A mermaid's tale: The magic of healing
What do mermaids and prison have in common? Most people would probably say nothing, but Una the Mermaid begs to differ.
By day, Una works in a women's prison. But the work she does behind the locked doors of the Coffee Creek Correctional Institute in Wilsonville is not that different from the work she does in her free time while in costume.
"Whether I'm teaching in a prison classroom or in a tail swimming around in a pool, at the end of the day, the outcomes are restoration and transformation," she says.
Una, who asked that we not use her real name because of her work in the prison, put her first tail on over six years ago. For her, mermaiding isn't a way to make money, or the pursuit of an entertainment career, but an outlet for community and healing.
Now, the North Portland resident is preparing for the second annual Portlandia Mermaid Parade, which takes place at noon Saturday, July 29, on the downtown waterfront.
A family affair
Before Una was a mermaid, she was a pirate. And her husband still is one. In their free time, they went to Renaissance fairs and spent time with the pirate community in Portland, doing reenactments and other events.
After her daughter was born, Una started to notice something that had been there all along: a culture of violence bubbling just beneath the surface.
"Pirates are notoriously misogynistic," Una says. "When I had a daughter, I started to become more critical around those types of things."
When she saw a mermaid while walking around a Renaissance fair, she knew she had to try it.
"Oh my gosh, I wonder if I can do this," Una says, recalling the magical excitement she felt when she first saw the mermaid.
She began doing research that night, and pretty soon she was running around town collecting all the things she'd need to make tails for her and her daughter.
The art of mermaiding
The swim fins came from Goodwill, and fishing line came from her husband. She got the sheet rubber from Home Depot and the prettiest four-way-stretch Lycra fabric she could find at a local fabric store. She made two tails in a single weekend.
Now, they have a whole room in their house dedicated to costuming. After six years, she has accumulated more than 12 tails, including old ones she loans to people who want to experiment with mermaiding.
She has different tails for different activities: some really ornate ones for use on land, some that are made for ocean swimming, and some that she can walk in.
At the prison, Una teaches classes that focus on fostering empathy and victim awareness. She studied political science as an undergraduate and conflict resolution in graduate school, both at Portland State University. Now she is pursuing a doctorate degree in transformative social change at Saybrook University.
Safe Space Lagoon
The majority of her events revolve around the Fanta-Sea Cove, her traveling lagoon that makes appearances at festivals, events and sometimes private parties.
Orchid Cavett, 64, didn't know she could be a mermaid until she met Una. Now, she goes by Grandmer Orchid and is paid by the city of Long Beach, Washington, to read to kids as a mermaid.
"I say I'm retired but I almost work more now as a mermaid than I did before I retired," Cavett says.
She often travels with Fanta-Sea Cove and cherishes the time she spends spreading joy through mermaiding.
Una says her professional and educational background helped her notice a pattern about who was coming into and thriving in the space of the lagoon — survivors of trauma, like her.
"It's a loving, healing environment," Cavett says.
Historically, the mermaid has been a symbol of female empowerment, seduction, beauty and gentleness, Una says.
"People who identify with the mermaid archetype are often deeply empathic people — sensitive, mystical people who have strong identifications with water and healing," Una says. "They are often very much critically aware of the social issues of our time."
The other demographic Una began noticing in her space was parents who wanted to reconnect with their children in some way, something else that she can personally relate to.
"It was something I struggled with early on, especially being a survivor of trauma," Una says. "When Oula hit the age that I was when I started experiencing (trauma), it was just really difficult for me to relate."
Mermaiding was something that the two instantly bonded over. Her daughter was young at the time, but Una enrolled her in swim lessons, and taught her how to use a monofin before letting her swim in a mermaid tail. It's a learned skill, she says, and some pools don't allow mermaiding because it is perceived as a drowning risk.
"When children use monofins, it's important for the parent to know how the monofin should fit," Una says.
But Oula caught on quickly, and now performs as a mermaid with her mom at most big events. She loves it and has even invited some of her friends into the mermaid world.
Cynics glued to smartphones
Not all children are able to enter the imaginative world of mermaiding as easily as Oula has. The hardest part for Una is the cynicism she often encounters from children as young as 3 years old.
"They don't believe in anything," Una says.
Una has found that children who are deeply engaged with electronic devices are sometimes hindered when it comes to imagination.
Her education and observations have helped her realize just how important play and imagination are for both kids and adults in terms of problem-solving.
The most magical part of being a mermaid, she says, is when kids are able to open themselves up to the imaginative world of mermaiding.
Una says she uses the magical bridge between pretend and reality to tell kids about the importance of protecting oceans and waterways.
Cavett says that in today's "grim" world, it is even more important to spread magic and joy through mermaiding.
As a mermaid, Cavett has had the opportunity to spend time with terminally ill children and work with disabled kids.
Portlandia Mermaid Parade
Una says she got the idea for the first Portlandia Mermaid Parade last year after she learned about a similar event in Seattle, but couldn't make the trip at the last minute. So she made it happen here.
It made sense, she says, since the mermaid community in Portland was growing.
At first, she publicized it on Facebook and hoped to bring together local mermaids. But even in its first year, the event was more than that.
"The parade is about cultivating and celebrating the mermaid culture here in town, but it is also to honor some of the environmental ethics of sustainable communities," Una says. "I desire for this event to remain a low-impact event. It's not gonna be a giant festival or a have ton of vendors coming in."
Una says the opening ceremony will feature an "artistic conversation" about the parade's theme: Water Is Life. She plans for poetry recitals about the different ways drinking water is being impacted around the world.
Ora Nui, a traditional Tahitian dance group, will perform a narrative dance honoring the Tahitian mermaid goddess, and the Rose City Raindrops, a local synchronized swimming group, will perform in the river at the parade.
The parade will be an inclusive, family-friendly event. Una says parents should understand that mermaids respect the human body, and this could mean that some will choose partial nudity in celebration of the event. All are welcome regardless of body type, gender, sexuality, race or age, she says.
"This isn't an event to be lewd for the sake of being lewd, but we do respect the human body," Una says.
The parade will be followed by the Sirens Masquerade Ball, which will give adult mermaids the opportunity to harness the more seductive, sensual side of mermaiding. The formal masquerade ball will be held in the Skybridge Terrace at the World Trade Center from 8 p.m. to midnight, 121 S.W. Salmon St.