Peter Aguero on The Moth at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Moth has been hosting storytelling events for 20+ years, and the thousands of storytellers who have graced their stages are proof that every story is unique, and that the best stories come from our personal experiences.

In this story, as told by Peter Aguero, we hear a tail about family, and strife, and redemption, all within the context of a difficult Christmas. Not a classic holiday story that is filled with good times and cheer, but one that involves the heart. And a connection to family. And love at its deepest level.

Many personal stories are told from a similar point of reflection. Remembering a time in the past when life was difficult and their path forward was unknown. And how tapping into love was central to that future path. Such stories can help folks who are currently living in tough circumstances, as well as remind any of us who have come out the other side to reflect on, and thus to appreciate, the love and support that we encountered along the way.


(minor edits were made to improve readability)

This is a reading from the book of Peter chapter 19 verse 2. I was nineteen years old and I just finished my first semester at college. And I got home with my bag of laundry, and things weren’t looking too good for me and my mom.

I walked into the house, and she had told me over that semester to expect some changes when I got home, and it didn’t really hit me until I walked in the door and the first thing that I saw was that her upright piano that she had had since she was a kid was gone. She had sold it. And I walked through the foyer into the living room and there was just a broken couch, and a television on top of another television. One had a working picture, and the other had working sound.

And all the other furniture was gone. My dad had taken it four years ago when he had left, and for some reason the impressions from his lazy boy were still there as some kind of reminder of what a dick he is. I walked through the living room and through the dining room, and the beautiful dining room set that had been in her family for generations was gone. It was a dark mahogany set, really ornate, with these beautiful carved chairs and a glass breakfront, and a buffet table, and that was gone.

And I walked upstairs to put my stuff away, and her bedroom door was open, and the only thing left in the room was her bed. Her bedroom set was gone. There’s nothing more depressing than a bedroom with no furniture. You can see all the little dings and mistakes and tears in the wallpaper that are hidden by things.

Then I saw in my sister’s room. It was still a shrine to my sister after I moved in with my dad, with her Pepto-Bismol pink walls and her canopy bed, and her toy box. Like she liked she was gonna move back and become a little child again. But she wasn’t.

My bedroom was just the way it always was. Covered in posters, with broken particle board furniture and water bed, for some reason, with a broken heater, so you had to put quilts on top of it so you wouldn’t get arthritis. She couldn’t sell any of that anyway.

I had told my mother for years after the divorce to just sell the house. It was too big for the two of us after my sister left, and it was especially too big once I was gone, when I went to college. And the bills had to have been killing her. But her stubborn Polish pride kept her in the house.

I guess she wanted to show to the outside world that everything was okay, but on the inside it was just kind of decaying around her. But she wasn’t able to really deal with it in any kind of a real way. There was just selling things and and taking it day by day.

She was a nurse, she still is, and at the time she was working on the weekends doing 24 hour shifts at a dual diagnosis psychiatric drug unit, and during the week she took a job at a perfume counter in the mall to make some extra money. And she doesn’t like people telling her when to take a break, so that wasn’t gonna last long.

This was a strong big-headed pumpkin-headed Polock. She got home that day and she was happy to see me. Not as effusive as usual, but you know, she made dinner. She made a tomato casserole that she always made with canned tomatoes Wonder Bread and American cheese. Like yeah.

And we sat in the kitchen on the two chairs at the kitchen table, because the other chair I broke, and the other chair I also broke. And we ate our food, and we talked about College that semester being over, and she said, “Peter, we can’t really have much of a Christmas this year. There’s not gonna be any presents. I got your sister a little something because she doesn’t live here anymore, but we really can’t afford any presents.”

I said, “Are we gonna have a tree?”

She said, “We really can’t afford a tree. Decorations? I don’t have time to decorate.”

I’m, okay, you know, all right, okay.

So she said, “I got an idea. I thought this would be funny. Why don’t we, over the next two weeks, cut pictures out of catalogs and magazines of things that we would give to each other if we could.”

And we laughed about it, you know, and then we cried about it, and then we laughed about it again. Because if you don’t laugh about it you’re gonna eat a bullet.

So the next morning she went off to work, and I decided I was gonna throw myself into Christmas. And I decided I was gonna go get a tree, and I was gonna make this the best Christmas I possibly could.

So this is down in South Jersey, small town, and this is before Walmart and Home Depot and outlet stores are down there, so there was one Christmas tree farm, the Debolt Christmas Tree Farm. So I went over there figuring they’d give me a deal because I used to date their daughter, but turns out they didn’t give me a deal, because I used to date their daughter.

And a tree was like 60 bucks. Screw that. So I went back home and I got a hacksaw and I cut out a tree from my side yard. And it wasn’t even like a pine tree. It was some kind of stunted maple tree. And I brought it in the house, and I put it in the tree holder, and there it is in the stand.

And I went up in the attic. And I got the box of decorations and ornaments, and I hung about – there were about six branches – I put about 20 ornaments on each branch. And then I just took the tangled lights, and I just threw them on it, and it was beautiful.

It was really kind of nice. She came home, and she was, I guess, happy, and that was how that was. And I just started throwing myself into this project. I’ve given my mother everything I possibly could give her for Christmas.

You know, she always wanted a forest green Jaguar convertible. So I cut out one of those, and then Jacuzzi had a shower called the Jay Dream with about 20 nozzles, and a little dude that made sandwiches. And I cut out one of those, and gold and diamonds and jewelry, and a new vacuum cleaner, and everything she could ever possibly want in the world.

And I really kind of sunk myself into it. I’d go over hang out of my friends houses and take their mom’s Currier and Ives catalogs, and get all these catalogs and magazines, so I could give my mom the best Christmas ever. And I felt like I was in a kind of bizarro O’Henry novel, and one that he never should of written. And that just kind of consumed me over the next couple weeks. And I figured, this is sad, but this is beautiful, and we’re
going to connect over this, and it’s gonna be okay. It’s gonna be fine.

It was one night, in between coming home and Christmas, and the two of us were sitting watching the Charlie Brown Christmas Special, and one of the TV’s was on cable and the other was on broadcast, so the video was a little ahead of the audio because the audio was on broadcast, but you know, you just pretend you’re in Japan. It doesn’t matter. So we’re watching that, and my mom was so distracted, she was there, but she wasn’t there.

And you know my mother and I were like partners, when my parents marriage broke up. She still feels guilty to this day about maybe making me grow up sooner than I did as being the man of the house or whatever. We were friends, and roommates, and partners. It was me and her against the world. And she was the one I always loved coming home to, and the one that would let me get away with anything, and the one that would always be proud of me when I did something right, and would take a day off from work and drive to the zoo with me when I did something wrong.

And she was not there anymore. This house was crushing her. Just crushing her. And all because she couldn’t see the option of getting rid of it. And it was killing me man. That’s my road dog, that’s my mom, that’s my girl. And I lost her. She just wasn’t there anymore. And it was just killing me. Her eyes were just empty. She was in another world. And she was worried about things that she couldn’t figure out how to fix.

So on Christmas Eve I went with my buddy Brian. We got drunk on a jug of Livingston Cellars wine and went to midnight mass, because when you’re under 21 and Catholic, that’s where you go to see your friends, because you can’t get into the bars yet.

And it was great, mass was awesome. My mom didn’t go to midnight mass anymore, because four years before, when my dad left us, it was during midnight mass. What a dick. As the priest was walking up, he stood up and walked out in front of everyone that we knew. Everyone she grew up with. Everyone I grew up with. Everyone we went to school with, and went to church with, and hung out with.

They all saw our family crumbling in front of us on it so my mom doesn’t… my dad’s a dick… I mean, is he here tonight? No he’s not, cuz he’s a dick, such a dick. So my mom doesn’t go to midnight mass anymore.

I got home that night, and the next morning I woke up late, and I brought my little bundles of pictures tied up with scraps of ribbon, and I put them under the tree, and I waited for my mama come down. And I heard her stirring upstairs, and heard her come down, and making coffee. And she came downstairs in her big red Sally Jessy Raphael morning glasses.

And she came down with a cup of coffee and she looked at the the things I was offering her, and she just like oh oh oh oh oh wait a minute, and she went back upstairs, and she was up there for a couple of minutes. How long does it take to bring down some papers? I hope she’s okay. She have diarrhea? It’s Christmas, I don’t know, post-traumatic whatever.

But any way, she comes back down, and we start to exchange our gifts, and she’s opening up a car in a vacuum in the shower and gold and a brand new piano and a bedroom set and a beautiful picture of a dining room set that would be at home in the White House. I tried to give her everything that she had had to get rid of to keep this life together.

She wanted there, more than anything in the world, she wanted there to be some stability for her kids to have a place that was always going to be home. The home that we grew up in. And it was killing her. And I was trying to do anything I could that would maybe make that better.

So she’s just looking at these things, and just smiling and laughing, and then I started to open up mine. And there’s three of them, and there’s one, it’s a picture of some Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, and a picture of some Homer Simpson slippers, and a picture of a karaoke machine. All from the same Rite Aid catalog.

It was up in her bathroom, upstairs, because she completely forgot. This thing that I really thought it was a one sided thing, and she’s laughing about it now, over there, that’s hilarious, yeah wave. So she went upstairs to make breakfast in the kitchen and I sat there and it was just kind of, I don’t know, I don’t want to be too silly about it, was I got a needle piercing me in the heart, thank you Madison, it was it was just this life that we had, that was the two of us was, just gone.

She would have done anything for me, and she still was, but it just wasn’t working anymore. And she forgot this thing, because the house was killing her, money was killing her, and everything was killing her. There’s nothing I could do, just nothing.

So I went upstairs, and she didn’t make pancakes. My mom makes really good pancakes. She fries them up in bacon grease, and they’re all crispy around the edges, and she makes me one that’s as big as the frying pan and cuts it out to look like Pac-Man and puts it on my plate, ever since I was a little boy.

She’ll give me a second one if I wanted. But this day, there was no Pac-Man face. Just silver dollar pancakes. And they were all burnt. And we sat there eating these burnt pancakes, wondering what the hell was going on with our lives. Today, 14 years later, if you go to my mother’s house where she lives with her new husband, you can go down in the basement and you can see a million boxes.

And you walk past the Ark of the Covenant and you go over in the back. And if you were an archaeologist you could look at the strata of our lives and pick out which year these things happened. This is when Peter quit football, and this is when Michelle had epilepsy growing up, and this is when their dad was a dick. That’s all of them.

And then there’s one box, if you look at it, in Christmas in 1995, if you dig into it, you can see a little velvet bag with a bunch of small pictures cut out of catalogs and magazines. And right underneath of that was stuff that took place a couple months later.

I got my belated Christmas present. It was a picture that my mom sent me when I was away at school of her standing in front of the house with a for sale sign in front of it. And she decided to sell the house. And she moved into a small townhouse. And she took a little hit on her pride but I got my girl back.

Thank you.

[Note: all comments are my opinions, not those of the speaker, or The Moth or anyone else on the planet. In my view, every story is unique, as is every interpretation of that story. The sole purpose of these posts is to inspire storytellers to become better storylisteners and to think about how their stories can become more impactful.]

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Just Another (Storytelling) Day

It’s January 1st, 2021. In one sense it’s just another day, with another sunrise, and another sunset. But our embrace of the Gregorian calendar has a way of altering our perception of time, and we, therefore, perceive ourselves as having exited one year (past) while entering another (future) at the stroke of midnight. Never mind that there are 24 time zones, and so, two dozen strokes to mark the occasion. Time, like story, is never a simple contemplation.

This “out with the old, in with the new” mindset belies the fact that nothing has actually changed. The scourge of human trafficking and climate change, religious fundamentalism, radicalized racism, pandemic passivism, and sociopathic narcissism still ravage humanity and the planet. Millions strive to change this narrative, but these are very stubborn stories.

But if midnight serves as a reset button, a way to recalibrate, to turn the page and begin writing a new narrative, then it can be a redeeming process. As the year 2020 was coming to a close I spent a few days around Christmas with my family in Sweden and thought a lot about the impending stroke of midnight that would occur after my return to Portugal.

Morning View Outside Stockholm December 2020

The extended dark mornings reminded me of the dark reality humanity was dealing with. Having endured nearly four years of the worst American president in history. A man who has publicly turned his back on 7.8 billion people – yes, even his most loyal supporters – condemning the earth to decades of environmental catastrophe. Adding to the darkness, a pandemic that was long ago predicted, and yet criminally ignored, ravaged country after country. By the time midnight arrived on December 31st over 83 million would be infected, resulting in over 1.8 million coronavirus deaths.

Yet there were lights shining within the darkness, represented by stories that I had heard throughout the year. Stories from friends, family, and many strangers. Stories of loss and disappointment, of dreams that were put on hold, or cancelled altogether. Lives that had shifted from confidence to unnerving uncertainty. Yet each story contained the seed of a different future. One that appreciated the connectedness of humanity, one that cast a light on the illusion of separateness. Was darkness serving a higher purpose?

This consideration of how dark times shape us was on my mind when an email arrived from the amazing poet Silvi Alcivar, offering an insight into the nature, and the benefit, of embracing that which has always existed in our world – darkness.

“and i keep thinking about how all the darkness of these days is really showing us where there is light, who holds it, what we have to offer of our own, and how the darkness seems to have a necessary place too. the moon knows this. and the stars. and the roots wintering in earth. and the creatures no one has ever seen who live in depths of ocean humans will never touch. and the dark itself.” ~Silvi Alcivar

I studied my fellow passengers as they boarded the return flight to Lisbon. Everyone was wearing a mask, which on the one hand was reassuring, but masks hide the emotions that play a vital role in telling our in-the-moment story. I wondered why they were there, what their reason was for ignoring – as I had done – the advice of medical experts to stay home over the holidays. What did the season mean to them? How had their year been, and what stories would they create in 2021? Truth told, each of us lives within our own mystery.

And despite the safe practices required by the airline, the reality was that we were taking a risk vs staying at home. But at the same time we were choosing life. We had decided to include others as characters in our story, creating a richer narrative. That’s not a defense of the decisions we had made, just a raw explanation, and it posed a difficult question:

If we find ourselves in the midst of darkness,
how do we choose to live life?

How will you choose to live life on January 1st, after the imagined stroke of midnight sounds and we put 2020 behind us? Will you frame the new year as a new start, or a new chapter, or maybe just another day of storytelling in your exceptional, yet mysterious life?Wheat Stalk Close Up Stockholm 2020

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Leonard Lee Smith on The Moth Mainstage at the Paramount Theatre

The Moth has been hosting storytelling events for 20+ years, and the thousands of storytellers who have graced their stages are proof that every story is unique, and that the best stories come from our personal experiences.

In this story, as told by Leonard Lee Smith, we are treated to a narrative of how his Granny brightened the holiday season despite his mother’s divorce and the subsequent move from Alabama to Southern California.

Even though we’re watching his talk on video, Leonard’s delivery is one that can make us feel as though we’re sitting in his living room. You hear the emotion in his voice, yet the emotional swings are not dramatic. It’s subtle, yet powerful.

He allows us to be there when opening each heavily reinforced cardboard box filled with mounds of homemade Christmas treats. And he brings us full circle when he tells us about hanging Granny’s plastic poinsettia bouquet with the bells on his own door during the holidays.

How did you experience the holidays when growing up? Was there someone in your life who made the experience special? It may have been a family member, as was the case with Leonard, but it could also have been a friend who altered the spirit of the season.


It was Christmastime 1974. I was ten years old, but I wasn’t looking forward to Christmas that year.

The previous spring my mother and the man who was to become my stepfather – when all the divorces had been finalized and he and my mother could marry – had moved us from rural central Alabama to sunny Southern California. My brother and I were leaving behind our father and all our extended family. This would be my first Christmas away from Alabama.

My beautiful and elegant mother took to California like a swan to a royal lake. My soon-to-be stepfather was a California native. My very athletic little brother reveled in a temperate climate that allowed him to be outside eleven months of the year.

I, however, was a fat, awkward child with a high-pitched voice and a heavy southern accent. I was having extreme difficulty with the transition to a West Coast lifestyle. My first day at my new school, I walked to the front of my fourth-grade class to introduce myself. All I said was my name and where I was from, and the class erupted in laughter, with jeers of “He talks funny” and “He has a weird accent.”

It took the teacher nearly two full minutes to restore order, and she was angry at me for having caused a disruption. I was so disillusioned after that first day that instead of walking home after school, I went to a nearby gas station and used a phone booth there to try and place a collect call to Granny Smith, my paternal grandmother.

She was my biggest ally. I was going to ask her if I could return to Alabama and live with her and if she would send me the money for a bus ticket home. But despite several attempts the line was busy and I never get through. My mother was always encouraging, nagging, and badgering me to lose weight and always trying to help with that endeavor with whatever the latest diet craze was.

She had been a fat child herself, but with puberty she had gained height and lost weight and undergone the proverbial ugly-duckling transformation to become a great beauty in high school. She saw weight loss as the panacea of all problems and believed it to be the key to my happiness. She was very relieved to have me away from the annual holiday sugar binges and weight gain that my Granny Smith’s cooking provided.

Granny Smith was, for me, everything good about Christmas. Her language of love was food. She was an excellent baker and candy maker. She would cook for weeks in preparation for Christmas Eve, when all of her children and grandchildren would gather at her house.

Every favorite dish, dessert, and confection had been made to specification. Her table and sideboard groaned under the weight of all of the food. My brother, my cousins and I would burst through her kitchen door, brimming with anticipation, our arrival announced by the sound of five silver bells suspended from red velvet ribbons hung on a plastic poinsettia bouquet on the door.

Her house was tiny and saturated with tacky Christmas decorations and cigarette smoke. But to my childhood aesthetic, it was glorious. She sewed new pajamas for all of her grandchildren. She scoured newspaper ads, catalogs, and stores all over town to get us exactly the toys we had requested. She was interested in me and my happiness. She was my resilience. She was magical, and I missed her desperately.

It was Sunday evening, and I was moping around the house, dreading Monday and the return to school. Fortunately, there was only one week left until the Christmas break. I was longing for my familiar southern Christmas. That Thanksgiving we had spent with my step-father’s extended family. He and my mother had finally gotten married in Vegas over the summer.

His family were polite, kind people, but I did not know them and fit poorly into their established routine, and I feared that Christmas would be more of the same. The phone rang. It was Granny Smith. She often took advantage of the discounted long-distance rates after 7:00 p.m. on Sundays.

She spoke with my brother Todd and I chatted for nearly half an hour, asked us about our life, and school, and how things were going, assured us she had gotten us the toys that we wanted and they would be there by Christmas. But before we hung up, she asked to speak to our mother. This request made my brother and me very anxious.

When our parents separated they didn’t so much dissolve a marriage as declare war on each other. My brother and I knew that the campaigns and battles of this war could be long and brutal. My mother considered Granny Smith to be in the enemy camp. They maintained a civil but strained relationship. My brother and I were always worried that hostilities might erupt whenever they spoke to each other.

Granny Smith informed my Mother that she had sent a Christmas package and that it should arrive in the coming week. My mother said, “Thank you, but you didn’t have to do that. It’s very expensive to ship things across the country. I hope you did not have to spend a lot of money.” Despite their differences my mother understood and respected that Granny Smith was a woman of very modest means. Granny had been a widow for nearly thirty years and worked mostly menial jobs. For her, money was always scarce.

Granny said, “It wasn’t very expensive at all, and I was happy to do it.” They exchanged polite but tense pleasantries, wished each other Merry Christmas, and then said good-bye, and my brother and I breathed a sigh of relief. Sure enough, on Thursday afternoon after school the phone rang, but it wasn’t the US Postal Service – it was the Greyhound Bus Lines calling to say we had a package waiting at the bus terminal in Claremont, California.

My mother said to the clerk on the phone, “I didn’t even know that Greyhound shipped packages.” The clerk said, “Oh, yes ma’am, and we’re much cheaper than the US Postal Service because we don’t deliver door-to-door.” We have some of the cheapest rates around. My mother was a little annoyed by this since the bus station was nearly ten miles away. But the clerk assured her that the bus station was open twenty-four hours a day and that there was someone on duty at the shipping desk around the clock. We could pick the package up at any time.

So after supper we drove to the bus station. We went in to see the clerk. He confirmed that we had a package. And then he said to my mother, “You can pull your car around into the loading bay.” My mother said, “What for?” He said, “The package is too large to hand over the counter.” My mother said, “Are you sure you’ve got the right package?”

This irritated the clerk and he learned over the counter and addressed my brother and me and said, “Are you guys Lee and Todd Smith?” We nodded and said, “Yes, sir.” He said, “Then this package is for you. I’ll meet you around back.” We drove us around to the loading bay, and the shipping clerk came to our car with a hand truck carrying a heavily reinforced cardboard box, large enough to hold a dishwasher or small refrigerator.

He said, “This barely makes it inside the maximum freight dimensions and weight restrictions,” as he hoisted the box into our trunk and went to get some twine to tie the trunk lid closed. My brother and I were giddy with anticipation on the drive home, wondering what the box contained. Our mother was not in such a good humor. She knew her ex-mother-in-law well and was suspicious of the box.

When we got home, we had to go inside and get our stepfather – the box was too heavy for us to get out of the trunk. He grunted and complained as he set the box down in the living room, and said, “What the hell did she send, a jeweler’s safe?” My brother and I tore into the box, and the smell of our granny’s house wafted into the air: a combination of fried meat, grease, furniture polish, and cigarette smoke.

There beneath wadded newspaper and excelsior was our southern Christmas. There were presents wrapped in colorful paper and bows to go under the Christmas tree. Neatly folded in brown paper was a new set of pajamas for both of us. There were also two five-count packs of Fruit of the Loom underwear in the appropriate sizes for us both. There was a countless number of decorative tins and repurposed Cool Whip containers.

We opened them to find mounds of homemade Christmas treats: Divinity. Fudge. Boiled chocolate cookies. Parched peanuts. A massive container of “nuts and bolts,” which is what southerners call homemade Chex Party Mix, but to which no prepackaged Chex Party Mix will ever compare.

A whole fruitcake. A chocolate pound cake. She even included our traditional stocking stuffers of candy bars, chewing gum, citrus fruits, and pecans and walnuts in the shell. The box was as bottomless as Mary Poppins’s satchel. As every sugary confection came out of the box, my brother and I shrieked with delight and our mother moaned in defeat.

Mother tried a last-ditch effort to hide all the confections and dole them out a few at a time, but each evening when our stepfather would come home, he would begin to search for them and our mother’s scheme would be thwarted. Eventually she just gave up and just left it all out on the kitchen counter.

Each Christmas that we spent in California, Greyhound would call and say that our package had arrived. Over the years many treasures arrived in the box: hand-crocheted afghans, an heirloom family quilt, homemade Christmas decorations. A check to help with the purchase of my first car. For me it was always the best part of Christmas. Even after I moved out of the house, the box continued to arrive. My friends and roommates at college were always astounded and delighted by the contents of the box.

My grandmother was able to package and ship magic and love. Granny is long gone and missed more each year. Since her death I have discovered in conversations with my cousins that Granny came to the rescue of all of her grandchildren at one time or another, softening what would have been hard and harmful emotional landings. She did it in such a way that we each thought we were her favorite. Granny had endured a sad and difficult childhood with a mother who suffered from mental illness. She understood the importance of a child having an ally when a parent fails them.

Each year, a few days after Thanksgiving, I hang Granny’s plastic poinsettia bouquet with the bells on my front door to announce the arrival of holiday guests. I have mastered many of her recipes, and last year finally managed a very respectable batch of divinity. When the Christmas season arrives, I lovingly remember Granny and cherish that the magic and resilience she gave me.

And during the holiday season, when I see a Greyhound bus on the highway, I think to myself, in the belly of that machine may travel some child’s Christmas.

[Note: all comments are my opinions, not those of the speaker, or The Moth or anyone else on the planet. In my view, every story is unique, as is every interpretation of that story. The sole purpose of these posts is to inspire storytellers to become better storylisteners and to think about how their stories can become more impactful.]

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Storytelling and the Power of Reflection

Personal storytelling consists of recounting events that have occurred in the past, describing the state of the world as it is today, or offering up our theory as to how the future may look.

As storytellers our narratives include a combination of external actions and events, as well as your internal thoughts or feelings. An audience rarely wants to hear a continuous string of facts which sounds like a news article. They want to connect to the storyteller and they want to understand what the story meant to them. They need the Pathos (emotion) in addition to the Logos (logic), and this is the power of reflection in storytelling.

It goes beyond what you saw, or heard, or read. It’s about your interpretation of events, how it made you feel, how it changed you. It can also examine an alternate storyline. What if you (or someone else) had said something differently, or reacted differently. The what if can be powerful, as the audience is given the opportunity to ask themselves, what if.

In a 2004 article on, This American Life creator Ira Glass states his view that reflection is critical to radio storytelling.

“I usually think of a radio story (the kind of story we do on This American Life, anyway) as having two basic parts to it. There’s the plot, where someone goes through some experience. And then there are moments of reflection, where this person (or another character in the story, or the narrator) says something interesting about what’s happened.”

For some folks reflection comes naturally. They want listeners to know how they felt, or what they thought, or what they believe to be true. But for many people the process is not so easy. They lean toward reporting the facts and refrain from sharing their innermost thoughts. Sometimes it’s an issue of vulnerability, digging into feelings they are not comfortable sharing in public, but often times it’s about the common tendency to stay on the surface when telling a story, or believing their view would not be interesting to an audience.

Joan Didion is one of my favorite writers for many reasons (more on that in a future post), but one is her prowess when it comes to reflection. Much of Joan’s writing is about her views of people and events, as well as herself, and the nature of being human. It’s a style of writing that requires pausing, examining, digesting, and sometimes a long look in the mirror.

I was reminded of this trait while re-reading Slouching Towards Bethlehem, a collection of essays that largely describe her experiences while in California during the societal upheaval of the 1960s. In one of those essays, On Keeping a Notebook, she reflects on the fact that we’re not the person we seem to be in the moment, but rather a collection of all the versions we’ve been over time. We frequently upgrade our operating system, for better or worse.

While the following line is her own reflection, one cannot but follow suit and think about the relationship that we have with our past selves.

“I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not.”

Joan Didion Slouching Towards Bethlehem

When I first read that line I stopped and put the book down to ponder my own paradox with past revisions of myself. Which personifications was I happy with and maintained a healthy relationship with, and which were best forgotten. The ones that, according to Joan, I should at least recognize for their contribution.

After that single sentence she could have moved on to the next topic, but her reflection went much deeper, diving into the consequences of not following a nodding approach.

“Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surpass us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. or a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends. We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we are.”

As you write your personal story, look for those moments when your thoughts, opinions or conclusions, your musings or insights can add depth and emotion to the narrative. Were you changed in the process? Can the audience connect to your story in a way that changes them?

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