Category Archives: Inspirers

Keeping it Real, while Keeping the Faith (Inspiration Series, Week 34)

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Matt Haig’s willingness to share his story of living with depression and anxiety has earned him a special place in the hearts of his fans.

One of the coolest things, in the midst of all the noise we face each day, is finding new voices that speak about things in a way we haven’t heard before. Every so often, through all of the clanging, something squeaks through that resonates.

I’m not sure where or how, exactly, I came across Matt Haig on Twitter, but he quickly became someone who I looked for each day. He had fought anxiety and depression like so many people I know; what made him different was a commitment to sharing his experiences—the good, the bad, and the ugly—and showing just how normal we really were.

Matt wrote a memoir, Reasons to Stay Alive, about the internal battles he waged in his 20s, when he reached the deep end of depression. He describes the spiraling, the panic attacks, in a candid, self-effacing style that resonates with so many.

friends and family may not always understand the demons we confront, but Matt does. He empathizes with our pain, but also takes us through to the other side, where it doesn’t god such a tight grip. We see that he didn’t stay in the darkness, but instead found enough slivers of light to eventually break up the clouds. He reminds us that the things that can feel real and scary are often tricks our depressed minds are playing on us.

Matt’s life story continues—he worked his way through that dark period and has gone on to write more than a dozen books. His latest, “How to Stop Time”, about a man who’s been alive since 1581, became a bestseller. And just to add a cherry on top, the book was optioned for a movie and will star the great Benedict Cumberbatch.

Talk about rising up. And yet…

What made me choose Matt Haig as an Inspirer was not that he’s vanquished the pain, or even left it completely behind. Sure, he’s spent months on a book tour (and bestseller lists), received all kinds of accolades and opportunities. But as he’d head back to his hotel room, even after a day filled with recognition, he shares with is that the old fears and feelings are sometimes waiting for him.

And so he is fierce in his messaging on mental illness and how bad we humans are at recognizing its impact. He celebrates sensitivity and let’s us know we are not weak for feeling the invisible pains that seem to drain our lives of the happiness we deserve.

Matt argues that we should not capitulate to societal norms telling us that there are unbreakable rules for how to be in the world. He decries the unwritten standards of stoicism and instead urges true, honest expressions of feeling, even the bad ones.

He is not oblivious to the fact that the platforms he uses to reach out, including to those most in need of a friendly voice, are the same ones where we humans too often tear each other down. But while he’s not above snark, or strongly expressing his views, his baseline remains kindness.

To me, it is his commitment to spreading compassion for the unhappy among us that stands out. The sheer openness in telling the sad parts of his history, the times when he was not able to be his best. The direct advice to a fan who is experiencing a hard time, and the congratulations to another who has overcome a phobia and achieved something new.

Life is a strange experiment. We form groups, we make commitments, we cooperate to get things done. And yet each one of us falls asleep and wakes up in our individual bodies and mindsets. We learn our strengths and faults and work hard to use the former while pushing down the latter. We don’t always succeed.

For whatever reason—genetics, brain composition, experience—a segment of us often finds difficult what comes naturally to the rest. While we crave connection, it can feel too scary to reach out. And so, we often suffer silently, believing that it is at least our duty to keep the bad stuff quiet, rather than spread it around.

Despite our shaky records of self nurturing, with some work, we can learn to see beyond our marred self-images to a more kind, more real understanding of all we have to offer. And we can find guides—Inspirers—who show us that despite a world that can feel like a mass of bogs and quicksand, there are actually a whole array of paths we can choose to take. Including, and especially, the ones we forge on our own.

A Twitter follower asked Matt, “How do you keep going in hard times?” His response:

“By remembering I have felt like that before. By remembering I felt there was no hope, when there was. By realising things can change. If you felt differently before you will feel differently again. Low points give the worst perspective. Keep on. You can.”

As I begin another leg of my own journey, with a bit more gratitude each day, I will remember to look out for these guides along the way.

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My Dad, the Artist (Inspiration series, Week 23)

Dad on his wedding day, June, 1962

My father never really fit the traditional American father mold – probably because he wasn’t American by birth at all. He was Swiss, and retained a certain European-ness, in his tastes, his speech, his clothes – he loved football but would never have been seen in a jersey (I don’t recall him ever wearing a t-shirt).  He was even cool when smoking – he preferred Benson & Hedges, the brand from London. He had monogrammed shirts and loved James Bond. To be fair, he did also have a fondness for Jack Nicklaus and John Wayne.

What set Dad apart, other than his clothes and his accent, was his creativity. Though he earned his salary in marine insurance, he had an artist living inside him, one who came out often, around the holidays, on birthdays, and even on vacation.

He was famous for his Christmas cards, which were made by hand each year. From a pen and ink rendering of our Teaneck home to linoleum block prints featuring Christmas trees and wreaths, a Roland Rueger original was something to treasure. Many people kept them all and continued to display them year after year.

His handwriting added to the beauty of the things he made. One year, when a dollhouse from Santa to my sister and me would be late, Dad penned a letter from him to let us know. It was impeccable and left no doubt in my mind that it was, indeed from the North Pole.

When a good friend and neighbor turned 40 in 1976, Dad wrote a poem for him that was silly and slightly bawdy. The family has it to this day.

Knowing his love of jigsaw puzzles, that same family presented him with an all red one as a joke. I’m not sure how long it took him, but he finished it – then promptly turned it into art, scrawling graffiti and having it framed, then returning it to the gifters.

Dad’s art came out on my birthday, too. He would take fingerprints of each partygoer and under his pen they became animals – fluffy rabbits, a duck – that he would carefully place in a little wooden circle frame. I still have one of mine.

There was perhaps no better outlet for his talent than the beach, where we’d spend two weeks every summer. Dad could only get time off for one, and by the second morning was usually on the sand before most of us were up.

He made us race cars, big enough to sit in and good for hours of fun, especially when the waves were too big or I just didn’t want to get wet. The details, from the wheels to the lights and dashboard, were stunning.

The highlight of vacation, though, was the sandcastle. Dad would haul out his equipment – buckets, shovels, and all of the little carving and shaping tools – and get to work. He was at once serious and light, totally focused and yet peaceful, in a state of calm. Back and forth he’d go to the ocean to fill a pail with water, stopping only for lunch and perhaps a quick swim.

Crowds would gather as they realized this was to be no ordinary structure. Kids would get too close and I’d want to warn them off. The pride was overwhelming. This was my dad building, doing something that was so obviously better than anything around.

The castles came complete with moats, bridges, windows, and towers. They were huge, at least in my memory – big enough to imagine myself in as the princess. I don’t have tons of memories from childhood, but I can picture Dad walking around his creation, sculpting staircases and trees with the wet sand he’d let drip though his hands. It was magical.

Watching him draw was too. He’d sit at the dining room table, instruments in hand, and it was like another person emerged. One day when I was about 12, I found a big red book of Dad’s – the “Famous Artist’s Course,” a correspondence class that taught the basics and then some. It was a sign to me that though art may have been a hobby for Dad, it was also very real and deserved a commitment. Over the years I’ve worked through bits of it. Perhaps that will be my next project.

The circumstances of life meant that time with my father- especially as an adult – was limited, and there are days when the unsaid words and experiences hang heavy in the air. If I could do it again I would open up more, share more, and for sure, get him to talk more about the art he made and what it meant to him. Though I can’t do that, I can remember the very real artistry that ran through his veins and thus, through mine. I can work to fulfill my own creative dreams, in honor of the man never let go of his.

I believe that art – whether done as a painter, a singer, an architect, or a landscaper – runs deep in the genetics of humans. The desire to express ourselves is always present, and we each seek our best and most natural path to do just that. It is one of the most indelible marks of a life well lived. I am forever grateful for a role model whose artistry left a huge impression on me and spurs me to nurture my own.

I miss you, Dad, today and always.


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