from BARDO

The stars are in our belly; the Milky Way our umbilicus.

Is it a consolation that the stuff of which we’re made

is star-stuff too?

– That wherever you go you can never fully disappear –

dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.

Tree, rain, coal, glow-worm, horse, gnat, rock.

Roselle Angwin

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

the sealskin

Picture Source: mikebaird

One of the good things about getting older is the length of time behind you, and the wisdom to know, if you're lucky, I guess, that it's not been wasted. Another thing is – due to that expanse behind you – you can start to pick out cycles in your life.

Well, you know, that's not insignificant – at least, not if you believe, as I do, that our purpose here is the evolution of consciousness, and the growth inherent in that. That also requires, as Socrates reminded us, that we need to be in the habit of examining our lives.

And as a minor digression, I've been in the habit of writing down my dreams for 25 or 30 years now – if I look back over them, as I do just occasionally, I start to pick up long range themes that otherwise slip my conscious mind. These also show cycles in situations and events in my life, and have been an immensely helpful lens.

There's something comforting about remembering the cycles of everything. It's also in your face, all the time, if you work with, or even simply walk, the land on a daily basis. Nothing lasts forever; spring always returns, and death always brings new birth. I guess a key to happiness is not pushing away the darker, painful, death-like stuff; I've blogged here a few times before about the Buddha's suggestion that our suffering is in large part due to our reactions to things – our craving them or resisting them – rather than the things themselves.

Today is the second anniversary of my mum's death. Of course I'm sad. There's not a day that I don't miss her, want to pick up the phone and speak to her. But, knowing that I'd be miserable at home and TM was driving four hours each way to Heathrow to collect his daughter, I set up for myself a creative and supportive day with my old and dear friend M, long-term creative collaborator and confidant, by the sea. M, in his laidback laughing way, always reminds me of simple but important things: I took away from last time the reminder that difficulty and conflict is just how life is, and relationships are, some of the time, no point in trying to avoid it, or assuming that it will automatically be better/easier/happier by changing locations/lovers/working life (though of course there are times when some or all of those things do need to be changed).

This time, when I was asking him about canker in ash trees (a huge old ash where we were walking was riddled with huge canker growths), he told me that, as a sculptor working outdoors, often with still-rooted living or dead trees, he would pare back dead stuff around a wound to show the wound; and how it has its own intrinsic beauty, a scar, and of course tells a story. Nice metaphor, of course.We normally do everything we can to hide our scars, physical or psychological, don't we?

And there was one of those lovely synchronous moments a bit after I arrived to meet him. I'd been thinking, driving down to the sea, how the last time I'd been on the coast a few weeks ago my friend Jenny and I had seen a whole family of seals very close to shore, playing in the waves. About half an hour before that, on the drive, I'd found myself thinking, for no apparent reason, about how the first published short story of mine, a prize-winner, decades ago now, was about a selkie, a seal, or seal-woman – stories of seals-become-women abound on the Atlantic coasts of Britain (the second was one about the Mermaid of Zennor – a related theme). A little while in to our conversation, mine and M's, walking along the beach, and we're talking about some sound-sculptures M was making in America, and he suddenly mentions a song that he thinks I'll like, and plays it to me on his iPhone, there and then. It's a song about a selkie – and I hadn't said a word about seals.

The selkie in my short story, and in the song, like most seal-women in such stories, agrees to marry a human man (sometimes she's been held to ransom, rather, by his falling in love with her when she's been bathing with her sisters, having left her pelt on the beach, which he then steals and hides) and learn the ways of the land-world. Always, though, she yearns for the sea, her natural element, and often she pines, and begins to waste away in this world which has left her high and dry, feeling soulless. Usually, luckily, she finds her own skin again, hidden somewhere, and oh! – the relief! the joy! – when she can dive and play in her natural element.

There's much of course to say about this story in relation to the feeling nature, and soul, and the need to retrieve one's own skin (Jungian and anthropologist Clarissa Pinkola Estes speaks of this beautifully in Women Who Run With The Wolves) and inhabit it again, and have the freedom to spend half your time at least in your natural element.

The turning point comes after seven years. That's the length of time the selkie can survive away from her element, and at that point she begins a frantic hunt for her skin, if it's not been returned to her.

I've been thinking about that, the seven-year-cycle of things. There's a wisdom in remembering seven-year cycles, perhaps. They say that every cell in your body has been renewed after seven years, so you could meet yourself of then and not recognise yourself, poetically speaking.

And I've realised lately that a cycle has come to an end for me; a seven-year cycle that began with my mum's diagnosis of Alzheimer's before that but which became critical and traumatic with my dad's stroke in 2006. This period has been predominantly about loss, serious illness, and death; often of family, of people and animals most dear to me; and in some ways I've had to shed skins of my own in that time.

Seven years on dry land (apart from the tears). Time to reclaim that sealskin. And not lose it again. 

If your skin doesn't fit, that might be because you're wearing someone else's...


  1. Ooh, that is interesting synchronicity. A few days ago I opened Women who run with the Wolves at random ...on Sealskin Soulskin. I hadn't looked at this book for years and suddenly it tripped me up as I walked past the shelf. Love and hugs Jinny x

  2. Jinny - I love the way this happens; the way the cosmos shows us interconnectedness in action. Thank you for telling me. Love – Rx

  3. Hi Roselle,
    I'm so sorry to hear about your mum, it must have been such a tough time. I can only imagine what it's like to see someone you love suffering from Alzheimer's and then to loose her. The phrase time heals everything is a bit questionable anyway but I think it's way off when it comes to grief. It's been a little over 4 years since I lost my mum and it still sneaks up on me and wipes me out sometimes, like a wave on a steep shore. I'm glad you were able to take care of yourself by heading off to see your friend. He sounds like good support and source of warmth/comfort :-)
    I love the Selkie stories. Had never heard of them before last year when the shanty group I joined put together an arrangement of The Ballad of the White Seal Maid (taken from the Lui Collins version on Youtube but with a regular rhythm). It's a beautiful song, and I also fell in love with The Secret of Roan Inish movie (also on YT) despite some clunking acting ;-) What was the song you're friend played?
    I hadn't heard of Clarissa Pinkola Estes before reading this blog entry but went off and listened to a couple of audio books, Warming the Stone Child and WWRWTW. Blown...Away....!
    Having read next to nothing of Jung's work and being of a scientific bent I'm a little dubious about some of what I've heard but the stories she told and the analogies she drew were very affecting. Both books really resonated with me. Think I might have to source a copy of the printed book :-) Many MANY thanks for mentioning her!
    I hope you're able to find and keep the support you need at the moment,
    All my best wishes,

  4. Naomi, as always, thank you for that warm engaged comment.

    And scientist or not, EVERY woman (and pref every man!) should read that book. And btw Estes is an anthropologist (and I believe zoologist) as well as a Jungian - they're not incompatible! ;-)

    Can't remember the song - group I'd never heard of - when I do remember (or have asked M) I'll post it.

    All best to you. x


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