An Appetite for Stories

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By: Nancy Mellon

An Appetite for Stories

Nancy Mellon


Stories sometimes serve as nourishment to regulate our human appetites. Even the most placid of us may sometimes awaken from dreams with crude fears of being caged for unknown reasons, or ground in a meat-grinder, or chased and eaten. Today, as digestive haze pervades our land, every variety of indigestion calls us to awaken to our relationship with our daily food. Stories can help us to find balance and perspective. Wild story appetites remain popular today with young and old alike who sense there is more to hunger than can be satisfied with quick meals on the run and supermarket fare. Voracious dragons eat maidens whole for breakfast, wizened witches keep boys in cages to fatten them up for their evening meals, Baba Yagas construct houses and fences from human skulls and bones.


An old Swahili tale from East Central Africa tells of a distressed husband whose wife remained lean and listless although he fed her all the finest foods. Nearby lived a poor man whose wife was plump and happy. The sultan invited the poor man to visit him and privately asked,


"How is it that your wife is so joyous, and healthy?"


The poor man replied, "It is no secret! Every day I nourish my happy wife by feeding her meat of the tongue."


The sultan immediately ordered his cook to buy the tongue of every animal slaughtered at the market. At every meal the sultan's wife was given tongue meat prepared in exotic sauces. Yet although she ate tongue meat so often, she remained thin and sad.


Finally the sultan demanded that the poor man exchange wives with him. Despite protests, the poor man's wife was taken to the palace, and the sultan's thin, sad wife was delivered to the poor man's home. As soon as the poor man's wife arrived at the palace she was feted with every possible tasty meat and drink, yet with each passing day she became thinner and sadder. Her happiness and beauty faded like a wilted blossom.


Meanwhile, in the poor man's home, the sultan's wife grew happier and began gaining weight. At sunset, when the poor man returned from his work, he would tell his royal wife all the funny things that had happened to him that day. Often she would howl with laughter until tears of joy ran down her cheeks. Then he would sing her songs accompanied by his musical instruments until late in the evening, and she would dance. Each night was spent in conversations, song, and story. These she would remember and savor during the day. Although her food was simple and the portions quite modest,  in a short time she grew plump. Her hair began to shine, and her skin took on a healthy glow. When the sultan saw his old wife and the poor man walking in the marketplace, he was amazed at the transformation. He wanted her back. She refused, and in a jealous rage, he demanded, "What has this poor man given you that I, a great and rich sultan, cannot offer?"


The wife told the sultan how she and her new husband passed each evening together in story and song. The sultan was filled with humble understanding—and new aspirations.


Food and Biography

What hunger stories fill us today in our increasingly restless lives? As glut and emptiness shape our bodies and souls, we each have our personal stories to tell of private, family and communal nourishment.


Our  biographies today can be told through our relationship with food. What are your personal feast and famine stories? My friend Vera Mensinga is a biographical counselor, and the former cook during the busiest seven years at Emerson College in Sussex, England. For many years she has invited clients into her colorful, heart-warming kitchen to explore their relationship with food as a reflection of their relationship with whole life.


In a recent interview she cites four types of eating disorders: “Anorexia nervosa is a refusal to eat food. Bulimia consists of eating a lot and then vomiting (an anorexic may have spells of bulimia). Overeating or obesity involves eating too much and putting on weight. Orthorexia is becoming obsessed by only eating the best and the purest without compromise.”


“Obsession is a trait with all of them,” Vera explains. “A big part of what I research now is the addictive side of food. You can become addicted to food in a similar way as  to alcohol, but food can be trickier because we need to eat and find a balance, eating healthily to nourish your body without becoming obsessed or addicted either to certain types of food or to certain eating habits. Orthorexia is very interesting. It affects many people, including myself. My understanding of this is based upon the work of Steven Bratman MD* who lived in a community where he ran a farm and cooked all his own meals; eventually he became really obsessed about his food and very judgmental of anyone who did not eat as he did.


“The way I see it,” continues Vera, “the anorexic finds it very difficult to incarnate on the earth. The word incarnation is derived from carne which means ‘flesh’ and natio, ‘to be born,’ so it is ‘to be born in the flesh.’ When anorexics  are not met with a warm, loving and caring environment they decide to get out. They then hover above their body and their whole gesture is, ‘I want to go back to where I came from.’ They normally are very spiritual and intellectual people. They live in their heads and they refuse their body.


Speaking of her experience of working with overeating, on the other hand, Vera says: “These overeating individuals often fall in love with earthly things and the warm, wonderful feeling that food brings, and they find it hard to let go. So part of my work with these people is not so much concentrating on diet, but to see where in their life they are not finding satisfaction, and to help them find and deepen their purpose.”


“Some people have horrendous stories,” explains Vera, “and develop an eating disorder out of that trauma, and feeling unloved. I think love has a lot to do with it. If the love was not there to warm the body and the soul in the early years then it may be sought in food. There is also the complication of how the feminine is viewed by society and the pressure from the media to have a perfect or a slim body. How parents behave is important. If the mother is dieting or constantly implying, ‘I hate my body,’ children will pick up on this. They will also pick up on comments such as, ‘You look wonderful today,’ or ‘Don’t you think it would be nice if you lost a few pounds?’ I think we have to be aware of comments we make in front of our children because there will be repercussions.”


Past Life Feast and Famine

For many years I, too have worked therapeutically with people who want to improve their lives by exploring and transforming their relationship with food. Eating patterns that disturb our well-being can sometimes take us deep into family history, and also into possible previous lifetimes. Our attitudes toward food resonate with deep visceral layers of memory that connect us with previous eras of physical and emotional abundance, and of fallowness and famine.


A man was deeply puzzled by his ravenous desire for food and had been trying for years to change this. Throughout his life, whenever he sat at the table, a desperate feeling left him feeling emotionally confused and empty. In bites and sips he remembered his relationship with his father who had grown up in a famished, war-torn country. As the man listened to himself describing his distress at his father’s uncontrolled eating habits, suddenly he understood that his depressed and confused father had been compensating for the genuine starvation his family had experienced so many years earlier. He was filled with insight and compassion. At last, he felt truly free to pursue a much more relaxed relationship with food, liberated in body and soul from a past drama that was interfering with his relationship with his family and his work.


All life is a gustatory adventure story. Mine is no exception. My father often complained that my many growing brothers had “hollow legs.” My mother and I could not bring home enough bags full of groceries to assuage their appetites, and so my addiction to fasting began. Always wanting to be helpful, I began intentionally claiming small appetites and small needs for myself. As I foraged beyond our standard meat and potatoes, I sometimes ate my fingernails and inner cheeks, and I also discovered that I could ignore hunger for increasing periods of time. There were scanty religious observances in our household and I had never heard of fasting as a spiritual deed, but I discovered this possibility deep in my psyche. As I reduced my need for food, a longing awoke to be strong enough to need no food at all.


Like many people gradually separating out from their family of origin, as I was learning to distinguish myself from patterns and appetites of my birth family, I gradually explored feasting and fasting, and developed my own eating habits. To fast is derived from Old Norse, fasta, meaning “strong in feast and famine.” Whatever I ate or didn’t eat, I wanted to be healthy, yet my greatest persistent longing was to be able to live on love and air. As I sometimes tried, without great success, to pray continuously and to survive without meals, or on a little bread and water, deep within me this seemed, and still seems to be, a familiar way of life.


In my mid-40s I had an unexpected experience that helped me to see this longing, and separation of body and soul, in a new light. I heard of a Buddhist monk who for a time was dedicating himself to helping people uncover the past life experiences that hindered their present-time development. Against my usual judgment, I challenged myself to have a session with him. I thought perhaps I would find out something useful that I ought to know. What I discovered deeply moved me.


Through a deep meditative process he accompanied me back in time to look for whatever might be impeding my spiritual progress. To my great surprise, quite quickly I sensed myself as a  monk. I began vividly to perceive that I was living with a few others in a small stone monastery. This monastery was round and  two stories high. Each of the monks had a cell to ourselves on the upper level. (I have since seen a monastery built according to this plan on Templar land in Brazil.)


Our goal as members of this monastic community was to arise from the shell of the monastery on the pure golden rays of numerals. We experienced the contemplation of each number as a pathway to God. The body was a temporary cipher, a locust shell, dry as the stale bread we ate that was all that remained from our supplies. Four small morsels of bread were lined up for the day, each the size of a holy wafer. For a long time I had been trying not to eat even that semblance of sacramental bread. We were each practicing the necessary virtue of fasting in our prayer cells, as the monastery was surrounded by soldiers who had been instructed to repossess monastic lands. The royal house in that part of France had the intention to destroy us and our way of life, and our monastery supplies had been intentionally cut off to weaken us. Yet in the midst of this drama, our fasting and other disciplines and practices gave us cause for rejoicing.


“How did you die?” asked my gentle, intrepid guide. As the first horseman arrived to claim our territory, I felt my dusty empty body descending a wooden ladder from the upper story to ring the simple monastery bell on its familiar rope. While ringing the bell to warn the others, as was my usual responsibility, I fell.


I sensed that I died well in that lifetime in that place where I had striven with my fellow monks to be nothing but pure essence, to pray and to contemplate as the way to the eternal heavenly abode.  In our prayers and meditations, we had taught our souls to ascend as pure numbers and music, to the perfect Mind of the Creator God. There would be no earthly loss, or domination. We had all intended the aggressors would find amongst us only purified dust. They could not subjugate these, our spiritualized flesh and bones. Our physical corpus dispersing in the four winds, the pure light of love and truth would claim us as its own. We arose to spiritual freedom from the noisy heavy hooves of the intruders, the breaking gate, the violent entitlement to earthly land.


This surprisingly vivid experience showed me realities of which I had been previously unaware. Although I have sometimes questioned what I experienced on this past life quest, I believe the long history of voluntary and  involuntary communal fasting leaves a deep archive of unconscious memory in many human beings. I believe that a great many other human beings have experienced fasting as a way of life in our previous lifetimes.


Other Tales


The power to fast in dangerous circumstances can bring great strength to us from other realms. Many a hero in fairy tales are warned “to bite no bit and sip no sup” if they are to survive the ways of enchantment. One of the most popular of fairy takes place during a time of famine. It depicts very deep fears within every human soul, and the cruelty and ingenuity that arises in such circumstances. A desperately starving father and mother abandon Hansel and Gretel to fend for themselves with no food or drink in deep dark woods. In this tale the children work follow a mysterious white bird and discover that they can help each other to survive the witch’s dire enchantment. The father is able to survive the famine too and welcomes them into his loving arms.


May we all find within ourselves the image of a very healthy family who through ingenuity and discipline can endure even the most outrageous conditions, and be guided by the white bird home from the dark woods to a kindly table and warm embracing nourishment and wisdom.


* Stephen Bratman, MD and the author of The Alternative Medicine Sourcebook: A Realistic Evaluation of Alternative Healing Methods (Lowell House).

Nancy Mellon’s newest book,The Knottles, will be available in May of 2011. A psychotherapist and well-known author, she has taught storytelling as a healing art for many years, offering workshops and courses in many locations in the USA and abroad.

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