ANGEL TAHERAZER: Then we were escorted to these little rooms with bars on the window and our doors were shut.
Just a mattress on the floor.
MELISSA REAVES: I open the card and I look at it.
Her handwriting is shaky and quaky and scary.
ERIN POPELKA: One of them had a butterfly net over his head, and he was smiling, saying, "Oh, this will never work.
I'm going to die and this will not work."
WES HAZARD: Tonight's theme is "Unexpected."
ANNOUNCER: This project is supported in part by the National Endowment for the Arts, on the web at arts.gov.
Big changes in life so often come when we least expect them, and when they do, we're forced to improvise.
Now, in the moment, we might wish to be anywhere else.
But afterwards, when things have settled down, we often find that we're left with unexpected blessings.
Tonight's amazing roster of storytellers in Seattle will share their stories of meeting unforeseen challenges and the rewards that came after.
TAHERAZER: My name is Angel Taherazer, and I live in Seattle, Washington.
I was born in Iran, and I've been a resident of Washington for over 30 years now.
Tell us a little bit about the place that you now call home.
What is special about Seattle and why do you love it?
Yes, I have created a great community here.
Even though most of my aunts, uncles, and relatives are in Iran, I've been fortunate enough to grow up in a city where there's a lot of diversity and made friends from people from all over the world.
So I feel very welcome here, and very engaged.
I love the northwest.
I love everything about living here.
I'm wondering, in your day-to-day life, is storytelling important for you?
I think storytelling is very important, especially for the refugee and immigrant population.
We all have worked so hard to leave sometimes war-torn countries to come here and we appreciate this new life we have, but we have to make sure our children are reminded of the sacrifices that it took to get here and how much we value this new life here and how we want them to take everything we worked hard for through our stories and make meaningful life choices through them.
I was six years old when my father walked into my room and called me by my name in Farsi, "Fereshte, "we're going on a camping trip for five days, and we're leaving in a few days."
And it would be me and my oldest brother who get to go.
At the time we lived on the base in Tehran, and my father was a pilot during the Iran-Iraq War, so it would be thrilling to get to hang out with him.
A few days later, my mom helped me pack a very light bag with a couple of my favorite things, including my favorite shirt and my favorite doll.
We went to my aunt's and uncle's house in Karaj.
I remember we got on this big yellow bus and I ran to the back of the bus, and through the window waved goodbye to my mom and my two little brothers, who were three and one-and-a-half at the time, not realizing the significance of that moment.
We went to another town and we actually met up with another family with a mom and a dad and two girls around my age.
How exciting, more people to come with us on a camping trip.
We spent a couple nights at their house and eventually got in the car and went to the Kurdish border, where it was nighttime.
My father pulled over, and I could sense that there was probably danger around, because he told me to be very quiet and still.
Being born into the Iran revolution, and living on a base where I would hear sirens on a regular basis and have to evacuate the apartment building I lived in and have to lay outside as I watched the missiles go over my head, I was used to following orders.
As daylight came, and it felt like there was no more danger around us, we started to travel again, and we went to this town where we met with these men who looked intimidating because they had these big weapons across their chests, and they had horses and mules with them.
And I remember my dad getting out of the car and starting to talk to them.
And they started laughing, making jokes, and telling stories.
So, they must have been friends.
And I just thought, the more the merrier.
He picks me up and he puts me on this mule that had just kicked this other guy and threw this other one off, and places me on there.
And the mule must have liked me.
And my dad said, "See, Fereshte, this is your mule."
And we started on our adventure.
My dad stood tall, with dark hair, beautiful smile, and a witty, charming personality.
And along the way, all he did was make everyone comfortable and laugh at his jokes.
We would go from one village with tents to another village with sometimes clay houses.
And each time we would leave, we would try to find a new destination to go to where it would be safe, because sometimes we would hear that the last place we were at had just got bombed, and we would sometimes see the bodies being carried away.
But my dad still tried to make it an adventure.
In the daytimes, he would take us to the rivers where we would bathe, and even though the bombs fell, we went to the waterfalls.
And in the daytime, I would see the mountains that looked so close.
I would say "Daddy, are we almost there yet?"
He would say, "Almost."
But they were days away.
And in the nighttime, when the-- all the stars would be out, I would look up, and my dad would tell me all about the universe.
And, and, he would carry me on his back on piggyback rides and teach me the multiplication table and even some words in English.
I remember we finally got to this one town where it looked more modern than the rest, and I started to wonder, "I wonder when I'm gonna see my mom and my two little brothers."
And I would ask my dad, but he wouldn't really give me a precise answer.
But we stayed in this town, and we even built a little community.
And we stayed in a house with a nice roof, and we would go on top of the roof and hang out with some of the locals.
And my brother even started working at the local kebab shop.
And then one day, I remember the desperation and the stress on the adults' faces around me as Iraqi military men pulled up outside, and they had some uniform vehicles with them.
And I heard my dad trying to explain how we were not the enemies and we were just seeking refuge.
At this point, I finally kind of put it together that we were never on a camping trip.
My dad had planned this escape for months before we left Iran.
He had hoped to get to Turkey where he would hopefully eventually bring my brothers and my mom.
But we didn't make it that far.
So, here we were, not able to convince these military men and my dad telling me to get in the car quickly, and we all did.
And we were taken to this place, and I remember one of the women that was with us screaming and yelling when she saw the bars on the window and the walls all around us as we walk through the door, huge tall walls.
I knew I was in a prison.
And then we were escorted to these little rooms with bars on the window and our doors were shut.
No plumbing, no water, just a mattress on the floor and darkness at night like I'd never seen before.
My father started making friends with some of the guards and somehow eventually convinced them to let us have aerobics classes outside on this big concrete field.
And every day the classes would get bigger and bigger as it brought hope to people.
And I remember he even let me lead these classes.
And then he somehow convinced them to let us use one of the bigger rooms that they will host larger groups of detainees to host an Esperanto class.
And now we're learning another language.
And the International Red Cross would come visit, I remember, here and there.
And after a year of being there, it was finally our turn.
And I remember leaving that prison and the stark difference of this modern hotel with lighting and plumbing.
And eventually we got to go on a real airplane and go to Spain, where we stayed with my aunt until we got the okay to come to Seattle, where we were reunited with my mom and two little brothers.
People often ask me about my leaving Iran and my journey as a refugee, and I tell them how grateful I am for my father.
In the midst of the war and the bombs and the bodies and the prison, he provided my brother and I with a sense of comfort and safety and even joy.
He showed me that even during our hardest times, how we carry ourselves and how we help others is truly what matters the most.
♪ REAVES: I'm Melissa Reaves, and I live in Seattle, Washington, and I grew up primarily in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
And I'm an executive storytelling coach.
So, you're involved in both the storytelling world and the business world.
And I'm just really curious, what is your favorite part about teaching executives to tell stories?
Many of them are shy about it.
They think they should be all business, and they don't really understand the power of sharing personal moments to help bolster their own leadership.
And I'm taking them from doing this "problem-solution- addressable market" model to a narrative about the problem that they're solving.
I always think that it takes courage to share a story on stage in front of strangers.
And I'm just wondering, was it hard for you to make the decision to share something so personal?
There have been times where I'm like, "Oh my God, "I'm going to reveal something about my family that's not that flattering but I gotta do it."
And when I tell the more vulnerable stories, I find that I get more positive reaction.
And I feel personally like it's kind of my job, my obligation, to share in the right moments.
It's June 22, 2010.
And I'm in a really good mood, because it's my birthday.
And I'm standing in front of the mailbox, ready to receive my annual birthday card from my mother.
And I love these cards because, yes, she gives me a birthday check.
But it's her handwriting.
It is so much like a symphony.
It's the most beautiful handwriting and it just puts me in a great mood.
I open the card, and I look at it... and it's not a symphony.
Her handwriting is shaky and quaky and scary.
I call her.
"Um, thank you for the birthday card."
"Oh, you're welcome," she says with her cute little Oklahoma accent.
"Mother, I couldn't help but notice your handwriting."
"Oh, my handwriting's gone to hell."
"Yeah, what's going on?"
"I don't want to talk about it."
I knew what was going on.
My 74-year-old parents were not aging well.
my father was now falling and he was losing control of his memory.
I turned to my husband that night and I said, "I think I need to go back to Michigan.
"I think it's time.
"I think they may need to come out here.
It's getting too much for them over there."
"No," he says, "don't bring them here.
They're going to disrupt our lives."
"They're my parents."
I'm flying on the airplane to Michigan and I'm thinking, "Oh my God, he's right," like, what...
I mean our life was just getting on track again.
Our little one was now potty trained, that's a game changer.
I have a great job, beautiful house.
And now my parents might live near me?
I arrive at their home and I walk inside, and I very quickly see everything that I really didn't want to see.
My spry mother is deflated.
My Military MBA father, he's dull, and he's doing stupid things.
He's up at the top of the stairs trying to act like he can still run the house like he used to, and he's dragging a laundry bag down these slippery gold-carpeted stairwells.
And I say, "Daddy, stop, you could fall and break a hip."
Because when he has fallen, and he's lying there on the ground, my father is six-foot-one, 330 pounds, to my mother's five-foot-four, 150.
And she extends her arm out to help him up and he's almost pulled it out of the socket.
And it hurts, and she's sore, and she has receded back to the back office and she sits there all day, in the dark, playing mahjong, drinking gin, smoking cigarettes, and avoiding him.
And that's why her handwriting was so shaky.
The next night I'm sitting in the living room with them and I know that I'm about to make the biggest sale of my life.
And my mother knows it, she knows exactly what I'm going to do.
And she says, "Missy, we're not going to Seattle.
I'm like, "Okay, why?"
"Well, we like it here.
"We've been in this house for 30 years and everything's fine.
Don't worry about it, we're happy."
"Oh, okay, Daddy, you're falling a lot."
"And Mother, come on, you don't have to keep "keeping this house up.
"I mean you...
I found a place near my house that you could go, "they'll clean for you, they'll cook for you, "and you could just sit and play mahjong with women your age.
"And Daddy, I know you like oysters, "I know you, if you were an otter, "you'd crack them right on your belly.
"They have the best oysters in Seattle.
"And both of you, you could watch my kids, the girls grow up."
My mother says, "Hm."
The next day I'm sitting in the car with my mother, we're not saying much, we're outside the pharmacy waiting for some drug prescriptions to get filled, when this elderly couple walks in front of the Cadillac.
And they're walking really slow.
The woman's in front of him and he's got a walker.
And my mother just stares at them, and she says, "I don't want to be that."
I stare at them, and I say, "Mother, you are that."
Take us to Washington."
Okay, sale's been made, all right.
Okay, now I've got to do stuff.
I've got to like liquidate their house.
I've got to get their finances ready.
I've got to figure out how to get transport from the gate to the plane.
Oh my God, it was a hot mess, but I-I managed to do it.
And now it's the day that I'm going to bring my parents back to Seattle.
My mother is a wreck.
She needs a Valium.
My father-- clueless.
As I pull out of the driveway, I pull in front of the house and my mother says, "Missy, stop.
"Ben, look at it one last time because you're never gonna see it again."
I get them to Seattle and I deposit my soggy mother into her bed and she sleeps for what feels like a month.
And then she calls me one day, and she says, "Missy."
"This place is a dump!"
(laughing): "It is?"
"Yeah, ugh, I don't like it."
"Oh, okay, well, we'll find a new place, but you're feeling better?"
"How about we go out and get some oysters, okay?"
"Oh yeah, you said we'd do that.
Okay, yeah, yeah, yeah let's do that."
And we did.
I took them to Elliott's Oyster House, and we had oysters and it's like we cracked them on our bellies, and we slurped chardonnay and we had a wonderful time.
And I bring my parents back to their apartment and my father falls.
And we can't get him up, he's huge!
So we have to call 9-1-1.
And this first respondent who's like the size of a sasquatch, looks down at my father and he says, "Sir, what'd you have for, for dinner?"
I think you might have an allergic reaction to shellfish."
My father looks at me with his sad blue eyes and says, "I came out here for the oysters."
In the next year, I am going to move my parents three times because my mother keeps saying, "It's a dump."
It wasn't a dump.
And my father, he's going to be separated from her for... a few years later with bedsores that almost kill him.
She's going to break her hip on Christmas Eve.
But we also had birthdays, and anniversaries, and holidays.
And even though it was really taxing being the parent of my kids and then suddenly finding myself as the adult child parenting my parents, I wouldn't change it for the world because it was the perfect culmination of life and family.
It was the pearl inside the oyster.
♪ POPELKA: I'm Erin Popelka.
I live in Seattle, but I'm from Wisconsin originally and I've lived in Japan, Nigeria, and Canada.
And I'm a cold water swimmer.
So I'm in Puget Sound pretty much every weekend year-round without a wetsuit.
So what about sharing a personal story in front of an audience drew you in?
Why did you choose to do that?
Um, I think it's that when you tell a story, it's kind of like you've, you've given it away.
Like it's no longer completely yours.
And I really love that.
Especially living in different places.
That is such a beautiful thought.
The idea that once you share a story, it's no longer a "me" thing, but a "we" thing.
And I'm just wondering, can you speak a little bit more about that?
And I think too like when you're building a story to tell, there's a lot of things you leave out because attention spans are short and you only have them for a short time.
So you have to really be specific and precise about what you want them to experience with your reality, right?
It's like you're setting it out in a little paper boat.
You don't have control over it once it's gone out.
So you do your best to fold the boat in a way that someone else can find it and find value.
I started making plans to move to Japan when I was eight or nine years old because I had this pen pal who would send me presents and was teaching me Japanese by mail.
And I actually followed through.
I studied abroad in Tokyo when I was in college and as soon as I graduated, I took a job as a community coordinator in a town in northern Japan.
And I worked in this community center that was in the middle of the woods and it looked like this big futuristic cabin that was full of windows, but also had a gymnasium, and some meeting rooms, and a library.
And I worked at the front of the center in this tiny office with all of my coworkers, and all of our desks were pushed together into one giant communal desk.
And one day, maybe three weeks into this job, I was working at this communal desk when two of my coworkers came rushing in yelling, "Sparrow bees!
"We found a nest in the rafters in the roof and we have to get everybody out."
And everyone started panicking around me.
And I just sat there, like, what the hell is a sparrow bee?
And one of my coworkers must have caught my confusion because she came and sat next to me and said in a low voice, "Oh, you don't have sparrow bees in your country.
Sparrow bees are very dangerous."
And then my boss chimed in and he said, "Oh, yeah, you need to watch out.
"If one stings you, you're going to the hospital.
"And if you get stung three times, you're going to die.
And also you need to evacuate all of the meeting rooms."
So I was learning very quickly how serious these sparrow bees were.
So I stood up, and I ran from meeting room to meeting room saying, "Excuse me, everyone, we have sparrow bees and you'll all need to leave the building."
And it was very easy, turns out very easy to clear a building when you have sparrow bees.
So I run back to the office and my colleagues are coming back from different areas of the building where they had evacuated people.
And I was thinking, "Yes, this is great, "we got everybody out, and now we did a great job and now it's time for us to leave."
But no, the desk that we all worked at was covered in canisters of bee spray and butterfly nets.
And three of my male coworkers were busy putting together makeshift protective gear.
So it was very clear that no exterminator had been called and that none of us will be leaving.
Now, I don't know how these three coworkers got chosen, but they were putting on dishwashing gloves and they were tying towels around their mouths so that the sparrow bees didn't fly in.
And one of them had a butterfly net over his head, and he was smiling broadly saying, "Oh this will never work.
"I'm going to die and this will not work."
And everybody else agreed because our boss sent them out to the supply shed to go and get better protective gear.
Now I should mention here that the city hosts a pretty major Halloween party every year and that stuff is all kept in that shed.
And so I'm watching from the window as the first coworker comes out and he's wearing a rubber Frankenstein mask.
And then the next one comes out and he's a gorilla.
And then the third one comes out and he is a wolfman.
And together they are just a monster mash.
And they'd also pulled out a super-long, unstable-looking bamboo pole.
And we could see them making plans of how they were going to take care of the sparrow bees.
And it looked like step one was knock the nest down with that big pole.
Step two was catch the nest in a butterfly net.
And step three was unclear.
So we're watching from the inside and they are trying to get themselves rallied up.
They're saying, "Okay, let's go, let's do this!"
And then they start towards the nest, and then they back up, and they say, "Oh no, this is so stupid.
We're gonna die because this is so stupid."
And then they would do it again.
And finally, they rush the nest.
And Frankenstein starts beating at the nest like it's a pinata with that big bamboo pole.
And he hits it and it dislodges.
And somehow the gorilla catches it in the butterfly net.
And then the wolfman unloads a whole can of bee spray into the net.
And then they drop it to the ground and start smashing the nest with the bamboo pole and with their feet.
And they're all screaming and we're cheering.
And then they pick up the nest and the wolfman runs with it towards the dumpster.
And Frankenstein holds the dumpster open, the wolfman throws the entire thing in, they slam the door and all three of them run back to the office.
And they're running in a zigzag because-- and I don't know if this is true-- sparrow bees can only follow you if you run in a straight line.
And they get back and we welcome them like heroes.
And they had somehow managed to grab sections of the bee's nest.
And so we were looking at it, and there's these little sparrow bee larva wriggling in the nest that we're kind of examining, while those three are regaling us with the details of their heroics.
And this only lasts a couple of minutes, because right away we settle back down.
We sit back at the communal table and we start working again as if nothing ever happened.
And no one ever mentioned it again.
And then, 15 years later, I'm at a different desk-- this, this desk-- all alone and I get a meeting invite from my boss that just says "Update."
And we're a few months into the pandemic so I know that I'm about to get laid off.
And I have 20 minutes before this meeting starts.
So I thought about those three office heroes and how they took on the very dangerous sparrow bees with joy and with creativity and they won.
So I go to my closet, and I take out a t-rex costume, and I put it on, and I sign into Zoom, and I made them fire a dinosaur.
And you can't always show up on your toughest day as a stoic hero.
Sometimes you have to be a Frankenstein, or a wolfman, or a gorilla or a dinosaur.
ANNOUNCER: This project is supported in part by the National Endowment for the Arts, on the web at arts.gov.
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