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.
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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.
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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, 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.
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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.
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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?
Reclaiming what I’m made of, one choice at a time. My daily crime.
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.
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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.
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In the last couple of years, a lid has been gradually slipping off a container in my mind labeled ‘BOREDOM,’ and I suddenly realize the contents of the can are now moving into all the cracks and folds of my memories and experience.
I don’t have much interest in boredom. I’m never bored and I’m greatly irritated by people who are. When I expressed boredom as I child I was either given something “productive” to do or told that sometimes everyone has to do things they don’t want to do.
As a parent, when my kids expressed boredom, I gave them a long list of tasks or “productive” things they could do to help me. They usually declined, but they also learned quickly to stop saying they were bored.
I’ve often been told I’m boring.
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There. That’s all I have to say about boredom.
Life was much more cut and dried before I became educated in emotional intelligence. Now I’m suspicious of cut and dried, especially if it has to do with feelings, patterns in my life or things that keep showing up. Boredom keeps showing up. People say they’re bored and I feel disgusted. People say they do self-destructive things because they’re bored and that excuse infuriates me. I take the boredom of others personally, as though I’m not entertaining or interesting enough to keep them engaged.
If I’m not interested in boredom, I ask myself, why does it make me so mad, and why does it keep catching my attention?
A couple of days ago I decided this week’s post would be about boredom, so I really started to think about it. I tossed around the concept of boredom with my partner. I thought about all the places it’s shown up in past relationships. I sat down and Googled boredom and looked at articles, quotes, memes, images and definitions.
I can’t tell you how often I’ve come to the page, either to write or research about something out there—a behavior or pattern I observe around me in other people—and discovered it’s not out there at all, at least not exclusively. It’s in here.
Remember what I said a minute ago? “I’m never bored.”
I’m suddenly realizing that’s not true. In fact, I suspect I’ve been chronically bored my whole life. The feeling of boredom, along with so many other feelings, simply got denied. It wasn’t until I started living more authentically here in Maine and stopped being bored that I could begin to see the colossal depths of my previous boredom.
Naturally, I’ve felt enraged when others express feeling bored while I can’t.
But why can’t I express it? What’s so shameful about boredom?
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First of all, being bored means you’re not working hard enough. You’re not being productive. You’re wasting time. You’re useless! You’re lazy! You’re a quitter! You’re irresponsible! You’re letting others down! You’re not pulling your weight! You’re a burden! You’re a failure! (This eventually trails away into a wild-eyed, gibbering mental shriek.)
When all the arm-waving drooling hysteria stops and I can think rationally again, what I’m left with is BUSY=GOOD and BOREDOM=BAD. This has the look and feel of first-grade logic to me, and I’m skeptical. I’ve spent a lot of my life staying busy in order to please other people and a lot of that busy was dead boring. School, for example. Busy and bored are not opposites. Busy without purpose is a recipe for compulsivity. On the other hand, the condition of being undisturbed and private with a book, paper and writing or coloring pens or even just a window and a cat with nothing in particular to do is a real pleasure.
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Somehow, somewhere along the way, boredom became the enemy in our culture. It’s a whine, a complaint, a danger and a discomfort to be avoided. It’s a weakness, even a sin (if you think in such terms). Boredom is a condition that must be fixed. Bored children get into trouble. Bored adults are not productive. Boredom is an excuse to use and abuse substance. People eat out of boredom. People have affairs out of boredom. Boredom, in fact, is to blame for a lot of undesirable behavior and choices.
Really? I don’t accept this. I’ve learned that feelings—all feelings—can be thought of as value-equal data. We’re human. We have feelings. Some are more uncomfortable than others, but isn’t that largely a product of all the thoughts and judgements we attach to them? Feeling a feeling doesn’t mean we have to act it out in ways to hurt others or ourselves. If we make choices that are destructive, our feelings are not the problem. What we do with our feelings is the problem.
It follows then, that if I’m bored and I can call the feeling by name and recognize it, there’s information there for me. What is my boredom telling me? Here are some things I associate with my own boredom:
- I’m not interested.
- I’m not engaged.
- I’m not authentic.
- I don’t feel a connection.
- I can’t make a contribution.
- It’s too easy; I know how to do this; I can do more.
- I don’t understand.
- I’m overstimulated.
- I’m exhausted or ill.
- I’m overwhelmed with some other painful feeling, like fear, rage or grief, that I’m refusing to deal with.
- I have a boundary problem; I’m taking on something that belongs to someone else.
- I’ve been here and done this—not doing it again!
- My needs are not being met.
- I feel disempowered.
- I’m not in the right place.
- I feel limited.
- I can’t be curious or creative.
- I’m not safe.
This entire list is a map that tells me where I’ve been, where I am and where I might go next. The feeling of boredom is the ground I stand on to read the map. My boredom doesn’t need to be fixed. There’s nothing shameful about it. On the contrary, it holds essential information and experience for me. It defines choices and supports power. Busy can’t create this essential space and quiet, but boredom can.
So much for not expressing boredom because it’s bad and busy is good. What else stood in my way all these years?
You see, I’m female. (By which I mean uterus, ovaries and menses.) Good girls, nice girls aren’t bored—ever—by males, including but not limited to male teachers, male family members, male romantic/sexual partners, male classmates and colleagues, and male bosses.
Now, before anyone climbs up on their high horse, understand that I don’t hate men. Not at all. I’ve historically gotten along better with men than women, in fact. Also, I know things are different now than they were in the 60s and 70s when I was being socialized—sort of. There’s a lot more awareness and discussion of feminism and sexual politics.
However, a big part of my training had to do with “respect,” (also loyalty, responsibility and duty) and just about the only person not included in those I was taught to “respect” was myself. Respect was demonstrated by things like being silent while the men spoke, obedience, and being properly grateful for and attentive to mansplaining . Respect meant adapting, adjusting, and limiting myself so as not to challenge, threaten or compete with men. My role was to learn to “act like a lady” and be compliant, sweet and attractive.
You might not have noticed, but that training wasn’t notably successful.
Boredom and respect are not a happy team, so of course I kicked boredom to the curb. Respect meant love, validation, tribe, straight A’s, husband, children, a good job and a normal life. Boredom with addiction, violence, abuse, rigid thinking, inability to grow, absent creativity and curiosity, uninspired sex, toddler-level communication skills, power and control games, mind fuckery, omnipresent TV, unending housework and financial grind was absolutely out of the question.
As for other people calling me boring, we’ve already covered that in a previous post. It’s a projection. My feeling of boredom is not about others and their boredom is not about me. I’ve been a lot of things in my life, but boring isn’t one of them.
That empty can in my mind labeled ‘BOREDOM’ was filled with something I want and need. Who knew? Going forward, I’m reclaiming my boredom. I’m welcoming it like the wise old friend it is, naming it, honoring it, embracing it, standing hip-deep in it and reading the map of my life to chart a course for what I’d like to do next.
And I will never, ever again try to fix, discourage, stifle, diminish or deny someone else’s boredom. I will instead congratulate them for feeling such a vital, vibrant feeling and ask them my favorite question:
“What would you like to do now?”
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Tribal shaming is one of the most powerful ideas I’ve been introduced to in the last years. A friend sent me a Facebook post by the author Elizabeth Gilbert (author of Eat, Pray, Love). Here’s a link to that post. You don’t need to be on Facebook to read it, just press “Not Now” when it asks you to sign in.
It’s a long post, but it’s also life changing. Get ready for insight and clarity you’ve never had before about your tribe on every level, from family to country.
In (very) short, the concept comes from Dr. Mario Martinez, who wrote a book called The Mind-Body Code. Gilbert provides a link to a podcast by Dr. Martinez in her post. Gilbert was so stunned by Dr. Martinez’s work that she posted about it, and now her post is all over the net. Clearly, others find it as significant as I do. As the political situation unfolds day by day here in America and all kinds of people react in all kinds of ways, I keep thinking about the power of tribal shaming.
In this context, the word “tribe” means any group with which we identify. Tribe is family, church, community, culture, nationality, team, workplace, etc. Tribal shaming examines the power of the tribe. It’s not a new idea, of course. We’ve studied cults, gangs, religious sects—all kinds of groups in order to understand the choices we make and how they’re influenced by those around us. What I hadn’t thought about before was the invisible destructive power our tribe(s) have over our ability to live well.
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One of the greatest motivators for us is the desire for connection to others. Our earliest experience of connection takes place in our family of origin, or in the context of whoever raised us, even if just people in an institution. From infancy on, we’re each surrounded by tribal cultures and norms, tribal rules, and the differentiation of our tribe from others. This shows up in an overwhelming number of ways: Economically, geographically, religiously, educationally, etc.
Tribes provide us with connection, identity, meaning, and, hopefully, security and safety. They help us define ourselves and shelter us from an unkind world. Connection is a deep need for human beings, and without it we don’t survive. We know there are all kinds of consequences for people who have no early sense of tribe, from attachment disorder to failure to thrive to severe mental illness—and those only if the child survives in the first place.
Tribal connection works very well for people who feel they belong in the tribe(s) in which they find themselves.
But what happens when we don’t fit into our tribe? What happens when we ask questions and break rules? What happens when we don’t accept the tribe’s authority? What happens when the tribe abuses us?
Tribal shaming, that’s what.
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Now, you might say, so what? So you break away from your family, group, church, whatever. Big deal. People do it all the time. It doesn’t matter.
That’s true. It’s also true that at a casual glance we’re all just fine. We move, we change jobs, our beliefs and views change, we get divorced, people come and go out of our lives. We spend time on social media, catch a movie, watch TV, have a drink, take a pill, buy a pint of ice cream, light up another cigarette. Maybe those closest to us see a shadow of addiction, workaholism, people pleasing, depression, insomnia and anxiety, but that’s nothing, right?
I don’t believe that for a single second.
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It does matter. Tribal estrangement is a deep wound that never stops bleeding, and it doesn’t much matter why the estrangement exists. If we feel cast out from our tribe, it hurts. We may grieve, we may rage, we may become ill, but there will be consequences for this kind of amputation. One hundred friends on Facebook can’t make up for it.
It hurts so much, in fact, that many of us self-sabotage so we can go back, because the thing about tribe is that they’ll always take you back if you fail. Now think about this for a minute. You can always go back if you fail.
The power of tribal shaming touches us all. I’ve seen it play out very powerfully in my family, and I bet you have, too. Right now, huge populations of people are on the move in the world, compelled by war, politics and the basic necessities of food and water. Millions more will be displaced by climate change. Social, geographic and economic boundaries are threatened. Our sense of self and tribe is undergoing intense pressure as we fight for space and resource.
Through this blog, I’ve made a friend in Nigeria. Her experience as a woman in a large city in a foreign (to me) country is eye opening. It’s easy to forget how life is for many other people in many other places. Today we might be able to eat, have a job, or have a roof over our head. Today we might have a tribe, no matter how small, or maybe several tribes that give us a sense of belonging and comfort, but tomorrow is another day, and much of the world is closer than we are to the precipice of famine and chaos.
The concept of tribe, like the concept of resource, is fluid. We define it ourselves. Right now in America, we’ve made money the most important resource. What will happen when a cup of clean water or a mouthful of food becomes the only resource that counts? What will happen if tribal shaming becomes tribal sharing and we decide to create a tribe of all life on earth, including the planet itself?
In the meantime, though, we clearly feel it’s effective to create small, rigidly defended tribes with small, rigidly defended rule sets and spend time making bombs of all kinds to throw over our palisades. Whatever happens, we must not allow the threats of education, science, literacy, critical thinking, equality or any kind of difference to exist. People must toe the line or get out—one way or the other.
Us against them and the outcasts in between. It works so well, doesn’t it?
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