the process of returning to yourself


You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting—
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

— "Wild Geese" by Mary Oliver

Now, as always, is a time of returning to the self.

I am returning, just as now is your time to return, as you are always returning.

Sometimes we are conscious of this returning, sometimes it is just a deep and knowing yearning, and sometimes it pulls us back without thought or recognition.

There is always this ebb and flow, for all women and for all men, that starts with leaving our soul’s deepest knowing and feeling behind, embarking toward the bustle of city and civilization and away from the quiet stillness of our own wilderness.

But each time we leave, eventually our hearts call us back.

Sometimes we heed the call; sometimes we do not.

On the same day that I sat on a bed next to my dog in a small room in Crestone and I said irrevocable words that ended a chapter and a relationship, I reread an important story.

All of my belongings, more or less, fit into my car right now. I have very few physical books with me for my travels, but the few I do have are those I can return to again and again for wisdom and solace.

That day, to steel myself for the conversation ahead, I opened Women Who Run with the Wolves at random.

The pages fell open to the story of “Sealskin, Soulskin,” about a seal-woman frolicking with seal-sisters and seal-mothers.

The seal women had undressed and left their sealskins lying to the side, and while they played, their beauty overwhelmed a lonely man who was watching nearby.

He stole one of the skins, and held it hostage from the seal-woman to whom it belonged. He promises that if she stays with him for seven years, then he will return her skin.

She relents and comes with him.

Though they have a son, and more than seven relatively contented years, she is without her skin and without the touch of the sea.

She needs it, and without the skin and that nourishing ocean life, she begins to wither—frail, crippled, almost blind.

When she asks back the sealskin she was promised, the man denies it to her.

When the seal-woman’s son retrieves it for her, it is with joy and love and deepest sadness that she must leave him for her underwater world, where he cannot stay.

Like the seal-woman, it might pain us deeply to leave the lives we have known for the creative depths of our hearts.

I am not suggesting in the slightest that a man stole my sealskin, my life force, and my creative yearning from me.

But I do know that to try to accommodate a relationship with another, I set aside that part of myself for a time.

But there is only so long that you can deny yourself the nourishment that you need to thrive.

You can go on feeding but not truly fueling.

You can still have the goodness of life and the tenderness of love, if you leave part of your soul untouched.

But only for a time.

Eventually your need to be full will overshadow your need to be comfortable.

You will at some point feel underfed, unable to be fully nourished without the wild, tenuous, achingly raw and beautiful parts of yourself. You cannot go on further as you have.

How do you retrieve your sealskin, your soulskin?

You must dive deep.

You must be honest. To yourself. To your lover. To your people, who are there to hold you and help you climb back into your skin.

You must be true to what the soft animal of your body requests.

In my own time of returning, I listen intently from moment to moment, as if each urge is a divine directive.

I devour books that reflect what is both entirely personal and universal all at once. I stay up late with the words of other women sinking into me, who know some part of me and will help me retrieve it.

I physically feed myself with what I know to fuel and satisfy me. This feeding is not the numbing of indulgence or overstuffing. I numbed for long enough. Instead, I truly feed myself.

Self-nourishing. Self-nurturing.

I nourish without overfeeding. I grow without strain. I connect, I surrender and I recede into solitude.

In the process of returning to yourself, your wildness and your capacity for creation, consider yourself in each moment with gentleness and care.

See yourself from the outside in.

Not just as you are, but where you came from and how you will be.

Heartbreak takes time. For even if the process began by breaking another’s heart, at the same time you broke open your own.

And though this is my current experience, not all heartbreak is about the ending of a relationship between two people, just as not all grief is about the death of a loved one.

Yes, heartbreak and grief are those things, but they are not only them.

If you are in the midst of loss, no matter how it presents itself, gift yourself with compassion and nourishment to return to your skin.

See yourself fully. Let yourself be seen. Feed yourself however you need. And let yourself be fed.

And if you have ever felt such a loss but currently feel unscathed, grant those you love with that same compassion and nourishment as they would have granted you.

See them. Feed them.

Help yourself—and others—back into their skins.

Iris Rankin

Soulful questioner, exuberant organizer, here to find the balance between discipline and delicious relaxation. Iris Rankin is the founder of Project Intention, a values-based community focused on living day-to-day with purpose, planning, and heart. Iris encourages women to adopt the self care practices that make them feel divine, the planning tools to hone in on their essential wants and needs, and the emotional resilience to express their most authentic selves.

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