ELLEN ACUARIO: I confided in my mother that I was frightened, but my mother looked at me disgusted.
Said, "Get yourself together.
What's the matter with you?"
KENT WHIPPLE: Every day in the halls and in the playground I'd hear, "Oh, where's your girlfriend?
Have you kissed her yet?"
JEN BIJANKI: And then the sky just opened.
There was no warm-up, no ramp-up drizzle.
This was a full-on Texas-size storm.
WES HAZARD: Tonight's theme is "Perfect Storm."
ANNOUNCER: This project is supported in part by the National Endowment for the Arts, on the web at arts.gov.
HAZARD: In the Pacific Northwest, sometimes life is blue skies, sometimes it's a little cloudy, and sometimes it's a thunderous downpour.
But no matter the weather that we find ourselves in, it's important to remember that things will be at least slightly different tomorrow, whether more sunny, or more gray.
And whatever changes life brings us, it will leave us with valuable stories to tell.
Tonight, I'm thrilled to present to you some amazing storytellers in Seattle who will share their experiences of weathering life's storms.
♪ ACUARIO: My name is Ellen Acuario.
I'm from Seattle, Washington.
I am a stand-up comedian, storyteller, and actor.
But most importantly, I'm a mom of two wonderful boys.
So, tell me, what is the most challenging part for you about crafting and telling a story on stage?
I think the most difficult part of storytelling for me is reliving the story.
Some of the stories that I tell are pretty difficult, and emotions, the way that it can come back, can be a lot to handle.
So I'm really curious, what would you like our audience to take away after hearing the story that you're going to share with us this evening?
I think from my story, I would like people to know that...
It's a story at the end of the day about resilience and true love in a family.
That you always have a choice to be kind, to love, especially the people that you should love the most, your family.
It was the best of times and it was the worst of times.
I truly grasped that concept at age 35, when I was pregnant with my second child.
I thought it was going to be a routine pregnancy, just like my first.
But when the nurse disappeared during an ultrasound and didn't come back, I knew something was wrong.
She brought a doctor, and this doctor with the creased brow said, "Your ultrasound shows that the baby "has a spot in his heart.
"Now, it could be nothing, but it could also be a heart defect."
I remember tears just streaming down my face as I was trying to comprehend what he was saying.
My head felt light and I had to hold on to my husband's hand tightly to stay calm.
The doctor proceeded to say, "I would like you to come back for weekly ultrasounds.
"Just as a precaution.
Again, it could be nothing, so don't worry."
People say that so easily, don't they?
"Just don't worry."
I suffer from an anxiety disorder that I usually take medication for.
I decided to go cold turkey for the sake of this pregnancy.
So, as you can imagine, I could not not worry.
It's all I could think about.
And this affected all my relationships, most notably the one with my mother.
My relationship with my mother has always been on thin ice.
I found out in college that she was actually my stepmother.
My father divorced my birth mother when I was a baby in Korea.
I had no memory of her.
So they decided to just roll with that, have me believe that my stepmother was my biological mother, and it helped avoid the stigma of a broken family that Korean culture looks down upon.
But there was a conflict of interest.
While my mother did not want the judgment of others, she wanted me to know the truth, that I was not her blood, that I was an obligation she took on when she married my father.
I think she wanted to put me in my place and remind me that it had to be repaid, just like her stepmother had done to her.
See, she was a stepchild, too, who was treated badly, and she was passing down the cycle to me.
It came with mental and physical abuse.
Her words of comfort to me were, "You didn't have it as bad as I did."
I always wondered if she suffered from nightmares of being dragged by the hair and thrown out of the house.
Is that the bond that we had?
But I did feel I owed her a lot.
She was the only mother I knew.
She raised me even though she didn't want me.
This was intensified by my father constantly reminding me that we couldn't have had this life in America without her and her family.
See, he met her in Korea when he was broke, newly divorced, with no prospects, and when she gave him the time of day, he clung onto her like a lifeline.
And that's how we were able to immigrate to America.
And with that, my father pledged his life to her, lost all sense of himself, and followed her orders.
It was her way and no other way.
It was compounded by the fact that I was a daughter, and a stepdaughter at that.
Children in Korean culture are supposed to honor and serve their parents no matter how much they demand.
My mother's love language was being waited on hand and foot by me.
But when I became anxious over the pregnancy, I could no longer plaster on a smile.
I started to show cracks in my facade.
One time I made the mistake of talking back to her when she was berating me, which I would normally never do, because if I even looked at my mother wrong, she would breathe fires of hell.
And that's exactly what she did.
She screamed at the top of her lungs that I was an unfit mother that could barely handle one child, let alone two, a complete disheveled mess that she was embarrassed to be seen with.
She broke me down in tears in the mall parking lot.
I garbled up and said, "I'm so sorry, I can do better."
But even I knew it was a lie.
I was starting to unravel.
And something in me was brewing.
Next day, I had another ultrasound.
This time, the same doctor told me, "Your umbilical cord is pretty straight.
"It lacks the coils we like to see.
"Again, this could be nothing, "but, umbilical cords like yours have been linked with stillbirths."
That's when I started to get shakes in my hands.
Later that week I met my mother and I told her I could no longer take her out.
I burst into tears.
'Cause that's what I was doing around the clock, constantly crying at the thought of something happening to my baby.
I confided in my mother that I was frightened, that I would lose this baby, and that I would lose my sanity as well.
I hoped she would show me some grace, some compassion, but my mother looked at me disgusted.
Said, "Get yourself together.
"People have children all the time.
"What's the matter with you?
You're a complete disaster."
And this is when I completely snapped.
It was as if I was summoning lightning bolts and thunderstorms from the depths of my soul that she had trampled on for so long.
"How can you be so cruel?
"Am I not your child?
"Can you not put me first for one second?
Was I ever a daughter to you?"
I knew I had done the unspeakable-- an act of defiance that surely would not be forgiven.
She whispered, "Get out of my house."
Couple weeks later, I was induced.
The doctor didn't want to take any chances.
I gave birth to a healthy, beautiful boy, and I called my parents, but they did not come.
They live only 15 minutes away.
My heart broke into a million pieces.
But as I held my healthy second son, I knew it was time to let them go.
I had paid my debts as a daughter.
I had done more than enough.
Now I was a mother of two children.
It was time to focus on this chapter.
I wanted to be a mother that was going to break the cycle and be a safe haven for my children.
I guess you could say that I finally found the calm after surviving a horrendous storm.
♪ WHIPPLE: My name is Kent Whipple.
I live in downtown Seattle.
I work at a wonderful place called Unexpected Productions Improv, where I'm the marketing and development director, but also have the privilege of being the resident storytelling teacher and storytelling coach for the ensemble and students.
So tell me what kind of stories do you like to share on stage most?
Where do you go for inspiration?
I think all of us have stories that we can mine from our lives.
They normally start out as what I call "the dinner story."
That's the story that everyone has, that everyone shares when they're at a dinner table.
That's where we can start mining our stories.
But I think if you look at your life, those, those moments in our lives that we keep looking back at, and they keep coming up, that's because there's a story that needs to be told there.
Do you remember the first time that you shared a story on stage and what hooked you about it that first day?
I think what hooked me was when I shared my story, hearing people laugh at the moments that I thought was funny and then hearing-- I, I heard a lady actually gasp and... at something that I said and that, that hooked me, that means I'm like, oh my gosh, I think-- I think they're listening, I think I'm connecting.
When we can watch a show and connect with another human being, it, it's a blessing from the universe.
♪ I can count on one hand the number of times that my mother has ever slapped me in the face.
It was a Sunday night and she just got off the phone and she informed me that starting the next morning I was going to be walking a neighborhood girl with developmental disabilities back and forth to school.
(chuckles) I said, "No way, not that circus freak."
Well, that showed me that it wasn't a request, that this was an edict.
This was a mom edict.
Mary Lou and I were both 11 years old.
I was in the fifth grade and she was in a special needs class.
Mary Lou always wore a forest green Girl Scout uniform, a topped with an old lady sweater in pastel colors of yellow, blue, or pink.
She was small with big brown eyes and a giant smile.
And Mary Lou was born with H.E.D., as well as several other developmental and physical challenges.
She had a mop of thinning brown hair and a giant smile, she wore ginormous white tennis shoes and she was different than all of us.
See, her mom called my mom to tell her that Mary Lou was being bullied every day at school, and my mom graciously volunteered me to be her bodyguard.
I was awash in puberty.
My parents were getting-- going through a really bad divorce, and I was being picked on at school, which was causing me to pick on the younger kids, and it was the perfect storm of teen angst and anger.
Well, Monday came and I woke up, I was mortified.
At 11 years old, everything is mortifying, but I knew the teasing on this was going to be epic.
So I went to Mary Lou's house and she was out there waiting for me-- and I hated going to Mary Lou's house.
It smelled different than ours.
It smelled weird, like, like lilacs and Greek food and corn nuts.
There she was in her uniform, smiling.
She says, "Hi, good morning, Kent," and all I could say is, "Let's go."
We were walking past the chain link fence at the playground at school, and it felt like all the kids were staring and laughing at us.
Going through the small fluorescent lit hallways, and I dropped her off at her class and she said, "Thank you."
And all I could do is say-- (grunts).
But that was our new routine.
We did it every day.
And she... she was chatty and I was always a jerk.
And I always dreaded it, more than I dreaded taking out the trash every morning.
And the bullying and the teasing, it just never stopped.
Kids that age, pre-teens, they're like a wolf pack, they pick on the weakest ones and they just go after them.
So every day in the halls and in the playground I'd hear, "Oh, where's your girlfriend?
"Are you going to get married?
"Have you kissed her yet?
Are you gonna make ugly babies?"
Always followed by hoots and, and laughter.
Well, that Friday, on Friday at afternoon recess, I could see the wolfpack playing over at the, at the monkey bars.
So I silently kind of ingratiated my way in until one of them said, "Oh, Kent, hey, "where's your girlfriend?
Did she dump your butt already?"
Well, you know what they say, "If you can't beat them, join them."
So I started making fun of her.
I had recently watched a special on PBS about rhesus monkeys.
So I said how she looked like a rhesus monkey and I was making fun of her, bugging my eyes out and walking around, and oh, I was getting laughs.
I kept going until I looked over at the rusting-out swing set, and there was Mary Lou.
She heard everything.
I felt horrible.
Luckily, the bell rang and I was saved by the bell.
After school, I went to pick up Mary Lou from her class and we walked home, and we walked home in silence.
But she could sense that I was feeling bad, so she reached out her tiny little hand and grabbed mine.
And I looked in those big brown eyes and I felt shame to my core.
She was trying to make me feel better for making fun of her.
Either she didn't hear what was going on at the playground, or she heard it so many times all of her life that it just didn't bother her.
Or she heard everything and it was in her angelic beautiful buddha nature to forgive me.
I dropped her off at her house and said goodbye and then I ran home.
And as I was running I could feel the tears burning shame down my face.
I burst through the door and I just fell in my mom's arms, sobbing.
And I told her what happened.
And I apologized, I apologized for everything that week.
I apologized for the things I said, for the things I thought, for the person I had become.
And I sobbed, I sobbed so hard I could actually taste my tears.
And I fell and melted into my mom's arms with all of my weight, no longer a boy, and not yet a man.
On Monday morning, I went to go pick up Mary Lou from her house and there she was in her uniform in a bright pink sweater, waving and smiling at me.
And I, I just looked up and sheepishly said, "Good morning."
And that became our routine for the rest of the year.
I'd pick her up every day and we'd walk back and forth, and the teasing never stopped.
But it didn't matter because she and I became friends and friends look out for each other.
And I learned that Mary Lou was funny, very funny, and, and I learned that bullies don't matter.
That friends do.
And I learned that moms are usually right.
♪ BIJANKI: My name is Jen Bijanki, and I grew up in Baltimore, Maryland, and currently live in Seattle, Washington.
I've worked in the tech industry for over 15 years and I recently left that to pursue some more creative outlets.
That is so exciting and I know that many people would love the ability to explore more creative side of their lives, so I'm really curious what are you doing these days in, in that field?
I do quite a bit of improv through a few different schools, and through improv I discovered oral storytelling.
I had always done written stories before, but I had never known about spoken stories, and I find it really exciting.
So, please, tell me, what was it like the first time that you shared a story in front of an audience?
The audience was small because it was still on Zoom, but it was a little frightening, just this idea of telling something so personal to other people.
At the same time, it was exhilarating.
I felt like I could finally get out the words I had kept inside for so long.
Tell me, what does our theme tonight, "Perfect Storm," mean to you?
"Perfect Storm" to me is just when you can, like, relax in the environment of all this chaos around you.
♪ One day, I will be struck by lightning.
I know it sounds absurd, but it's true.
It's going to happen.
I've known since I was a kid and I've just always been on the lookout.
I don't think I'm going to die or be injured or anything, but it understandably causes some level of fear during thunderstorms, just knowing that every crack of thunder is one step closer to my lightning strike.
There are obvious things you should do during a thunderstorm, like don't be the tallest object, get out of water, don't touch metal, but what do you do if a strike is inevitable?
My husband Arjun and I are currently on a three-month cross-country road trip.
We started in Seattle and headed south to Texas for a week.
From Texas, we were going to spend a night in Little Rock, Arkansas, on the way to the East Coast.
The day we were leaving for Little Rock, it called for thunderstorms the whole day.
I was immediately clammy and petrified at the thought of this, but it wasn't raining yet.
The sky had that ominous look, and there was a sweet smell of damp earth you only really get before a storm.
I hesitantly agreed to drive first.
About an hour into the drive, I heard a crack of thunder and saw the white zigzag line of a lightning bolt.
And then the sky just opened.
There was no warm-up, no ramp-up drizzle.
This was a full-on Texas-size storm, as big as they come.
It was beyond my level of driving, so I quickly pulled the car over and switched seats with Arjun.
As we were driving to Little Rock, the storm just raged around us.
We spent all day weaving in and out of this never-ending lightning and thunder and rain.
I mean, I wasn't really scared of the lightning.
Certainly a moving car has to be safe.
As we approached our exit for our hotel in Little Rock, I heard a small clap of thunder, and I saw two lightning bolts strike down simultaneously in front of me.
I felt my heart rate rise, and I gripped the car armrest even tighter, just knowing how close they were.
The road leading to the hotel was empty.
There were no signs of life.
The hotel itself was dark.
Arjun parked under an awning so I could dash into the lobby.
I was greeted by a receptionist through these barely cracked automatic doors, and she yelled through at me, "The power is out!"
And I said, "How long has it been?"
And she said, "Two minutes."
So right when I saw those twin bolts.
I went back to the car and I talked to Arjun about what we could do next, and we decided we could either stay there in Little Rock, or we could continue on to Memphis.
It was a few hours away and we would be out of the storm.
I really wanted to stay in Little Rock.
Just throw in the towel, eat all the snacks in the car, and wait for the power to come back on.
I mean, why tempt fate?
But, on the other hand, we could move on, get a few more hours under our belt, make it to Memphis out of the storm.
It would put us in better shape for tomorrow.
I mean, it couldn't be worse.
Although I really wanted to stay in Little Rock, I knew that we had to drive ahead.
I mean, what if the power didn't come back on and we were stuck even longer?
What if the storm got worse?
As Arjun began the drive to Memphis, I saw a red triangle on my phone.
It was a tornado warning.
Arjun asks me if I know the difference between a tornado watch and a tornado warning.
And I then learned that a watch means, "Oh yeah, like, maybe there might be a tornado," but a tornado warning means there's a tornado coming, or there's a tornado already there.
By the red and black on the radar, I could see we were headed right towards it.
Now, I am not a trained meteorologist, but my family was obsessed with the Weather Channel.
It was always on in the background, just waiting for the eights of the hour local forecast or breaking news of the next weather event.
My uncle actually purchased the Weather Channel soundtrack on CD.
So when I say the Weather Channel played a prominent role in my life, it was the literal soundtrack of my youth.
I had been trained my whole life for this moment in the car.
Using my storm knowledge, I could sail our ship to safety.
I took a look at the radar and how far away the storm was and I figured out that if we went exactly the speed limit, we could be through the worst of the storm in 15 minutes.
We'd be totally done with it in 45.
Those next 45 minutes of the drive were harrowing.
I tried to stay calm, but I'm sure I mentioned the word "tornado" to Arjun no less than a hundred times.
I checked and double checked those calculations just to make sure we would be safe.
What if my cell phone was the tallest thing around?
Should I just make myself into a small ball now?
After about 60 minutes, the storm stopped just like that.
By the time we made it to Memphis, the rain was back to a familiar Seattle drizzle.
There was no lightning, no thunder, just this electric anxiety pulsing through my veins, and a bit of relief, just knowing that I had made it through another day lightning-free.
Arjun decided to head out for dinner, and I stayed back at the hotel just to kind of digest my day.
I had really wanted to stay in Little Rock.
I felt safe knowing that we had passed through this really big storm.
But instead, I pushed on, I white-knuckled it, and conquered an even greater threat, and we made it.
Our trusty SUV was ready for a new day's adventure.
I know that one day I will face lightning again and all my tips and tricks will pay off.
I just hope I have time to put on the Weather Channel soundtrack first.
ANNOUNCER: This project is supported in part by the National Endowment for the Arts, on the web at arts.gov.
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