Tag Archives: inspiration

Dear Mom (Inspiration Series, Week 26)

The one word that seems to sum up Mom’s impact on the world is kindness.


Dear Mom,

I’ve been writing this year. Well, to be honest, I was writing until, somewhere in July, I kind of stopped. 

It’s my first attempt at something significant in awhile – a blog series on people who’ve inspired me. After a good start, I missed some weeks, then more. I realized getting stuck seemed to happen most when I tried to pick people who had done great things, as opposed to ones who touched something in me. 

No one touches me, even all these years later, more than you. It’s crazy to think that this month, you will have been gone for 35 years. I only had you in my life for 14. And while your absence doesn’t cause the same deep pain it once did, I think about you all the time – who you were, what you’d think of the world, and how things might be different if you’d been here longer.

What choices might I have made if I hadn’t spent a third of my childhood with someone battling alcoholism and depression? If you’d been able to work on your dreams, would I have been able to create bigger ones for myself? Though I can’t know if I’d have had more confidence, felt less fear, I believe that having your guiding hand on my shoulder could have helped me be a bit braver, more excited about the opportunities that lay ahead.

Instead, a mix of grief and natural reticence led to a lot of “comfort” decisions. I eschewed taking chances for safety, and while there are things and people I can’t imagine my life without, I still wonder about what might have been had I pushed myself, found more courage when confronting challenges.

This blog… as I mentioned, it’s about Inspirers – people who, through word or action, make me think about doing more, being more. I’ve had Dad, and Nana & Granddaddy, along with some famous people as subjects. And now, it’s time for you, the woman who, despite her short presence in my life, has probably influenced me more than any other person.

It sounds weird, but I don’t have any concrete memories of you. I can’t hear your voice, and am not really able to picture you, even as I do other people from those early years. Perhaps it’s trauma; someday, perhaps I’ll be able to pull the images out. But here’s the thing, and what led me to choose you as my Inspirer this week. As far from 1982 as we are, there are a lot of people who do remember you. And many are still in my life.

When I posted your picture on Facebook to commemorate your birthday, the response was fast and remarkable. Person after person commented – and whether it was as a Girl Scout leader or a neighborhood mom, the consensus was pretty clear. 

You made people feel special. They recalled how our house was always open to all the kids and how there was always a friendly face to welcome them. Girls remembered the crafts you taught, guys remember you and Dad serving as chaperones on great weekend outings. 

I believe that the remembrances are a tribute to you, to the values you instilled and the way you lived and loved. Because you did it so clearly and openly, there are many here to attest to your wonderful legacy. 

You were sweet, they say. Kind and warm. I remember someone once remarking that you had a soft spot for kids and animals and that nothing angered you more than their mistreatment. Those who needed your caring, and perhaps a smidge of protection, were extra special to you.

Your welcoming nature, though, was even more important in ways I’ve only recently learned. I was so happy when kids my age moved onto our block. Now I know that some in the neighborhood weren’t thrilled with a black family moving in. It warmed my heart to hear how you made sure they knew they were welcomed by our family. 

So many people have told me that they loved our annual New Year’s Day open house – another example of your hospitality – that featured your reubens and onion sandwiches. They’re still being made by many. I had lunch with one of your best friends awhile ago. She gave me one of your recipe index cards – that bubbly handwriting is one thing I do remember well, I treasure it.

Though there were things that took over your life – things I likely will never fully understand – I take pride in your acts of bravery. Marrying a “foreigner,” being the first in your family to move away from your childhood home to what must have seemed so far away. And then, after starting your family in New York City, relocating to Teaneck, a town that was making a name for itself – it may not have been perfect but it was mighty special, and something I’ve only begun to appreciate. 

Genes are an odd thing. Though we spent a short time together, I believe that I am very like you. I know we have the same look – people commented on how much this picture I used of you looks like me. 

But I got more than your eyes and premature gray. I inherited a sensitivity (sometimes it feels like fragility) that means I get frustrated easily, especially when things seem unfair or it seems people are being mistreated. I cry pretty quickly – over tv shows, diary entries, and pictures of you as a young woman. I take great offense if I feel I’ve been wronged and wonder if you did. I’ve gotten better at forgiveness, though can still be very stubborn. Does that sound familiar? 

Your family has grown, Mom, in ways that might have been hard to imagine 35 years ago. Your descendants include a stunning mix of the most beautiful people, every one of whom you would adore. I wonder if you could have imagined our diversity when you set down roots… I have no doubt you’d be proud. 

When I turned 45, I visited your grave. Outliving your lifespan felt odd. I thought it might bring closure, but it was tough – there was no path to follow anymore. It made me realize just how young you were. There was so much left to do. 

It was actually easier in the old days, when I could hold on to anger at you for abandoning me when I needed you most. But though I still don’t fully understand what happened and why, I do get feeling so badly that it just doesn’t seem worth the fight. It can be exhausting. I wish we could have helped you more back then, told you how much we needed you to keep fighting.

The thing that keeps me going – and I haven’t shared this much – is this feeling that, somehow, I’m doing this for both of us. Trying to conquer our shared challenges, trying to find fulfillment that I’m not sure you ever did. Your oldest kids took care of the children thing, to wonderful effect. My job, it feels like, is to reach into the heart that I think I share with you, to take our vulnerabilities and turn them into strengths, then find the resiliency that will help me achieve my goals.

So even as I continue to mourn – and I expect I will until my own last day – I also give thanks for a mother who left me and many others inspired by her kindness, ability to comfort, and commitment to those in need. These are lessons that flowed from you and I will do my best to keep them going. 

We are all better off for having you in our family tree, our neighborhood, our lives. They are thriving thanks to the love your spirit continues to nourish.

Until we meet again,

Peege 

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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.


My friend, the Warrior (Inspiration Series, Week 11)

Then and now. Who knew that behind the gorgeous face lay a soul of steel?


I’m not known for a stellar memory, especially when it comes to childhood. And yet, a few people stick out. The neighbors and friends who gave support after my mom died. This boy who told me I looked pretty after a miraculous haircut at age 12. And the popular girl in junior high who sent me “football” notes and made me feel slightly less alone. The faces of the first two have long since faded. But the girl from French class? Well, she is this week’s inspiration. 

I reconnected with Sandy in the most obvious millenial way – through Facebook. After more than 20 years I was still a bit awed by her, and thrilled that she wanted to see me, too. Exchanges followed, and then a get-together that was one of those nights where you can actually feel things changing.

We talked about our lives, our plans. After years of climbing the corporate ladder, Sandy was hopping off. Her new path was about as different as could be from the old one – she was working to become an actor. A frustrated writer myself, I listened with more than a little wonder as she talked about the joy she found in her drama classes, the thrill from being on stage.

It wasn’t long before she began to challenge me. What was I writing? What ideas did I have? Why wasn’t I doing more? The questions were hard to dismiss; it was as though my hopes and dreams were being re-formed and channeled through this energetic, persistent force with no intention of letting me off the hook. We’d talk on the phone and she’d laugh at my goofy blunders and daily screw ups, always telling me to put them in a story. She got me blogging and shared my stuff with others. After years of not writing, here I was. Writing. 

Fast-forward a year and while my life moved along pretty normally, Sandy’s went into overdrive, highlighted by the day she reconnected with the love of her life. Before I knew what had happened, she was making plans to relocate to Arizona. I’d love to say my support was unequivocal, but there was a touch of anger that I was losing her, along with some envy of the two guys who were welcoming her into their lives. I also wondered, where would her still-young creative dreams go in the desert?

I couldn’t have written the next part better myself. For while Sandy exited Stage Left from New Jersey, the woman – the artist – who entered Stage Right across the country would go on to do things I’d never considered. The transition, filled with challenges, heartache, and even tragedy, also brought out a fierceness, a dedication to her craft that included more learning and constant effort. While managing the demands on her time and energy at home, she acted, made new friends in theater and film, and entrenched herself in a creative community that would treasure her passion.

The inspiration she provides goes beyond success. Despite outward appearances, Sandy let me know that none of it came easy. She’d sound frustrated when I’d talk about her accomplishments as though they were a foregone conclusion and remind me that her confidence wasn’t nearly as strong as people assumed. Many projects brought new doubts about her talent, her potential. They didn’t stop her, but they sure as hell followed her. 

Throughout the last 7 years, Sandy has added producer, director, and coach to her resume. She worked damned hard to learn and master each new skill that was required. She gave each role her full attention, despite the demands of an already overfilled life and unexpected health challenges that made things even more difficult. 

Most recently, Sandy became one more thing, which seemed to pull at some of her deepest insecurities. The thing she’d once told me she didn’t think she could do very well. The thing I wanted most for myself.

She became a writer.

From afar, I watched the idea form, the words hit the page, and the journey begin to becoming an honest-to-goodness writer and author of a short film. She sometimes seemed to fight with every line of dialogue, but she never gave in, even when her inner demons told her she wasn’t good enough. Listening to her describe the process, I marveled at the spirit and dedication it took to keep going. Health problems threatened to derail her – she told them to fuck off and powered on. People she counted on didn’t follow through; she figured out how to keep going, building a personal army of loyal supporters to fight with her. She became a creative  tank, rolling over the self-doubt that would stop so many of us in our tracks. 

She defeated it, over and over. First with a finished script, then with casting the best actors, then with a physical transformation to get into a character that only she could play. The work began, and months later, this woman who was once not a writer was one, and so much more. Unwilling to succumb to the negative voices, she achieved what they’d told her she could not. 

I believe the Universe responded to her boldness. It sensed that regardless of inner anxiety, this creative soul would not be thwarted. And so it opened its arms and embraced Sandy. It wouldn’t make things easy for her, but it  would make them possible, and that’s all the room she needed. The ball was handed to her and she ran with it. 

I have generally been content to sit on the sidelines, cheer on others as they make plays and and move their lives forward. I’ve always assumed those on the field are experts, risking little. Sandy, through her willingness to share the struggle, the work behind the curtain, showed me just how false my impression was. She became a shining example of the rewards that only come to those willing to resist the easy road and put it all out on the line. 

I leave you with the two words that make me think of Sandy, the mantra we came up with long ago to address those old voices telling us we don’t have what it takes, that the chances for failure are real and scary. 

Fuck Fear. 

And along with it, the negative self-talk, the paralyzing doubt, the bad habits that build the wrong muscles. Fuck all the things, real and imagined, that keep us from pursuing our dreams with everything we’ve got. 


Taking up the Challenge (Inspiration Series, Week 10)

Despite all else, she wrote


The story of JK Rowling is pretty well known by now. A young writer comes up with this idea for a story,  or rather, a series of them, nearly fully formed, while riding on a train. She develops a cast of characters, begins to plot. And then… 

Over the course of the next few years, she loses her mother, her marriage, and her job, and finds herself broke, with a baby to raise and a diagnosis of clinical depression to round out her life. And yet, despite what to some might feel like a rejection from the Universe, Rowling continued to write, child in tow, day after day in local cafes – not waiting for a time when things might fall into place, but continuing to show up, pen in hand, day after day. 

She battled both inner turmoil and poverty, yet fought on, page by page. Through sheer will she completed the first book, which was quickly rejected by 12 publishers. (Spoiler alert: the book finally finds a publisher and does not do badly.)

Rowling is inspirational on multiple levels. She was handed nothing, other than, perhaps, an enviable imagination and a healthy dose of discipline. She was tested beyond what many of us could take –  who would have blamed her if she’d decided that this huge project was more than she could handle? And yet, she persisted. Rather than wait for life to get better, for the stars to align in her favor, she fought back against her demons (in fact, she worked them into her story). At a fork in the road that would determine the next chapter of her own life, she chose the one marked Create and worked her challenges into blessings that served her instead of keeping her stuck.

Just as her personal story inspires, so too, do Rowling’s stories, none more than Harry Potter. Beyond the tale of a kid who finds out he’s a wizard, his is a coming of age story that touches on nearly every human emotion and fear. From outcast to beloved member of a big family, from innocent follower to a conviction-filled warrior and leader; we follow a young man through adventures and experiences that test his soul, as well as his life. 

Harry’s resilience can be seen right away, when we meet him as a kid living with cruel relatives. Everything is awful, down to his “bedroom” in a cupboard under the stars. But while the news that he is a wizard will ultimately change his life, there are no guaranteed victories. Time and time again, over the course of seven books, he will be faced with choices (not unlike his creator) that demand he reach beyond what is comfortable. Rowling connects us to her protagonist through each phase of his new life, so that we feel as though we are his companions on the journey; we read with bated breath under a kind of cosmic invisibility cloak from which we watch him fight.

The lessons – on courage, on fortitude, on revenge – grow more subtle as Harry progresses through Hogwarts, and no one, not even those he cherishes most, will always do the right thing Even our greatest heroes, Rowling reminds us, come with flaws. 

From Ron Weasley’a occasional lack of loyalty to Dumbledore’s habit of leaving out key bits of information, Harry’s most treasured allies let him down at one point or another. Bad tempers affect nearly everyone at least once, and fights between friends are not uncommon. Good guys pick on others, while apparent villains often reveal complicated motives and emotions once their story is told. Through all of it – the excitement, the wonder, and the tragedy – Harry persists. He rides through the storms he can, waits out others, but never loses focus on the tasks before him. Just as Rowling never lost focus on hers.

Both the author and her young hero faced the big questions, the ones that confront all of us at some point in our lives. Will we pursue our biggest goals and dreams, Or will we choose the safe paths that provide comfort but so often hinder our growth? Will we prove ourselves worthy of the breaths we have been given?

And if our answer is yes, we will fight on, like JK Rowling and Harry Potter, there is perhaps, one question left. What are we waiting for?  As Harry’s godfather tells him, the answer is in our own hands.


 


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