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Archive for April, 2011

 

I’ve always lived there. Story-telling is in my blood, you might say. My father – with the dry, spare humour of a Quaker Scot – used to tell us stories about the colourful daily life of a post-war motor trader.

My mother – with the celtic glamour of the Irish – told us tales of our ancestors – St Patrick O’Toole, the Huguenots, the French at Azincourt, the Irish Uncles who lived in Mayo, finally leaving under a cloud because of their Protestant faith. She called these tales from the hearth.

True or not, we believed these stories. They gave us a sense of who we are. And why we are different. And we connect with the people in them –such as old uncle Greg who died long ago holding a photo of me. I don’t remember even meeting him as a child. I only connect through story. But, oh what power these stories have. We are a very close family.

And I have worked with stories for decades. I taught for seven years – using, you guessed it, stories. I have been a journalist for over 25 years finding stories to illustrate the truth. And now, as a coach, I help my clients understand themselves through their own stories. I suppose, story-telling, I’m stuck with it.

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Here are some references for my presentation at the Gurteen Knowledge Cafe, Liverpool, UK

References

1865 Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland Lewis Carroll (Alice meets the Cheshire Cat)

2005 Cinderella to CEO: How to Master the 10 Lessons of Fairy Tales to Transform Your Work Life – by Cary J. Broussard and Anita Bell

1994 Politically Correct Bed-time Stories James Finn Garner. Macmillan, New York. Cinderella goes to the Ball.

The Ship of Fools, The Republic, Plato Book 6.

Background Reading

2008 Effective Organisational Communication (3rd Edition) Richard Blundell and Kate Ippolito Prentice Hall pg 79 – 83  Includes references for practical applications of storytelling in knowledge creation and other areas of communication.

2006 The Story Factor Annette Simmons Basic Books

2007 Whoever Tells the Best Story Wins Annette Simmons. AMACOM

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Every year, on the Isle of Berneray, the selkies, the young seal people, leave the sea for one day only. We take off our sealskins, and dance on the sands, at the water’s edge. We laugh and run and feel a freedom we do not know in our own form. We play at being humans. And, although only for one day, it feels good. A delicious trick.

But, for many generations, our seal mothers and fathers have told us, “Beware the humans who live on these wild islands. They long to be like us – to survive in the sea and know no cold – to play in our world as we can in theirs.”

But we – being young – are not afraid.  We always believe we will win the trick. But – oh, my children – I must tell you the story of how I almost lost you. And of  another grief which came to me instead.

I was the most beautiful of all my sisters and longed to dance on the White Sands with the Prince of Seals, the most handsome and the strongest of his generation.

The Day came. We hauled ourselves out of the turquoise Sea and slid out of our skins. The pile of our pelts grew and grew – black, white, silver, dark brown and mine. Glimmering gold in the sun. The most beautiful you could hope to see.

And then, my children, oh how we danced, your father and I. On sands white as silver against clouds black as steel. We loved our youth. But, then the day was over. My sisters, my brothers, laughing, sought out their skins from the pile.

Then I wept. The skins were gone, my brothers and sisters were gone and I was alone. My beautiful golden skin – it was nowhere to be found. The Prince of Seals was calling me – I could hear him across the waves of the evening sea. His call was lonely. It echoed the loneliness of my own heart. But I could not come back to the sea.

Then, I realised, I would have to find my skin myself. No-one else could help. I curled up on a rock and thought.

Only a human would have had what it took to take my beautiful skin. Certainly, on this lonely, wild island, nothing else had thumbs. But also, nothing else would want to steal something for its beauty, alone. What other use could an empty sealskin serve?

Across the green mounds behind the strand, I could smell the peat fire. Only a human would need  a peat fire. I became sure – my pelt was somewhere near fire. I followed the scent on the air – smoking, bitter, ancient – speaking of earth centuries shared by the sea. Salt in the wind.

My legs pained me to walk. The sun was down to the rim of the now black sea and I, I was desperate to reach the peat fire. The world was suddenly cold, suddenly hostile. Its magic was dying away. I was facing nothing I had ever known.

Then, outlined against the firelight, I saw him. A human, a fisherman, hulked in the darkness, listening to my weeping. “Mortal man!”, I cried out, “mortal man! If you have taken my skin, please give it back to me. Without it, I cannot go home.”

The memory of my Prince of Seals bit into my heart and I wept. But, I was destined to find someone to love me that day. The fisherman led me to his hearth, to his peat fireside, and warmed me with cloth he had woven himself from the wool of the sheep he tended on the Isles and washed with the rain of the Isles’ heaven and dyed with the fruits of the Isles’ rough earth.

I was enchanted. And I stayed. And I bore him a daughter. A beautiful child – entirely perfect – even down to the webs of skin between her tiny fingers and toes. She was so beautiful, your sister. It broke my heart to leave her.

But leave her I did. It happened this way. I loved the fisherman. In my way. I tended him. I tended his cottage. But I could not forget that I did not belong.

Then one day – as I dusted – as human wives do – I saw something gleaming gold in the firelight. Hidden up in the thatch, what I had searched for – all that time – had found me. It was time to go.

At first, I didn’t understand that the choice before me was either/or. I just felt compelled to explore the possibility. I kissed my darling, knowing I was going on an adventure, and would not see her till morning. I ran to the shore, across the white sand and down to the turquoise sea. I drew on my golden pelt, dived from the rocks into the deep and gleaming water and swam towards the setting sun.

After a time, I was aware of a seal swimming alongside me. Your father had waited all those years. And now we could dance again. We reclaimed our sea and I never went back to walk on the land. Which is how you and I come to know each other.

But, I do sometimes swim near the Isle again. And she walks there. And I call to her. She hears the longing in my call. But she does not understand. I call and I call my love to her and she does not understand. . . .

Coaching Questions

1) Which is the most significant moment for you in the story? What are the images, sounds, scents, textures, tastes, feelings you noted at that moment? Write them down.

2) Are there moral issues in this story? What are they? This story is told from the viewpoint of the Seal Wife. Usually, it is told from the viewpoint of the fisherman. How would this alter the moral issues?

3) Memory. Think of a story from your own life – using the prompts of the Isle of Berneray, Hebrides, fishermen and farmers, loneliness. Loneliness – when have you felt lonely? Where is the loneliest place you have been to?

4) Where you belong – your roots (Diversity) Relate this theme to the story. Relate to your own story. Can you translate the story of the Seal Wife into your society, your times?

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