Category Archives: Authenticity


Selchie: A mystical creature who takes the form of a seal in the sea and a human on land.

I have a picture book from my childhood called Greyling, by Jane Yolen. It’s one of my favorite stories, by one of my favorite authors, and I’ve told it as an oral storyteller for many years. When I began doing storytelling, I sought out all the selchie stories I could find and incorporated them into my programs.

I rarely tell a selchie story without fighting back tears.

I’ve lately revisited this wonderful material for my second book, and it occurred to me to explore why these stories touch me so painfully and deeply.

Selchie stories appear in the Hebrides, Iceland, Orkney, Scotland, Ireland and the Faroe and Shetland Islands. Like all lasting oral traditions, they contain blueprints for navigating loneliness, exile, love, loss, competition, compassion, trust and power. A good story has many facets.

A common thread in selchie stories is that a seal comes to land, takes off its skin, and becomes human, usually a beautiful young woman. Subsequently, the skin is stolen by a man and the woman entrapped. In many of the tales, she marries  the man who has her skin (always a fisherman) and bears his children. Sometimes her husband promises that after a certain number of years he’ll allow her access to her skin again, but he doesn’t follow through for fear of losing her. Inevitably, the skin is found, often by a child, and returned to the selchie, who must then face a choice between her life with her family and her life in the sea.

Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

It is this choice that makes me weep. I know the agonized longing for what we are made of but can’t ever quite find.

As I observe the world and people around me, I think many of us feel in some way exiled from who we were born to be, from a place, from a tribal connection, from some integral expression of self. I believe this exile creates such an unbearable hunger we grasp at anything within our reach in order to appease it, becoming addicts, developing eating disorders and body dysmorphism, and struggling with anxiety and depression. We live in a culture of distraction and entertainment. We’re busy, noisy, exhausted, and inundated with information, stimulation, propaganda, manipulation and demands.

Photo by Anna Dziubinska on Unsplash

We want what we are made of, but how do we find what that is? Why is it taken away or withheld from us? Why are we so often forced to choose between one thing we’re made of and another? This all lies at the heart of selchie stories, for the selchie is a creature torn between two worlds and two tribes, and we instinctively recognize this conflict.

Choice is so often grief. If a selchie re-dons her skin and goes back to the sea, she cannot return, for she already knows the terrible cost of losing her skin, and though she may love her children and even have grown to love the fisherman she’s with, she cannot trust him. In returning to the sea, she is joyous, but now the grief of leaving her children and the life she made on the land replaces her longing for the sea.

I was with a man who avoided choice. He said he didn’t like to choose one thing in case something better came along. My experience of this was that he didn’t want to commit. It meant we couldn’t plan a date, a weekly ritual or even a walk. If we did, he frequently cancelled at the last minute. It was painful for me, and it frayed our connection considerably as I vacillated between hurt and anger. Eventually, I gave up and made my own plans. I told him that his maybe-I-will and maybe-I-won’t approach didn’t avoid a choice but was a choice. He refused to take responsibility for that, and he was bitter about the choices I made subsequent to his.

I’ve also been with partners who believe we can have it all. One man walked away from any situation in which he couldn’t have his cake and eat it too. It was a point of pride with him. He didn’t see why he shouldn’t have it all, and, as far as he was concerned, the world (and I) owed him that. Looking back, I see this as just another evasion of the heartbreak and consequences of having to make choices.

I think very few of us have the luxury of having it all. We come together and move apart, searching, seeking, fleeing and climbing ladders that we hope end in success. Many of us feel rootless in terms of place and tribe. We don’t really feel we belong anywhere on a map, and we have no rightful place in a human circle. We do the best we can, a choice at a time, and over the years those choices and their consequences teach us who we are and turn us into adults.

What we’re made of is not necessarily what we’re born into. What we’re made of is not necessarily the place we live in, the people surrounding us, the job we have, the clothes we wear, the car we drive or the color we dye our hair. What we’re made of is not always who we want to be, who we insist we are or who we’re expected to be. Discovering what we’re made of is an excavation of our dreams, our souls and our joyous bodies. Many of us spend our whole lives finding one piece of ourselves at a time, stumbling, groping, picking up and discarding, searching blindly in the dark with nothing but our feelings to guide us.

On one particular day of no special consequence, my small toddling self, clothed in a yellow bathing suit with white trim, was lifted into a pool of water as big as the sea. From that day to this I’ve loved the water, and during occasional long, dry spells without access to swimming I dream of water and wake myself weeping with the anguish of my longing.

I’m a creature of water. It’s part of what I’m made of.

Photo by Nathan Anderson on Unsplash

For some years I lived in a city and laid awake at night watching headlights move across the ceiling and walls, straining to hear a precious moment of silence in between the sound of cars and sirens and too many restless people moving through the pale night. I dreamed of high, snow-covered mountains under starry skies and the peace of trees in unbroken darkness. Every day I died a little more, but I knew in my heart one day, one day I would leave the city and live in the shadow of the mountains I dreamed of. A thousand nights later I freed myself from the tentacles of that city, but I also left behind my marriage and the father of my children, my belief in happy-ever-after, the most lucrative job I ever had and the good wife and mother I wanted so much and tried so hard to be.

Photo by Ryan Hutton on Unsplash

At last, I slept in the shadow of snow-covered peaks in a small mountain town without pavement and street lamps and sirens. When I laid awake at night, I heard the cry of the vixen, the rushing wind, the owls calling to one another, the sound of the bear eating apples from the tree outside my window, or the raccoons cavorting in the tops of the pear trees like furry pirates.

I did not have it all. I had another piece of what I’m made of. I chose it, and I paid for it. I’m still paying for it, twenty years and thousands of miles later, and whatever the cost, it’s worth it. I cannot live in the city.

By the time my life is over, will I know everything I’m made of? Will I have lived with enough courage to choose what I’m made of, come what may? Will living true to what I’m made of sustain me? Will I ever find my own sealskin wedged between rocks, or locked away in a chest, or hidden in the thatch?

The selchie lives in a small cottage on the shingle beside the sea. She lives with a fisherman whose face is carved with a lifetime of loneliness that she has relieved. She and her children gather seaweed and driftwood, mend nets and dry fish and watch for the fisherman’s return, lighting a lamp and setting it in the window to welcome him home in the evenings. She lies with her man at night and listens to him sleep, and the waves come in, and the wind sighs through the beach grass, and she thinks of her sea kin and wonders how it is with them and if she’ll ever see them again.

Photo by Kace Rodriguez on Unsplash

The selchie takes the folded sealskin from her child and holds it to her breast, weeping, smelling its fading perfume of fish and sea, rubbing its softness against her cheek. She tells her children she loves them, but she must leave, and they clutch at her hands and her skirts, crying, not understanding what is happening. She tells them they will see her again, but in a different form. She cannot stop to explain, lest the fisherman return and her chance for freedom is lost. She stumbles out of the house, casting aside her clothing as she goes, until she stands naked in the surf and steps into the skin. The children follow, stricken and wailing, pleading with her not to leave, but her need for what she is made of is even greater than her love for them, and the surf takes her gladly in its embrace and carries her out. She looks back one more time, her great, dark eyes full of tears, before she dives into the arms of what she is made of and disappears.

Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

All content on this site ©2018
Jennifer Rose
except where otherwise noted

Beneath the Skin

Photo by Dakota Corbin on Unsplash

In the mornings now, I strap on my snowshoes and go down to the river. This is the first time I’ve ever snowshoed, and when I began a few weeks ago I anticipated moving silently and gracefully (as opposed to floundering like a pregnant hippopotamus) through the landscape, seeing the animals that make the tracks rather than just the tracks themselves.

It was a lovely vision.

The reality is that cycles of snow, sun, rain and subzero weather do not create a fluffy blanket on the ground, but a crusty, layered mix of wind-hardened drifts, thick, lumpy ice and bitter frozen ground. Walking on it, I feel exactly like Sasquatch, lurching and loud. CRUNCH, crunch, crunch, and then CRUNCH and wallow, wallow, wallow and giggle, swear, giggle. If one fails to lift the tip of a snowshoe up far enough, it catches under the top crust and down one goes on hands and knees, thrashing in several inches of cold, grainy powder to regain a standing position and some kind of solidity underfoot. The only wildlife I see is a squirrel or a pileated woodpecker observing me from a high perch, alternately laughing scornfully and scolding.

So much for romance.

My partner and I walk gingerly out to the mailbox or car on the glassy ice in the driveway, taking tiny, tentative steps and testing each before going on. Somewhere, under all that ice, is a sleeping world of earth, grass, clover and the inhabitants of the soil. I wonder, do they know this very minute more snow is falling on the layer of ice above them? Do they hear our footsteps slipping and sliding, or the click of the crampons we use on our boots or on the bottom of the snowshoes? Do the delicate weights of the juncos eating sunflower seeds off the ground or the footprints of the squirrels as they race from tree to tree, foraging and playing, reach the world beneath the winter skin of ice?

When I arrived at the pool to swim yesterday, an exuberant group of adolescent boys was in the water, shooting balls through a hoop. In a nearby lap lane, I settled down into my usual steady Zen freestyle, letting my mind drift from this week’s blog to the day’s writing and all points in between. The sun was shining in a row of windows alongside the pool, so I swam through alternating bars of shade and light.

Above the skin of water, the boys shouted, yelled, laughed and talked, jumping and splashing, filling the air with the echoing noise characteristic of indoor pools, along with the slap and slosh of agitated water and the sound of balls bouncing off the rim of the hoop or the tiled floor around the pool.

Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

Under the water, I entered a different world, a silent world of rippled turquoise light and blue water. As I swam through intermittent sunlight, my shadow reached its arm toward my fleshy arm as I stroked, the two sets of fingers trying to touch. The agitated water rocked me so that I had to turn my head farther when I breathed in order to avoid a mouthful of chlorinated pool, but the noise from the world above sounded far-off and muted, nothing but a background for my own thoughts. I didn’t notice when the boys exited the pool and I was alone with the ripples of light and the steady stretch, pull, breathe and kick of my body.

Under the snow lying over the meadows and fields on this land is a world of field mice, shrews and other small creatures. They run through tunnels of last season’s decaying growth, foraging, sleeping, mating, fighting and living their lives. What do they think as I pass over them, a giant in snowshoes on sharp teeth? Do they crouch and cower in terror, or do they feel secure under the thick skin of snow? They surely must mark my passage, but their presence escapes me entirely. Does my weight cave in their tunnels and storerooms? When I fall through the crust am I laying waste to whole communities hidden beneath the snow? Do my footprints provide hunters from worlds above easier access to prey living in the layers below?

In the old tales, heros and fools, youngest sons and tricksters descend. They fall into dreams and oceans, enter wells and caves, go through trapdoors in the floor, climb down beanstalks and step down stairs. They crawl down chimneys or disappear in the red maw of a wolf or the cavernous insides of a whale. They brave cellars and tunnels and dungeons. They find worlds of magic, of mystery, of intuition and wisdom and hidden treasure.

In a lifetime, we travel from the darkness of the womb into the light and back into darkness again. Our experience is layer upon layer of minutes, hours and years. Beneath our skin, hidden in the folds of our exquisite and mysterious brains, are all the things we’ve seen and heard and felt, all the events that have shaped us. Beneath the membrane of our cells is our genetic code, the building blocks from which we are made.

Beneath, and beneath, and beneath.

Photo by Laterjay Photography on Unsplash

The worlds beneath support the worlds above. If the soil does not contain the right mix of microbes, minerals and nutrients, trees will not grow. If the rodents leave our fields for quieter places where Sasquatch is not roaming over their heads, the fox cannot survive here. Without both healthy trees and rodents, the owls hidden in plain sight in the tops of the winter trees will starve.

Yesterday I wrote a scene in which I wanted hedgehogs. I paused my writing and turned to the Internet to research. For two hours, I read about hedgehogs, looked at images, listened to audio recordings of their sounds. Now the section is written, the hedgehogs only a small part of the whole, and the vast majority of facts and observations I collected will never appear in the book. No matter. That research, my delight in these small creatures and their private lives, will enliven and enrich the story, even if invisible to the reader.

Photo by Tadeusz Lakota on Unsplash

What lies beneath my skin and yours? What’s concealed beneath the skin of ice, of water, of rock, of soil, of forest and meadow and swamp? What can we learn from those who know how to travel from one layer, one world, to another? How far might we descend, or, for that matter, ascend?

Peering beneath the skin. My daily crime.

All content on this site ©2018
Jennifer Rose
except where otherwise noted

Dirty Laundry

Today is laundry day, and I’m sitting in the laundromat writing this week’s blog.

I’ve always liked doing laundry. Turning a bundle of dirty clothes, sheets and towels into neat, fresh-smelling folded piles gives me a warm feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment.

At present, we don’t have a usable washer at home, so part of our routine is to hit the laundromat every couple of weeks. We know it’s time when my partner runs out of socks and I run out of underwear. At that point we collect dish and bath towels, sheets and clothing and our stash of quarters and head into town.

Photo by Pop & Zebra on Unsplash

Sitting here, I watch a man open the mouth of a bulging cloth laundry bag and empty it into the machine. I see scrunched up socks, some more hole than sock; inside-out pant legs, whites, colors, sleeves and bandanas all tangled and mixed up together. He feeds in quarters, adds soap and sets the temperature to hot before heading back out, either to sit in his truck in the parking lot or otherwise kill time until the load is done.

I get a lot of pleasure out of the laundromat. Watching people deal with their laundry is every bit as entertaining as looking at someone’s bookshelves. Dirty laundry is a great social leveler. We all have it, and if we don’t deal with ours directly, someone else does. Our dirty laundry records the story of our lives. Our scent is imprinted on it. The presence of our pets decorates it. It remembers the day we spilled our coffee in the car, the morning the hot grease spattered and the nosebleed we had in bed. It gives away our cigarette habit and the acrid, sweaty smell of our secret copious alcohol consumption.

Two middle-aged women come in with stuffed pillowcases, a couple of plastic laundry baskets, a heavy green garbage bag and a couple of drawstring laundry bags and commandeer a whole row of machines. They work well together, efficient and brisk. Obviously, they’ve done this before. They sort lights from darks, taking care to untangle and unscrunch as they load the machines. They check pockets. One of them goes from machine to machine with soap and the other with quarters. They choose hot water for the whites and warm for the colors. I wonder if they are friends, family members or from an organization like a shelter or a boarding house. Perhaps they’re church ladies dealing with donated clothes for charity. The washing machines take 39 minutes, and then the women load up a bank of dryers. As the dryers finish, they work together to fold bedding, mate socks, and put shirts on hangers. I see no children’s clothing, only adult size. One of them says to the other they’ve spent over a hundred dollars, and I wonder how often they do this. It takes them three trips to load up a battered van with all the clean clothes, and off they go.

Photo by frank cordoba on Unsplash

Dirty laundry is a cultural artifact. Back in rural Colorado, Wranglers, snap button shirts and lots of bicycling, hiking and yoga gear slosh in the machines. Here in central rural Maine everyone wears Carhartts, long underwear and thick socks. This is a blue collar community, where farmers, heavy equipment operators, sawyers and mill workers wear the same lined heavy canvas and flannel working clothes all winter.

A worn-out looking young women with a little girl comes in. Mom loads up the washer while the little girl helps by handing her things. I see no men’s clothes in this load. They sit down at a round table, the little girl with a grubby board book she found in a basket of children’s toys in the waiting area. Mom, after checking her cell phone briefly, sits idly, now and then glancing at a TV screen on the wall where a movie I’ve never seen is playing with the sound muted.

When I came to Maine, my partner had a routine. Everything went in the same machine. Socks were permanently turned inside out, because he can’t tolerate the feel of the seams against his toes. It all got OxiClean, soap and hot water. He likes things machine dried so they’re soft.

I quailed. Half of my clothes were cold water wash. I always separated colors. I much preferred to line dry.

Negotiating The Right Way To Do Laundry is one of the many hidden landmines in every living-together relationship that no one ever talks about.

Photo by Jonas Tebbe on Unsplash

Being old and wise about choosing our battles, we adjusted to one another. I stopped trying to turn his socks right-side-out. I learned to keep my cold water wash separate. I decided life was possible if I didn’t separate whites from colors and he decided clothes were still wearable if washed in warm water instead of hot. I line dry my things and machine dry his. I don’t waste time folding his clothes, because he prefers to keep them stacked neatly in a laundry basket that lives on the floor next to his side of the bed. I fold and roll my clothes, just as I always have, for my sock drawer, my underwear drawer, my tee shirt drawer and the closet shelf where my jeans live. We happily share the expense and the work.

A woman my age with a thick Maine accent and hair an improbable rich brown with no grey comes in with a load. She’s very short, and can’t reach the top of the big commercial washer to put in detergent. She goes to the counter and gets a step stool from the attendant. Her load is comparatively small and consists of a couple of violently flowered towels, jeans, shirts, socks and underwear, all looking as though they belong to her.

I love to sit and watch the contents of the washer go around through the porthole window. The gush of water, the frothy bubbles of soap and the rotating clothes give me a feeling of all’s-right-with-the-world comfort. In a crazy world, stained by so much hate, bloodshed and tragedy, here’s something within my power. I can do the laundry.

Watching the clothes whirl is like watching the inside of my head. Amongst a jumble of ideas, thoughts, feelings and memories, bits and pieces show themselves or claim my attention for seconds or minutes or hours or days, only to disappear as other colors and patterns come to the forefront of my mind. Now I catch a glimpse of my favorite pair of underwear, purple with turquoise spots. That’s like the brilliant scene, passionate and gripping, I want to write today as I work on my second book. Then a heavy brown sock shows itself, one of the pair I wore on the day I did Tai Chi in the church basement, sock-footed on the cold floor, reminding me that after this I’ll swim, and tomorrow is another Tai Chi day. White socks tumble by too quickly to tell if they’re mine (right-side-out) or my partner’s (inside-out). We need to run to the store. My partner did this chore last time. It’s my turn, but I don’t want to do it today. Tomorrow after Tai Chi? What’s on the grocery list? The sleeve of a plaid flannel shirt plasters itself momentarily against the window and is pushed away by the leg of a pair of heavy canvas Carhartts. Why are men’s Carhartt canvas pants size 32 x 30 a perfect fit, but the same size in denim is too big? The red cloth napkins we’ve been using flutter past.

The expression ‘airing your dirty laundry’ makes me smile. Oh, the shame of admitting feelings, anxieties, mistakes and less-than-perfection! Those unsightly yellow sweat stains under the arms of our shirts must be hidden from the eyes of the world at all costs, along with our humble granny panties, our favorite tattered and torn ancient tee shirt and the old towel the cat lies on. Whatever happens, we mustn’t confess the tangled smelly jumble we occasionally make out of our lives, or uncover our wounds and scars. We must never reveal neglected, malodorous piles of stained laundry in which our hope, innocence or self-esteem are buried.

Some people think admitting to dirty laundry is simply not nice. It lacks class. It’s impolite, and breaks the code of maintaining appearances at all costs. The Emperor is certainly wearing clothes, and they’re never dirty.

Photo by Bruno Nascimento on Unsplash

I challenge that. Cleansing is a sacred act of courage and wisdom. If we can’t clean out our infected wounds and cleanse our spirits, our homes and yes, our laundry, our lives won’t work well. Beating, shaking, washing and airing our laundry in the sun and fresh air is an act of healing and renewal. Allowing the world to see our dirty laundry is the beginning of cleansing and repairing, the beginning of uncreasing, unscrunching and untangling the things that disempower us. Doing laundry is a spiritual practice, a reminder that we are just like everyone else, an offering to others of our authenticity and humanity.

Dirty laundry. My daily crime.

All content on this site ©2018
Jennifer Rose
except where otherwise noted