Archive for the ‘Anecdotes’ Category

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.

Pills, Skills, or Will?

November 28th, 2010 No comments

Someone said to me, “How did you get over your depression?” Looking back 17 years, after researching and writing a book on the subject, I recalled sleeping in till afternoon, unable to concentrate, sad, worried, physically underactive, mentally overactive including questioning the value of staying alive — and always my attention on myself. And I couldn’t help recalling, too, the difficulties I experienced after four strong drugs were prescribed in the psychiatric ward of that Toronto hospital. In fact, my short-term memory damage affects me still.                    

What I told my friend took about two minutes, but I thought I should give you a slightly longer version, starting with how it’s treated.                    

Clinical or major depression is generally treated in one of two ways — antidepressant pills or antidepressant skills. (I’m not touching here on bipolar or manic depression, nor am I touching on ECT — Electro Convulsive Therapy — commonly known as shock treatment). Commonly prescribed antidepressant pills include those such as Prozac  and Paxil. Antidepressant skills are generally developed through Talk Therapy — usually CBT (Cognitive Behaviour Therapy).                        

Antidepressant pills. Why are antidepressant drugs like Prozac and Paxil prescribed and how do they work? It is assumed there is a physical problem — effectively brain-disease. That there is a chemical imbalance, specifically that the level of serotonin is too low. That the lower mood is a consequence of this lower level of serotonin. When you’re depressed, some of this chemical has gone awol, and there isn’t enough available to enable you to access your happy feelings. The antidepressant drugs work by raising the level of serotonin. Raise your serotonin, raise your mood.                        

Antidepressant skills. Why are antidepressant skills recommended and how do they work? CBT (Cognitive Behaviour Therapy) assumes there is a cognitive problem in the mind — effectively incorrect thinking. That the depressed mood is a consequence of this improper thought pattern. Change your mind, change your mood. The great psychologist William James said, “The greatest discovery of my generation is that man can change his life by changing his attitude.” By changing his way of thinking.                        

Antidepressant will. Why is an antidepressant will, or relationship lifestyle, recommended and how does it work?  It is assumed by this spiritual-malaise model that the problem lies in one’s interactions with others — effectively self-centeredness. That the lower mood is the consequence of self-preoccupation. It prescribes getting your eyes off yourself and onto the needs of others. It would say that it is not the condition of my brain or how I think (although these are important) that is central to my peace of mind, but what I do. Life has a bounce-back. What I do for others (good or bad), I effectively do for myself. What I do for myself alone, I do for nobody.       

In the mystic tradition of Islam, Rumi says:
In that moment you are drunk on yourself,
You are the prey of a mosquito…
You lock yourself away in cloud after cloud of grief;
And in that moment you leap free of yourself,
The moon catches you and hugs you in its arms.                                                              

We may know the story of Job in the Torah of Judaism, how he was badly depressed, having lost his business, his family and his health. We may be familiar with the expression “the patience of Job.” But do we know how he was cured of his depression — how he raised his serotonin level? ‘And God turned the captivity of Job when he prayed for his friends.’ When he got his eyes off himself and onto the needs of others.                       

This shows up in the New Testament also. ‘Confess your faults to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.’ When we  confess other people’s sins and put the greater attention on ourselves, we get the cart before the horse. But healing requires we do it the other way around — clear our own deck of guilt and get our eyes off ourselves and onto the needs of others.          

To take one example (otherwise this will be not a blog, but a book!), when I was 21 and in  my first year of teaching in the little village of Marlbank, I recommended a student be expelled, and I exaggerated his behaviour — effectively lying — in court. Forty years later while reading a novel by George MacDonald, I realized I had to deal with it. But how? When I finally asked Billy for his forgiveness, which he readily granted, the black cloud I used to see when I woke in the morning, lifted.                       

Where the physical brain-disease model of major or clinical depression prescribes antidepressant pills, and the cognitive-illness view prescribes the antidepressant skills of correct thinking, this relationship lifestyle model prescribes getting one’s eyes off oneself and onto the needs of others after clearing the deck of guilt. For guilt, our stongest emotion, often dresses up as depression and anxiety. You can take a pailful of Paxil, but you won’t budge a depression based on guilt.       

Clearing the deck of guilt is a kind of qualifying condition. Many, in removing their guilt, have thereby removed their depression. Whereas the antidepressant pills path assumes we’re a body, and the antidepressant skills path assumes that beyond the body there’s a mind, what I’m calling the antidepressant will or lifestyle path assumes that beyond the mind there is something else (commonly called spirit). You probably won’t find this ‘antidepressant will’ (or relationship lifestyle) label in medical literature. It’s a tag I came up with after ‘seeing’ the concept in my study of spirituality underlying and common to the various religions. What drove me to that study was finding myself a victim of collateral damage after being prescribed antidepressant and related pills, and finding I needed more than the correct thinking skills offered by CBT.                      

What I am calling the antidepressant will or lifestyle finds no fault with Talk Therapy’s correct thinking model. It simply goes farther. And neither the skills approach nor the will/relationship lifestyle approach results in negative side-effects.      

What are the advantages and disadvantages of each method?  For the doctor, the advantage of pills is they’re easy. Simply write a prescription. And make some follow-up appointments. And as one doctor said to me, “You get the parents off your back because at least you did something.”  There’s never a shortage of pills, while there may be a shortage of money, or available professionals, for Talk Therapy. “How long,” I once asked a pharmacist, “must one must stay on an antidepressant?” His reply? “Well, forever.” And this is true, because if, for any reason, you stop taking the drug,  and it’s out of your system, you’re right back where you started! Unless, in the meantime, you’ve put in place some antidepressant skills or an antidepressant will (lifestyle). I can’t speak to the disadvantages of the skills and the will/lifestyle models as I believe there are none. No one ever got rich selling Talk Therapy. In my own case, at the end of a 25-year marriage I went into hospital with depression. They put me on Prozac, Ativan, Elavil, and Mogodan.  I came out with depression, slow plumbing, no sleep for three weeks, short-term brain memory damage and no sex drive. Now everything is back up again — except my short-term brain memory damage. That’s why I have to keep my notes handy during my speeches.                       

Is there a connection between depression and suicide? In Canada, 90% of teenagers who committed suicide suffered from depression!  The Health Board in the UK has recommended SSRI antidepressants not be prescribed to anyone younger than twenty-five. Why? In this age group, these drugs actually increase thoughts of suicide. As an adult driving to work one morning, I nearly drove over the edge of a bridge. And I feel very sorry for all those who didn’t stop before they went over the edge  — and for those they left behind.                 

Where does this illness reside? Some see depression and anxiety as a brain disease, some as a thinking disease, I see it as a relationship disease. And the relationship disease has repercussions in our thinking pattern and on chemical levels in the brain. I now believe this illness is basically self-preoccupation. One doctor said it is not caused by a shortage of Prozac. In my view, it is caused by an excess of self-attention. In my self-pity, I can lock and bar the door. But the bar that keep others out, keeps me in — in the dark dungeon of despair. And until I open the door to others (which is an inside job), I’m my own jailer.     

If serotonin were seen to be the definitive marker for this illness, it would make sense that getting a blood test to confirm it would be easy if not mandatory. Yet, when I asked for one, my doctor said he’d never heard of it before. And it was hell to pay to get the lab to test for it when I was able to persuade my doctor to give me a requisition. And even if serotonin were always low in a depressed individual (which it probably is) does not prove that is the cause of the illness. It might be a symptom. The real question might be, Does the low level of serotonin cause the low mood? Or, does the low mood cause the low level of serotonin?           

Trade in your self-pity for pity for others. In the place of depression, you’ll pick up peace of mind. For peace of mind and selfishness do not hold hands. Not only do they not go together, they’ve never met. But if the crux of depression is self-preoccupation, how do I remove it? When you take your car to get lubricated, do you worry about getting rid of the old grease? No. The ejection of the old grease results from the injection of the new. So with depression. Don’t focus on getting rid of your self-attention. As you put your eyes on the needs of others, your attention on yourself  lessens automatically.    

Is there a slogan that will help keep me on track? There is. Just as there’s a four-word motto which works every time for losing weight — Eat less, exercise more — so there’s an equally effective mantra for losing depression. Help others, help yourself.                       

Murray acknowledges this blog omits many important aspects of depression. He admits you get a better picture of this widespread illness after reading the book and hearing the speech. He also says, “My purpose is to share smiles, wisdom and encouragement. If you would like me to give a speech to your school or other group, please contact me.”

Have Speeches Will Travel

November 26th, 2010 No comments

Three things happened this week which seem to have something in common.

First, I was telling a friend, fellow writer and one-time neighbour that most of the feedback on my last speech related to depression. This had surprised me because the presentation was not on depression and anxiety, but was on a humorous topic. At least I thought it was humorous. And the frequent laughter from the audience suggested they agreed with  me. My only references to depression were two indirect comments made in passing — that I had changed my mind and was going to speak on a lighter topic, and that I had spent the summer holidays of 1993 in the psychiatric ward of a Toronto hospital. It’s true the young lady who thanked me, following my presentation, did mention the title of my latest book (If Only Sleep Would Last Forever! Help for Depression and Anxiety from One Who’s Been There).

My ears perked up when my friend said, “You should hook up with Margaret Trudeau.” He went on to say we’d both experienced it (in her case bipolar, in mine major depression), we’d both experienced serious repercussions because of it, we’d both written about it, we both give speeches about it. He related he had attended a speech by Margaret at the high school in Campbellford, Ontario, that he had to leave the hall more than once to compose himself. “It really touched me,”  he said. He admits he has been no stranger to depression himself. And he was familiar with the positive feedback I had received in April from the grade 9 and grade 12 students at Norwood District High School — students who had not long before lost a fellow student to suicide. One wrote, “It wasn’t a speech by someone who didn’t know what it’s actually like to be depressed…and how to fix it.”

In fact, my friend who is now telling me to contact Margaret Trudeau was the one who initially encouraged me to give the speech in high schools. He said he would even make the first contact at Norwood. “Who should I speak to?” he asked. I said probably the guidance counselor. And he had made the first telephone call and paid the first visit to the school. “Imagine the number of people you could help,” he said. “Send her an e-mail,” he urged. I’m still screwing up my courage.

Second, in the parking lot of a grocery store today, I heard a man’s voice say, “Mr. Watson, could I speak with you for a second?” Since I retired from teaching ten years ago, not many people have called me ‘mister’ . As a younger man was with him, I surmised he could’ve been the father of a former student. But he quickly explained. “I saw the sign on your car. And my wife is often looking for a speaker….” As we were walking into the store — he and his son for some salads and I for water cress for a salad (we seemed to be on the same wavelength)– he asked me for my business card and said his wife would be calling me.

Third, a young lady was telling me her son just entered junior high. She said, “Stand-up comic that he is — still doesn’t like to be in front of a group.” I told her I didn’t give my very first speech (or ‘oral composition’) until I was in grade 9 at Norwood District High School. Usually very shy and self-conscious, I was not nervous. I was scared stiff!

Now, the person whose greatest fear was speaking in public in front of others (that’s me), ironically stands up in front of students and coaches them on (you guessed it!) public speaking. The title of my speech is ‘Ways to Reduce Fear in Public Speaking.’ Like me back then, the vast majority of students seem to have three basic questions of the audience: 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? They are quite surprised — happily surprised — when I explain the secret of composing and delivering a speech that will turn fear and apprehension to peace of mind and confidence. And get a  ‘yes’ answer to all three questions. And, if the secret worked for me, it can certainly work for anybody. And turn any fearful individual into a more confident communicator.  

In fact, when I gave that speech in February to the pupils in grade 4 to 8 at St. Paul’s Elementary School in Norwood, Ontario, the teacher in charge of their public speaking contest said, “Many students, directly after your speech, were very keen to work on and improve their speeches…. I personally enjoyed your speech very much…. Thank you again and again.”

After I had finished telling that young lady about my speech on public speaking, she said, “You could probably present that particular speech to every school in the area.” And, if invited, I’m ready to do just that. For I see myself in those classrooms — wanting to do my best, fearing failure, looking for help. And I’d love to save even one student from the pitfalls and banana peels that lay in my earlier path.

What do these three happenings have in common? They all relate in one way or another to speeches. When I was considering a name for my website, two thoughts were bouncing around in my mind. ‘Speaking to Inspire’ was not my first idea. My first idea was HAVE SPEECHES WILL TRAVEL. Imagine what my e-mail address would’ve been.  Since so many listeners have called me a motivational or inspirational speaker — “You really inspire me” or “You really motivate me!” — I finally decided my e-mail should be

My speeches this year included Peer Support Niagara in St. Catharines, St. Paul’s Elementary School in Norwood, Norwood District High School, The Toronto Public Library, The Warkworth Community Service Club. Thinking about these different places, and different speeches, I realize my label could just as easily have been HAVE SPEECHES WILL TRAVEL. (Now, if I could just come up with a short speech that could travel to a laudable lady named Margaret!)


Murray says, “My purpose is to share smiles, wisdom and encouragement — to lift your life. If I can serve you by making a speech to your group, please contact me.

On My Last Speech (or I Feel Better When I Give Something Away)

November 20th, 2010 No comments

Someone asked me yesterday, “Well, how did your speech go?” She was referring to my speech — ‘Adam Had a Garden’ — presented to The Warkworth Community Service Club on Thursday last. In my response, I mentioned three individuals whose words were fresh in my mind.

The first person whose words left an impression on me came up to me shortly after I had delivered the speech. She asked me if I remembered her. I had to admit I did not. I’m finding people I haven’t seen for some time are looking older (myself excepted). She reminded me she had attended a reading club I had hosted at my farm in 2003 and that her name was Carol. But what struck me was what Carol confided to me. It had nothing to do with the humorous speech I had just delivered. She said she had fallen into a bad bout of depression, she found my book at the bookstore in Havelock (Cottage Country Books), and that it had really helped her.

The second person whose words touched me was Jan Wood. She is the one who shot my 11 speech introductions and uploaded them to my YouTube channel. At the last minute, I asked if she could shoot my speech in Warkworth. No, only because she was giving an on-line seminar that evening. But she would loan me her camera. (And a kind man at the club by the name of Cullen set it up and took charge of the shooting. Thank you, Cullen.) When I returned the camera the next day, Jan said to me she didn’t mind admitting to me that she’d had a hard time the last couple months [she had lost a family member], because I knew what depression was all about. (She was referring to the fact that, as I admit in my book and in my speeches, I was admitted in 1993 to a Toronto hospital  under the care of a psychiatrist, was prescribed four strong drugs, and, among other problems, ended up with short-term brain memory damage.)  Then she said she had picked up my book on depression the other day, had finished reading it the same day, and that it had helped her. Then she said, “You do important stuff, and I want to help you get it out there.”

The third person, whose words I remember, was club memberJohn Belton who was in charge of introducing me to the audience. In a conversation earlier in the week, he had, in referring to members of the club, used the expression “Vitamin V — for volunteering.” I hadn’t heard this one before, quoted it in my speech, and consider it a masterful metaphor, whoever came up with it. In my speech, I said that when my daughter was eight years old, I had heard her say to her brother in the yard, “You know, I feel better when I give something away.” In my speech, I told the 75 club members and guests that I believe that in life there is a bounce-back. That what I give to others — good or bad — I effectively give to myself.

What do I see in common among these three people? They’re on the wavelength of giving. John saw his fellow club members as volunteering to help. Although she couldn’t attend the dinner meeting in person, Jan gave me the use of her camera to support my calling. Carol effectively came back and gave me a ‘thank you’ for researching and writing my book on depression that ended up helping her.

To me, it seemed somehow ironic that after a speech intended to supply more smiles than wisdom, most of the feedback I received was essentially “Thank you, Murray, for writing your book on depression.” Ironic or not, I’m glad that in my speech (‘Adam Had a Garden’) I did make one reference to my own experience of depression. It reminds me of the words of a student at Norwood District High School after my speech on the link between depression and teenage suicide — “It wasn’t a speech by someone who didn’t know what it’s actually like to be depressed…and how to fix it.”

I may not know exactly how you feel about giving help to others, but I do know how Jan and Carol feel about the help they reported receiving. And I know how I feel when someone gives me a ‘thank you’, or buys one of my CDs or books for someone they know is struggling, or engages me to make a speech. And I know how I feel when I try, in my books and speeches, to give away smiles, wisdom and encouragement. I feel better when I give something away.


The particular book referred to above is If Only Sleep Would Last Forever: Help for Depression and Anxiety from One Who’s Been There. In my books and speeches, my intention is to share smiles, wisdom and encouragement — to lift your life. If I can help you by sending you a copy of this book, or making a speech to one of your groups (schools, churches, service clubs, libraries), please contact me.

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