A North Sea Love Lilt

There’s a curious Scottish myth about selkies, shapeshifting creatures who can transform from seals to humans with the shedding of their skin.

It’s a story I can recall my mum reading to me when I was a child.

I was, and still am, a bookworm; the type of person who will go happily to bed clutching a favourite story; someone who prefers the company of words and ideas to people and loud places.

My mum would perch on the edge of my bed and we would pour over the pictures together: the story of a seal who naively turns into a woman on a Scottish beach, and marries a local man thinking that this will be an enviable life. Over time, the selkie longs to return to the sea. She goes back to the beach where she shapeshifted to find her skin and resume her life as a sea creature once more but it is gone. Regardless of her overwhelming desire, she cannot return to the life she carelessly cast away and her connection with the sea is now fractured and lost.

The selkie myth is a powerful tale about choices, what we squander and what we value. It is a potent reminder – not only of the enduring, life-affirming appeal of the wild, open sea – but the power we all have to make choices, and crucially make our choices well.

For me, it is an unshakeable story about integrity, purpose and transformation, and when my mental health deteriorated during the pandemic, I sought solace in a familiar place: the sea.

I have always considered myself to be rather au fait with the world of health and wellbeing, after having struggled with food anxiety and obesity as a child.

I was a fussy, uninterested eater who existed largely on a diet of white bread, butter, mashed potatoes, rice, pasta and milk. Delicious, safe, white carbs.

It took me until I was in my early-twenties to confront my fears, and, like many women of my generation, my dietary revolution came alongside the public explosion of the plant-based movement.

Over the years, I have absorbed and implemented many of the recommendations that have been fed to me from health and wellness gurus. I had an unsatiable appetite for healthy content, when the pandemic stuck, I could confidently say:

I eat a predominantly plant-based diet.

I run four times every week.

I am aware of my digestive movements.

I go for a walk and do simple stretches and mindfulness every day.

I sleep for eight hours every night.

I limit my alcohol and coffee intake.

I don’t eat sweets but that doesn’t matter because I love stewed fruit (I don’t even really think about sweets anymore…)

Covid-19 made apparent the vast fissures in our food system, and brought the twin issues of unequal food distribution and access to nutrition to the societal fore.

For me, it made me to consider my relationship with food and examine all the previous allusions I had held about my health and lifestyle.

Time spent indoors, alone, threw me into a fetishized health-bargaining turmoil – I signed up to run a marathon and trained swiftly, adding in more and more miles each week until I damaged my hip and began battling sciatica in my back. I eschewed banana bread in favour of (predominantly) beetroot brownies. I could only eat at specific times of day and made myself take 10,000 steps religiously, vehemently.

With some gentle coaxing from concerned friends and family, who saw my deterioration more clearly than I would have ever myself,  I slowly began to recognise my own traumas.

I spoke to my GP, and was diagnosed with a deep-seated food anxiety and exercise compulsion. I spent time chewing over the past with a therapist. I started meditating properly, with a commitment to feeling pain, surrendering and letting go.

Over the last six months, I have become more attuned to my mind and body than ever before.

I have ripped my heart open like ravenous hands clambering for fresh bread. I’ve sat onion-eyed with my mum and wept over a pair of jeans that no longer fit. I’ve come to appreciate the subtle synergy between touch and taste. There’s beauty in the peeling of an orange, and equal joy to be found in chocolate cake and courgettes and kale.

And through it all, my great search for self-validation, peace and spirit, I have learnt my greatest lessons from wide open water.

I am standing on Aberdeen Beach in my swimming costume, red hair braided under a small, black beanie. It is January and it is snowing. Light flakes fall softy and slumber between my pink toes. 

I never set out to become an open sea swimmer, and truthfully I don’t think I am. I’m more of a purposeful dooker.

On that January day I wanted only to dip my toes; to feel something; to be somewhat overawed.

I got something more. I was cold. I was breathing sharply. I was alive: shivering, invigorated, rejuvenated, peaceful.

After, I sat on the beach and drank hot tea from a cold tin mug. I pulled my hands into my jumper against the roaring wind, and watched as the waves battled each other and fell across the sand. I saw a whole new world open up for me – and inside me.

Since then I’ve swam a few times every week. It’s been bewildering and beautiful, and I have come to know many intimate truths which have helped to heal my troubled mind.

In everything, there is a force that is bigger than you – one which can keep you sure and steadfast and equally knock you off your feet. Much like the sea, the human mind is turbulent and fearsome but also blissfully calm. You must respect and value it regardless of the mood you meet it in.

Go slowly and purposefully. Dip your toe, submerge your legs, swim with your head held aloft, float on your back. Don’t run. The best things in life are slow and simple. 

It is admirable to lead yourself to your limit, but you should not go beyond this. There is a rough rule of thumb that says you should only stay in the sea for the same amount of minutes as the temperature in degrees. Any time beyond this can compromise your body, just like any blind obsession without full realisation can damage your mind.

In everything, you get to choose. Choose well. Don’t choose easy. Do right.

I’ve found myself transformed by the power of the sea. It has brought cold comfort and endless solace.

Like a selkie, I can feel myself changing. There is a shift somewhere ahead, and I can see myself, in the pale light of a summer seaside sunrise, embracing this beautiful, new becoming.

Words by Bryony Shepherd

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