Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Turbulence Part 9: Selkies and Selfies

It was time to get back onto a plane and prepare myself for take off…

The longer I didn’t play music, the more self-doubt seeped into my psyche.
What if I could never get my voice back again?
How would I ever be able to perform in front of people again?
Our internal narratives are usually cruel and rarely constructive. Tentatively, I began to take off on a new flight of my musical self and discovered that music was not lost to me, rather it was my confidence that had been shattered. What I needed to do was just start, right there from my place of weakness and allow myself to learn how to play again while giving myself permission to fail and (in the words of Bob Dylan) “keep on keeping on”. Ability can be retrained and re learned and deeply frustrating as it was to have to start again, it was not going to be impossible to gain back physical strength and control enough to play and sing. I just had to make myself begin.

Like my re-beginning to walk, it was a slow process. My back was still so weak that at first I couldn’t even hold my guitars let alone play them. I started with my lightweight ukulele, then little by little began to play the bigger instruments, initially for only five minutes at a time before my back muscles would twinge and begin to spasm. It was hard to imagine that I'd ever be gig fit again but, as with everything over time, (and with lots of physio) I became stronger. 

Bill and I decided to reinvest finance I’d set aside for the cancelled EP I’d been due to record at the time of my accident, into to creating our own home recording studio. So we did. The studio became both a lifeline and a sanctuary. In those precious moments when our daughter was asleep and we were actually awake and lucid enough to engage, we started working on tracks and it was during these times that I began to take ownership of myself as a singer songwriter again.

Before my fall in Italy, I’d been working on a collaborative project with my friend, Gill Stevens, who had introduced me to the selkie (magical seal people) mythology of Orkneys.  Little had I known then how central a role the selkie story was to play in the coming months and years. I now revisited the songs I’d last been working on and in doing so walked back into in the skin of the selkie. There in the ancient legends of her mythology I found a resonance with my own story. The power of the artistic muse is a most mysterious and fragile entity. It is unique to each of us. Every artist will have their own way of describing the creative process but the key word here is 'create', to make a new energy and to inhabit that journey of discovery and imagination. I was profoundly moved by revisiting words I had penned prior to the last nine months and how they now had deep and powerful relevance.

I’d written Selkie’s Song before my accident. It was based on the female selkie legends and the lyric describes a selkie woman's struggle with her identity when her seal skin is stolen from her, leaving her trapped in human form unable to transform and return to her ocean home. The words I’d written so many months before, took on a whole new meaning. 

 “This skin it won’t fit like it used to
These bones they don’t hold it so well
In too many ways I’m a stranger
And it’s a stranger who warms you right now”

Her restlessness and longing to feel comfortable in her own skin now resonated deeply with my own struggles of trying to rebuild my battered body. This song was no longer just describing an imaginary character it was now also a personal song about me.  

As I read and researched the folklore, I found that many myths focussed on the selkie trying to reclaim her stolen skin so that she could return to her first love, the ocean. In some stories this meant that she had to abandon her human husband and children on land. In other stories her children couldn’t survive on land and had to be returned to the ocean while she was left stranded without them. I began to see her as the outsider, the refugee in spirit and circumstance, the mother in the wrong body struggling to find her place in this world. The selkie became an extension of me, but she was also the version of me who didn’t recover. She allowed me to explore my “What if ?” In the narrative that I reconstructed, Selkie's troubled mind led her to the point of falling back into the ocean to return home, but this event created a devastating ending for everyone else around her. 

The muse didn’t stop at my personal trauma. Selkie became my way of dealing with all the other external turbulence that had been happening around me. During my pregnancy and the subsequent few years, several of my closest friends had faced the heartbreak of miscarriages... We experienced multiple tragic losses of friends and family both through natural causes and suicide... Relationships and marriages broke down around us…Globally the wars in Gaza and Syria and the outrageous killings of so many innocent young civilians, the endless rise in refugees of war, economic and ecological circumstance, all played heavily in my heart and mind. While I sought to process all these events of the world around me, I found that Selkie became a vehicle to filter my lamentations and the many themes of refugees, loss, depression, grief, fragile sanity and unstable circumstance found their way into the lyrics.

I wondered if it was all too dark, but then reminded myself that much folklore is very dark as it is rooted in the plight of humanity. I just needed to be brave enough to stay the path that the muse was taking me. Stories are an innate part of human existence. The stories of our own lives intersect, ebb, flow, decline and rebuild.  I interpreted Selkie’s story in the world around me, I saw her reflection in my own struggles and in the hardship of my friends. She was both ancient history’s legend and 21st century’s reality and I soon found that I was working on a full concept album.

As I’m writing my story again, I realise I’ve already been telling it in different ways over the last five years, through our post birth debrief and the written account for the investigation as well as my counselling sessions and many conversations with friends and family. In each successive retelling, I’ve been able to look back with a greater objective clarity and a gradually lessening fear of the pain inherent within. The emotional retelling through the medium of the selkie and her re-imagined story in my album was totally different. I was able to pour all of my pain, trauma and heartache into the songs and music I was creating. It was nonlinear and raw and operated outside of cerebral analysis. Once again art was offering me a lifeline of survival and healing. I would not have been able to make any of my story public as I am doing now with these blog posts, without having first gone through all of these previous retellings.

Bill and I took two years to record the album slowly chipping away track by track. In the second year I redid all of my vocals as I’d finally regained strength and found my voice (and tuning) again. 

Sadly, just as my health began to improve, Bill’s began to decline and yet another kind of shake up was on its way. 

Stone's Throw, Lament Of The Selkie is available on Bandcamp 

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