Interviewsand Articles


Nancy Mellon: Storytelling as a Healing Art

by Anne Veh, Apr 1, 2015



“Storytelling is our effort as human beings to find greater truths.”

On a warm June morning, I am seated with a circle of dear friends in the garden of Betty Peck and Anna Rainville, mother and daughter who for over 30 years have welcomed children, friends, families, early childhood educators to play, sing, and share gifts at their home in Saratoga. Longtime friend, Mary Roscoe of the Children in Nature Collaborative brings fresh strawberries and bread from a local farmers market; family friend Stefan and his finance Lauren are in town visiting, and decide to stay on for the conversation.

We are speaking with Nancy Mellon, an elder in the global storytelling renaissance, a psychotherapist and a former Waldorf teacher who now lives in California. Her warmth and presence quickly transport us into an enchanted realm where memories and visions abide, reminding us all of our creative capacity for storytelling and its inherent gifts as a healing art. A few weeks prior to our gathering, Nancy had made a three-week journey to Brazil to work with Brazilian healing storytellers. During that time she also was privileged to visit John of God, the world-renowned healer.

Anne Veh:  What initially drew you to storytelling? Can you share some early memories?

Nancy Mellon:  We live in a vastly interwoven universe of stories and there are many sorts of storytellers. We may feel after hearing a story: “Wow, that was something! It wasn't a healing experience, exactly; it was stirring experience; it was impressive; it was fascinating.”

I work with a worldwide stream of storytellers who bring imagination and the spoken word for healing, like many musicians, dancers and others with similar transformational goals.

I didn't grow up a storyteller. My mother was a realist. When she was a girl, she once convinced the children in her neighborhood that something terrible was going to happen, and they all huddled together for a long time, terrified, in her family coal bin. After discovering at an early age that she could mesmerize others with a lie, she didn’t much trust storytellers or storytelling. Soon after I was born in Central New York in 1941, my father went off to become a medical officer in the army, not entirely abandoning our mother—their wonderful love letters disappeared in the attic until fifty years later.

After my father returned home from the war in 1945, he didn't want to talk about his experiences. Our parents were building their life freshly and my mother didn't want to have shadowy imaginations lurking around in her very busy household.

Anne:  What experiences drew you to pursue storytelling as an art form?

Nancy:  In my mid-thirties, I decided to go to England to learn how to be a Waldorf teacher. In Waldorf schools stories are spoken every day in every classroom to bring a multi-cultural curriculum to life. My ancestral self was very tickled and happy when I discovered that I was going to be a storyteller. You may notice that when I get going as a yarn-spinner that my Irish roots wriggle. The streaming of all the different ancestors in my veins, their sense of language, vocabulary, their fluidity of imagination can sometimes even become a little daunting.

When Anna Rainville and I were colleagues with classrooms side by side at a Waldorf school in Massachusetts, one dank morning the teacher on the other side of the wall (me) wasn't having the easiest time with her class of eight-year-olds. It wasn't a far journey to the front door of the school—yet she knew she couldn’t abandon the children she so loved!

I remember leaning my head against the beautiful golden corridor that we recently had painted. Finally I opened the classroom door to hear a robust Irish voice shouting to the children: “What are you doing in here? I never heard such a hullabaloo in me life!”

The children all sat down immediately and put their toes together under their desks. I heard the voice continuing, "I come from the country called Ireland, and I am visiting your country to find out whether American children learn anything at all!"

The whole class was absolutely thrilled!

"My name is”—and stunned with the possibilities, it took a while for the name to appear… “Mrs. McIver. I've got seventeen children back home—and they are very well grown up, too!”

Jessie was the most hyperactive boy you can imagine. I adored him. When I went for a home visit, his mother said, "Would you like to see Jesse's trick?"

I said, " Of course I would."

He took me by the hand into his room. Then he climbed the wall over his bed, hovered for a while where the wall squared off with the ceiling, bounced down lightly onto his bed, and then started up the wall again. He could stay up there like a fly on the wall—his bones were full of air.

I was alarmed because of the very high ceiling in our classroom. Mrs. McIver, marvelous fire of Irish wisdom rising, spied Jesse, and I heard her saying, "What's your name? And wipe your nose!”

He obediently replied, "Jesse," and wiped his nose.

“Well isn't that a coincidence,” she says with familiar warmth. “I’ve got a boy back home by that name, too. And he's all grown up now with babies of his own, and they're very well-behaved!"

Then Mrs. McIver looked to the back of the classroom where I had written out lines by William Butler Yeats. It was his poem, “The Fiddler of Dooney.” No doubt, that unconsciously had stirred up my Irish roots.

When I play on my fiddle in Dooney,
Folk dance like a wave of the sea . . .

For the good are always the merry,
Save by an evil chance,
And the merry love the fiddle
And the merry love to dance:

And when the folk there spy me,
They will all come up to me,
With ‘Here is the fiddler of Dooney!’
And dance like a wave of the sea.

The children had just been getting ready to play stringed instruments. On very good days with their regular teacher, imaginary bowing arms up, they were allowed to balance on their desks and sway to the rhythm as they spoke their lines.

And there was Mrs. McIver exclaiming loudly, an intimately affectionate grandmother, "What's a poem by Billy Yeats doing in this classroom!?"

Billy Yeats!!

The children explained they were learning this poem with their regular teacher, and couldn't they get up on their desks and say it for her, too.

I heard Mrs, McIver smack with dismay, “The very idea!”

Well, of course the whole class leapt carefully up on their desks, and spoke the poem splendidly with their bowing arms dancing to the lines. When they had returned, toes together, to their seats, Mrs. McIver whispered: "I'm going to tell them back home about you. I've never seen the likes in me life."

You can imagine that I was beginning to get concerned about myself. After a while I was relieved to hear Mrs. McIver saying, "I'm going to send your regular teacher back into this classroom. She is out in the hall looking quite pale."

(My heavens, I ask you, where was all this coming from?)

She departed with a queenly wave and I returned to the classroom feeling meekly refreshed. I asked the children with genuine curiosity, "Who was that?"

They told me all about Mrs. McIver, and couldn't she stay?

“I will try to stay in touch with her,” I said. “I'll be looking to see if she passes by our classroom again.”

So there we were, in a story together between the worlds, the children and I, our behavior very much improved all the way around because Mrs. McIver might look on us again at any moment.

This story continued for months and on into the next year. Mrs. McIver was very good at handwork, for example, and helped the children and me at this and other tasks. It was many years later at a party that the father of one of the boys asked if I would like to meet his son all grown up now. (He's at an esteemed university now doing advanced psychological studies.)

I said, “Of course I would!” I said, “Really!”

Some time went by. Then I looked down to see two big cozy feet, and I looked up to see a tall, handsome young man who, as a boy, when upset, had often collapsed on the floor beside his desk. Now he was looking down at me, and the first thing he said was: “How is Mrs. McIver?”

Which proves the on-going power of story.

Anne:  I remember you telling me about Blue, too, an amazing storyteller on the streets of Harvard Square. Can you tell me about his influence?

Nancy:  Brother Blue lived between worlds. He could bring anything and anyone into his story riffs. Blue was completely dedicated to storytelling to change the world; it was his way to create more love. He could tell a great story to a tree, a dog, an unborn baby, to the homeless and to the most educated in the world. He and his wife were mentors to me and to a host of other storytelling people. You can learn something about his incomparable storytelling through the Internet. Thank you forever and ever, Brother Blue and Ruth!

Anne:  You have just returned from Brazil. Can you tell me what took you there?

Nancy:  I taught for many years at the School of Storytelling in Forest Row, England. People from around the world would come, and amongst them were Brazilians. I always felt sunshine in their hearts and souls. I was drawn to them because they were straight and clear and devoted to truth. Storytelling is our effort as human beings to find greater truth. Of course it can be used for hiding the light as well.

Some of these students were developing fabulous projects in Brazil and invited me to work with them on their home ground. The inspiration came from all of us collectively, looking for the greater truth of who we are in our human story.

Anne:  Can you share more about Brazilian storytelling?

Nancy:  There is so much to say! Amongst these people is a consortium of storytellers who have been working together for several years in the great city of Curitiba. All volunteers, they make colorful hats with tails for each other. After a courageous storytelling to light up some dark corner of their city, they commemorate the occasion with a small symbol, like a notch in the belt, which is sewn onto the tails of the storytellers’ hats. It is lovely to see the men with their big hands and their big hearts sewing symbolic mementoes of the stories they have told.

When the storytellers gather for their ceremonies and their trainings, they all wear their hats and their golden shirts with Casa do Contador de Historias written across them. They have tremendous high spirits. You see here in my lap the hat I was honored to receive with its beautifully embroidered white birds of peace.

Storytelling is a wondrous practical path of self-development. Out-going and expressive, it is also meditative and contemplative. Some of the volunteers at the Casa have parents and grandparents who have been storytellers in their families for generations. They all feel enough confidence and love for story to go through a training. The couple who founded this initiative are both social workers and artists who strive with intention, clarity and skill to bring stories to neglected parts of the city, to orphanages, street corners, hospitals…

I have many times been awestruck at how a story can prepare us to meet extraordinary experiences. Recently when I was with this group, each storyteller created a marionette—a powerful Bird of Peace—to help them with their storytelling. Simultaneously we worked with a great myth that was uncannily appropriate for a profound drama they were about to experience.

The Coming of the Peacemaker (The White Roots of Peace ) is the sacred tale of the Iroquois people. I grew up on Iroquois nation land, and feel rooted in this old myth. It is my favorite story. I bring it with the utmost care and respect for the Indian people. It tells of the transformation of five warring nations, and of a terrible wizard who became the keeper of their sacred council fire.

The mayor of Curitiba loved the work of this band of storytellers and understood how their storytelling was serving the well-being of the city. So the city had given my friends the wonderful building where we were meeting in the old part of Curitiba that they had recently renovated. Four days after I returned home, I received word that the abandoned building next door to their beloved new Casa had been set on fire by an arsonist. The flames had leapt onto their new roof and into their building.

Storytelling can work in wondrous ways to support a complex process. Little did these kind storytellers know the full story of how they would be helping their troubled neighborhood. Their beautiful Casa de Contador de Historias planted there, blossoming and golden, was burning. Suddenly all the newspapers, the television programs were aware of them. Newspapers were filled with their story. The storytellers, the neighborhood and the city are now in a whole new process together. When I returned home to a different group in the USA we made a story about the transformation of an arsonist, which we sent down to them in Brazil.

Anne:  What a powerful story.

Nancy:  We shall see how all this evolves. Their peace birds were flying and images of fiery transformation were living in their midst as they met this drama. And like the Iroquois nations, we had been working in a council circle all the time, listening to each other in new ways.

Anne:  You are speaking to the art of conversation. I imagine that the gift of storytelling comes intuitively from within, a calling.

Nancy:  It is an endless path: to bring words to the evolving truth of who we are as human beings, and who we can become.

Anne:  A beautiful environment, like this garden where we are sitting together now— where the birds, dogs and worms can all be part of the conversation—invites a quality of listening that is very special. It's hard to listen for very long in most human environments today.

Nancy:  Yes. It is astonishing what has been happening to our listening and to the spoken word in recent years. The gift of storytelling for us human beings is to make space and time for deep listening, and then to speak—in that order.

Words form out of our listening and feeling. Every cell in our bodies is sound sensitive. The physiological self and the whole spirit-soul listen. Ears are divine outposts. It is fascinating how children respond with their whole selves to what they hear—with their skin, their toes, their noses. Yet recently it seems that even the responsiveness of children has shriveled and scattered.

Anne:  I would love for you to expand on your work about storytelling as a healing art, and the books you have written, but first I want to ask you about your recent visit with John of God.

Nancy:  While I was in Brazil after the courses, I had the astonishing privilege of visiting the Casa of John of God. Two of my dear friends and I travelled together to Brasilia, the capital of Brazil. From there we took a taxi ride to the secluded village of Abadiania where John of God has built his Casa. Thousands upon thousands of people come to this casa, especially during the three mid-days of the week when he is actively working.

Who can have a complete picture of our human potential? It was with complete gratitude that I witnessed John of God as a healer. John of God is surely some kind of guided Avatar presence with an immense mission of Healing and Love.

John of God works with a group of advanced souls from the other side of life as well with presently incarnated souls. Powerful spiritual communications are more than possible.

When you go to the Casa, you see pictures of Jesus and also of Dom Ignacio, after whom the Casa is named. Dom Ignacio is a fascinating Spanish individual from the 15th century who was instrumental in founding of the great city of in direct communication with spiritual entities San Paolo. He worked very closely with another powerful Spanish saint to bring Christianity to people as far away as China.

The primary mission of John of God is healing. Today John of God freely refrains from identifying himself with any particular church so that he can work freely with everyone to transform illnesses into greater love.

Often people return to the Casa to help. When I was there, I found such spiritual sustenance in the air, the land and the water that I had to walk very slowly. I felt with my whole self the spiritual mission at work there. In front of a crowd of one thousand John of God will go through a brief incorporation process, take on the spiritual power of certain Entities who are skillful with medical practice, and then perform various operations, such as a the removal of cataracts and tumors. I observed a number of these operations. A spiritual anesthetic beyond sense perception fills the space. I was aware of that spiritual anesthetic because normally I am very sensitive when people are unwell. I was surrounded by many multitudes of people, and some of them with very serious problems yet I wasn't in the least burdened by any of that. I knew I was being supported.

Anne:  Do people share their illness with John of God or does he perceive intuitively?

Nancy: Before John of God comes in front of the crowds at the Casa, talks are given again and again in several languages to explain procedures to reassure everyone that they are known telepathically, and to urge attentive relaxation. Of course there is natural skepticism, which in the midst of such astonishing goings-on is very interesting to observe in oneself and others.

Anne:  It is interesting to hear your experience of slowing down in a space of such healing love. It sounds like a recalibration.

Nancy:  Yes, on many, many levels.

Anne:  It must have been extraordinary to experience collectively, as well.

Nancy:  Yes. Everyone is requested to wear white. There are gardens and waterfalls nearby the Casa. It is a cleansing, purifying and nourishing environment. Everyone is welcomed. There are some very famous people who have come with the hope of healing from serious illnesses, Wayne Dyer being one of them—and Shirley Maclaine, with great fanfare. John of God doesn't turn anyone away. In this open—some might say radically Christian environment—people arrive from every walk of life, including individuals who make John of God's life extremely difficult and painful. Yet when they are ill, they come to be helped by him. There are a number of examples of infamous politicians who have sent their children, their wives or themselves to the Casa, and John of God has spoken very clearly to them, knowing perfectly well what they have done. After a clearing of air, he takes care of them.

Anne:  After this experience, I can imagine the shifts you must experience on an inner level.

Nancy:  To have seen healing taking place before my eyes is absolutely dear to my heart. (long pause) There are skeptics. There is every kind of resistance. Yet millions of people have come to John of God and have been helped. If you go on the Internet, as I did yesterday evening, you can read of people who struggle because what happens is so far beyond ordinary thinking.

We all struggle to be rational beings. To speak rationally about such amazing phenomena, to see a man reach in and take hold of a cancer and pull it out, make swift and graceful sutures, and then to see a wound swiftly healing—the rational mind does not take hold of that easily; it resists.

Anne:  I imagine trust and faith greatly aid the healing process.

Nancy:  And to be in the presence of a man who is completely dedicated to increasing the faith, the love, and the peace on this Earth.

Anne:  To be at peace and to feel connected to something greater.

Nancy:  And to trust that we are attending a healing festival below the level of our conscious awareness. We make so much trouble for ourselves and others, yet we are taken care of 24/7. We seem seldom to be aware of the extent of this care. The greatest skeptics and doubters also heal!
Anne: I would like to return to storytelling as a healing art. I am grateful for the experience of being in a storytelling space with you, especially when you just jump right in and the heart knows what to say and do.

Nancy:  The heart is a pharmacopia—a boundlessly intuitive and loving listening place. Anna Rainville and I were speaking about Israel where she will soon be teaching. I was there a number of years ago and met a storytelling family. The mother was writing a book about storytelling as a healing art, which I hope has been cooked and served beautifully by now. The father, to get their adorable young children to school, had to drive through a couple of checkpoints where there were guns and so forth, this being quite normal in Israel.

Every morning during the journey he found in his heart loving inspiration to make up a new episode of an on-going story for their children. When I met this family it was four years after he had begun to tell his going-to-school story. We were on our way to an exhilarating dip in the Dead Sea as the children told me the story. The mother couldn't remember many details; the father, a very rational, responsible and important lawyer, said, "Oh, I forgot that part."

The children remembered it all. As they were retelling the story, we were zipping along and I was taking notes. We joyfully survived our dip in the Dead Sea, and their story continues.

Anne:  I am reminded of a time when our son Peter was just turning three and starting preschool. Every night as I put him to bed, we would start with a story. One of these stories continued night after night and on the way to school. We had this elaborate story going for more than two years. And the extraordinary thing is that we remembered every bit of it. I couldn't believe what was stored within us both. That experience bonded us in a way that is forever.

Nancy:  Yes. When children are asked what they remember from childhood, so often it is those original stories told by their dearest adults. What creative courage on your part to read directly from the book of life so that your heart and soul could weave so closely together with Peter’s!

Children have to grow; they must find courage to create themselves, and to be created according to their destiny. They so need the presence of adults who have the courage to demonstrate that it is possible to not quite know the story, and nevertheless to continue with it.

Betty Peck:  Nancy, I have loved seeing your hands during your conversation. Your hands seem to be conducting a symphony. They are there to support and to carry on. Beautiful!

Nancy:  Thank you, Betty! That brings up a wonderful subject. When we shape and form words that are alive our hands naturally become one with our speaking. Hands can detach, yet the healthy storyteller part of us naturally feels for the truth in our hands, feet, heart—every part of us comes alive. It's wonderful to watch words and gestures that harmonize together. Recently computers and other technology are challenging the resonant shaping integrity that moves our whole being.

Anne:  I so appreciate your narrative style in Body Eloquence: The Power of Myth and Story to Awaken the Body’s Energies. This book can be deeply understood by someone not steeped in physiology, and the stories are places of learning and refuge.

Nancy:  Everyone’s body is inscribed with stories. It's a labor of love for me, again and again, to wake up to different bodily territories and to find plot lines within me and characters who experience life differently from how I do in my usual comfort zones—Mrs. McIver, and so many more…

When I taught healing story at the School of Storytelling in Forest Row, Sussex England, Ashley Ramadan, its founder, and I would meet when we had time and I would tell him about different physiological territories, and then he would tell me stories. Ashley is an amazingly adept storyteller. Sometimes I would say, "No, it's not quite that."

Then we would try another character or story, and another one. He has a huge repertoire of stories, and I have my own. For seven years we were inquiring into which stories relate to which physiological territories. Both of us recognized with more and more clarity story patterns and characters that arise for example from the healthy and dysfunctional heart, or the skin, the kidneys, the brain. Eventually this inquiry resulted in the book, Body Eloquence.

I love to listen to certain people, yet when I hear other voices I recognize a dysfunctional stomach or, "Oh, no, a liver out of whack…” It's amazing how our speaking resonates. Mrs. McIver’s words breathed survival strength into me and she became my ally. I have opened up to many other characters and voices, too. I can become a shaman, a singing fish, an enchanted bear. I am not so good at the whirly-bird stomach voice, but I can identify it. I often hear what I can’t yet actually express with my own voice.

It is endlessly amazing and fascinating how we are put together as human beings. We all are part of a huge Story Orchestra that is ever tuning and re-tuning. (laughs) Shakespeare and Charles Dickens show us the possibility of perfectly attuning with it all.


About the Author

Anne Veh is a contributing editor for works & conversations and an independent curator. 


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