Lessons from Skeleton Woman: Radical Joy Revealed

When people go to wounded places and make gifts of beauty for them, they often tell us how surprised they were by what happened. They had gone with feelings of reluctance, sure that they would be depressed by the experience. And instead, they felt energized and reconnected with their place. Sometimes, they tell us, “I ended up falling in love with the place!”
There is a precedent for this metamorphosis, and it is timeless and universal. It involves an archetypal story of giving beauty to ugliness-and in the process falling in love.
In the Inuit tale of Skeleton Woman, for example, a woman in pursuit of an impossible love drowns in the ocean. One day a fisherman feels a tug on his line and pulls it up to find that he’s caught not a fish but the skeleton of a woman. He is tempted to drop her back into the ocean, but his compassion gets the better of him and he hauls the bones into his boat, then takes them back to his snowhouse, where he carefully lays them out aright. Gradually, the skeleton begins to transform. Flesh swathes the bones, the features emerge. Then the fisherman himself shapeshifts. He becomes a shaman. He picks up his drum and begins to beat it and invites the skeleton to dance. As she does so, she becomes a whole woman again, warm-blooded and sensual. The two of them clasp hands, leap into his drum, and run off together.
This story reminds us that true beauty is revealed only when we stop wishing for ugliness to disappear and accept the other for what he or she -or place-is. But acceptance alone is not enough. Loving, and active loving at that, is necessary. Remember, too, that in the fairytale, it’s when Beauty returns to Beast out of love that he changes into a handsome prince.
The magic happens also in places that have been hurt and made ugly. When we recognize what they have given and give some beauty and love back to them, they—and we—transform.

Trebbe Johnson
Trebbe JohnsonFounder
Trebbe is the author of The World Is a Waiting Lover and 101 Ways to Make Guerrilla Beauty. Her new book, Radical Joy for Hard Times: Finding Meaning and Making Beauty, will be published in Fall 2018 by North Atlantic Books. Her articles about people’s emotional and spiritual relationship with nature have appeared in Orion, Sierra, Ecopsychology, The Ecologist, The Nation, Harper’s and other magazines. She lives with her husband, Andrew Gardner, in rural northeastern Pennsylvania, a region currently under exploitation by natural gas companies.

Image Credit:

  • Clancy RedBones: Clancy Cavner


  • Sunyu Kim QKrrfTi Ikw Unsplash


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Radical Joy Revealed is a weekly message of inspiration about finding and making beauty in wounded places.

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