Virtual Vacation: The Power of Story

VVS WTTAt the end of every retreat I teach, I take notes about how things might be improved the next time around. I notice the things that go well, the things that fall flat, the rhythm of the days and the balance of activity, engagement, adventure and rest. And at the end of each retreat, especially one I’m creating for the first time, I usually have a little list of things to change the next time out.

After I was in Scotland last time, one of the things I put on this list was to invite a Scottish storyteller to come for a night of authentic stories. We’d had a fire in the giant Newbold fire pit out on the grounds last time, and it seemed like a terrific idea to bring in a storyteller to share Scottish tales before the fire. And so on this trip, my trustworthy assistant Marie located the brilliant Margot Henderson and booked her to join us last night.

Once we got to Scotland this time, I realized my fantasy couldn’t be fully realized. It’s the solstice, and at midnight, it’s still light outside, so our evening fire couldn’t possibly be what I’d originally envisioned-people gathering around flames, their faces uplifted in the darkness. And then when it started to rain yesterday, I realized we wouldn’t be outside at all. But fortunately, there is one small elegant meeting room with a fireplace at Newbold House, one  we hadn’t used and that most of the participants hadn’t yet seen. So we set up in there, some of us in chairs and some lounging on the floor, with an open space in front for Margot to perform.

Margot is a Scottish-Irish beauty with red hair and fair skin. A seasoned storyteller who has been telling stories all over the world during her long, fascinating career, Margot wore a simple green velvet ankle-length dress with a belt of leaves around her waist. She brought a flute, a harp, her singing voice and a small clicking instrument to accompany her. The music was wonderful, but it was her accent and her rich voice that made me want to take her home and curl up at her feet, listening forever.

When I’d checked in with Margot before I called the group in from dinner, I’d asked about excluding photos or recording. She thanked me for bringing it up, emphasizing that she wanted us to “just have the ancient experience of being wrapped in the spell of story.” So no photos or iphones allowed.

And wrapped up in story, we were. Using the modulation of her voice, pacing, soft tones and louder ones, music, singing and a fully embodied physical performance, Margot had us in her thrall. Her first story was about a selkie and the lonely fisherman who stole her skin and forced her to become his wife. The second was a about a very poor woman whose baby was stolen by the fairies. And her final tale featured a lad named Jack who had to do the right thing when, once every 100 years during the solstice, oak trees come out of the ground, revealing treasure, as they uproot themselves to travel down to the river to mate with the birches on the other side.

As she wove her tales, I found myself falling into a fugue state, the place Margot calls, “the crack between worlds.”

After a break, Margot opened the second half of the evening saying, “I want to make this part a wee bit more interactive.” For the next hour, Margot answered our questions.

She sang a song that explained how she became a storyteller and  told us about the role stories played in her family when she was a babe and a child. Margot was never read a story as a child; the rich trove of stories surrounding her were all told in the oral tradition. Margot was adopted and her mother used stories to weave her into the web of their family, to give her a place of belonging, a history. Margot recounted a childhood filled with putting on plays and acting out stories with the neighborhood children. She was often the director. “I’ve been telling stories all me life. Telling them, making them, supporting other people in telling their own.”

Margot wants her stories to bring people right to “the crack between worlds. We hear stories with our ears, our hearts and our bodies. Stories put us into a wee dreamworld. Real stories are mirrors and they touch listeners in different places.”

When she tells a story, “it’s a balance between being absolutely present and completely out of the way.”

One thing that fascinated me was Margot’s distinction between traditional stories and the kinds of stories we hear and watch in our contemporary world. Traditional stories have a definite arc; many contemporary stories just keep upping the ante with more stress. And most of them lack inner wisdom. “Traditional stories don’t merely entertain; they create a map for how to live, they teach us how to deal with obstacles.” Margot described being sucked into a Netflix series. “Stories can be compelling, but feel like poison. I had to realize I’d be left with a hangover if I watched things like that. I’m looking for stories with medicine in them.”

Margot has told stories all over the world, worked extensively in theater and has been hired to bring story into a wide array of corporations and organizations.

When she talked about her creative process, Margot told us that she often takes a job to create a story: “Will you do a piece for restoring the whales?” Or “Will you do a piece for our healing conference?” And when she says yes to the job, she has no idea of the story she is going to write or tell. She is terrified and prays for help. And then often, in the middle of the night, she is literally jolted out of bed with an idea. “Sometimes I’m literally thrown awake. Sometimes I’m literally thrown out of bed. I have to surrender to the inspiration and often that’s very physical.”

Once, she was asked to come to a Scottish palliative care conference to tell a story about death, but telling a traditional story about death felt like a cop out to her. Margot knew she wanted to “bring death into the heart of life,” but had no idea how she was going to do that. She was scared and she prayed, and one night she was jolted out of bed with the message, “I’m going to be in a coffin.” She laughed and continued, “Oh my God, I’m going to be in a coffin. There are 250 of them doing power point presentations and I’m going to be in a coffin.”

So the organizers secretly wheeled a coffin onto the stage, and when it was her time, the audience looked expectantly at the power point screen for the next presentation to begin. That’s when Margot sat up in the coffin and said in her rich, melodious voice, “I’m not ready for this but no one ever is…” And then she threaded together all the experiences she’d ever had with death. “All you could hear was 250 people gasping.”

It was at this point in the evening that I wrote Marie a note, “This is my peak experience of this retreat.” I knew we’d hit this one out of the park. And today, Margot is going to accompany us to Clava Cairns, to Cawdor Castle, the castle in Macbeth and for an elegant tea at Bothin House.

When I got up this morning, I could see that the Scrabble fairy agreed with my assessment of last night. It was a message right out of Margot’s talk last night:


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