What’s Your Story?

Everyone has a story!  Stories promote compassion for others, stories provide food for thought, and stories jump-start your imagination!  “What’s Your Story” is one of a kind contest in D101 encouraging everyone to share their story on a provided topic.  


Winter 2022 Prompt:  Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?  – What’s your story?

First Place

"The Look In Their Eyes" by Valerie Bostrom

“The Look In Their Eyes”

Valerie Bostrom


It was that look in his eyes. I couldn’t describe it, only that it was a certain intense gaze that shot right through me and instantly saw me, every thought and every feeling.

He was looking down on me – I knew it. I didn’t exist on his level. Me, an awkward, freckled, half-Asian girl with obvious social anxiety and a stutter, raised in a sheltered religious home. And he, a rock star, long hair, piercings, tattoos up to the neck, speech comprising mostly four-letter words and diet mostly alcohol and other substances.

His world was so far removed from mine. He was cool. I was… whatever the opposite is. I didn’t have more than one or two friends, let alone thousands of enraptured admirers. My family was a dysfunctional one, which left me feeling unwanted. I had also been born with a hearing impairment, which affected my ability to communicate, even with hearing aids. I was out of step with everyone else, and they’d look at me with scorn.

Well, it was just who I was, I told myself, and nothing could change that. How else could I, of all people, be the one with the hearing loss and the harsh family and the medical issues and the bullies?

In those moments when I felt like no one would speak to me, I would put on headphones and turn on my favorite bands. The swell of the music and the voices, all of it sounded directly in my ears. And I felt just a bit less alone, even if I felt like what I was doing was forbidden.

One night, it all changed. I was there, in the crowd at a concert. Alone.

I was terrified. I considered melting away back into the crowd behind me, maybe slipping right out the door. I didn’t belong there. Looking around, I felt so far removed from all of it. I must have stood out, a gosling in a crowd of ducks. They were all having a good time, in groups with family, friends, enjoying the show together. I was obviously alone, small and young.

Soon after the concert began, I noticed the singer doing a peculiar exercise I’d never seen before. As he sang, he’d make eye contact with someone in front of him, smile for several seconds, then turn to make eye contact with someone else, smile again…

– Bam! His eyes locked upon mine.

I stared back, wide-eyed, waiting for those eyes to show that inevitable scorn. They bore through me. He’d turn away in disgust, I knew. So I waited. And waited. Each second felt like a minute…

Still, he looked at me, smiling. Those eyes radiated a shy, self-conscious gratitude: Thank you. Thank you very much for coming.

Finally, after about three seconds, his gaze broke, and he turned to smile at yet another fan. In that moment I realized, I was safe there. I belonged. It didn’t matter who I was. I had shown up, and it was all he had wanted.

This fleeting moment happened years ago, but I still think about that now. I had learned something that night. That renowned rock star had been just as nervous as I was, and just as hungry for approval. He, too, wanted to be liked. I wasn’t the only one who had felt like an outsider. Everyone did, even those who were outwardly successful. For him, it wasn’t the hair or the tattoos or even the guitar riffs. He was popular because, nervous as he was, he could reach out to the strangers in front of him, make eye contact with them, and become vulnerable to them for just a few seconds. And those strangers, and myself, responded in kind.

In the years after, I have made greater efforts to reach out, to neighbors, coworkers, hobby groups. I studied people, learned from them. I joined Toastmasters, where I heard countless stories not unlike my own. I saw their self-doubt. In the end, everyone simply wants to be seen and accepted. Just a tiny act of kindness, even a smile or a thank you, sends that message of acknowledgement they so crave.

I no longer feel alone. I now have friends and a loving partner. I’m not an outcast, never was. I simply have had experiences that made me close myself up, but I’m not the only one who feels that way. Everyone does, sometimes. To see it, all I had to do was to look in their eyes.


Second Place

"Out of the Closet" by Kim Amundson

“Out of the Closet”

Kim Amundson


If you are Scandinavian and you are raised in a small town in the Midwest there is a very strong chance you will be raised in the Christian faith and more specifically the Lutheran church.  That is the religion of my heritage.  All the required rites and rituals have always been practiced and valued in my family.  

As often happens when a person reaches their adolescence there is a natural tendency to question everything and pull away to gain independence.  That is the first time I ‘drifted away’.  It was not a crisis of faith but more of a hiatus.  At that age, I had more important things to do with my Sunday.  

I didn’t see any value in attending until years later when my mother’s health started to decline.  That was when it became important for me to attend with her.  Some of my dearest memories are the times that we spent together in the pew, holding hands during the service.  She drew on her faith at the end of her life.  I, not so much.  

I did not stray from my church (yet) mostly because her friends were there.  They became my surrogate mothers when I later became pregnant for the first time but no longer had a mother to turn to for guidance.  I dutifully raised my son in the same Lutheran faith with the same rites and rituals.  I must admit that I valued the ‘community’ and enjoyed the experience.  

It was not until recently that I came to terms with my relationship with God and the church.  It was not a moment or a single event but rather a gradual understanding that I was a fraud.  The harder I tried to force myself to be a believer the clearer it became to me that “I am not”. “I do not”.  Of course, because this is how I was raised and because it was expected of me, I attempted to fake it.  I sang along in the choir, but I was not singing for God’s glory I was singing for my own glory.  I took communion with the rest of the congregation, but I knew it was a pretense.  I was a closet atheist trying to pretend I was a good Christian for the sake of my family and my siblings. 

I have not yet come out of the closet.  I am just like someone living a lie about their sexual identity. It is difficult for all the same reasons; fear of rejection; fear of being misunderstood; fear of being pressured to change. I don’t know how my family will react, especially my siblings.  I’m sure it might be a combination of disappointment, perhaps anger and most likely concern.  They might be sincerely fearful for my soul.  

I have the utmost respect for anyone who has a strong grounding in their faith and a strong relationship with their God.  I have no interest or intention of converting anyone to Atheism.  I hide in my closet because I don’t want anyone to feel the need to save me or convert me.   I don’t want to have to explain myself. I don’t want to be judged or to be seen as a bad person.  I don’t know when I will be able to let my sisters know how I feel but writing this story is my first step at peeking out of the closet. For my many friends who love God, I love you and respect you.  For my son and husband, I love you and respect you.  Your faith is your own and I want you to be happy.   There are lots of reasons to hide in a closet and not be your authentic self.  I struggle with all the mixed emotions of guilt and frustration but mostly frustration in trying to be something I am not. I cannot respect myself if I’m not honest with myself.   I can only hope for their understanding. I can only hope they will still love me.

Third Place

"The Most Important Trait" by Paul Stanford

“The Most Important Trait”

Paul Stanford


If I were to ask you what the most important trait for a piece of clothing is, what would you say? The response might be the “fit” or “style”. It’s important to look good and these two traits are critical to ensuring this happens. Others might say the durability. A lot of money can be spent on clothing and it’s important that these items last as long as possible. Still others might insist that price is king. We all have to dress ourselves so why not do it as inexpensively as possible? Have you seen the prices to Disney World these days? We need all of the help that we can get. I once heard an interview with American entrepreneur Marc Andreesen in which he stated that it’s important to have “Strong beliefs, weakly held”. For me, I believed strongly that clothing needed to be comfortable.

I’m not entirely sure where this thinking originated. Neither of my parents believed that clothing should only be comfortable. My mother is a traditionalist, believing that clothing says a lot about a person. She will spend top dollar on purchasing and maintaining clothing, and have strong feelings about others that don’t follow suit. My father has worked in the trades his entire life and prizes durability above all else.

From an early age my uniform of choice always included sweat pants. The occasion or activity didn’t matter. If I was invited, I was coming in sweat pants. Not to worry, I was fashionable, owning them in many colors to match each outfit. Blue shirt, blue shoes, blue sweatpants. It was quite clear from an early age that I was destined for the pages of GQ. It was comfortable and that was all I really cared about. They were perfect for every season! Summer? They were airy! Winter? I could put the elastic bottom of the pant legs over my boots so snow couldn’t get in. They were perfect! My parents were horrified when I insisted on wearing them to school.

With the start of school came the start of sports, which presented a problem. Sweatpants aren’t conducive to the athletic rigors of basketball, soccer, or football. Not only were they warm but with each slide tackle you risked losing them entirely! It was time for me to start reconsidering  previously held beliefs about clothing’s most valuable traits. I reluctantly agreed to try shorts.

Fast forward a few years and you’ll find that I still had a lot to learn. True, I’d swapped sweat pants for shorts and jeans, but my summertime footwear needed some diversity. The summer months meant that sandals were the only thing I would consider putting between my feet and the ground. No matter the weather or activity I could not be convinced that any other footwear’s qualities could usurp the ease and comfort of sliding on a pair of sandals. Raining and cold? Hike with a multitude of jagged rocks, infested with ticks? Out for a date at a nice restaurant? Sandals were the only option! Through many grades, jobs, and relationships I carried on until one fateful day during the end of my freshman year of college.

I was strutting confidently towards the Business building on route to final exams when the unthinkable happened. The strap came completely off one of my sandals, beyond repair! I was running late and had no choice but to continue. Broken sandal in hand I slunk my way into the classroom. I discretely chose to sit at the back of the room which was filling to it’s max capacity of three hundred. The teacher began handing out the test, making his way swiftly through the rows. Getting to me he paused, “Don’t you realize that those come in pairs? We have a ‘both shoes on’ policy here in Economics!” As three hundred heads turned to look at who had violated the shoe policy I realized it was time to revise some of my long held beliefs about what constitutes good clothing.

Since the realization that sweat pants aren’t good for sports and sandals aren’t enough to get you through the summer I have developed a hybrid approach to thinking about clothing. If one is considering an outdoor activity, durability is key. If you want to make a good impression, consider fit and style. If you need clothes for around the house save a couple of bucks and buy on sale. This all, of course, only holds true if the clothing is comfortable.

Published Finalists

"Stuffed But Never Forgotten" by Kate Plant

“Stuffed But Never Forgotten!”

Kate Plant


It’s 1944, Katrina had another ‘cold germ’, coughing hard, she’d been on a train for days and finally made it to a place called Auschwitz! She’d been screamed at to “get off the train”, forced to separate from her parents and told to place her suitcase in a pile. Under her arm remains her stuffed animal, she’d been cuddling that stuffed animal since this war began. Be it for comfort, for safety, out of habit. Coughing, coughing again, this time there’s red blood on her sleeve. A Nazi soldier see’s this and walks her to the showers. “Oh to have a warm shower” she thinks. One of her last imminent thoughts, before that fatal sizzling shower. 

Fellow toastmasters and guests, have you ever felt like you’re ‘stuffed’/done for/never to be remembered? Maybe we’re REALLY never forgotten.

Fast forward to 1988, I’m 12 years old, my name is Kate. There’s water everywhere, I’m underwater, drowning, bubbles escape out of my lungs, “I’m going to drown” – I think. My brain says “Mum, help? Wait, I can scream, so I can breathe, SO, take a breath”. I take a long slow, rib cage spreading breath. I suddenly realize I’ve been dreaming, I awake with my clothes saturated and my stuffed animal ‘Wally my Wombat’, under my arm. I remember, it’s the night before my 1st Coarctation of the Aorta surgery, where my ribs will be spread to gain access to my lungs, heart and arteries. I’ll be cracked open like a watermelon is split to gain access to its innards. “Thank you ‘Wally the Wombat’, for being here with me”, I say. The next day the surgery went well, and after many months, I healed well. With wonderful family support, my friends and my own willingness to survive. Thankfully, I survived this surgery and breathed deeply into my lungs (again and again). 

‘Wally the Wombat’ and I felt ‘stuffed’, BUT we weren’t forgotten!

Fast forward to 2006, I’m still here as this soul called Kate. I woke up in the middle of the night again… cough, cough, hack, cough – this feels like war between my brain and body again! “Breathe Katie, breathe”… one long inhale from the bottom of your diaphragm, and fill your lungs with beautiful red oxygen enriched blood to speed around your body to help it keep working? I looked around the dark room and saw my old faithful stuffed animal, “Wally the Wombat”, sitting on the brown, tall boy cupboard. I suddenly felt something kick inside me, remembering that I’m carrying my second child in my womb. My child had been woken again by the soul hacking cough that I’ve developed overnight since my Dad arrived on the doorstep 2 days ago! He’d been sailing through the Panama Canal with friends and realized he needed help, so jumped on a plane and called us from the airport to let us know he was on his way. We didn’t know how sick he was until he arrived. I don’t think he knew! He felt “stuffed”, but he wasn’t forgotten by us.

After coughing, and coughing overnight I woke up the next morning and told my wonderful husband “Can you please take us to the hospital, I can’t breathe and I’m coughing up blood?” My unborn child and I stayed in the hospital for a week recovering from pneumonia in the ICU. I had 4 more bouts of pneumonia before the doctors realized I was immunio-compromised. Shortly after this, Amazingly, my son was born a month early but with good sounding, healthy lungs. My son now plays with my stuffed animal called “Wally the Wombat”!

We’ve been through a lot together already, and YES, we were ‘stuffed’ BUT we were never forgotten by our loved ones or health care team!

"A Woman's Quest to Perfection" by Yoshita Sharma

“A Woman’s Quest to Perfection”

Yoshita Sharma


I am the only daughter of my parents. I have always been a very extroverted human being. My parents never suppressed that. They encouraged me to explore my artistic talents and put my extroverted nature to good use, which led me to explore myself. The people around me loved me. Friendships with peers were uncomplicated. I grew up being a vivacious person, quite animated, but at the same time, too mature for the people around me. I realized this after I hit puberty. Was I a perfect woman according to the world? So let us begin.

The behavior of my peer group changed with the changes in my body. What added to the complexity was my obesity. Even though my weight was never a barrier for me, the gazes around me made me doubt myself. But the confidence that was instilled in me by my parents helped me sail through. I was an all-rounder. I was an academic achiever. In addition to that, I pursued martial arts and artistic endeavors like singing and dancing. I am a Computer Scientist now. I continue to be an artist as well. Whether people admire me or are envious of me, one thing that doesn’t change is the discussion around my weight. I often received and continue to receive compliments for a pretty face and intelligent mind. I always wonder whether people’s behavior towards me would have been different if I possessed a perfect physique in addition to that.

Things didn’t change much even after I stepped out of my academic phase. I improved my physique. But that didn’t make things easier for me. The gazes were still there. Although, this time, they were not condescending. Who said my existence as a woman would become easy?

I was now an adult. And there was a new set of rules. I could not stay out late as it was not safe. The proof is the three stalking incidents in the United States. In one of the stalking incidents in Los Angeles, the person stalking me apologized to me only when he saw me entering a religious place. So what does that mean for a woman who is not religious?

Personal battles aside, professional challenges aren’t less. I am a Software Engineer in the United States. I work in a male-dominated tech industry. How do I know that? I see men all around me at the place I work. I am the only woman on my team. Organizations for women in engineering exist and are fighting to bridge this gap in the industry. I see women around me struggling to prove themselves at home and in the world. The expectations never seem to end. I still struggle to understand the idea of a perfect woman.

Having grown up with feminist parents, I have learned to be confident of my individuality and aware of my capabilities. But my capability was questioned by some people I know. I believe that actions speak louder than words. Hence, I shut down my critics by showing them how far I have come. I have commanded that respect. But, I continue getting comments from people I know about how much weight I have lost.

Today, I have learned from my experiences and have a stronger and more independent mind. Any challenges I have faced have prepared me for more of those, as this is just the beginning. I have miles to go before I sleep.

I questioned the constantly changing perceptions and expectations of people. I am aware it is an idealistic thought, where everyone is content with what a woman does. The diversity among homo sapiens is not just limited to ethnicity. The diverse personalities complicate the equation. In the end, I concluded that I should adjust, but I should not change the score of my persona as that is the key to my authenticity. The world will come with a lot of preconceived notions. But I will continue being myself, as my peace of mind is of utmost importance. 


Fall 2021 Prompt:  The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success.  Share a story of a struggle you faced in your personal or professional life and how you managed to overcome it!  What’s your story?

First Place

“From My Mom’s Kitchen” by Cam Hoang

“From My Mom’s Kitchen”

Cam Hoang


Age burned memories to ashes and smoke. Some memories managed to survive through time.   Good or bad, memories continued to shape up our lives.  The nightmare from the 4 days 3 nights on a 10-meter boat with 108 people on it, still woke me up sweating from time to time.  The memory of coal burning stoves in my mom’s kitchen warm my heart every time I think about it.  The acrid smell of the coal mingled with the sweet warm smell of the baked goods were intertwined and still lingering in a corner of my mind.  Coming from that small kitchen, many lessons that I learned through food and the processes of making it. 

Food was not cheap nor easily available back then. No food could be wasted even a grain of rice. Food was made fresh for every meal. Sugar and fat were luxury items. Fruit, most of the time bananas were eaten for dessert and snacks. As kids, we often fancied having a small crumb from the cake our mom baked for an order she was filling.  She had a small catering business to earn extra income adding to our dad’s military salary.   She made beautiful birthday, wedding cakes or finger food for small parties. Even though she prepared “luxury food” all the time, there was never extra for us. Everything was done exactly as ordered.   There was nothing left over for tasting; Mom knew what she did.   Everything was made from our small kitchen, and we were her little helpers.   

We learned that as part of the family, we needed to help Mom whatever and whenever she needed.  There were no allowances for chores.   Food, shelter, clothes were provided and that was all we needed.  My regular chores were mopping the floor on my knee and ironing clothes using a coal iron every day.  My sisters helped to wash everyone’s clothes by hand.   My younger brother – because as a boy – he did not have to do housework, but I remembered he always followed me and helped anything I asked.   When Mom had the catering order, we still needed to finish our daily chores as well as helping her with the order.  That meant no extra play time for us after school and homework, but we did not feel sad or bad.   She did not have to nag, and we were always ready to help.   

We learned how to practice our basic math skills by making carton boxes to store the goodies. She would give us the dimensions of the boxes she needed, and we knew exactly how to make the right size boxes.  Occasionally, some boxes she needed could not be done on the standard size cardboard that we bought from a store, and we had to wait for our dad to come home to consult.  Our dad was also an architect working in the military.  He always had ideas to help us.   He made us feel like were constructing a big building and not just a box through planning, calculating and imagination. 

Learning to clean up is one of the essential things we did to keep up with our busy life.  Most of the time we weren’t involved directly in making a cake or any other food items. We suspected that she didn’t want us to be tempted with those luxury food items and might learn how to steel them. Our main job was to clean up after her. As soon as she finished scraping a bowl of cream, we would wash it immediately. Mom always said, the kitchen always needed to be cleaned out for new things to be made. If we waited until the end to clean up, she would run out of kitchen equipment and spaces.  We would not see where to go or what to do next if piles of unclean dishes were blocking our way; keep our workspace clear!

Those lessons from my mom’s kitchen always follow us. Every time things get chaotic; I stop briefly and plan to clean up unnecessary tasks and organize things to do. Most people would remember how delicious their mom’s food was, but for us, we barely remember how good the food tasted. Instead, we carry our lessons from the kitchen and apply them to our lives.  And sometimes, we find that smoke is in our eyes when those memories rise unexpectedly to the surface.

Second Place (Tie)

“My Light” by Jolie Downs

“My Light”

Jolie Downs


In 2017 my father died unexpectedly, the day after he retired, at the age of 65. It was a huge shock and a terrible blow to my family.

Both times I lost a parent, it caused my family to unravel. Over the following few years, I dealt with family members with serious depression bordering on suicide, mental abuse, divorce, health scares leading to operations, Jerry Springer level blowouts, lawsuit threats, opiate overdose leading to death, and heroin addiction. My business had also taken a 50% cut in revenues, which happened at the same time my husband’s company was acquired ending with a significant pay cut. This monetary deficit left us teetering on the brink and looking at having to sell the house.

Eventually, I started to have panic attacks.

The daily anxiety I carried around with me was like an anchor.

I felt as if I was drowning in my life.

The slightest thing would set me off and I had no capacity for dealing with the everyday ups and downs of life. 

 I started complaining, a lot. 

I remember one day hearing myself (as if I was floating above my body) as I was complaining about what had been happening in life and I remember thinking, is this who you’ve become? When did you become so negative? When did you become such a victim?

Immediately, I stopped talking about everyone else and what they were or were not doing and started looking at myself. I started asking myself the right questions. 

What was I doing? How was I reacting? 

If I couldn’t change the situation, how could I change myself to have better peace of mind? 

What good is here that I can possibly not see? 

How was I feeding into the things I didn’t want? I was surrounded by things I didn’t want but did I really know what it was that I did want?

It was time to do a deep dive into life. I dove deep into my beliefs around all areas of my life. I focused on my wants, 

what I wanted for myself and my family, where I saw myself 5 years down the line, and what could I do day to day to get myself there.

 I got really clear on my goals.

Then I started slow.

 I began to meditate every day.

I began to walk the beach every morning.

I started to go out to live music at least twice a week.

I danced. 

I took lessons that interested me.

I started proactively feeding my mind on a daily basis.

 I stopped focusing on what others were doing and started focusing on all the things I could do to make a positive difference. My actions did what all the bitching and moaning could not. I turned my company back around.

The panic attacks stopped. The anxiety eased.

I could breathe again.

Better than that.

 I was alive again.

Then COVID hit.                     

Uncertainty and fear became everyone’s neighbors. My Business became nonexistent.

Instead of falling back into a tailspin, I pushed forward on personal development. Each day, pushing myself in some small way towards my goals – of which there are many.

During 2020 I…

 Became a meditation master and earned a certification.

 Learned self-hypnotism.

Lost 20 pounds.

Made family music videos out of our vacations.

 Added over 4000 new social media connections.

 Grew from knowing how to make 5 meals to know how to make 25 meals.

 Started a podcast called Fresh Blood about success and thriving in the second half of life.  

 Started writing a book.

 Started developing a prototype for a patent I developed.

 Taught myself how to play the piano.

 Transformed my backyard by building garden beds and growing a garden. 

 But most importantly, I learned how to be kind to myself. 

My learnings have helped me find a calm that has carried me through a global pandemic. 

It has been a time of transformation.

 I have learned who I am. 

I am a seeker. 

I am a life long learner. 

I am zeroing in on my goals and making consistent steps forward.  I am staying focused on what I want in my life, as opposed to what I don’t want. I am letting go of things I cannot control. I am shutting down the unhelpful, mean, negative voices and giving attention to the kind, thoughtful, positive voices instead. I am amazed at the changes I’ve brought into my life. 


I have reclaimed my light. 


“The Conundrum of Existence” by Yoshita Sharma

“The Conundrum of Existence”

Yoshita Sharma


I woke up one morning and looked in the mirror, only to see a woman with a puffy face, unkempt hair, and monotony reflecting on her face. My gaze shifted from my face to my body. All the pizzas, pasta, and resulting pleasures of binge eating were visible on my physique. It was after days that I was scrutinizing myself. After some introspection, I put a label on what I was feeling. It was what I would like to call “the conundrum of existence” to sum it up. 

People must have heard of the mid-life crisis. But I was having something called the quarter-life crisis. As a part of this conundrum and crisis, I felt lost in a forest of questions, where the trees containing the answers, branches containing the wisdom were undiscoverable. Why was I unhappy? Let us rewind a little bit.

A couple of years ago, I left my home, my country India and moved to Los Angeles, California, the United States, to pursue a Master’s in Computer Science. I was excited and equally overwhelmed, imagining what lay ahead. I was going away from my family, to a different country, with a very different culture. I have been nomadic since childhood and felt that it was not a matter of great concern. But getting accustomed to my life here in the United States was not a bed of roses. Days passed faster than I could comprehend. During those two years, I had so many firsts – my first rented home, my first bank account, my first solo travel, and my first time running errands on my own. It was an emotional roller coaster, and before I knew it, it was my last semester. The stress of finding a job had begun. Meanwhile, whoever I knew moved out of LA for work. I was lonely and had no job to keep my mind occupied and make me feel successful.

I had been an achiever all my life, an all-rounder, and an enthusiastic person. In addition to being a good student, I was a good artist too. I had a tough time accepting that I had hit rock bottom. I started questioning the purpose of my actions and my goals in life. I became impatient as my efforts were not bearing the fruits I expected. There was internal turbulence. And the next thing I knew, I was obese and depressed. But back to the morning when I looked in the mirror, I decided that I needed to get my life back on track. If I did not like this version of myself, I needed to change it, and the ball was in my court.

I discerned the reason behind my monotony, which was the lack of artistic passions like singing and dancing. I decided to reintroduce my productive self. The Hindu scripture Bhagavad Gita teaches, and I quote, “You are only entitled to your duty and action, but do not attach yourself to expectations of results of your actions.” I started focusing on my Karma and my positive mind space. This thought process made me content and enthusiastic about a bright future. It made me independent in more ways than I could imagine. I realized that being both an engineer and an artist nourishes my soul. Since then, I have started my podcast. I got my first job. I returned to public speaking with Toastmasters. Singing, dancing, and exercising are now regular parts of my regime. But the story does not end here! After a few years, the world and I faced another challenge. The COVID-19 pandemic was here. I lost my first job and experienced extreme anxiety for the first time. Only this time, I felt more in control of my mind. Again, following the lesson from the Bhagavad Gita, I was successful in getting myself another job.

With every difficulty comes a lesson. Through it all, I learned that there is always a silver lining. One needs to see it. I wake up every day being more thankful and less complaintive. Life will continue to throw challenges at you. You must face them head-on and overcome the obstacles. I now celebrate the gifts I have. I have more meaningful conversations with my conscience. In the end, I found myself, and every day I am a bit closer to solving this puzzle called life.

Published Finalists

“Top of the World at 8839 Feet” by Raji Bandanapudi

“Top of the World at 8839 Feet”

Raji Bandanapudi


Acrophobia- the biggest bane of my life. Growing up I was scared to go onto slides, even looking at one used to make me nauseous. Often, I used to be left out as my friends used to take turns sliding down, later as I grew up, I stayed away from anything above six feet of height. This fear only grew in leaps and bounds and I let it grow exponentially taking over aspects of my life but I ignored it, thinking this is a weakness that I would never overcome. But then one experience made me think otherwise.

Rising nearly 5,000 feet above Yosemite Valley and 8,800 feet above sea level, Half Dome is a Yosemite icon and a great challenge to many hikers. A single glance at a picture of the Yosemite Valley, you would notice this distinct shaped rock formation famous for beautiful views as a reward to climbing the 400 feet with just two metal cables. 

The year was 2019, 3 of my friends and me got the permits to hike and we chose the Mist Trail Trailhead, within the first hour of our hike we were greeted by outstanding view of the Vernal Falls and tons of mist as name of the trail suggested. From this point onwards elevation gain began to catch up with as we hiked our way up to the Nevada falls. 

The next few miles while through the campgrounds of Little Yosemite give us a breather from the steep steps and elevation gains, making us forget about our devices to walk. After literally pulling ourselves by a string, we finally made it to the base of the cables and saw people going up and down. I had heard, read, and researched about the cables but facing my fear at such proximity was a feeling, that can’t be described in words. 

Those delicate cables, steep slope, scorching Sun, and my fear of heights stupefied me. I collapsed right there and gave up. For the next 30 minutes my friends coaxed me and finally convinced me to give it a try marking the bravest hour of my life. I held on to my dear life as I climbed up that steep 50 degrees incline over almost 2 football fields hanging onto two metal cables. As I reached the top, my joy knew no bounds. I had made it. I had made it to the top of the Half Dome. 

It was experience that I never imagined to be a part of. Just like all the previous times in my life if my fear had taken control over my emotions and limited my experiences and joys, I would have missed the 360 degrees views of the Yosemite National Park. More importantly I would have remembered the 14 hours as a time I gave up marking my unsuccessful attempt to reach the top. But since I pushed my boundaries with a little nudge from my friends and took leap of faith, I conquered my fears and reached the top of the world at 8839 feet.

Since I overcame my fears I realized my acrophobia limiting me in other aspects in life. This hike changed my life and made me realize the meaning of the words by Judy Blume “Each of us must confront our own fears, must come face to face with them. How we handle our fears will determine where we go with the rest of our lives. To experience adventure or to be limited by the fear of it.”

“Marvelous Leadership Rewards” by Wendy Fan

“Marvelous Leadership Rewards”

Wendy Fan


We all want to be leaders but few have time to develop leadership skills.  In my professional career, I attended many leadership training courses, read dozens of books, and had top notch coaches.  But still leadership eluded me, because the great advice doesn’t seem to stick.  So what is the expressway to becoming a leader?

Two years ago I heard renowned toastmaster Dennis Dawson exhort servant leadership, I never understood what it really meant.  Sure, a club officer serves its members.  Little did I know that the secret to leadership lies in the process of serving.  In July 2020, I reluctantly became the VPE of MacinTalkers.  Just a year later, I happily volunteered to be an area director.  What changed?  I will share three marvelous leadership rewards that profoundly transformed me. 

The First Reward:  being a club officer trains you to think and act like a manager.  Before, it was all about “me”.  I attend meetings, I give speeches, and then I go home.  After I became a VPE, things changed.  Every week I made sure roles were filled, the meeting went smoothly, and people stayed excited.  I was constantly strategizing, planning and implementing.  During this journey, “Me” disappeared, “We” prevailed.   The success of the club and members occupied my mind.  Due to Zoom fatigue, attendance dwindled.  How do we attract people?  It made me contemplate the core value of our club, and I decided to focus on pathway speeches.  To give members tools, I invited renowned toastmasters like Declan to give workshops.  Everyone was excited, speeches flowed.  Our club went from few pathway enrollments to achieving all six education goals.  Becoming an officer is like putting on a business suit – you naturally start to think and act like a manager. Fake it until you become it.  This saying has some truth.

Second, being an officer thrusts you into a network of people who will help you learn and grow.  Like a multifaceted diamond, each face shines an opportunity.  I had the support of the club president, Jack.  He suggested we collaborate on our first club email.  I sent Jack my draft, two pages long!  Jack, a native English speaker, reduced my message to two paragraphs and made the tone much more positive. I was impressed and adopted his concise style in future emails.  Another bright sparkle came from our area director.  Sharon asked me to lead a segment in her HPL project.  I struggled for a week writing the speech and showed it to Sharon. She gave me one of the most valuable tips, the PREP technique.  Sharon said, “never make a point without telling a story, and never tell a story without making a point”.  I combed through my materials, everything fell into the right place. I was so happy that the audience loved my speech.  Interestingly, I even learned from troublesome members.  I used one member’s behavior as a mirror to overcome my own impatience.  Had I not been a VPE, I would not have stepped into this rich mine of amazing people and opportunities.

Lastly, what is the most important leadership quality?  I think it’s the mindset of taking ownership for the success of the whole and never giving up.  Oct. 2020, three months into my VPE job, our club morale dipped to its lowest, I didn’t see any purpose in my work. No one cares, why should I care?  I handed in my resignation. But then I asked myself, who’s responsible for the club’s success? You, the VPE.  Did you try hard as a leader?  No, you are a quitter!  Do I want to be a quitter?  No!  Kung Fu Panda said “a true warrior never quits!” At that moment, I stiffened my resolve, I felt a new wave of energy.  I started reaching out, hosting workshops, and organizing speaking events. The excitement was contagious.  Once you gain this ownership mindset, you will not give up. And when you don’t give up, you will find a way.

Some of you may wonder, is being an officer hard? How can I afford the time? The secret is to pace yourself and allocate time you can spare.  I truly believe being a Toastmaster officer is the fastest way to become a leader.  It trains you to think and act like a manager, it thrusts you into a network of people and opportunities, and it inspires you to take ownership and prevail.  So step up, serve and reap the marvelous rewards!

“Find the Balance” by Yuki Ascue

“Find the Balance”

Yuki Ascue


There was something mystical about the darkness.  

Steam rising from the pool, my arm pushing out of the water, splashing, and dipping back into the water, looking side and up toward the light, water washing over my face.  I felt like a fish in the dark water, my universe.  Excitement, joy, and energy filled my entire being.  The high I got from my early morning swim was off the chart.  

Back in 2003, 6 days a week, by 5:45 AM, I would submerge in the Olympic size Fremont High School swimming pool.  The 40 minute strenuous workout invigorated my entire being.  Oxygen flooded my brain, my limbs pulsed as my blood flowed throughout my body.  The sun rises, the cool air caresses my cheeks, wet hair dries in the breeze… I jiggle the car key and head home to get ready for work. Swimming gave me energy, joy, and a sense of purpose.  But as much as I loved swimming, I pushed myself too hard, neglecting to listen to my body.

In 3-4 months, my shoulders and arms started screaming…One morning my left arm felt numb and weak.  As my arm rose above the water, a sharp pain exploded.  “What’s that?”  It felt like the ball slipped out of the socket.  

After an X ray and an MRI, Orthopedic Surgeon Dr. King said, “Rest for 6 weeks.  Go to physical therapy.  If that doesn’t work, I will do surgery.” “Surgery!?  Whoa, Mister!! That’s my flesh you’re cutting!  I was a contrarian: Whatever you tell me, I will do the opposite.  I lived by “no pain, no gain.”  I kept swimming until I couldn’t pull my arm out of the water.  While my arms were sidelined, my legs were working fine.  I still swam, kicking with fins.  I kept going until my knees were on fire.  With 4 major joints miserably failing, my mood and energy dropped.  Sadness, hopelessness, and helplessness knocked me down.  A fog of fear surrounded me.  “What if I am never able to swim again?”  

That made me ……. sad.

Several rounds of physical therapy on both shoulders and knees, my pain continued.  I finally used my head: Listened to my body.  I rested to allow my body to heal.  But the pain persisted…It led to emotional pain.

My doctor sent me to the Stanford Pain Clinic.  Concerned about my low mood, the Orthopedic doctor referred me to Psychologist Dr. Prasad.  He said, “Your depression could get worse.”  He recommended Cymbalta, the painkiller-cum-antidepressant.  I thought, “No, thanks, Doc.  I don’t want to put toxins in my body.

I was determined to heal my body and mood naturally.  Fortunately, that clinic offered a wonderful physical therapist, Mary.  She tested my arm and leg strength and range of motion and said, “Don’t do any repetitive movement for now.”  She made me hold my arms and legs against the wall to strengthen my muscles.  And she said, “Why don’t you do some Yoga?”  

“Oh, how come I didn’t do Yoga?!”  Yoga had come to my life years ago but swimming took over my life.  It was pushed aside.  Now Yoga was perfect.  Meditation to calm your mind, breathing to find balance of calming and energizing, and no need to do repetition.  Hold the poses.  Breathe in as you get into a pose, breathe as you hold the pose, and breathe out as you come out of the pose.  That’s when I finally started slowing down, let go of my aggressive drive, listened to my body, and honored its signals.  For the first time I befriended my body, doing what I could and accepting what I couldn’t.  

Perfection is not a goal.  You could harm your body in the process.  Honor your body’s signals.  When your body is at ease, your mind also will be at peace.  Do what you love to do.  But not too much.  Find the balance. 

Unpublished Finalists 

Unpublished Finalists participated in the contest and choose not to have their stories shared on District 101 Web Domains


“Gratitude Trumps Grief” by Tom North