This is a song shaped by other people’s stories. It’s also a song of my own story. About finding yourself at the edge, and of being called to hold others at the edges of our human community. It’s a song for anyone holding a deep ambivalence to be alive in these times.
One morning in a Scottish forest, the summer before last I stepped out into a clearing where a fire circle was set. Among a group of women who were gathering on this land, I was preparing to record a music video, calling women to gather for a council at Findhorn that Autumn. As I arrived, I saw a man walking across the other side of the fire. It stood out in my mind at the time because it seemed out of place at this women’s circle on private land. But then he disappeared.
Several weeks later I learned that a young man named Aamir had been found in that same woods only yards from where we had sat around the fire singing. He had come to the forest to take his life that same weekend we had gathered there ourselves. He took off his shoes and socks, laid down on his coat which he placed beneath an oak tree, grounding into where the earth dips low like a cradle, and died.
More weeks passed and I found myself driving through the Scottish highlands that Autumn, after the council at Findhorn and after hearing about Aamir’s death. On the road, I heard a version of the Celtic myth about the Selkie. At a cross roads on my own soul journey, it spoke deeply to me.
The Selkie is a creature that assumes the form of a seal in the water but takes human form on land. It is a creature swimming between the worlds. As Clarissa Pinkola Estes writes, “tales of creatures with mysterious human kinship are told across the world, for such represent an archetype, a universal issue of soul. This story is told in the cold countries of the North…versions are told among the Celts, the Scots, the tribes of Northwest America, Siberian and Icelandic peoples…”
In her book, Women Who Rose Rooted, that I was listening to that day driving, Sharon Blackie tells the story of the “Selkie’s New Skin”. It included one version of a Hebridean seal song called ‘Yion Do’ that I had learnt a similar version of some years before. Though I had felt its yearning call, I had never known much about the lineage of the song or resonated with the words, until it hit me driving through the Highlands that day.
In this story the Selkie lost her skin when a human man stole it and tricked her into marrying him, saying he would return it in seven years when she would be free to leave. For years the Selkie was dying on land and after seven years she asked for it back but the man refused. So she journeyed to the Old Woman of the World to find a new skin so she could go back home to the sea. The Old Woman told her that in order to find her skin there was still work to do and she must first journey to find the skin and bones of her eleven Selkie sisters who had been killed and skinned.
When the woman found the remains of her sisters, she lit a fire and sat vigil, singing a lament over the skin and bones of her kinsfolk. She sang: Yion Do, Yion Da, Yion-Do, Ro Da Da. A song of yearning for a part that is lost, for something that she had long ago but never knew. As she sang an old Selkie joined her and the flesh began to reform on the bones of the dead seals, and they slipped back into their skins. All but one, who did not survive.
The Selkie knew what she had to do. As the Old Woman of the World had told her, she gathered up the skin of her lost sister and slipped on this skin, new skin over old bones. In this merging a new form was created, and she returned to the sea. Once a year on the anniversary of her departure into the sea she would return to visit her human daughter on the beach; there she would teach her the song that would call to her kinfolk, the song that would sing her soul back home, the song that was mourning transformed into joy.
The Selkie’s story, Aamir’s, my own story, and many more merged together to form a new song in me. I had to pull off to the side of the road whilst driving in order to capture its arrival. It came through a weaving of human experience and my movement through that landscape, finding solace in ‘the blue of distance’ that Rebecca Solnit so evocatively describes in her book Field Guide to Getting Lost that I was also reading at the time and could place so easily upon this landscape.
The song I’m sharing with you now, the song that arrived on the side of that road, is a folk tale written from the wild edges of this island. It is a song about edges. A song about the feeling of being on the edge. And it is about the transformation that needs to happen in us to be able to hold ourselves at the edge, and as community to hold and incorporate others at the edges.
It’s a song of hope and a cry for resilience.
It’s a song of intention and a prayer for metamorphosis.
It’s a song for the lost, the broken, the suicidal, the isolated, the despairing, the hopeless.
A song for those on the journey of growing new skin.
Because the ripple effect of just one suicide is enormous.
And suicide is a shadow side of our interconnection. Feeling so separate that you cannot bare to exist anymore, when you can no longer reside in your own skin or in this world’s skin.
I believe we must work now to break down the pervasive cultural myth that we need to be a certain way to be a part of the human community. We must evolve a greater capacity to hold difference, within ourselves and amongst each other, so that you and I and every other person can be who they are in the world.
The Selkie’s skin in this context is a metaphor for our need at both an individual and community level for outer protection so that inner growth and transformation is possible. And this song is a call for humanity to provide this skin for those who need it most.
Around this time in the Highlands, I received word that my friend Jayne had gone into hospital suffering with severe depression. I sent her the demo of this song, saying hold on, I am with you. I also played it many times to myself over the year, and sent it to others who were suffering, using it as if it were medicine.
The thing about the Selkie story is this: sometimes we are broken. We have lost our skin and there is a journey that is both painful and necessary to search for what has been lost. We go searching for the skin of our brothers and sisters, and when we find their skin and bones, we sing over them in both mourning and revival. Sometimes this singing, this act of honouring and truly seeing and being present with our kin raises things to life. Sometimes it is medicine and it is powerful and it raises us up.
And sometimes not everyone lives. Like the eleventh Selkie sister.
This past summer as I was all set to release this song on the year anniversary of Aamir’s death, I received a message to say my friend Jayne had died. She too had walked into the woods, laid down in the holding of the trees and ended her life.
Although this song was written about a different death, it had also become woven into Jayne’s story and struggle. These two stories became interwoven into my own story. And they showed the gut-wrenching power of synchronicity when both Aamir and Jayne were cremated to ashes on the exact same day. And when I sat in the trees where Jayne died playing this song at the same time Aamir’s family gathered around his tree to scatter his ashes, also listening to this song.
There are so many stories in one story. There are so many stories in one song. It is not the time to tell them all.
But as with the Selkie’s song, here there is both profound mourning and a deep hope that it will raise something back to life.
For even those who are gone from the form we knew them in, they are still not lost. They are everywhere. Their lives and their deaths matter. They help us create our new skins, individually and collectively.
Jayne’s mission was for us to ‘live the fullest version of ourselves so that we don’t die with our music still in us’.
So let us be like the Selkie who takes up her sister’s skin.
Jayne, Aamir, this song is for you. And for the many other lives lost in this way. And for all of us doing our best to keep walking one foot in front of the other. We will pick up your skins and we will carry you forward with us. Singing our song of mourning and revival. New skin over old bones. In this merging a new form is created.
We will not be lost to these times.
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