Sunday, August 31, 2008

Taking It Back...

Well behaved women rarely make history.
~~Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

I went into a Jehovah's Witness Kingdom Hall yesterday. My old Kingdom Hall. The one where I was last a JW. The one my parents still attend. Wait, let me back up this story a bit.

So, I have a history of peacemaking at my own expense. In the past I allowed people to stomp on my boundaries. Well, that was then, this is now. A series of events has transpired in recent weeks, well I'm sure it's actually a case of years. And the proverbial straw broke this penguin's back. My initial response was to do the letting it go thing, to "take the high road", to rise above it. I noticed my right eye started twitching. And I knew my body was speaking what was really going on in my unconscious. The twitching eye is my particular sign for repressed rage. It remembered how often I let things go. Abuses. Boundary violations. Bullshit. How often I'd pushed down quite justified rage with the love band-aid. But the wound still stank. And I knew it.

I woke up yesterday morning, my eye twitching, and a heat running through the core of my body. And I decided to spend the day with the rage and let it all come to the surface, allow it to work its way through me, rather than stuff it down. I had previously made plans to spend a few days off at my brother's place while he's out of town. My brother lives right in the heart of my old JW territory. The bus I take to get to his place goes right by the old Kingdom Hall I attended.

As I'm riding the subway toward my brother's home, I allow the rage to well up. I do my best to just watch it, letting go of any particular story as to why I was angry. I just let it come up and felt it to the core.

I transfered from the subway over to the bus platform. As I'm sitting there, up walks an older JW elder from my last congregation, along with his wife, who recognizes me, although she can't recall my name. I tell her who I am. She asks how I am, says it's been so long since they've seen me at the Kingdom Hall. I say, "Yes, it's been three years."

Her husband avoids eye contact with me and I get the impression he's not too pleased that his wife is continuing to speak to me. Shunning is the protocol for an "apostate", the label I have been given by the JW dogma, and oddly, his wife is not complying. But he does respond with a quick "fine" when I ask him how he's been.

Wifey proceeds to ask questions about how my life is going...are you working? are you getting married? do you still talk to your parents...cuz you know it doesn't matter how old you get, they still gave you life and you should not forget that. (At this point, I want to tell her that the only strain on my relationship with my parents is the tenets of her mindfuck of a cult, but I instead ignore her comment and say I contact my parents when I like.)

The conversation ends, I wish them well and we get on the bus. A few stops down the road they get off in front of the old Kingdom Hall. I look at my watch. It's approaching their Sunday meeting time. Hmm...

I make my way to my brother's place, drop off my things and turn right back out the door and start walking towards the Kingdom Hall. For the past three years, I've cringed every time I saw that building. A mix of grief, self-pity and plain disgust kept me from ever wanting to step foot in that place again. Frankly, it scared me. But today was different. I'm different. And I had rage on my side, propelling my feet along the street at a feverish pace.

I arrived at the Hall just before the meeting was to begin. People were still socializing in the main area. I walked into the room and there standing in front of me was my favorite elder, the man who I once looked at as a spiritual father. We exchanged a hello. He said, "Please, find yourself a seat."

I said, "No thank you. I'm just going to stand here."

I looked out through the crowd, a sea of painted smiles, and the room looked so small. The people looked small. Everything looked so small, like when you go back to your grade school and sit at your old desk and wonder how you ever fit in it. I saw the faces of some old friends, who wore smiles of confusion. They weren't sure what to make of my presence there. Of course, I did stick out like a sore thumb, having walked in with my street clothes on. Jeans. Spaghetti strap black tank top. Slicked back hair in a pony tail. Fire engine red lip gloss. Ipod headphones around my neck. Oh, and my skull runners. Their dress code no longer applied to me. And I realized that it never did. None of their dogma did. It only had as much power as I allowed it to have.

I'm standing there, chin up, smiling from ear to ear and a few people, who don't know me, start love-bombing the newbie.

"Oh, I'm J, what's your name?"


"Oh, that's such a pretty name. What background is that?"

I tell him it has a meaning in Sanskrit and Russian.

"Oh and is this your first time here?"

I laugh. "No, I've been here a few times before."

By this time, there is growing concern on a few of the faces of those looking on. I'm sure they want to leap in and protect these unsuspecting souls from speaking to an apostate, afraid that they'll be tainted by sheer eye contact with the Devil's pawn. As I stand there being love-bombed it strikes me that if these people knew I'd left the faith, they would do an about- face and begin shunning me as everyone else there was.

I excuse myself from the cordialities and turn back to my fave elder. I look him in the eye and say, "L, you are a good man. You've always been a good man...and it has nothing to do with this place," I say motioning my arm across the room. "It's just who you are."

He looks at me and then puts his head down. He says nothing.

I then make my way downstairs to look at the smaller meeting rooms where I took the children when they got bored or restless or needed to sleep, the bathrooms where I cried many a meeting alone and finally the library which was used for elder's meetings and closed door interrogation processes that I had at times been a part of, always as the one being interrogated, of course. And again, I was struck by how small the room was. And I could see these men, these "men of God" sitting around this table, feeling that they had the right to every detail of my private life. And I laughed and I swore and I took my power from every one of them, realizing that they'd only had that power because I gave it to them to begin with. And I vowed never to allow another human being to take what didn't belong to them.

As I walked back upstairs, still grinning like an idiot, another of my beloved elders was at the top of the stairs. I said hello. He says, "Would you like to come and take a seat?"

I said, "No thank you. I'm finished here. Take care."

And I left. And I danced down the street and let out a "Hurrah!" It was just a building. It was always just a building. And they were just people. They were always just people. And I laughed at how much time I'd spent over the course of a lifetime worrying what any of these people thought of me. None of it mattered. It never did.

And guess what? My eye stopped twitching.

tall penguin

Friday, August 29, 2008

The L-Word

So, this thing we call LOVE...what the fuck is it? In the dismantling of every belief I've ever held to be true, I find the one I've been most resistant to considering has been the ideas I hold around love. And I have come to realize, as Joni Mitchell so aptly expressed, "It's love's illusions I recall, I really don't know love at all."

Growing up in a cult, you come to see how emotionally charged language can become, how everyday words that have simple meanings for everyone else, have become overlaid with cult doctrine, expectation and emotion. For example, the word "balance", as in "live a balanced life" has come to be associated with hypocrisy. It was what JW's were encouraged to cultivate at every turn, to be "balanced Christians," but the underlying connotation of the word's usage became a vehicle for meaning "Sacrifice everything you can in order to spend more time in the proselytizing work." "Living a balanced life" meant forgoing the simple pleasures of life for more time devoted to the cult. So now, when I hear the word "balance", or the phrases "balanced life", "balanced diet", etc. my body does a little cringe and I have to remind myself or ask what the speaker of this word is actually meaning.

I have found no more highly misunderstood and emotionally charged word than LOVE. More so even than the word GOD. You tell someone you love them and you never know quite how the person has received the word. Some people think it's the request for a lifetime commitment in relationship, that you're asking for marriage, the house, the kids and the white picket fence. Others think it's an invitation for sex. Others see a red flag signaling a request to respond in kind. "She said she loves me, now I have to say it." And still others crave whatever they think this love word means, but will run in the direct opposite direction once they hear it uttered. It's just a word. Four little letters. That's all. And yet, we give it so much power.

I use the L-word quite freely. If I'm feeling connected to someone, I say I love them. It is just a response that comes from the deepest part of myself. It's not even something I think too much about until I see the receiver's furrowed brow or question-mark face, wondering how I could use that word. I will sometimes ask what is going on for the person, what the word love means to them when they hear me say it. And sometimes I just let it go, allowing someone to spin in their own story of what they interpret my use of the love word to mean. Humans are an interesting lot. Funny to watch spin they are. Including myself.

I'm not even sure that the L-word truly conveys what I want to say to people when I use it. It is a child's view of the world, to see people through eyes of wonder and laugh and love so freely. Perhaps "I bliss you" or "I see you" or "I love life living through you" would be a better way to phrase it. Or maybe I should just stop using the L-bomb all together and just smile more. (Is it even possible for me to smile more? I smile a whole lot now.)

I don't know about this love stuff. All I know is that I'm here and I think you're all pretty cool.

tall penguin

Saturday, August 23, 2008


“Paradoxically, a group of humans becomes healing and converting only after its members have learned to stop trying to heal and convert. Community is a safe place precisely because no one is attempting to heal or convert you, to fix you, to change you. Instead, the members accept you as you are. You are free to be you. And being so free, you are free to discard defenses, masks, disguises; free to seek your own psychological and spiritual health; free to become your whole and holy self.”
--Scott Peck

Thursday, August 21, 2008

All is well...

Often I do or say something and kick myself later, thinking I could have done or said it in a more aware and loving fashion. But really, without having done it the way I'd done it, would I have had the opportunity to reflect and learn from it and even be aware that there was another way to do it? Makes me think that perhaps there are no mistakes, just what is.

tall penguin


Life is hilarious. I had just posted my last entry when my msn started blinking. It is a wonderful woman who used to be one of my ESL students many years ago. I met her because one of the women in my former Jehovah's Witness congregation ran a student home for international students. I ended up teaching this woman English and then she expressed an interest in learning about the Bible from me, so I taught her the jw version of things and she was quite interested. When I left the jw's, I had a conversation with her about my leaving and did my fear-based warning thing along with telling her about shunning and how the jw community was now treating me. That was 3 years ago and we've barely spoken much since.

So I see my msn blinking and see this young woman, my former ESL student and jw Bible student, saying hello. And then this:

"Guess what?" she says.


"I'm studying Bible."

"Wow...with who?"

"A friend."

She asks me why I stopped believing in the Bible. And I said, "I did research on the history and saw it to be a book of stories...some beautiful stories but still stories. I don't believe that there is any god outside of the god that you already are."

I try to ask if she's studying any particular religion's view of the Bible and she evades the question. Finally, I ask...

"Is your friend a Jehovah's Witness?"

"Yes, she is."

And I smile. I saw this coming. And there was no angst. There was just love. There was this complete acceptance of her journey. She said she wants answers to her questions. I said, "well I would invite you to do some research on both the origins of the bible and the origins of the jehovah's witness movement...not from their books though...the history is not accurate...other than that I wish you well."

And that was it. We moved along to other things.

I find this interesting for a few reasons.

1. The primary charge around all the jw stuff has dissipated greatly for me. I no longer feel responsible for saving anyone from them. This woman is an adult. It is her life. She is free to choose.

2. I think people gravitate towards religion for so many different reasons. This woman wants "answers to her questions". My mother was the same. And it seems that regardless of what I say to her, she wants to find those answers within the particular box of the jw view. So be it.

3. I often wonder whether people become enamored with the person that first contacts them with a religion/cult. That family connection thing. I remember studying the Bible as a jw with a young girl, around 9 years old, and she said she wanted to be just like me when she grew up. She said she wanted to be a jw, but I think she really meant she wanted to be like me, wanted to give people the feeling I gave her, which had little to do with my being a jw. But, at her age, she could not know that. I hope she can differentiate it later in life.

I think too of my father who converted many years after my mother because of the difference he thought the religion was making in my mother's personality. Frankly, it could've been therapy or the new friends or a medication that made the difference and he probably wouldn't have jumped into those things, but somehow he thought the religion was making the difference and devoted himself to it as a result. In hindsight, I think he would admit that my mother's personality isn't all that different after all, that the religion just gave her some tools to suppress things ever deeper, and appear happier than she really was. But I digress. That's my judgment, not his.

Hahaha....this woman just popped back online saying that she's going to start studying English again too. She said, "and when I study English, I usually think about you because we had a good time when we studied English together." Wasn't that the point I was just making? Sometimes we confuse the message and messenger and accept one because we accept the other.

All very funny. Life living itself. And so it is.

tall penguin

All are one...

It's been awhile. And I've missed you all. I think of you all often, wonder what's unfolding in your lives and send love and light into the ether trusting it will touch you with a smile at just the right time. It's this amazing thing that is beginning to emerge ever fully in my soul, a sense of connectedness, a recognition of the oneness that is. The Romper Room of my heart, I like to call it. I can look in there and see all these names and faces and spirits that surround me. Namaste.

I cannot even begin to recount the events of recent weeks. The details are meaningful and meaningless. Places, people, events, feelings, much and so little. A simplicity is taking me over of late, a detachment from the drama of life. Yes, there is still drama. It is life living itself. But now, I watch it like I'm watching a movie. I see this entity I call me interacting with the other called you, and I watch the story that unfolds between us. And none of it matters. And all of it matters. It is what it is.

I have moments of spontaneous laughter, a joy so pure that comes from a place within my soul that I can only describe as Truth. It is the stillness that connects us all, the quiet place where all is. And I am in awe of this place. I am in awe of Truth. I am in awe of Love. I am in awe of the Beloved. I am in awe of the Divine.

People keep asking me if I'm in love. I say, "Yes, I'm in love with life." And I am. Every little bit of life, living itself out every second of every minute of every day. It is here. It is now. It is.

tall penguin

Saturday, August 9, 2008

To Name a Rose

"A rose by any other name would still smell as sweet."

Playing around with the most fundamental piece of my identity, my name, is an interesting journey. I am amazed at both the acceptance and resistance I've met to the idea. While some have been quick to make the change and honor what it symbolizes, others are confused as to why I'd change my name, why it matters or just really can't see me other than by the name they've previously called me. And it's all good. I have given people permission to call me what they feel they want to call me, at least during this great transition period. In time, I think the new name will stick and it will become as natural as any other name I've been called over the years.

As many of you have watched the unfolding of the tall penguin over the past year, you have witnessed many changes to my thoughts, feelings, and behavior. I am amazed to find people placing me into new boxes, labeling me with new judgments and creating new files for who they think I am. The terms "hippie", "raver", "party girl", "goddess", "writer", "mother hen", "fag hag" and even (never thought I'd get to wear this one) "slut" have been applied to me in recent months. It always makes me smile to hear how someone perceives me. I sometimes play with this, giving people just enough information to make a judgment and find that they will only interpret me according to the information given at the time in that particular context. We all do this. It's human nature. But it's fascinating to watch.

So who are we? What defines who you are? Is it what you do? But that changes. Are you defined by what you did yesterday, are doing today or what you will do tomorrow? Is it your beliefs? They change too. What about your thoughts or feelings...are they a basis for defining you? Alas, these are the most changeable aspects of who we are. Passing blips on the cerebral radar. When all this falls away, who are you really? Is there some unchangeable part of you that always is? Is it possible to meet each other in that place, in that place beyond language and labels and judgment and doing and thinking and feeling? Is it ever possible for me to really be with you? Or are we to be forever caught in relating to the changeable, to the ever-malleable personas we create for ourselves and others?

I long to lead an authentic life. I long to touch that part of you that is the same as that part of me. To sit with all that is. To be. Just to be.

tall penguin

Friday, August 8, 2008

The Winds of Change...

I feel the winds gathering their momentum. I feel ready to leave this city, to leave the place of my birth and move beyond all that I've ever known. As Anya gathers strength, I feel compelled to get on a plane and not look back. I do not know where I will go or what I will do once I'm there, I just know it is coming time for me to leave. And it's okay. It's all okay.

tall penguin

Thursday, August 7, 2008

End of an Era

The ex-Jehovah's Witness forum I've frequented since leaving the group almost 3 years ago is shutting down. It has been in existence for 8 years now and helped thousands see the truth about the Jehovah's Witness organization, as well as provide those leaving a safe place to fall and get their bearings as they enter the "real world".

I'm not even sure how I feel right now. I have made so many friends through this forum and although I have not been there as much over the past year, it is still the community that I go to when I'm processing JW stuff that no one else will understand. And so, there is a sadness in my heart today. A sadness that I can't even put into words. Accepting cyber hugs.

tall penguin

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Shame and Surrender...

One day some years ago, my brother and I were reading the daily Calvin and Hobbes comic and came across this interlude. Not sure of the exact scenario, but Calvin's mother, aka "evil Mom-lady," is trying to get Calvin to do something he quite obviously doesn't want to do and he protests accordingly.

Mom: Oh yeah?

Calvin: Great Zok! She's fixed her mind-scrambling eyeball ray on me! I'm suddenly filled with the desire to go back upstairs and do her nefarious bidding!

Mom: Glad to hear it.

My brother and I laughed. We had our own "evil Mom-lady" and could quite relate. After that, we coined our mother and her accompanying parental stare, the "Evil Mommy death ray." We knew that stare well. Every mother has it and wields it as her personal tool of compliance. You could see that stare across the room and know that if you didn't stop whatever you were doing, or if you didn't do something you were just asked to do, there'd be hell to pay later. Interestingly, although I have no children of my own yet, I have been told that I have mastered this stare quite well. I had a good teacher.

There was another stare my mother had that would sometimes overlap the "Evil Mommy death ray." Or rather, that would underlie it. There was this undercurrent of shame, this sense that not only was your behavior inappropriate, but it was also disappointing. That feeling of "You should know better." And yes, there are definitely situations in life where my brother and I should've known better. Everyday mischief prevails in the life of a child and you're often caught doing stuff you know you're not supposed to be doing. But somewhere along the way, that feeling of being shamed and that sense that I was supposed to know better became intrinsically linked and showed up in my mother's glance in almost every situation where I disappointed her, whether such disappointment was warranted or not.

In the past, I was told by my teachers that I was a perfectionist. My therapists said so too. But I don't think I want to be perfect. I think I have tried my whole life to get everything right to avoid that feeling of shame. I'm not a perfectionist. I'm a shame avoider. I like to get it right the first time because I don't like someone bringing to my attention that I got it wrong and the accompanying shame I feel as a result. The tape that plays and says, "You're a disappointment. You should have known better", and the accompanying "evil Mommy death ray" burning a hole right through my psyche.

A loyal reader sent along this article to me written by Sara Braasch, who, like myself, was raised in the Jehovah's Witness group. She now works for the Freedom From Religion Foundation. I bristled against reading it. And ended up skimming the article rather than giving it my full attention. I felt this urge to tiptoe away from it, like a murderer from a crime scene, not wanting to be associated with the ghastly deed in any way. Why? Shame. Sara's story is my story. It's the story of someone who became a zealot for her beliefs and made a heap-load of bad choices as a result. And my stomach turns just thinking of how completely idiotic I was, how completely sanctimonious I behaved and how utterly misguided I had become as a result of my "faith".

She writes:

I was arrogant and supercilious in my misery. I thought I had a truth that no one else had. Everyone else was a sinner. Everyone else was a reprobate. I even remonstrated against my own parents for their sinful ways. When my father tried to take me, along with my siblings, to see the movie “Splash,” I cried and screamed and refused to go, because Daryl Hannah appeared topless in the film. In fact, I made him turn the car around and take me home.

I did shit like this all the time as a jw. And I feel shame about it. I feel shame around my ignorance. I feel a great colossal finger wagging in my direction shouting, "I'm disappointed in you. You should've known better." But how? How was I supposed to know better? I did what I was told. I lived what I saw modeled for me. I walked in the footsteps of parents and an organization that mirrored fear and distrust and self-loathing. I learned well. Too well.

Now that I'm an adult I've made different choices. And I am still learning each day to make different choices. But it's hard people. Every day it's hard. There are still so many moments where I stop and think "What the fuck am I doing?" And I feel the Evil Mommy death ray pointed squarely between my eyes. And the shame wells up like a million butterflies trying to escape through my chest. And I kick myself for not knowing better, for not knowing what to do next, for not having all the answers, now. And I wonder if it will always be this way. Whether the shame will ever subside. Whether I'll ever be able to stand proudly in the center of my life and shout at the top of my lungs: "I DON'T KNOW WHAT I'M DOING AND IT'S OKAY." Some people call that surrender. I think I'll like surrender.

tall penguin