LINDA BUTTON: There is a wall of black clouds barreling toward us.
But for once, I am not afraid because I'm in first class.
(audience laughs) TORENA WEBB-THOMAS: My parents sat us down and told us that they they were losing the little blue house that we had grown up in.
MARLON FISHER: We stand in formation, holding our salutes as that soldier is placed onto a helicopter, and we hold it until the helicopter can no longer be seen.
♪ THERESA OKOKON: Tonight's theme is "Through Thick and Thin."
So they say that challenges build character, right?
But sometimes when you're in the middle of that challenge, it is extremely difficult to keep pushing and finding your way through to the other side.
Sometimes we feel hopeless, but when we're able to muster up that courage and find some perseverance, you might just find yourself one step closer to your dream.
♪ BUTTON: My name is Linda Button, and I live in the Boston area.
I head up communications for a large non-profit.
I have two kids and three step kids and a wonderful partner.
And I understand that your writing has appeared in The New York Times and Boston Magazine, and you're currently working on a memoir.
What sparked your interest in storytelling?
I used to like fiction, and then life kind of tapped on my shoulder and said, "I can do one better."
I think we each have life experiences that other people have had too, and it's great to share those.
You tend to include humor in your stories.
Can you talk about your approach to that, and when do you find it most challenging?
BUTTON: You know, humor, I think it's like that really important spice in any dish, because life is so... absurd sometimes.
But I also find in the writing side, it's the hardest part.
So, after I write a draft, I'll go through and look at opportunities for humor as almost a layer to put on to something.
And sort of the opposite, too, if I'm glib about something... Mmm.
That usually deserves a little bit more digging... OKOKON: Mm-hmm.
...to be more real.
♪ I'm waiting for my husband at Logan Airport at the gate of the Boston-Philadelphia shuttle.
This was many years ago on a bright, busy day.
Everyone in a suit has already boarded the plane, and I am alone, pacing, yelling into my phone, wondering where the blank my husband is.
"Three minutes," says the gate attendant.
We cannot miss this flight.
We have a meeting with our biggest client, this enormous cable company based in Philadelphia.
You see, my husband and I run an ad agency together, and we've been married about 20 years, so, this is a familiar situation.
Now, my husband, he is the charming half of us as a couple.
He's that guy at the party that everyone gathers around-- drinks mid-sip, enthralled with whatever story he's telling.
As his best friend says, "It's like he's tapped into this mysterious energy force "and the rest of us want to tap into it, too."
I certainly did, especially the early days you know, before the business.
I am the worrywart half of the couple, the martyr, you know... (laughs) The one who's like, "No, I don't need any help."
So my husband was clients, I write ads, and that's not a bad balance for a business or a marriage.
But lately, the balance has been a little off.
We also have completely different relationships with time.
I measure minutes by the teaspoon.
That's how I keep our lives glued together.
My husband, on the other hand, considers deadlines... suggestions.
(audience laughter) He is always late, but never this late, and not for such an important client.
"One minute," says the gate attendant.
I used to love that moment in flight where you're... the tires lift off the tarmac and the whole world spills out in front of you.
That ended the day we had our first child.
And suddenly I'm like, "Oh, yeah.
"Someone needs me back on Earth."
So now, at the slightest bump, I grab onto the arm of my husband, or whoever is sitting next to me, and I weep with relief on landing.
This is all going through my head as I'm walking back and forth.
And the gate attendant, that woman has been watching me.
She calls over, "It's time."
So I hoist on my backpack and I hand her my ticket.
She scans the seating chart, "Oh, we have one seat left in first class.
Shall I upgrade you for free?"
(audience chuckles) First class?
I-I don't even know what to say when suddenly I feel my husband right behind me.
"See," he says, I made it!"
He always does.
And he is all smiles and charm and no apology, as usual.
she says again.
(laughter and applause) "Yes, thank you."
And it, and it dawns on my husband that I have been offered something that does not include him.
(audience laughter) "What?"
he says, "You're going to abandon me in coach, alone?"
(laughter and applause) That's what he gets, always being late, right?
So I walk on the jetway, and I find my seat in first class, and my husband trudges behind me with the bags and disappears into coach.
The first class attendant swooshes the curtains together and secures them.
Another one offers me a tray of champagne.
I unfold that secret little table in the armrest, smooth out the cloth napkin, and take a glass.
(loud whisper): "Psst!
(laughter) My husband has poked his head through the curtain.
(laughter continues) He looks a little like Jack Nicholson, you know, in The Shining.
And then he says in this deep, godlike voice, as if he is summoning the powers of the universe, "You will be punished."
(laughter) And he smiles, so I know he's teasing, and I tilt my glass at him, and the flight attendant shoo-shoos him away.
I open a book and settle in.
We're just outside of Philadelphia when the pilot comes on and announces that everyone should buckle up because we're headed into bumpy air.
Don't you love that expression, bumpy air?
I look out the window, and sure enough, there is a wall of black clouds barreling toward us.
But for once, I am not afraid, because I'm in first class.
(laughter) Nothing can hurt me there.
I open my book again and resume reading.
Was that a bomb?
The plane jumps!
The lights flare bright white and then-- psst!-- go out completely!
We are rocking like a Tilt-A-Whirl!
I look over to the flight attendants for reassurance, and they look stricken.
Someone is screaming!
Oh, that's me.
(laughter) I'm screaming.
Oh, I'm-I'm still screaming.
And... then... (breathing heavily) (sighs) The flight levels out.
Lights flicker back on.
I unpry my hands from the armrests.
My heart is beating in my ears, uh, and the flight attendant smooths her uniform and picks up the mic and says, "Well, folks, "first class just got hit by a little lightning.
"Nothing to worry about.
"This happens all the time."
(laughter) This does not happen all the time.
(laughter) I have flown so many business flights through storms and over mountains.
This has never, ever happened to me before.
(laughter) There's my husband.
This time, he looks exactly like Jack Nicholson.
He really does have the entire cosmos on his side.
And maybe I shouldn't have taken that seat in first class.
We land, and we're rolling our bags through the airport, laughing at what just happened, because it was remarkable.
And as he's sort of savoring the story again and going through each detail, I sense glee in his voice.
He thinks I deserved what happened.
(laughter) And maybe I did.
But not what he thinks happened.
I deserved that moment of kindness that the woman at the gate offered to me.
The odds of getting hit by lightning are one in 1,000 hours of flight time.
And you know what?
I feel really lucky I got hit.
I survived one of my worst fears.
I got back to my kids safely, and I learned maybe not to worry so much.
I also learned that if you're lucky and you play your cards right, some of life's lessons come with free champagne.
(laughter) Thank you.
(cheers and applause) ♪ WEBB-THOMAS: My name is ToRena Webb-Thomas.
I'm born and raised here in Boston, Massachusetts.
I'm a second grade teacher by day.
I dabble in investments.
I love to dance and travel.
I have a five-year-old daughter and a ten-year-old son.
And then I live in Dorchester with my family.
Where do you think you get your knack for storytelling?
Hands down, absolutely, my dad.
My dad is the biggest and best storyteller ever.
And storytelling is not a word used a lot, I think, in the Black community, so I'd never heard that.
But once I figured out and found out what it was.
Like, in the Webster dictionary, next to storyteller, it should be a picture of my dad.
And what kind of stories do you like to tell?
So I tell adult stories that are true from my life, and I also tell stories to children.
So when it comes to the adult stories, the personal stories, why are those stories important for you to share?
When you share stories, you learn so much.
You learn, people who hear them learn.
It's a great way to educate and inspire, and to relate to people and let them know that this happens to many people all across the global universe.
♪ "ToRena, we need you "to come straight home after work.
"Your father and I need to speak to you.
It's an emergency."
Now, my sister received the same message.
Neither one of us came straight home.
(laughter) When we finally came straight home, my parents sat us down and told us that they were losing the little blue house that we had grown up in.
And I was devastated.
My parents bought this little blue house in Boston in 1979 for $30,000.
My mother had this beautiful exotic rose garden in the front.
My father had this delicious vegetable garden in the back.
There were tulips and crocuses on the side, a rainbow of them that would greet us every spring.
The, the kitchen always smelled like homemade goodness.
Music was always playing in the background.
Someone was always coming over.
The door was literally always open.
This was my a happy place.
My stomach churned and churned, and I'm thinking, "Oh, snap, this is totally my fault."
See, I was the first one in my family to go to college, And my first year of tuition cost $60,000.
Now, I kind of remember some talk of refinancing, but I didn't exactly know what that meant.
But this was my fault.
But wait-- my parents, they had a plan.
They said they were going to file for bankruptcy and then ask a loving relative to put the house in their name.
My sister and I were going to contribute to the mortgage, and that was cool.
Okay, we can do that.
All right, plan!
The Webb household deteriorated quickly.
See, a few months prior, my dad's job told him he had too much vacation time, so he had to use it, or lose it.
So naturally, he used it.
Two months worth of vacation.
And when he got back, they told him that they were letting him go.
See, my dad was up for a big, well-deserved promotion, and he was passed over once again for a younger white male with a degree.
My parents started to argue all the time.
My world was upside down.
This was the time of my life.
I mean, I was 25.
I had the job of my dreams.
I was a dance teacher.
I was in a dance company.
I was touring, performing.
I was getting paid to do the thing that I love to do.
I knew I had to help my family.
So, I turned to the most powerful person in Boston, the person who was making moves all over Boston.
I wrote a three-page detailed letter to Mayor Menino.
(laughter) I never heard from Mayor Menino, but I did get a call from Joe.
Joe told me Family First.
He said he would send us Renee.
I didn't know who Renee was, but I told my parents and they were hopeful.
Renee came to our house, and she was a beautiful caramel color.
Her hair was all layered, and she had very fancy glasses.
She sat down on the couch, and she laid out all the paperwork and read them in depth.
There was a lot of-- "Mmm."
Her eyes got big, and there was-- "Oooh!
Eventually, Renee turned to me and she said, "ToRena-- "on paper, it looks like your family sold this house "for a lot of money" although no actual money had passed between my family and my relative.
But somewhere on this paper, there were thousands of dollars missing, unaccounted for, just not there.
At this point, Renee gave me a Real Estate 101 Hard Knocks lesson.
I learned about predatory lending, not having an attorney present, cash-out refinances, adjustable rate mortgages, quick claim deeds, and more.
But, she said all we had to do was have this relative give their Social Security number and permission, and they will look into it and handle it, and we would be good.
But my relative wouldn't give their information.
I was heartbroken.
This loving relative... (clicks tongue) made it worse for my family.
We were in a deep hole.
I knew I needed to help my family, so I applied for a mortgage.
Somewhere in between that, I get a phone call from my mom.
This time it says, "T.T.
see if you could stay at your boyfriend's house."
And I was like, "What?"
Okay, all right!"
It did not register that she said, "The gas has been shut off and we can't cook and we don't have any heat."
The next week, it was another phone call.
This time it was the water.
This was getting old really, really fast.
The stress caused my parents to split.
My loving relative put our belongings on the curb and changed the locks.
I got an apartment, and I applied for that mortgage.
Renee told me that I only made enough to get a condo, and I couldn't have a condo because I can't have nobody telling me where to plant my tomatoes.
(laughter) So, she told me to save, and I did just that.
I came back to her a few months later and gave her my updated statements, and she said, "Where did you get this money from?"
And I said, "I saved it just like you told me to."
She looked at me and she said, "You can always come to me "before you sign anything.
You have me look at it, and I will look over you."
And she did.
My fiancé and I closed on a three-family in Boston.
We moved mom into the first floor, we moved into the second floor, and dad later joined us.
I am now the proud owner of my future dream home and three multi-families.
I am teaching my children generational wealth.
We are planting a seed, one seed at a time.
(cheers and applause) ♪ FISHER: My name is Marlon Fisher.
I'm from Brooklyn, New York.
I currently live in Burlington, Vermont, and I currently work as the associate director of the 1850 Fund for the Frederick Gunn School in Washington, Connecticut.
I understand that you spent some time in the military.
Can you tell me a bit about that?
I'm a combat veteran of the U.S. Army.
I was in the military for eight years, mostly active duty, and I was an all source intelligence analyst.
What exactly does an all source intelligence analyst in the Army do?
An all source intelligence analyst mostly focuses on all the sources, right?
So, you know, you think of internet, phone, all these things-- all these pieces of the puzzle.
We put them together, and fuse them to create a large picture for the commander.
For many people, storytelling involves quite a bit of vulnerability.
Has it been easy for you to be vulnerable on stage in front of an audience?
Not at first, but now, what I've learned is vulnerability allows me to be my authentic self.
And when I think about the community I live in, it allows me to sort of really be a part of that community on a deeper level.
♪ I'm sitting in a large windowless room made of plywood, two-by-fours, and spray foam insulation.
Green, red, and blue Cat 5 cables run along the floors and walls, keeping us connected to the outside world.
The hum of generators can be heard just outside as they provide electricity for our lights and computer systems.
I am an intelligence analyst in Afghanistan.
The days are long-- 15, 16 hours at times.
Most of those hours are spent staring at our computer screens.
Gathering information, analyzing that information, and disseminating that information to the commanders and soldiers who are on the front lines fighting the Taliban.
See, I don't know many of these soldiers, but what I do know is that I've most likely stood next to them in a line waiting for powdered eggs at 4:00 a.m. at the dining hall facility.
There are days when we receive information of a soldier being lost on the battlefield.
When that unit returns back with that soldier's body, we leave our computer screens and go head to the flight line so that we can honor that soldier as they return home.
We stand in formation, holding our salutes as that soldier is placed onto a helicopter.
And the helicopter takes off, and we hold it until the helicopter can no longer be seen.
The next minute, I'm back at my computer screen.
There's no talk about... to process.
We don't talk about feelings.
No time to process, no space.
This happens on a daily basis, heading out to the flight line, back to the computers, flight line, computers.
This starts to take a toll on our morale, and I can tell because when we brief to our commanders, we lack the confidence in the information that we're providing.
At my lowest point, I receive a package from the summer camp I had attended as a kid.
And in that package are postcards from kids that I had as leader at summer camp.
And this lifts me up, it makes me feel so good.
And I remember these kids are sharing their stories with me, and I'm like, "Oh, yeah!
"These are the kids I connected to.
These are the kids that I created an experience for."
And I had this idea, I could do the same thing here!
So I approach my commander, and I said, "Hey, I know there are a few of us who have some talents."
And my commander said, "Sure, go ahead."
So instead of giving an intelligence briefing, we decided to do a talent show.
I was the host, of course, right?
So I would stand and make... poke fun at the situation we were in.
We had several guitar players.
We had people who played... who did poetry.
And this one soldier, I remember, she had the most amazing voice.
See, when we did this, it gave us an opportunity to be emotionally and mentally present for each other, and it created a safe space for us to heal.
This event was called "Live in the Hive."
And the reason why we called it "Live in the Hive"-- just imagine 20 analysts inside of a windowless room, typing away at keyboards.
The news had spread to our regimental commander, the guy who made all the decisions.
And he showed up one day to a "Live in the Hive" event.
And for a small little moment, all of the weight of being responsible for thousands of soldiers left him.
A year had gone by, and it was time to get ready to leave.
And we transitioned out, and "Live in the Hive" had to come to an end.
On our way out, I remember stopping at Kandahar Airfield.
And we were in this large tent that slept hundreds of soldiers.
And one night, as I lay in my cot, the alarms came on for a mortar attack.
And what's supposed to happen is you're supposed to get up, grab your gear, and head to the nearest bunker.
But instead, I lifted my head, I looked to my right, I looked to my left.
No one was moving.
I put my head back down and closed my eyes and could hear the explosions off in the distance.
The next morning, we all got up, and everyone had talked about hearing the mortars, and we joked about our platoon sergeant sleeping through the alarms.
We were tired.
We were ready to go home.
On the way out, as we were walking to the flight line, I bumped into someone who I knew from summer camp.
What are the chances?
Doug and I shared, and we exchanged stories with our friends and sol... fellow soldiers, and then we went on our ways.
That was the last time I saw Doug.
He died several months later.
It's been 11 years now since I've left Afghanistan.
And I had the opportunity to create an experience for my soldiers where we were able to share a moment.
And it allowed me to stand here in front of you to heal, the same way we healed during "Live in the Hive."
(cheers and applause) OKOKON: The Stories From the Stage Podcast with extraordinary, true stories.
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