Thursday, September 24, 2009

Star Light, Star Bright...

In A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson interviews the Reverend Robert Evans, who searches the night sky for dying stars, particularly supernovae. It's a labor of love as Evans only averages discoveries of two supernovae per year. He once found three in fifteen days but spent another period of three years without finding any. But Evans is not dismayed:

"There is actually a certain value in not finding anything. It helps cosmologists to work out the rate at which galaxies are evolving. It's one of those rare areas where the absence of evidence is evidence."

I think life is like this. We are constantly evolving as individuals. Sometimes, there's not a lot externally to show for our labors. But searching through the vastness of one's psyche, one's inner life, you can see that star shining bright, that bit of yourself that you didn't know was growing in the dark.

I think that this is what love is as well---combing the darkness for the spots of light that are not so easily seen by others. And trusting that no amount of effort is wasted when love is your goal.

Evans continues:

"There's something satisfying, I think, about the idea of light traveling for millions of years through space and just at the right moment as it reaches Earth someone looks at the right bit of sky and sees it. It just seems right that an event of that magnitude should be witnessed."

I again here see a beautiful metaphor for love. To love is to witness, to be with another, in the moment, so that when the magic happens, you're present to see it.

Lately, I've taken to asking people what they'd want written on their headstone were they to die tomorrow. What few words would you choose to sum up your life on this planet? It's a question that few can answer me. It's usually met with a lot of fidgeting and downcast eyes. When someone can't formulate a response, I get the question turned back to myself, "So what would you like on your headstone?"

I have only one response: "She loved well."

I hope that when the star that is me fades from this cosmos, those words will be more than just carvings on granite. I hope that they will shine across the sky and be witnessed as true by all who knew me.

tall penguin

Being Anya...

This coming Sunday, September 27th is the first anniversary of my name change. A year ago, I held a naming ceremony whereby I changed my first name to "Anya". Anya is the Russian version of one of my given names, Anne. It means "grace", "favor", and "bringing goodness".

At birth, I was given a hyphenated first name, the first part of which never quite resonated with me. The second part, Anne, felt right but not completely right. As with most of the major changes in my life, the decision to change my name found me. I never consciously deliberated over my name. It was an evolution over decades until one day it just hit me that there was no longer a choice, my given name just didn't work for me any longer and I needed a new one. So, I floated around other versions of Anne in my mind until one chose me. Anya it was. And so it has been officially (although not yet legally) for the past twelve months.

As you know, I'm not overly attached to any fixed identity. Over the past year, I've not been stringent with people adopting my new name. I changed my name badge at my place of work and let everyone shift into it. My brother and father also made the shift quite quickly. My mother still calls me by my given name, although in a recent conversation with my brother she said she's "working on it". My Mom moves at her own pace, Goddess love her. I have a few other friends who flat out refuse to call me my new name. I see this more as a reflection of who they are than who I am. It's all good. I know who I am. And that's all that matters.

I've had some funny experiences though recently with my name. When I introduce myself with only Anya, people assume they know where I'm from. I had a conversation today with a homeless man who is a fixture in my neigbourhood. Before I left, I introduced myself and he said, "That's a Russian name. I knew you were Russian." I didn't correct him. I just smiled.

I once had a woman break into Russian when I introduced myself. Knowing a smile wouldn't suffice, I explained that I wasn't Russian and didn't understand the language. If it feels relevant I'll go into my name change but most of the time it just doesn't matter.

Today though, I had a stranger experience that wasn't directly attached to my name. An older gentleman came over to me while I was sipping tea at my local coffee haunt. He said, "May I ask you something?"

"Of course," I said.

"What is your background? I'm guessing it's Russian or Eastern European. Perhaps Bosnian or Croatian?"

"No actually," I smiled. "But European is correct. My father is from Italy. And my mother, although born in Canada, has her lineage in Scotland, England, Ireland and France. I am curious though. Why did you think I'd be Russian or Eastern European?"

"Just the way you look," he replied. "And what you're wearing. Your scarf [which incidentally is from India], and your hat [which I bought at a major fashion retailer]."

"Well, we're all world citizens. Nice to meet you," I said. I didn't even bother to tell him my name was Anya. The Russian first name would've just confused him more. Perhaps I was vibing the Russianness of Anya today and I didn't realize it. This is how I looked today, by the way. Judge for yourself:

Names are funny things. Having a Russian first name and an Italian last name makes almost everyone I meet raise an eyebrow. They're not sure what to make of me. Not sure what box I might fit into. I like that. I've never been a fan of boxes. Eventually the lid closes over and suffocates you. In the immortal words of Popeye: "I am what I am."

tall penguin

What is time?

I'm currently reading (along with 6 other books) Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything. And...Wow. If you think you're all that, this is one book that will put that belief into perspective for you. I love learning about the universe and how infinitely small I am in relation to it. It keeps me humble. And gives me lots to contemplate. For instance, this passage gave me pause:

"We may be only one of millions of advanced civilizations. Unfortunately, space being spcious, the average distance between any two of these civilizations is reckoned to be at least two hundred light-years, which is a great deal more than merely saying it makes it sound. It means for a start that even if these beings know we are here and are somehow able to see us in their telescopes, they're watching light that left Earth two hundred years ago. So they're not seeing you and me. They're watching the French Revolution and Thomas Jefferson and people in silk stockings and powdered wigs---people who don't know what an atom is, or a gene, and who make their electricity by rubbing a rod of amber with a piece of fur and think that's quite a trick. Any message we receive from them is likely to begin "Dear Sire", and congratulate us on the handsomeness of our horses and our mastery of whale oil. Two hundred light-years is a distance so far beyond us as to be, well, just beyond us.

So even if we are not really alone, in all practical terms we are."

Wow. So, what is time? We have so many concepts with which we navigate our daily lives, but what do they really mean? What is time? What is the past? What is the future? What is now?

And, of course, the question I always go back to: what am I really?

This passage also made me stop and ponder:

"Glance at the night sky and what you see is history and lots of it---the stars not as they are now but as they were when their light left them. For all we know, the North Star, our faithful companion, might actually have burned out last January or in 1854 or any time since the early fourteenth century and news of it just hasn't reached us yet."

The stars we gaze at and wish upon could already be dead. We just don't know it yet. This reminds me of the thought experiment involving Schrodinger's cat. Look it up if you don't know because I suck at explaining such things. Cyanide and Happiness posted a great cartoon exemplifying the principle though. It makes me smile.

So, you just don't know until you know. It is humbling to realize how little we actually know about our universe and yet, it's remarkable that we now know as much as we do. Sometimes, we just don't have the tools or information necessary to come to a definite conclusion. Which makes me wary of ever claiming too much certainty in this life. The best we can do is stand in awe and profound reverence of both our intelligence and our ignorance. Seems like a good way to live.

tall penguin

Saturday, September 19, 2009

The Dance...

I witnessed a funny little interaction the other day as I was sitting on the patio of my local Starbuck's sipping my latte and contemplating life.  A Fed Ex truck pulled up and parked illegally in front of the Starbuck's.  The driver jumped out and flew across the street to pick up a package.  In the meantime, a police officer came by and started writing up a ticket.  

So, I'm figuring that the Fed Ex driver is going to come back and be irate about the ticket. Instead, he calmly returns to his truck, approaches the police officer, who is still in the process of writing his ticket, and gives him a big smile.

"Hey Frank," the Fed Ex driver says to the cop.

"Oh, hey Joe," the cop replies, "How's your day going?"

"Good, good.  How's the family?"

"Oh, they're great, thanks."  The cop finishes writing the ticket and hands it over to the Fed Ex driver who accepts it graciously and puts it in his pocket.

They part with a smile and a, "Have a great day.  See you later."

The whole scene reminded me of the old Looney Tunes cartoon with the wolf and the sheepdog who clock in every morning to their respective jobs; Ralph the wolf goes after the sheep that Sam the sheepdog watches over. Ralph uses all manner of Acme gadgets and his wily ways to outwit Sam and steal the sheep. But he never prevails over Sam's calm, cool sheepdog skills. 

The funniest part of the cartoon though is how they would suspend their rivalry when the whistle blew signaling break time and sit down and enjoy lunch and a cigarette together.  And then once break time is over, they'd be back at it again. When the workday ends, they go off to their respective homes with a "Good night, Ralph,"  "Good night, Sam."  

Ralph and Sam are not so different than the cop and the Fed Ex driver.  We all have our roles to play in this life.  It's not personal.  We do our dance and when it's done, it's done.  

It's all so very entertaining.

tall penguin

Sunday, September 13, 2009


From this week's PostSecret:

tall penguin

Ladybird, ladybird...

I occasionally get ladybugs in my apartment.  And it always delights me to see them.  I don't know why.  

I only ever get one ladybug visitor at a time.  Last Winter I had one stay with me for a few months and was very sad the day I came home from work and found his dried up little ladybug body on my window sill. 

Well, I came home the other day to find a new ladybug crawling across my ceiling.  I immediately squealed my tall penguin squeal (if you've been around me in real life, you can testify that I release a very high-pitched squeal when I'm happy).  Somehow, it's nice to come home to a living thing.  My aloe vera and bamboo just don't cut it.  

And I talk to my ladybug friend:

"Hello Mr. Ladybug!"  (Ladybugs are always male to me...not sure why.)  "How was your day? Did you find some yummies to eat?"

It's odd because I don't do this with the spiders or centipedes I happen to find taking up residence in my humble abode.  They are usually met with a swipe of my shoe and a mea culpa. But for some reason, ladybugs feel friendly to me. I'm sure it's the stories I was told as a child or maybe it's just the way ladybugs look that makes them so endearing.  Also probably why it's harder for me to eat lamb than chicken, but I digress. 

Whatever the reason I like my ladybug roomie, it's sure nice to have company.

tall penguin

Right here, right now...

In my post LOA, I wrote about discontinuing a pharmaceutical protocol after only a week, an intervention I had begun to halt a growing hypomania before it became my first full-blown manic episode.  I had convinced my psychiatrist to give me some time on my leave of absence to see what I could do about regulating my own sleep cycles and bringing myself back to some kind of even keel. Well, that lasted about a week.  I realized what a huge undertaking this would be.  I had a decision to make.  I thought about it a lot.  Sat with it even more.  And came to the conclusion is short...and I don't want to give any more time to suffering. So, I'm back on the meds.  

Since I first developed sleep issues, anxiety issues and depression issues back in my early teens, I have fought quite hard to overcome these things.  I thought that I could one day return to some kind of "baseline".  That if I just worked hard enough, reduced my stressors, learned to control my thoughts better, I could change my brain entirely.  And I have done amazing things over the years, lessening both the severity and reoccurrence of these issues.  As you've watched play out on this blog, I have been able to bring myself much healing by questioning my beliefs and mind stories and by learning how to live in the present moment.  But I realized that there is no baseline to return to.  Life goes on.  It shifts. Chemistry shifts. Stressors come and go. And while I am hopeful that at some point in our human evolution we will be able to alter our neurochemistry at will, I have no desire to spend the next forty years of my life suffering, trying to force that evolutionary leap.  As my dear friend James said to me, "Don't make suffering your god."  

And so, I'm feeling much relieved.  And who knows, maybe by taking the pressure off myself, things will happen in my three pound universe that surprise me.  Regardless, I am living my life and enjoying it for what it is...the journey into what is, right here, right now.  Life is good.

tall penguin

Saturday, September 12, 2009

To sleep, perchance...

Sometimes, before I close my eyes on the day, it occurs to me that sleeping is a leap of faith. We do not know for sure whether we will awake to another day.  

Of course, life in general perches precariously on the unknown.  Any moment could be our last. But somehow when we're awake and move through our day, we seem to be in control of our own mortality, or at least feel that way.  But when we sleep, when we close our eyes, we submit our life to the great world of the unconscious.  If we surrender to death while we sleep, it is unlikely that we will even be aware in the moments before, as opposed to dying during wakefulness.   

Yes, these really are the things I think about before bed.  No wonder I need help from Mother Pharmaceutical to sleep.  It's all good.  I like my mind.  Crazy as it may be, it's fun to watch.  

tall penguin

Sunday, September 6, 2009

How A Book Changed My Life...

As you know, I work in a major bookstore in my city. Before I went on my LOA (Leave of Absence) I submitted an idea for a feature table in my store: Books That Changed Our Lives.  I went around to all of the staff and asked for the titles of books that changed their lives in one way or another.  Perhaps it was a book that gave them a new perspective on an issue or introduced them to a new genre of writing or just made them fall in love with reading.  Well, my table got ordered and apparently it's a major hit with the customers.  I may not be working right now but I'm still makin' the store money.  Hey, it's what I do. That's why they pay me the big bucks.  And yes, that is my tongue in my cheek. But I digress.

Apocalypse Delayed: The Story of Jehovah's WitnessesIf you look closely at the table, you'll see in the first row a blue-covered book. That book is "Apocalypse Delayed: The Story of Jehovah's Witnesses"  by M. James Penton.  

M. James Penton is a professor emeritus of history at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada.  He was also a Jehovah's Witness until, during his research for this book, he realized that the history the movement fed its followers did not reflect an accurate view.  He was eventually excommunicated from the JW's for apostasy.

Now, let me tell you a little something about the JW view of apostasy.  If you "turn on the faith", meaning you no longer believe that the JW's hold "The Truth", (that's what they call their religion by the in, "Do you have The Truth?", "When did you come into The Truth?", "How can we help others learn The Truth?") you are worse than the most sinful of sinners.  Worse than prostitutes.  Worse than pedophiles.  Worse than murderers even.  An apostate is one who sides with the Devil himself in opposition to God.  And anything said or written by someone the JW's deem an apostate is to be shunned at all cost. There is such fear created around the idea of apostasy.  Let me explain with my own experience.

Four years ago, J, my then-JW friend, asked me the fateful question "Is there anything you could find out about The Truth that would make you believe it's not The Truth?"   Unbeknownst to me at the time, J had spent parts of the previous three years doing research online about the Jehovah's Witnesses and had recently purchased a copy of Penton's book Apocalypse Delayed.  So his question was coming out of the doubts he'd already been having about this religion that we were still very deeply a part of.  

When I replied yes to his question, although I had no idea what that yes would mean, J began sharing little bits of info he'd gleaned about the true history of the JW's.  And my first response?  Fear. 

"J, I can't believe you've been reading apostate materials!  What if someone finds out?  You're going to get disfellowshipped (excommunicated)!" I would say to him, completely terrified. Not only was I afraid for his salvation, but I knew that I could get into heaps of trouble for even listening to him telling me about this stuff secondhand.  

Fortunately, J was patient with me.  He kept introducing more questions from his reading. And then, one day, I was visiting him at his home and there was the blue-covered apostate book of all apostate books sitting on his coffee table. I was mortified.  It was bad enough to be perusing apostate websites and doing your own research but to actually purchase and bring an apostate book into your home?!  Whoa.  

At this point, I didn't know what to do.  Here was this book.  This book I was never supposed to read.  A book, the likes of which I had been warned my whole life would bring me eternal damnation.  And here it was sitting in my friend's home.

Now, at this point, J and I were already on the edge of our religion.  We had stopped attending the JW meetings some months before so we could sort out what was really true without being dragged back into the folds.  We were also hiding out from the JW elders who were calling and digging for information to see where our minds were at.  When someone stops attending meetings, the elders usually assume they've fallen into some deep and secret sin or they've "gone apostate".  I managed to avert the elders by using the word "harassment" with a rather threatening, don't-make-me-file-a-restraining-order kind of tone. That was enough to get the phone calls to stop.  

So, here I am sitting in J's living room.  Apocalypse Delayed staring at me from the table.  I yelled at J,  "I can't believe it.  You're an apostate!"  I was filled with emotion.  

J had had the book for days now.  And it was one of the main sources for the information he'd been sharing with me.  As I slept that night, I had a lot to think about.  If J had been reading this book for some time now, and he hadn't yet flew off into some demonic rage (which I was pretty sure was the standard response to reading apostate books), then maybe, just maybe, it was just a book.  

The next day, J went off to work and I was left in his apartment with the copy of Apocalypse Delayed staring at me from the coffee table.  The fear returned. I can't read this book, I would tell myself over and over.  I tried to keep myself occupied with other things. I did dishes.  I watched TV.  I paced in circles.  And the book just sat there.  It didn't shoot off sparks.  It wasn't emitting odd voices telling me to kill my family.  It just seemed to be...a book.  A book about the history of Jehovah's Witnesses.  So, curiosity eventually eclipsed my fears and I dove in.  I couldn't put it down.  I read it all day until J came home from work.  He came in the door.  I looked at him and said, "There's no going back now, is there?"

He looked at me with my nose in the book, "No, I'm afraid there isn't."

I read that book from cover to cover over the next few days.  I cried.  A lot. Geez, I'm crying now just typing this.  Imagine what it's like to have your whole life come crashing down in the course of a few pages.  Of course, if you've read my blog, you know the mindfuck of a journey the next four years would be in sorting out the aftermath of it all.  But it all started here, with this blue-covered book.  

And so it was that a book changed my life. 

I don't expect that this book will sell at my bookstore.  That's not why I chose to include it on the table.  Many current Jehovah's Witnesses shop at my store. People I used to call dear friends.  I know they're still JW's because they shun me every time they come in.  I'm an "apostate", and that's how apostates are treated.  And I know it's highly unlikely they (or anyone else...I mean, who really cares about a small-time cult?) will buy Apocalypse Delayed. But I hope that maybe, just maybe, even the title will be enough to spark a little seed of doubt in one of those JW's and make them wonder about the belief system they call The Truth. And maybe, just maybe, one day, they'll find the courage to look further.  

tall penguin

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Hugs to all, and to all a good night...

Psychotherapist, meditation teacher and writer Sylvia Boorstein saw this on a plaque at a retreat and it expresses something simple, yet profound:

"Life is so difficult, how can we be anything but kind?"

I feel so flooded with love and compassion for myself and others of late that I've run out of words to explain it.  So, I won't.  I just wish I could hug you all and look deep into your eyes and let you know that I'm here, with you, smiling.  

tall penguin

Placebo Revisited...

I blogged last week on a few articles about placebo.  In particular, I cited this article which seemed to indicate a rise in the effectiveness of placebo.  It seems that I, and possibly the cited Wired article writer, don't quite understand the whole concept of placebo.  This article, "Placebo Is Not What You Think It Is," by Peter Lipson, from the Science Based Medicine blog, clarifies some things about the placebo issue. I won't even bother trying to explain it because frankly I'm out of my league with this whole conversation.  And I know when I'm beat.  I don't really understand placebo and the terminology or science involved.  But I won't give up trying to understand it.  I shall prevail.  Eventually.  

In the meantime, I'll stick to discussing things I know, like unicorns and butterflies.  Oh wait, I don't know them so well either. Hmm...perhaps I should just link to stuff and keep quiet. Good thing I'm not so worried anymore about looking dumb.  It happens pretty often these days.  :)

tall penguin

Let It Be

Friday, September 4, 2009

George Carlin on Religion...

Sometimes, comedy does the work of making us think deeply about our beliefs better than any intellectual diatribe.  I so heart George Carlin.  Sad he's gone, but he really left behind some great work.

tall penguin

A History Of God

Included in the ten plus books I am currently reading is Karen Armstrong's A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.  Wow.  I must say I'm taking my time with this one.  I'm marking it up, making notes and sitting with it as much as possible. Lots to integrate.

The book is basically a historical look at the evolution of God.  It follows the formation of god stories across the world and places them in the context of history, religion and politics.  

I find it so very interesting to see the Bible in the context of other religious writings at the time. I can see how much of the Biblical writers were influenced by their contemporaries, often pagan and non-monotheistic.  This is a very different perspective than the one I was raised with as a Jehovah's Witness. The Watchtower (the organization that oversees the JW's) severely dumbed down their translation of the Bible, not to mention their sadly myopic interpretation of Biblical texts. Of course, I have no interest in debating the merit of one translation over another, or getting into an argument around Biblical interpretation, but even a cursory study of religious history and language is enough to show that religions, in general, are adept at using the written word for their own political and personal agendas.  

Another point I find interesting is the perspective towards god concepts over time.  In speaking of early mythology, Armstrong writes:

"These myths were not intended to be taken literally, but were metaphorical attempts to describe a reality that was too complex and elusive to express in any other way.  These dramatic and evocative stories of gods and goddesses helped people to articulate their sense of the powerful but unseen forces that surrounded them."  (p. 5, trade paperback edition)

So, when did this shift? When did certain religious adherents decide to take their gods so literally?  And so very seriously.  When did fiction shift into fact? And how do we shift it back? Can it be shifted back?  I hope I can glean some perspective as I read along.  

Two years ago, reading a book like A History of God would have made me sink into a dark depression, feeling duped by my religious upbringing and the time I lost within it.  Now, it makes me laugh. I find humanity and our stories fascinating, entertaining even.  We are the greatest show on earth.  

tall penguin

From Kabir...

"Friend, hope for the guest while you are alive.
Jump into experience while you are alive.
Think and think while you are alive.
What you call 'salvation' belongs to the time before death.
If you don't break your ropes while you are alive, 
do you think ghosts will do it after?
The idea that the soul will join with the ecstatic
just because the body is rotten -
that is all fantasy.
What is found now is found then.
If you find nothing now,
you will simply end up with an apartment in the city of death.
And if you make love with the Divine now, 
in the next life you will have the face of satisfied desire.
So plunge into the truth, 
find out who the teacher is, 
Believe in the great sound!"

Thursday, September 3, 2009


We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
~~T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

And this also...

I don't know why but I am still surprised when the grief comes to visit. I have so many days now where I float above this life and all of its suffering.  And then, out of the abyss, comes a grief so raw and searing that it takes my breath away.  And I cry.  And cry.  And cry.  I cannot make these moments of grief go any more than I can make the moments of joy stay.  So, I just let them pass through, like clouds. 

tall penguin