Into the Unknown

When people arrive at storytelling workshops, they often worry about having the “right” story to work on, whether it’s a personal story or a traditional one. Let’s face it, there are so many stories both out there and inside us, the choice can be a bit daunting. If it’s a personal storytelling course, I will often do some simple exercises to surface a story that might already be around without the person being conscious of it. If it’s a traditional story they need and they’re really stuck, I advise them to choose a book of stories off the shelf, close their eyes, open it at random and the first story they see when they open their eyes is “the one”. Of course, these ways of finding a story do not rely on the rational, logical part of our brains but on something completely different. In fact, you could say that in this way, the story chooses you rather than you choose the story.

A couple of years ago, the day after I’d flown in from the UK, I went to the Storytelling Club in Cape Town. It turned out to be an Open Mic night where anyone could tell a story and the theme offered was “Into the Unknown”. When I heard the theme I genuinely couldn’t think of a single story to contribute: slightly worrying for an experienced storyteller! Suddenly, about halfway through the evening, a short traditional story that I’d first heard in the 1990s popped into my head. I had never told it and I had no idea why it had come to mind. I sat there looking attentive whilst the left side of my brain went into overdrive trying to make sense of why it had popped up after so long. Nothing happened. But still, the story pressed itself against me, insisting on being told. Experience told me the story would give me no peace until it had been given utterance, so at last, I came to the front and told this story:

“Once upon a time there was a little girl made of salt who had no mother and no father. More than anything she wanted to find out where she belonged, so one day she set off into the world, determined to find her home. She walked and she walked and she walked until she heard a sound she’d never heard before. Climbing up a slope, she saw in front of her a wide, limitless expanse of blue water, glinting in the sunlight and crashing onto the shore – it was the sea. As she came closer she thought she heard a voice calling. She came right to the edge and listened – yes, it was calling to her! She took a step into the water and then another and as she did so, she could feel her legs starting to dissolve. Following the voice, she kept stepping forward until at last, as the waters reached higher and higher and she had almost completely dissolved away, she realised that, at last, she was home.”

It was only after I’d told the story and sat down again that I saw how perfectly it fit the theme, how dissolving into something much greater than ourselves might be considered the greatest step of all into the unknown.

This morning, on a call to a storytelling friend in Australia, I found myself telling her of this incident in Cape Town and the story of The Little Salt Girl. Together we marvelled yet again at the mysterious way that stories do their work in the world. Like underground streams, they move silently and secretly through our lives, sometimes for years, until at last they bubble up and offer their refreshment for the spirit. I have learnt that it is not for me to question their wisdom, I just have to honour them by telling the tale. And so this evening, I sit here pondering the possible connections between my life and this story and I ask myself: what do you want more than anything right now? Is there a voice calling and what is it saying? Are you willing to dissolve into something greater and if so, what might that be? In this new, post-pandemic world we find ourselves in, you might want to ask yourself the same questions too.