The importance of myths — those rich, allegorical tales that help humans find balance in a chaotic and often unscrupulous world — is sometimes lost in modern life.
Myths can teach humans how to live. The stories demonstrate virtue while simultaneously embedding the hope that good remains victorious while evil is punished. Although reality often unfolds differently, nothing beats a good story.
Alice Natale used to sit raptly as her great-grandmother told her stories. The great-grandmother was a naturalist, and she told stories about nature.
By age 13, Natale was volunteering at the library in the California town where she lived. By 15, she told stories there. “It was a very small library, but it was like the library here — dynamite.”
Natale moved to Payson in 2003. She followed her daughter, who married an Arizona native and moved to Gilbert, coming for the dry air, which she says helps her asthma. She also says the high altitude makes her feel good.
For Natale, who is studying to earn a certificate in storytelling, the telling of the story itself offers balance. She gives the young, the lost and the bored fodder for the imagination, and in turn finds fulfillment in passing on literacy.
Natale, round-faced and cherub-like with short blonde hair, wore a turquoise shirt one recent afternoon as she sat, bright and calm, at the Rim Country Literacy office where she serves as president.
Natale also spends time reading to elementary school students, and volunteering at the Payson Public Library, of which she serves as vice-president.
She once worked with juveniles in detention, telling them stories in hopes they too could find balance and perhaps do good.
Natale, along with a fellow named Grandpa Jim, told the troubled kids tall tales of places they had never seen.
“What we did was try to bring the world to the kids,” Natale said.
She told them stories they could relate to — like the Three Little Pigs where a framed wolf becomes the hero, instead of the villain. “That really appealed to them,” Natale said.
In her paid career, Natale spent much of her time explaining retirement benefits to county employees who worked for Los Angeles County in California. She also designed seminars and psychologically prepared employees for layoffs.
“I used to take stories and weave them into my seminars,” Natale said. “Who wants to talk about numbers?”
Still, offering retirement seminars allows only so much space for creativity. Natale, who says she enjoys making people laugh, loves entertaining children children with her stories. She can use fun voices and hand movements that were likely not appropriate in her working life.
At South Mountain Community College’s Storytelling Institute, classes include mythology, the art of storytelling, sacred stories and epic storytelling.
The curriculum requires students to write their own stories.
The tradition is an oral one, but the teller needs to form the skeleton.
“If you know the guts of what you’re telling, you can improvise all day long,” Natale said.
“A good story has an intro that really catches people. It is a thread that people can follow, where you can mesmerize folks,” she added. “I look for something that pulls my heart and makes me go home thinking about it.”
Her recently discovered stories include one about how a man with cancer waits for his family to pick him up at the hospital. They arrive, each one with a shaven head.
In another, a kid with club-feet was never told he couldn’t do something. Eventually, after straightening his limbs, he became a long-distance runner.
For a culminating, 10-page paper for her class, Natale outlined Navajo religion, including their creation myths.
“The Navajo, their entire culture, is centered in walking in beauty,” Natale said. They believe illness comes from imbalance, and hold ceremonies, which often include storytelling, to regain centeredness.
They pass on virtues through stories — like thinking carefully before speaking. “It may take them 10 minutes before you even get a flicker of a response.”
These are the legends that inspire, inform and entrance.
“Legend is critical because it tells you who you really are,” Natale said.
“I love to excite people about literacy and reading. I think my motivation is, my own life would not have been good if I hadn’t had books. I escaped to books all my life.”
And perhaps the pay comes in the form of a child who, walking with her parent in the grocery store, spies Natale and exclaims, “This is the lady mom, that tells us stories.”