that i want. i feel like a selkie stolen out of the sea when i look around and feel the desiccating pull of unchecked capitalism, of rampant climate change, of police brutality that i wish i could say was unfathomable, of political parties that have made health, community protection, and the well-being social contract into civil-war-fodder between opposed political ideologies. add to that the massive isolation and all-levels instability that's batting us all back and forth like an angry and aimless cat, and of course we're languishing.
but we also have a choice. as all of these realities come more undeniably to light, we're like the beached selkie whose daughter picks up the skin, notices its sad state, and hands it to us. what are we to do? put on the old skin? nope, it's trashed and it no longer fits. languish away in bed, slowly towards death? that would certainly be the easy thing...
i think what this story asks us to do is to figure out, for starters, the answers to these questions:
in what ways have we been trapped by illusions and untruths, whether or not we've been forced or are in some ways (or many?) complicit?
how can we, drained of our energy and willpower, without map and without supplies, find the cave where the woman of the world lives? what do we have to do to say ENOUGH! and to summon the last of our energy to make the journey?
what kind of metaphorical (see what i did there?) brew would revive us right now? what would give us the strength to go on?
what resources can we call on to help us sing laments so loudly that it brings our stifled communities back to life? so loudly that those communities can, in turn, bring us back to life?
what do we risk by taking the easy way out and trying to put our old skins back on? how do we suffer? who else suffers?
what do we have to gain by choosing to don new skins, take back our agency, and be the change we want to see?
how do we whisper to our daughters how they might also use this deep magic to claim power in their own lives?
whether or not this particular story resonates with you, like it did for me, on the metaphorical map level, i challenge you to be on the lookout for narratives that show you a way out of this fog... that show you a way to do better and be better, both for yourself and for others... that give you a road map for where we go from here. no prince is coming to save us, and we aren't the "very special boy" tumbling effortlessly towards a heroic self-actualization. we have to make the tough choice to engage purposefully, and we need examples of how to do that safely, productively, and in a way that sets a precedent for those who will, universe willing, consider us one day their ancestors.
abby hall luca
the hearth chaplain
be well, keep growing, keep going.
abby hall luca
the hearth chaplain