Archive for December, 2010

What Would You Like for Christmas?

December 17th, 2010 No comments

“What would you like for Christmas, Dad?” my daughter asked me. When I said I didn’t need anything, not wanting her to feel obligated, she insisted and asked about books. I immediately thought about George MacDonald and said if she was willing to go through Abe Books online (most of MacDonald’s 50 books are out of print), I’d come up with a short list from which she might pick one.

If you haven’t read MacDonald yet, and would like to start, three of his novels that jump to mind are The Shepherd’s Castle, David Elginbrod, and The Maiden’s Bequest — originally titled Alec Forbes of Howglen. (Other titles include Wilfrid Cumbermere; The Portent; The Fisherman’s Lady.)

If you’re anything like me, you’ll want to avoid getting slowed down by the Scottish dialect. To accomplish this, be sure to ask for versions that have been edited. Several editors have re-written these books, including Michael Phillips of Eureka, California, but any edited version will be more readable than an original. At least they are for me!

The writer C. S. Lewis (The Chronicles of Narnia) said when he read MacDonald, he felt cleansed. That, besides the fact his books are so true to human nature, must be one reason I continue to find them so attracting. In fact, it was while reading one of his novels — The Lady’s Confession if I recall correctly — the year after my mother died, that I knew I had to deal with something in my past.

Forty years earlier, when I was 21 and in my first year of teaching, in the little town of Marlbank, near Tweed, Ontario I had recommended one of my students be expelled. Recommending he be expelled was legitimate, as I felt he constituted a danger to me and the class.  What was not legitimate was exaggerating his behaviour — essentially lying about him — in court, to make it stick.

And it did stick. So did my guilt. For forty years. Then I worried how he was, how he might’ve ended up as a result of what I had done to him. Where was he? Was Billy still alive? When I set out to find him, on Groundhog Day 2005, and finally dealt with it, asking his forgiveness, which he readily granted, the black cloud I used to see in the mornings, lifted.

After meeting George Macdonald, Mark Twain said MacDonald “had the face of Christ.” Which means, I suppose, that in his physiognomy he saw goodness. (One thing that indirectly led the worldly Mark Twain to meet the saintly MacDonald was the fact that the Clemens’ little daughter, who had died young, had always carried a copy of MacDonald’s At the Back of the North Wind around with her throughout the house.) What underlies goodness and cleanliness? Is it not innocence — the mark of a little child? A little child saying a prayer at bedtime? Except you be changed, and become as a little child, you cannot enter the kingdom of God. For what adults, like children, do not need that same feeling of innocence when they lay their heads on their pillows  — whether it’s at the end of our 24-hour day, or the day of our lives?

How? By clearing the deck of guilt. Simply by confessing, like me, and trying to make restitution to the one wronged.  Then by living honestly and doing kind deeds during the day to help others.

I believe what C. S. Lewis said about MacDonald was true, that he is not the best writer. But, as Lewis also implied, I agree he still writes the best books. For MacDonald’s  goal went far beyond his craft. He saw the reader. And he knew it was in the momentary decisions of that flesh and blood human being, that the momentous decisions of life would be being made, and that is where he wanted his impact to fall.

“What would you like for Christmas?” my daughter asked me. I guess my honest answer is “Another novel by George MacDonald.” What I wish for myself, I wish for you — and those you love. If you said to me, “What can I get for Christmas?” I’d be thinking, ‘Why not go to a used bookstore, or Abe Books online (or other used book websites), or even to the inter-library loan department of your local library (ILLO) and get your hands on one of George MacDonald’s novels.’ I believe you’ll be glad you did. For is there anything more valuable on Christmas morning — or any morning — than cleanliness, innocence, goodness?

What would you like for Christmas?


Murray noticed, after his first  book — Smiles, Wisdom and Encouragement: Quotations with Personal Commentary to Lift Your Life — was published, that it contained more quotes from George MacDonald than from any other individual. Murray has detailed in Steel Buggy Wheels on a Hard Dirt Road the day he set out to find Billy, his former student; a day in which he saw glistening sun, felt dark clouds of cowardice and doubt closing in on him, and finally heard himself singing a song he hadn’t heard in years. If you would like him to deliver a speech to your group on this, or any related topic, please contact him.

I Thought About Quitting But Didn’t

December 12th, 2010 No comments

One of the very worst experiences of my life, as I shared with you in an earlier blog, was giving my very first speech. I said I was not nervous — I was scared stiff! That was at Norwood District High School in grade nine when I was thirteen. On that dismal day, thinking about public speaking, I thought about quitting, but didn’t for some reason. I guess a small part of me kept reminding me that standing up and speaking in front of others had been my childhood dream.

For years, it also topped my list of ‘Life’s Most Dreaded Activities‘, and I avoided it like the plague where I could, and reduced it to a bare minimum where I couldn’t. Things happen and in 1993 I found myself  in the psychiatric ward of a Toronto hospital with depression. There they prescribed strong drugs and I ended up with short-term brain memory damage, which I still have.

When I retired from teaching, I decided to confront my fear and follow my dream — to be an inspirational speaker. When I joined three speaking clubs (safety in numbers!), some members would remind me of the unwritten rule — ‘No notes.’ “Speak from the heart,” they would say, and I wondered where my speeches came from before I recorded them on paper, if they didn’t come from the heart. When I became president, I asked if we would bar from our stage a person with a broken leg. Or would we bar Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, or Martin Luther King, Jr. All three used notes, and none had an acquired memory deficit.

This week — more than 50 years after my very first speech — I received a telephone call, and an e-mail, from The Toronto Public Library. A young lady was asking me if I would address a group of 12 to 19-year-olds on ‘Ways to Reduce Fear in Public Speaking.’

How could I say no? After all, I had given a different speech at a different branch of the same library in May to help them celebrate their focus on Mental Health Month, and now they were asking me to give  my favourite speech! She gave me a choice of dates, asked my fee, and commented “I hear you’re a really good speaker.” (Apparently great minds do think alike!)

Comparing my feelings when addressing my classmates and teacher when I was 13, and my feelings after the library engaged me as their speaker this week, how about ‘elated’ versus ‘dejected’?

Something the way 14-year-old provincial level gymnast Denise Alivantov must feel today, compared to last year when she broke her elbow. The Peterborough Examiner staff writer Dale Clifford says that her injury kept her out of competition. Looking back at that time, when she still continued to train, she says, “I thought about quitting but didn’t and stayed with it.”

Denise must be feeling elated about her refusal last year to throw in the towel. This member of Champions Gymnastics just recently placed second out of 72 competitors at Base Borden, near Barrie. Consequently she’s been named to the eight-member Team Ontario to travel to Chicago to compete (Feb. 11 -13) in a major international event. Also sharing those feelings of elation — compared to dejection a year ago — must be her parents, Chris and Karen Alivantov of Peterborough, and grandparents Terry and Eileen Schrader of Niagara Falls, Ontario.

This young lady is not only world-class when it comes to gymnastics, she seems to know a thing or two about happiness. About the big event in Chicago, she says, “I hope I can help my teammates….” Denise’s happiness, like mine and everyone else’s, is bounce-back from doing your best to make others happy. Whether she winds up winning or losing in the contest in the windy city, she is already a winner in my book! For in the greatest competition — the competition with oneself — she didn’t give up, but dared to hold and work toward her dream.

“What is happening this season,” reports Clifford, “is helping erase the memory of the last one.” As for Denise, so also for me. What’s happening today helps erase the miserable memory. For me, the memory of a day I gave my very first speech, and virtually fell flat on my face from fear. A few years ago in Norwood, Ontario when I was thirteen.

I thought about quitting but didn’t.

Murray’s date at the Jane/Sheppard  branch of  The Toronto Public Library is 6:00 p.m. Thursday, April 14. He wrote this blog after reading online the piece by Peterborough Examiner staff writer Dale Clifford, dated Dec. 12, 2010. Murray attended the same Toastmasters club as did Denise’s maternal grandparents Eileen and Terry Schrader (and feels grateful to count himself a friend). If he can help your school by addressing the intermediate or senior students on ‘Ways to Reduce Fear in Public Speaking,’ please contact him.

My Favourite Christmas Stories

December 7th, 2010 No comments

Someone once asked me, “What’s your favourite Christmas story?” When I said, The Greatest of These by Joseph Mills Hansen, then I thought of Where Love Is, God Is by Tolstoy. And it went on from there. Later I sat down and put this little book together and I suppose My Favourite Christmas Stories is my best answer to my friend’s question. Certainly it contains some of my favourites.

I say ‘some’ because adding them all would have made a big book. I did not plan to include more than one story from any one author, but found it impossible to omit The Story of the Other Wise Man by Henry van Dyke.

One of the selection criteria I used was unfamiliarity. I have met few people who have read The Greatest of These by Joseph Mills Hansen, Christmas in the Alley by Olive Thorne Miller, or The Gifts of the Child Christ by George MacDonald.

You will see that I also seem to like the old stories best. However, having been unable to find the name of the author of A Brother Like That, a short one-page piece I came across only lately, I’m unsure if it’s old or new. I will trust that someone will supply me with this information and that the author — if she or he ever reads this book — will understand how hard I found it to omit such a lovely little story and, if it is newer, will, in the spirit of the season, take mercy on me in my possible violation of copyright.

Another standard for these fourteen stories was diversity. Certainly one can see little in common in length and mood between The Little Match Seller by Hans Christian Andersen and A Poor Relation’s Story by Charles Dickens.

Someone looking for a gift took a quick look through this book the other day and said, “Oh, but it’s a children’s book.” I could tell by her use of the word ‘but’ that she thought children’s stories made it less valuable. She was scanning Why the Chimes Rang and The Velveteen Rabbit. But (to use her word), for me, the presence of children’s stories, or stories for children, makes the book more valuable.

For are we not all children at heart? And aren’t the happiest adults those who have retained (or recaptured) wonder and openness and innocence? Norman Vincent Peale said, “The only thing that really thrills is freshness and cleanness in the soul.” And aren’t these qualities characteristic of little children?

Of course, I wouldn’t call Christmas Stories to Warm the Heart a book of children’s stories. Certainly, The Mansion by Henry van Dyke, is not a children’s story. Nor, I believe, are The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry or Where Love Is, God Is by Leo Tolstoy.

Uncertain how I would arrange the stories — I considered putting the best first (as I judge them) but couldn’t choose between The Greatest of These and a couple others — I finally decided to order them on the basis of length, with the shortest first.

Well, there you have it — my answer to the question “What’s your favourite Christmas story?” Not one story, but fourteen. And although some readers may find I’ve omitted their favourite, I believe I’ve included, from those I’ve read, the stories which left on my mind a lasting impression. In any case, I hope that in reading these pieces in my book Favourite Christmas Stories, you will experience as much comfort and joy (and maybe even inspiration) as I felt when I first came across them. And have felt again on organizing them into this little collection.

Murray C.  Watson has written 25 books and, in December, this one is never far from his coffee table or easy chair. If you would like him to  send you a copy, do a reading, or deliver a speech to your group, kindly contact him.

Calling All School Public Speaking Contest Event-Planners

December 1st, 2010 No comments

Do you recall your very first school speech or ‘oral composition’? Mine was at Norwood District High School when I was 13 and in grade nine.   I wasn’t nervous — I was scared stiff! Since then, I’ve learned I was not alone. Standing up to speak in front of others tops the average person’s list of ‘Life’s Most Dreaded Activities.’ Yet, statistics also reveal that oral communication skill is one of the most reliable indicators of success in work and joy in life.

Now, I give speeches in schools — voluntarily! My topic is ‘Ways to Reduce Fear in Public Speaking.’ How did I go from a frozen failure to a confident coach? My answer to that question is very encouraging for students struggling with how to put a speech together and make their butterflies ‘fly in formation.’

Most of our fears seem to boil down to three questions: Will they like me? Will they be interested in what I have to say? Will they be able to hear me over the sound of my hammering heart and knocking knees? I share a simple system which can help any confused or fearful individual cut the clutter and become a more confident communicator. And it will produce a ‘yes’ answer to those three questions.

Last winter a teacher at St. Paul’s Elementary School in Norwood, Ontario, contacted my speaking club for an experienced speaker to address the students a few weeks prior to their public speaking contest. When my club recommended me (I’m an Advanced Communicator Silver Toastmaster), I had the privilege of meeting the event-planner. Following is part of what she wrote to me in an e-mail following my presentation:

I heard many positive comments from teachers of each grade and you certainly inspired many young speakers. Many students, directly after your speech, were very keen to work on and improve their speeches. I personally enjoyed your speech very much and really appreciated the connections you drew to the community and our school. Thank you again and again.

I was not always an award-winning speaker. Although standing and delivering inspirational speeches to groups of adults was my childhood dream, it was also my worst nightmare! But my nightmare became my dream-come-true when I learned three secrets. These secrets relate to how to ‘see’ your audience members,  how to pick a topic, and how to write and deliver your speech in three simple parts.

Ever fall flat on your face from fear! If not, count your blessings. But you won’t have to look far to find such individuals. Hiding in school classrooms from one corner of this country to another are students just like me — once tongue-tied and terrified, afraid of failing and of looking stupid in front of others. Individuals who wish to do their best, but simply need a little help from someone who’s been there, and wants to be there for someone else, and is willing to share some special know-how. If it worked for me, it can work for anyone.

That’s why I’m calling all teachers in charge of public speaking contests. If you would like me to help, feel free to contact me.

A retired teacher, Murray is an author and speaker whose topics in front of school (and other) audiences include ‘Down with Depression’ and ‘Ways to Reduce Fear in Public Speaking.’

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