In my nonprofit life, I was constantly using the metaphor “building the ship as we sail it” to frame myself and my team as scrappy, beleaguered-but-determined innovators who could use our creativity to keep shit afloat even as we were dealing with the turbulent waters of organizational politics and inequity. Lately, though, I’ve been feeling like I missed the point a little bit when I thought of myself that way.

Here’s the secret: sometimes you don’t need the ship, because you are a fucking mermaid.

The building-the-ship metaphor is interesting to me because of how it subtly separates the human shipbuilders from the dangerous, turbulent waters of the natural world. It suggests that to protect ourselves again natural conditions, we must separate ourselves from those conditions and use human technologies to rise above. But that’s a pretty scary way to live, right? One big wave and whoosh. No more ship.

There are different ways to approach this problem, of course:

You could try to stay on shore. This is the approach I experimented with in many parts of my life, trying to just avoid the larger context of community, relationship, and systemic oppressions by avoiding them. Sometimes this looked like isolation and withdrawal, other times it looked like compliance and staying out of the spotlight, avoiding change and risk. This approach can work, but it tends to keep many of your dreams out of reach. There are joys on land, sure, but my heart kept longing for the sea.

a teenager in a blue bikini runs through the surf at the shoreline on a stormy day with a surfboard, looking back over hir shoulder

You could build a bigger, better ship. I used this approach frequently in my work through teambuilding, trying to co-create the strongest and most resilient team possible within the larger organizational context to keep the waves of change from battering us too much. If our ship (team) was adaptable, light, good at cruising over waves and finding smoother patches of water, if we could carry tons of tools on board, maybe we could protect our little crew and do some good. This approach was pretty satisfying for a while, but it also had its challenges. It still framed the organizational and broader ocean as an insurmountable obstacle, and used separation as the main tool for protection. It was also pretty noticeable that even as we brought on more team members, created new roles, and got as agile and adaptable and skilled as possible, the challenges didn’t go away. The ocean was still exhausting, and people had to give up. And I was slowly burning myself out. A lot out.

a 1500s ship displayed inside a concrete tunnel in a Genoa museum, with a couple of vaguely creepy colonial explorer dude statues on top.

You could remember that you’re a fucking mermaid. Okay, don’t get me wrong. I have not actually solved the problems of systemic oppression or organizational politics. But what I have done is identified that I don’t want to be prioritize being safe and separate from the challenges of life. In my spiritual practice, I was already fully steeped in seeing myself as divine and deeply connected to nature, not separate. I was getting super familiar with spiralic timing and discomfort and finding medicine right smack dab in the middle of challenges, not as “silver linings” or results but literally healing through being with pain. But it took me a little longer to bring this to my work and how I serve the world, because I was still really identified with and attached to the damn ship. Capitalism taught me to associate security with keeping my head above water, to attempt to create systemic change from a point of safety. But when I really got deep and quiet with myself, I realized some things:

  1. I have some really deep inner knowing. I haven’t known that I’m psychic since I was a kid or anything, but I have always had this knowing that I couldn’t really describe. And what my spiritual practice has taught me is that everyone is intuitive, or psychic, or whatever you want to call it, because intuition is just about connection to spirit or source or what is universal in all of us. Some of us have more stuff to peel back to get to that soul knowing, and most of us need to give ourselves permission to let it come through in ways that may not be obvious (have you ever channeled through creating a spreadsheet? I have!) But that connection is an inherent, divine right that no one can take away from us.
  2. My values and beliefs are super strong, but the way I show up in the world doesn’t always align when I’m scared. Fear is a very real thing for me. I’ve experienced trauma in a few different ways that continue to affect me and always will. I’ve also grown a concept of self that is very steeped in achievement and “doing it right” as well as “being good,” which comes from my education and being a product of white Southern culture and probably a bunch of other things as well. While my values are all about liminality and fluidity and embracing the unknown, my nervous system and my brain would really like a gold star, thanks. This is further complicated by being a neurodivergent person living in a neurotypical world. Rigid structures and systems and rules feel safe, and it’s also deeply upsetting when someone changes the game, or doesn’t notice how freaking hard I am trying. I’m in an active process of letting go of this attachment to rules where I can, and embracing process and existence over results and striving. This looks like living into my values in a new way—not trying to use a sailboat to get to the magic at the bottom of the ocean.
  3. I’ve always had a really deep connection to water. When I was a kid, I loved the ocean and especially tidal pools. I loved summer storms. I felt peaceful and happy when I got to float on a river, or jump from rock to rock. When I was a little kid, I thought North Carolina was an island, because it didn’t occur to me that when we drove to the beach we were always going in the same direction. I’d forgotten the beauty of that perspective, but now I’m seeing how deeply non-linear I am and have been as long as there’s been a “me.” My astrology totally supports this, too, with a strong emphasis in all three water signs including Pisces, the mutable water sign of liminality and fluidity and finding spiritual oneness through being willing to wash the whole thing away and see what’s left.
a gleeful small white child with an androgynous haircut builds a sandcastle with two thin white women, waves in background
circa 1989, very serious about sandcastles.
(with mom and aunt, who kindly got me Ariel bedsheets)

So what does it mean to be a fucking mermaid?

Well, for me it’s about embracing your own magic. And while this watery metaphor works well for me, you could apply it to any element you like! Maybe you’re the fucking mountain, the fucking flame, the fucking tornado. Whatever resonates is yours, and you get to be whatever you want to be. For me, it’s the ocean and it’s also the river coursing over rocks and it’s also the full beauty and fury of a summer storm. It’s a reminder that I am native to, I am of the water, and I also am the water. I’m not meant to stay on the shore or in my boat, because as a human being I am not separate from the capricious and unpredictable forces of nature. “Nature” is all of us, human and mountain and flame and tornado and ocean.

One of the first lessons I learned about swimming in the ocean was: never fight the undertow. This was a serious lesson, and very important, because sometimes the weather would change very quickly, and particularly when I was small I was definitely not going to be able to fight the water’s pull. But my mom taught me that when the current is strong, you work with it. It might carry you a mile down the beach, but you just keep doing your best to paddle sideways, not letting yourself get carried out to sea but not trying to force your way to shore either. You work with the current, and eventually it’ll shift or someone will help you. There’s a lot of medicine in that advice, because it’s not only about working with and showing up for the challenges of life and nature, about being in interdependence. It’s also about sustainable effort, sustainable flow, knowing when it’s time to fight and when it’s time to rest.

It’s only when I abandon ship that I realize the water was never my enemy in the first place. When I’m present to life’s challenges, to the way things (moods, opportunities, feeling like I know what the fuck’s going on) always come and go like the tides, I can learn from where those tides are taking me. I can see other people, challenges, even systems that seem super daunting as a really beautiful part of life, because they point me to where there’s work to be done and to what is and isn’t mine to hold. And the beauty of being part of the ocean is that water can hold a lot. If I don’t feel like I have the capacity to take on something else right now, I can give it back to the water around me without guilt, and trust that the tides will bring us together again some other time if it’s meant to be. Even if it feels like the water itself is the challenge, if the seas are stormy and I’m just swimming in “oh fuck” energy, I’ve learned that trying to force myself out of the situation is a lot more tiring than just being with it, staying present, and allowing my emotions to surface. Maybe the storm is dragging me a mile down the beach, but what if that’s where I needed to be? I’m less concerned these days with charting my course than I am with committing myself to my healing and to our collective healing.

Which brings me to the point that water is also a connector. We’re not meant to be separate, we’re meant to swim together. When we commit to our own healing, to noticing where we want to resist the waves and to what comes up for us in the midst of a storm, we are also more present to heal the planet and the collective. Water can channel all of our energies and amplify them. Healing journeys aren’t linear, and we can’t predict where they’ll take us, or who we’ll meet along the way. But we can let the waves carry us and trust that the ocean is wise enough to know what we need.

a view of the Atlantic Beach, NC shoreline, a calm ocean with a sand beach and seagrass growing on the dunes in the foreground

Does this idea resonate with you? Need some extra support? Click “Work with Me” above for a free 30-minute consult. I’d be happy to give you some quick reflections and tell you a little about what supports I have to offer as a change doula. ❤️