The compass and the storyteller

Dear Sor Juana,

The early signs of spring this week, a hint of warmth followed by showers, amplified in my joints, brought a cellular ache for summer. From the invisible space between bone, muscle, nerve a clear message is sent that change is on the way. Pain is a great way to read the barometric pressures beyond the body – it is in discomfort we find our edge and wriggle and wrangle our selves in order to get more comfortable. All aches are a reminder of what is and isn’t working, what needs to keep moving, what can be taken on or what needs to be shed. You loved your astronomical instruments and I suspect when they were taken from you, it was the muscle memory your body and soul you called on to keep your internal compass centred.

Pilgrims have a compass instead of a map. Compass comes from two Latin words: com meaning together and passus meaning a step or pace. Driven by an internal magnet which ever way we go, it’s still north, for pilgrims. I have a principle of practice from improv to say yes and combined with the compass leads to some interesting conversations and edges to play. Implicit in the yes is the fact you have listened to what has been said, dropped into the others space by adding the and you build on their perspective instantly creating a shared and common platform to look at the horizon together. It certainly opens up conversations and invites possibility as the path arrives at a new frontier. Looking to the horizon it is the edge we see, that place where ancient mariners might have imagined falling off but we know goes on and on and the horizon is always there inviting us to the next edge, the next place to navigate, the place where all learning happens. Soaking up the conversations along the way, layering the stories and bringing us deeper to ourselves as we say yes and. Our and starts by accepting the invitation. Without this invitation there is no conversation, no story to hear, no story to be told.

I was reminded yet again this week of the power of story and the gift of the storyteller. The pilgrim storyteller manifested in an Irishman peddling his community development wares through the cities, towns and villages of the world and finding his way to a church hall in my part of the world. Adorned with banners of community, integrity, belonging the room was lit up with the smiles and smells of church ladies who had been baking, chopping and cutting up goodies for participants long before we all got there. Walking into a space that lets you know in advance they knew you were coming is yet another yes to add my and too. Some of the participants were sojourners and needed a nudge to connect with newbies but before too long a community of learners had formed in a place that had long been a community of practice – where the practice of hospitality would have won an Olympic medal; and the practice of welcoming the stranger knew no limits. If the storyteller had not opened his mouth the lessons would still have been learnt. He did however open his mouth and gifted us all with the riches we find from someone whose compass is in tact, bright, shiny and as new as the first day he discovered its magnetic force drawing him in and taking him to the edge of his horizon.

I was taken back to Ballyvaughan and to the Burren with the lilt and the lessons that come from being in community and in communion with one another and the landscape. Going to the edge singing into the wind and then into the space of the cottage with my fellow pilgrims, the words of the Canticle of Creation to a tune by Donovan – I was at the very edge and learnt I could do it. But that’s a story for another day … Today I celebrate the compass and the storyteller.


Be infinitesimal under that sky, a creature
even the sailing hawk misses, a wraith
among the rocks where the mist parts slowly.

Recall the way mere mortals are overwhelmed
by circumstance, how great reputations
dissolve with infirmity and how you,
in particular, stand a hairsbreadth from losing
everyone you hold dear.

Then, look back down the path to the north,
the way you came, as if seeing
your entire past and then south
over the hazy blue coast as if present
to a broad future.

Remember the way you are all possibilities
you can see and how you live best
as an appreciator of horizons,
whether you reach them or not.

Admit that once you have got up
from your chair and opened the door,
once you have walked out into the clean air
toward that edge and taken the path up high
beyond the ordinary, you have become
the privileged and the pilgrim,
the one who will tell the story
and the one, coming back
from the mountain,
who helped to make it.

© David Whyte, from River Flow collection

Cliffs of Mohar. Wandered into a paddock, over a turnstile, up to the edge and looked to the horizon.

Cliffs of Moher. Wandered into a paddock, over a turnstile, up to the edge and looked to the horizon.

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