Sunday, September 26, 2010

Woman With Flower

I wouldn't coax the plant if I were you.
Such watchful nurturing may do it harm.
Let the soil rest from so much digging.
And wait until it's dry before you water it.
The leaf's inclined to find its own direction;
Give it a chance to seek the sunlight for itself.

Much growth is stunted by too much prodding,
Too eager tenderness.
The things we love we have to learn to leave alone.

--Naomi Long Madgett

I've posted this poem here before. But I was reminded of it today and it feels very timely at the moment. Sometimes, "the things we love we have to learn to leave alone."  This is a difficult thing.  Particularly when it comes to those we love deeply; our lovers, our friends, our children, our families.  It's hard to let go and let time and nature take their course.  One is never guaranteed a particular outcome but that is the point; love and life is "inclined to find its own direction" if you let it.  If it grows towards you, great.  If it grows away from you, then you must learn to accept that.  It is what it is.   

tall penguin

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Richard Dawkins' Letter to his Daughter: Good and Bad Reasons for Believing

The following is a letter from evolutionary biologist and author Richard Dawkins to his daughter Juliet when she was 10 years old.  If you're a parent, I invite you to read and contemplate this letter and consider what it is that you're teaching your child about how to think and navigate the world we live in.

I wish I'd received such a letter at the age of 10, or at the age of 30 for that matter. The letter is printed in Dawkins' book The Devil's Chaplain.

"Dear Juliet,

Now that you are ten, I want to write to you about something that is important to me. Have you ever wondered how we know the things that we know? How do we know, for instance, that the stars, which look like tiny pinpricks in the sky, are really huge balls of fire like the sun and are very far away? And how do we know that Earth is a smaller ball whirling round one of those stars, the sun?

The answer to these questions is “evidence.” Sometimes evidence means actually seeing ( or hearing, feeling, smelling…) that something is true. Astronauts have travelled far enough from earth to see with their own eyes that it is round. Sometimes our eyes need help. The “evening star” looks like a bright twinkle in the sky, but with a telescope, you can see that it is a beautiful ball – the planet we call Venus. Something that you learn by direct seeing ( or hearing or feeling…) is called an observation.

Often, evidence isn’t just an observation on its own, but observation always lies at the back of it. If there’s been a murder, often nobody (except the murderer and the victim!) actually observed it. But detectives can gather together lots or other observations which may all point toward a particular suspect. If a person’s fingerprints match those found on a dagger, this is evidence that he touched it. It doesn’t prove that he did the murder, but it can help when it’s joined up with lots of other evidence. Sometimes a detective can think about a whole lot of observations and suddenly realise that they fall into place and make sense if so-and-so did the murder.

Scientists – the specialists in discovering what is true about the world and the universe – often work like detectives. They make a guess ( called a hypothesis ) about what might be true. They then say to themselves: If that were really true, we ought to see so-and-so. This is called a prediction. For example, if the world is really round, we can predict that a traveller, going on and on in the same direction, should eventually find himself back where he started. When a doctor says that you have the measles, he doesn’t take one look at you and see measles. His first look gives him a hypothesis that you may have measles. Then he says to himself: If she has measles I ought to see…… Then he runs through the list of predictions and tests them with his eyes ( have you got spots? ); hands ( is your forehead hot? ); and ears ( does your chest wheeze in a measly way? ). Only then does he make his decision and say, ” I diagnose that the child has measles. ” Sometimes doctors need to do other tests like blood tests or X-Rays, which help their eyes, hands, and ears to make observations.

The way scientists use evidence to learn about the world is much cleverer and more complicated than I can say in a short letter. But now I want to move on from evidence, which is a good reason for believing something , and warn you against three bad reasons for believing anything. They are called “tradition,” “authority,” and “revelation.”

First, tradition. A few months ago, I went on television to have a discussion with about fifty children. These children were invited because they had been brought up in lots of different religions. Some had been brought up as Christians, others as Jews, Muslims, Hindus, or Sikhs. The man with the microphone went from child to child, asking them what they believed. What they said shows up exactly what I mean by “tradition.” Their beliefs turned out to have no connection with evidence. They just trotted out the beliefs of their parents and grandparents which, in turn, were not based upon evidence either. They said things like: “We Hindus believe so and so”; “We Muslims believe such and such”; “We Christians believe something else.”

Of course, since they all believed different things, they couldn’t all be right. The man with the microphone seemed to think this quite right and proper, and he didn’t even try to get them to argue out their differences with each other. But that isn’t the point I want to make for the moment. I simply want to ask where their beliefs come from. They came from tradition. Tradition means beliefs handed down from grandparent to parent to child, and so on. Or from books handed down through the centuries. Traditional beliefs often start from almost nothing; perhaps somebody just makes them up originally, like the stories about Thor and Zeus. But after they’ve been handed down over some centuries, the mere fact that they are so old makes them seem special. People believe things simply because people have believed the same thing over the centuries. That’s tradition.

The trouble with tradition is that, no matter how long ago a story was made up, it is still exactly as true or untrue as the original story was. If you make up a story that isn’t true, handing it down over a number of centuries doesn’t make it any truer!

Most people in England have been baptised into the Church of England, but this is only one of the branches of the Christian religion. There are other branches such as Russian Orthodox, the Roman Catholic, and the Methodist churches. They all believe different things. The Jewish religion and the Muslim religion are a bit more different still; and there are different kinds of Jews and of Muslims. People who believe even slightly different things from each other go to war over their disagreements. So you might think that they must have some pretty good reasons – evidence – for believing what they believe. But actually, their different beliefs are entirely due to different traditions.

Let’s talk about one particular tradition. Roman Catholics believe that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was so special that she didn’t die but was lifted bodily in to Heaven. Other Christian traditions disagree, saying that Mary did die like anybody else. These other religions don’t talk about much and, unlike Roman Catholics, they don’t call her the “Queen of Heaven.” The tradition that Mary’s body was lifted into Heaven is not an old one. The bible says nothing on how she died; in fact, the poor woman is scarcely mentioned in the Bible at all. The belief that her body was lifted into Heaven wasn’t invented until about six centuries after Jesus’ time. At first, it was just made up, in the same way as any story like Snow White was made up. But, over the centuries, it grew into a tradition and people started to take it seriously simply because the story had been handed down over so many generations. The older the tradition became, the more people took it seriously. It finally was written down as an official Roman Catholic belief only very recently, in 1950, when I was the age you are now. But the story was no more true in 1950 than it was when it was first invented 600 years after Mary’s death.

I’ll come back to tradition at the end of my letter, and look at it in another way. But first, I must deal with the two other bad reasons for believing in anything: authority and revelation.

Authority, as a reason for believing something, means believing in it because you are told to believe it by somebody important. In the Roman Catholic Church, the pope is the most important person, and people believe he must be right just because he is the pope. In one branch of the Muslim religion, the important people are the old men with beards called ayatollahs. Lots of Muslims in this country are prepared to commit murder, purely because the ayatollahs in a faraway country tell them to.*

When I say that it was only in 1950 that Roman Catholics were finally told that they had to believe that Mary’s body shot off to Heaven, what I mean is that in 1950, the pope told people that they had to believe it. That was it. The pope said it was true, so it had to be true! Now, probably some of the things that that pope said in his life were true and some were not true. There is no good reason why, just because he was the pope, you should believe everything he said any more than you believe everything that other people say. The present pope ( 1995 ) has ordered his followers not to limit the number of babies they have. If people follow this authority as slavishly as he would wish, the results could be terrible famines, diseases, and wars, caused by overcrowding.

Of course, even in science, sometimes we haven’t seen the evidence ourselves and we have to take somebody else’s word for it. I haven’t, with my own eyes, seen the evidence that light travels at a speed of 186,000 miles per second. Instead, I believe books that tell me the speed of light. This looks like “authority.” But actually, it is much better than authority, because the people who wrote the books have seen the evidence and anyone is free to look carefully at the evidence whenever they want. That is very comforting. But not even the priests claim that there is any evidence for their story about Mary’s body zooming off to Heaven.

The third kind of bad reason for believing anything is called “revelation.” If you had asked the pope in 1950 how he knew that Mary’s body disappeared into Heaven, he would probably have said that it had been “revealed” to him. He shut himself in his room and prayed for guidance. He thought and thought, all by himself, and he became more and more sure inside himself. When religious people just have a feeling inside themselves that something must be true, even though there is no evidence that it is true, they call their feeling “revelation.” It isn’t only popes who claim to have revelations. Lots of religious people do. It is one of their main reasons for believing the things that they do believe. But is it a good reason?

Suppose I told you that your dog was dead. You’d be very upset, and you’d probably say, “Are you sure? How do you know? How did it happen?” Now suppose I answered: “I don’t actually know that Pepe is dead. I have no evidence. I just have a funny feeling deep inside me that he is dead.” You’d be pretty cross with me for scaring you, because you’d know that an inside “feeling” on its own is not a good reason for believing that a whippet is dead. You need evidence. We all have inside feelings from time to time, sometimes they turn out to be right and sometimes they don’t. Anyway, different people have opposite feelings, so how are we to decide whose feeling is right? The only way to be sure that a dog is dead is to see him dead, or hear that his heart has stopped; or be told by somebody who has seen or heard some real evidence that he is dead.

People sometimes say that you must believe in feelings deep inside, otherwise, you’ d never be confident of things like “My wife loves me.” But this is a bad argument. There can be plenty of evidence that somebody loves you. All through the day when you are with somebody who loves you, you see and hear lots of little tidbits of evidence, and they all add up. It isn’t a purely inside feeling, like the feeling that priests call revelation. There are outside things to back up the inside feeling: looks in the eye, tender notes in the voice, little favors and kindnesses; this is all real evidence.

Sometimes people have a strong inside feeling that somebody loves them when it is not based upon any evidence, and then they are likely to be completely wrong. There are people with a strong inside feeling that a famous film star loves them, when really the film star hasn’t even met them. People like that are ill in their minds. Inside feelings must be backed up by evidence, otherwise you just can’t trust them.

Inside feelings are valuable in science, too, but only for giving you ideas that you later test by looking for evidence. A scientist can have a 'hunch' about an idea that just 'feels' right. In itself, this is not a good reason for believing something. But it can be a good reason for spending some time doing a particular experiment, or looking in a particular way for evidence. Scientists use inside feelings all the time to get ideas. But they are not worth anything until they are supported by evidence.

I promised that I’d come back to tradition, and look at it in another way. I want to try to explain why tradition is so important to us. All animals are built (by the process called evolution) to survive in the normal place in which their kind live. Lions are built to be good at surviving on the plains of Africa. Crayfish to be good at surviving in fresh, water, while lobsters are built to be good at surviving in the salt sea. People are animals, too, and we are built to be good at surviving in a world full of ….. other people. Most of us don’t hunt for our own food like lions or lobsters; we buy it from other people who have bought it from yet other people. We ”swim” through a “sea of people.” Just as a fish needs gills to survive in water, people need brains that make them able to deal with other people. Just as the sea is full of salt water, the sea of people is full of difficult things to learn. Like language.

You speak English, but your friend Ann-Kathrin speaks German. You each speak the language that fits you to ‘`swim about” in your own separate “people sea.” Language is passed down by tradition. There is no other way. In England, Pepe is a dog. In Germany he is ein Hund. Neither of these words is more correct, or more true than the other. Both are simply handed down. In order to be good at “swimming about in their people sea,” children have to learn the language of their own country, and lots of other things about their own people; and this means that they have to absorb, like blotting paper, an enormous amount of traditional information. (Remember that traditional information just means things that are handed down from grandparents to parents to children.) The child’s brain has to be a sucker for traditional information. And the child can’t be expected to sort out good and useful traditional information, like the words of a language, from bad or silly traditional information, like believing in witches and devils and ever-living virgins.

It’s a pity, but it can’t help being the case, that because children have to be suckers for traditional information, they are likely to believe anything the grown-ups tell them, whether true or false, right or wrong. Lots of what the grown-ups tell them is true and based on evidence, or at least sensible. But if some of it is false, silly, or even wicked, there is nothing to stop the children believing that, too. Now, when the children grow up, what do they do? Well, of course, they tell it to the next generation of children. So, once something gets itself strongly believed – even if it is completely untrue and there never was any reason to believe it in the first place – it can go on forever.

Could this be what has happened with religions? Belief that there is a god or gods, belief in Heaven, belief that Mary never died, belief that Jesus never had a human father, belief that prayers are answered, belief that wine turns into blood – not one of these beliefs is backed up by any good evidence. Yet millions of people believe them.  Perhaps this is because they were told to believe them when they were young enough to believe anything.

Millions of other people believe quite different things, because they were told different things when they were children. Muslim children are told different things from Christian children, and both grow up utterly convinced that they are right and the others are wrong. Even within Christians, Roman Catholics believe different things from Church of England people or Episcopalians, Shakers or Quakers , Mormons or Holy Rollers, and are all utterly convinced that they are right and the others are wrong. They believe different things for exactly the same kind of reason as you speak English and Ann-Kathrin speaks German. Both languages are, in their own country, the right language to speak. But it can’t be true that different religions are right in their own countries, because different religions claim that opposite things are true. Mary can’t be alive in Catholic Southern Ireland but dead in Protestant Northern Ireland.

What can we do about all this? It is not easy for you to do anything, because you are only ten. But you could try this. Next time somebody tells you something that sounds important, think to yourself: “Is this the kind of thing that people probably know because of evidence? Or is it the kind of thing that people only believe because of tradition, authority, or revelation?” And, next time somebody tells you that something is true, why not say to them: “What kind of evidence is there for that?” And if they can’t give you a good answer, I hope you’ll think very carefully before you believe a word they say.

Your loving

*The fatwah against Salman Rushdie was prominently in the news at the time."

I've read this over many times in the past few days since first coming upon it. Whoever sent it my way, thank you.  It is a very profound letter and I can't help but wish I'd been raised with such a grounded and real view of life.

tall penguin

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Sins of the Father...

At the age of 14, I had a boyfriend.  As a good little Jehovah's Witness girl, I pretended he wasn't my boyfriend, because good little Jehovah's Witness girls don't date until they're ready to marry.  So, for four years I was "not dating" JR.

JR and I spent a considerable amount of time together.  He was my first love, a love that set the pattern for what I was to expect from love in all my future relationships.  Which, unfortunately for me, was not a good pattern at all.

JR was the youngest son of a Jehovah's Witness elder (the equivalent of a priest or pastor).  His mother can only be described as a "Christian martyr" who spent most of her time, when not working, preaching the "good news" of an impending Armageddon to her neighbors.  The rest of her time was spent keeping house.  

JR's father was an abusive man.  He would often get into fist fights with his teenage son or threaten him with a baseball bat.  He and JR's mother slept in separate rooms; his father even kept a lock on his bedroom door.

From the outside it appeared that this was a "spiritual" JW family; a family to be emulated.  But on the inside it was obvious that nothing could be further from the truth.  The first time I went to JR's house for a family dinner, I was struck by the tension in the air.  It was cold and sharp as if a Winter breeze filled the whole house.  As much as I bitch about my upbringing, the home I grew up in was a warm and inviting one.  It felt safe and secure.  JR's did not.  There was always a feeling that something was about to go horribly awry.  And it did.  It always did.

I remember one typical family dinner where JR's father got into a verbal spar with his wife about how distasteful he found the meal she'd made that night. I'd never seen such a display of malice between spouses.  It frightened me. And if I'd known any better, I would have left that house and never returned. But I was in shock.  And that shock kept me pinned to my seat, looking at JR to save me from this uncomfortable situation.  He didn't.  He was as numb as I was.  So I sat there and finished my dinner while JR's parents continued yelling at each other.

Over the four years JR and I were together I became the target of the rage he felt towards his parents.  I would get almost daily phone calls from JR, often drunk, that he'd been kicked out of the house and was contemplating suicide, or worse, leaving the religion.  I spent most of my teen years playing JR's therapist, talking him through another day, while crying alone at night. But JR was not appreciative of my efforts.  I remember so many conversations that would end with him saying, "Game Over.  You LOSE!"  As if every conversation we had was a mind game where he had to be in complete control.

But I loved him.  Or at least I thought that love meant sticking around to help someone when they were down, even to your own detriment.  You see, I was in love with JR's potential.  I thought that if I just loved him enough, he'd turn into this kind person who could love me back.  I even thought to myself "Just stick it out.  Armageddon is almost here.  And after that, God will make him into a better person.  All his flaws will disappear."  But Armageddon never came.  And God didn't make JR into a better person.  And JR wasn't making himself into a better person. And I was coming undone.

As I approached my 18th birthday, I broke up with JR.  I would like to say that the damage ended there. But I had stayed too long.  The mindfuck I'd endured exposed to JR and his crazy family had wormed its way deep into my psyche.  Some days I still feel that cold shiver that pervaded that house run through me, like ice.

In all of my relationships with men since I have fallen in love with their potential and not the reality of who they are.  I see what might be, not what is.  And it has cost me, time and time again.  While I may not have been waiting for God to wave some cosmic magic wand and make the man I love into a person who can fully love me back, I have hung on to wisps of hope that somehow, some way, things are going to change.  But they don't.  They just don't.  People are who they are and when they show you who they are, you should pay attention.

What ever became of JR?  Well, the last time I saw him was at his wedding some 6 years ago.  He was tall and thin and handsome, just as I remembered him.  But nothing really had changed in him.  I was close to his niece then who informed me that JR was as abusive and crazy as he'd ever been, perhaps even worse now.  I took no delight in this, although I was glad that it wasn't me joining him as wife.  JR had wreaked his havoc on my life but at least he would be able to do it no more.  In that I took solace.

But the most memorable moment of JR's wedding occurred when his father and I shared a dance.  

“Who invited you this evening?” JR's father asked me.

“Your son,” I replied.

“I think he still has a soft spot for you in his heart.  I always thought it would be the two of you getting married.” 

“No thanks,” I said.  He looked surprised.  “Your son wasn’t very nice to me,” I said, strangely calm.  

“You never said anything to me,” he said with a tone of empathy in his voice, something I had heard little of in the time I'd known him.  Age and time seemed to have mellowed him in a way I couldn't predict.  

“What was I supposed to say?”  I replied.

“Hmmm…I guess I had something to do with that," he stated, with a glint of regret in his eye. "I wasn’t there for JR.  I worked a lot.  We didn’t get along.”

“I know,” I said, “I know.”   

“So why did you come tonight?  Why didn’t you just tell JR to go jump in the lake?” he mused, laughing.

“Some chapters need to be closed,” I said, with a surprising confidence.  He looked at me and nodded without saying another word.

Later in the evening as I prepared to leave, it was JR's father that met me to say goodbye.  He shook my hand, hugged me and whispered into my ear, “You told me the truth tonight. I’m glad you did.”  

They say that the truth sets you free.  I don't know about that.  But once in a while, if you're lucky, it lets you experience a moment of grace where the past doesn't seem as suffocating as it once was. And perhaps, that is enough.  

tall penguin

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Please, do this...

Arcade Fire released a new interactive music video experience today.  Please, you must do this.  It's beyond incredible.  I don't want to say any more because it will ruin it.  But, really, trust me on this one.

It works best with Google Chrome as your browser (which I highly recommend as a browser, by the way).

Wow.  Just wow. 

tall penguin

Been There, Done That, Don't Need To Do It Again.

Well, that was fun.  And by fun, I mean excruciatingly sad.  I just got into it with a Jehovah's Witness.  This is the first time this has happened since I left.  The first and last time.  For the record, she started it.

I went to the library to pick up some holds.  Another lady reaches there at the same time and we both lament the fact that the library is closed and doesn't open until the afternoon.  I get ready to turn and go and she says, "Well, I've got something you can read in the meantime."  She unfurls a stack of Watchtower magazines and brings my attention to the cover article, "What Will Happen to Bad People?" or something to that effect. Ya know, nice uplifting stuff about how Jehovah's Witnesses can't wait until the end of the world comes so all the "bad people" (aka you and me) will be destroyed and they can live eternally ever after.  Ya, you can see this is going to go well.

Now, I've been approached a number of times by JW's since leaving their flock five years ago and each time I walk away.  I was prepared to do this here too, but she wasn't willing to let me go so easily.  I put my hand up, say, "I'm not interested," and turn to walk away.

She calls to my back, "What?  You're not interested in the Bible?"

Wrong move, lady.  Wrong move.  

"No, actually I'm not interested in cults," I reply.

And that was the beginning of the end.  Right there in that moment, her back went up and the emotions flared.

"We're not a cult!!!" she screams. "Cults have a man as their leader.  We don't have a man."

"You have a group of old men in Brooklyn who run the show.  It's no different.  Listen, we're not going to be able to have a decent discussion here.  You're not even aware of your own history."

"I know my history."

"No, you know the history the Watchtower organization has fed you in that green Proclaimer's book.  It's white-washed and inaccurate.  If you want to know your real history, you should read Apocalypse Delayed."

"That's an apostate book!"  Now, that surprised me.  She obviously knew the book well enough to know it was written by someone who'd been excommunicated by the JW's.

I looked at her and smiled.  The word apostate makes me particularly happy.  Because I'm one.  Well, from her standpoint I'd be one, but she doesn't know that.  Secretly it delights me that she's carrying on a conversation with me when she wouldn't if she knew who I really was.

"Can you please define apostate for me?"  I ask her.

"An apostate is someone who speaks against the organization."

"So, you mean to tell me that you're part of an organization that would kick out someone who publishes an accurate history of the Jehovah's Witnesses just because it differs from what they'd like you to know?"

"It's not accurate.  It's lies."  She's really getting heated up now.

"Have you read it?  How would you know?" I ask.

She avoids answering that and jumps into why JW's shun apostates and attempts to back it with scriptures from the Bible.  The conversation goes on for another five minutes or so.  Honestly, it's not even worth getting into what we discussed.  Suffice it to say, we bantered back and forth, her becoming more and more angry and I becoming more and more calm.

She then accuses me of not listening to her.  "You have two ears and one mouth.  That means you should keep quiet and listen more!"

I laugh.  "I'm happy to listen.  But you aren't answering my questions."

"I am answering them!  But you're a know-it-all!  You think you know everything! I bet your whole life is a mess because you think you know everything about everything."

I smile.  And wait.  I know what's coming next...wait for it...wait for it..."Jesus said that in the "last days" there would be people like you who would mock the faith.  You're a MOCKER!!!  That's what you are!  A MOCKER!!!  I'm not talking to you anymore!"

And there it is. 

Granted, I'm sure I did a lousy job of using logic to make my points.  (Didn't I say the other day that you can't use logic to persuade someone out of a belief that they didn't use logic to get into?)  And I meandered into too many topics.  There was part of me that wanted to gush out every single lie I'd ever been told by the Watchtower organization.  And I know that that overwhelmed her.  My bad. 

And I'm sure I wasn't listening as intently as I could have been, mostly because I knew what she was going to say before she said it; because, of course, I was her.  She gave me the same tired arguments I used to make as a JW when someone questioned me on my faith.  The only difference between how she handled things and how I would have handled them as a JW is that I would've remained calm and not started throwing out insults.  When I was a JW, I didn't see the purpose in hailing down 'fire and brimstone' on anyone.  Make no mistake, I was an arrogant and self-assured JW, and assumed that if you treated me with mockery you were vulture-fodder come Armageddon, but I kept that to myself; no point in pissing people off if you were of the hope that maybe at some point in the future they might change their mind and see the "error of their ways" and come looking for the truth you were selling.

It's interesting to stand and talk to someone and feel like you're talking to yourself.  I knew she was another separate person, but it felt very much like I was talking to myself from six years ago, when I was still a devout, unquestioning Jehovah's Witness.  I felt like I was arguing with the bits of myself from that point in my history.  It was odd.  By the end, I just wanted to hug her and tell her, "I'm so sorry.  I wish you could see this for what it is.  But you won't.  And it will hurt you."

Well, lesson learned.  I have no intention of ever having that conversation with any active JW again.  The saddest thing is that she'll go home tonight, and rather than pause and think about the things I said, she'll say a prayer to Jehovah about how thankful she is that he gave her the opportunity today to "bear witness".  And she'll wake up tomorrow with a renewed sense of zeal that she was able to bear up against such a blatant assault on "The Truth", and she'll feel vindicated because she was able to face being persecuted "for the faith".

How do I know she'll feel this way?  Because I would've felt the same way. 

tall penguin

Monday, August 30, 2010

Can Preschoolers Be Depressed?

A recent article in the New York Times addresses the question: can preschoolers be depressed?  The article is worth reading, but, as is often the case, the comments on the article are much more intriguing.  One comment in particular stood out to me:

"Preschoolers, contrary to conventional wisdom, have their own unique thoughts, desires, dreams, and emotions — just like adults. And each one of those thoughts, desires, dreams, and emotions is experienced...just as deeply by a child as by an adult.--Matt"

This has always been my feeling about children, both when I was one and having played and worked with them across my life.  Children feel.  Deeply. 

My friend D and I were discussing our childhoods the other day.  He asked me what I wish my parents had done better.  I thought for a moment and replied, "I wish they had taken more interest in my inner thoughts, my feelings, what I thought about what was going on around me."

I bet you thought I'd say that I wished they hadn't raised me in a cult, eh?  Sure, I wish that too.  But even if that had remained the case, I think that if my parents had inquired more about how I saw things and how I was processing my life experience, they'd have known how being in the cult was affecting me, and perhaps, from there, they could have chosen whether to stay in it or not, or at least how best to help me frame the whole Jehovah's Witness experience. 

I had a very rich inner life as a child.  Still do, of course.  It's quite obviously an intrinsic part of my personality.  I remember, as a child, being quite aware of the feelings of those around me, and feeling intense emotions of my own, but no one bothered to ask what I was feeling.  I was a sponge, soaking up the angst of my depressed and anxious mother and the anger and frustration of my father.  I felt it all.   

I have always loved children.  And they have always loved me.  Why?  Because I haven't forgot what it's like to be them.  I remember acutely what it was like to be so aware and have no one who really understood that.  At a young age I would look around at the other kids and wonder, "Are they thinking about all of these things too?"  I don't know if they were, but I surmise they were.  Perhaps not with the intensity I was, but I believe they were indeed feeling more than their kid language allowed them to express.

I remember once, when I was in private practice working with kids diagnosed with ADD/ADHD, a little five-year-old guy client of mine was playing with this foam heart I had amongst my many toys in the office.  As he played with the heart, it split in two.  He looked at me, rather upset.  I reassured him that it was okay.  And he looked at me and said, "My heart feels like this."

I asked him to tell me more.  "It feels broken", he said, "My heart feels broken."  He then went on to tell me about how his parents were always at him for all the "bad stuff" he did.  But not just his parents, it was his classmates and his teachers too.  "They all think I'm bad.  I don't mean to be bad," he'd tell me.  I shared my conversation privately with his parents at the end of his session.  They realized how hard they'd been on him and how his energetic personality often lead to others treating him with harshness.  I can only hope that this realization changed how they interacted with him.

I've never forgotten this little guy.  When I closed my practice five years ago to deal with the fallout of my leaving the Jehovah's Witnesses, his parents sent me a note of thanks saying that their son always felt "safe" with me and that meant much to him and them.  The question is: how do we bring that level of "safety" to our children, the safety for our children to express their deepest feelings in whatever way they can (which is often without language, especially at younger ages)?  Time.  Children need open-ended blocks of time with their parents and their peers to experience and process that experience.  As Plato once observed, "You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.”

And I'm not talking organized play.  Not sports.  Not dance classes.  Not violin lessons.  Sure, these are all great activities and have their place.  No, I'm talking about open play, where kids are allowed to be kids, live in the moment and go where their imagination takes them.  If you're a parent with young children, get down, on the floor with them and their toys and play.  Forgotten how?  Then you're in more trouble than you realize.  And so are your kids.  Thankfully, kids can show you the way.  Let them show you how to interact with them.  But it takes time.  Time.  Time!

Okay, rant over.  I love kids.  It's why I don't have any.  Parenting is one of the toughest jobs around.  If you're a parent and it doesn't feel tough, you're probably doing it wrong.  And if you think your kids are too young to be feeling sad or depressed or anxious, wake up and pay attention.  And take them seriously when they show you their world or react to yours.  Kids are not mini-adults, but they are agents of awareness, no less than you.  Treat them accordingly.

Okay, now the rant is over.  For now.  Class dismissed. 

tall penguin

Don't Marry Her...

In light of my recent post on human sexuality and relationship, I can't help but share one of my favorite songs from The Beautiful South (Warning: Not Work-Friendly):

tall penguin

Sex At Dawn

"Like bonobos and chimps, we are the randy descendants of hypersexual ancestors.  At first blush, this may seem an overstatement, but it's a truth that should have become common knowledge long ago.  Conventional notions of monogamous, till-death-do-us-part marriage strain under the dead weight of a false narrative that insists we're something else."
--Sex At Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality by Christoper Ryan and Cacilda Jethá

Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern SexualitySex at Dawn, you had me at 'hello'. 

Now, I must state a bit of a disclaimer before I continue on with my discussion of this book.  I may be a little biased on my views of the book because it mostly fits into what my thinking on the matter of love, sex and relationship currently is, and has been for some time.  The other caveat I offer is that, although I've read a number of titles in recent years from the field of evolutionary psychology, I am not grounded enough in the science to know how well the arguments made in Sex at Dawn are supported by evidence, although the authors do provide a pretty hefty amount of evidence therein.  That said, I do hope you'll continue to read my review and engage with me in the comments.  I'm always happy to hear your point of view.

The basic argument made by Ryan and Jethá is that the story we've been telling ourselves about how natural sexual monogamy is to human beings might not be as accurate as we've been lead to believe.  From the Hardcover edition's description of the book:

"Ryan and Jethá's central contention is that human beings evolved in egalitarian groups that shared food, child care, and, often, sexual partners.  Weaving together convergent, frequently overlooked evidence from anthropology, archaeology, primatology, anatomy, and psychosexuality, the authors show how far from human nature monogamy really is."

This book is a fascinating read.  I was particularly astonished by the notion that our early ancestors may not have been the brutish, short-living, defensive sort as I was taught in my High School ancient history class.  But that, perhaps, our earliest relatives were communal, cooperative, and possibly even longer-living than we first thought. And that, it wasn't until the widespread practice of agriculture that the notions of strict possession (of land, property and mates and offspring) became the "norm".  Of course, religion and culture added to the monogamy ideal as well.  Of course it did; control people's sexuality and you've got yourself a very strong power structure.  But I digress. 

Sex at Dawn looks at the physical structure of the male and female reproductive systems as well as how we have sex and gives some very new and interesting takes on what this tells us about our early ancestors and ourselves today.  For example, human male penis length and sperm production seem to indicate that the human male has evolved for promiscuity (the book defines this word as "a number of ongoing, sexual relationships at the same time").  And a look at the female orgasm and a woman's ability to have multiple orgasms along with her intense vocalization during sex seem to indicate that the human female has also evolved for promiscuity.  Of course, I'm simplifying here and you would need to read the whole book (which I highly recommend) to understand the depths of the arguments being made. 

I learned some interesting tidbits along the way in this book that I will share with you.

"Going back a bit farther, we find that in the biblical books of Genesis and Exodus, Jacob's children sprang from his thigh.  Most historians agree that "thigh" is actually a polite way of referring to that which hangs between a man's thighs.  "It seems clear," writes Friedman, [David Friedman in A Mind of Its Own: A Cultural History of the Penis] "that sacred oaths between Israelites were sealed by placing a hand on the male member."  The act of swearing on one's balls lives on in the word testify."

Wow, I don't remember hearing that at my Jehovah's Witness meetings. I'm sure your Sunday School teachers missed that one too.  It seems they missed a lot of things, if you accept the arguments made in Sex at Dawn. 

The other thing I found notable is that, studies seem to indicate that women have greater erotic flexibility than men do.  While men's sexual preferences are generally more fixed, women's tend to be more fluid. 

"Sexologist Lisa Diamond spent over a decade studying the ebb and flow of female desire. In her book Sexual Fidelity, she reports that many women see themselves as attracted to specific people, rather than to their gender.  Women, in Diamond's view, respond so strongly to emotional intimacy that their innate gender orientation can easily be overwhelmed.  Chivers [psychologist Meredith Chivers] agrees: "Women physically don't seem to differentiate between genders in their sex responses, at least heterosexual women don't."" 

I've seen this play out in the lives of some women I know.  They consider themselves heterosexual, but, at this moment in their personal history, they find themselves in love with a woman.  And enjoying sex with that woman.  It seems that the sexual life of the human female, when not under cultural, religious or societal suppression, is an incredibly open and diverse thing.  Personally, I have not yet explored sex with a woman, but have found myself aroused in female presence on more than one occasion and have kissed women before.  I have no doubt that I will one day find myself in a sexual relationship with a woman.  It feels inevitable and natural to me that this will eventually be the case. 

So, what do Ryan and Jethá propose we do with this new version of the human sexual/relationship narrative?  Interestingly, they don't have any proposals.  They're as surprised by this new take on our prehistoric history as anyone else.  And that's what I so love about this book.  It's not anti-monogamy.  It's not pro-promiscuity.  What it is is a shocking jolt to our finely crafted narrative about who we think we are and how we got here.  And that is enough. 

If Sex at Dawn can get us talking about sex and love and relationship in an open, honest way I think it will prove to be a significant addition to the great tomes of history.   It is about time that we look at the stories we tell ourselves about our relationships and reconfigure our lives to decide what a working relationship looks like to us and how best to execute that. Maybe, just maybe, if we can lose the stories that don't work and replace them with ones that do, our species will be forever changed, not just in matters of sex, love and relationship, but in all matters.  One can only hope.

tall penguin

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs Gets Renovated...

I remember the first time I saw Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs.  I was in Grade 11, taking a class called "Society: Challenge and Change".  It was my first brush with psychology and sociology and I loved it.  The hierarchy of needs, proposed in 1943 by psychologist Abraham Maslow outlined basic human needs and the progression of the attainment of those needs.  Maslow's original pyramid looks like this:

From the moment I saw this pyramid back in Grade 11, it made sense to me.  We work from the physiological up to self-actualization, solidifying the need below to move up the pyramid.  The needs hierarchy was basic and all-encompassing, allowing for much personal interpretation of how to live a life while meeting these needs throughout.

Some 60 years later, a group of psychologists, feeling Maslow's pyramid outdated, have proposed a renovation of the Hierarchy of Needs.   The group, lead by Douglas Kenrick, an ASU professor of psychology, published the paper, "Renovating the pyramid of needs: Contemporary extensions built upon ancient foundations" in the March issue of Perspectives on Psychological Sciences.  According to the paper, Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs should be renovated to look like this:

While the base needs are still similar to the original pyramid, you can see that the top has changed dramatically.  On the way up the hierarchy, we now find mate acquisition and mate retention.  WTF?

And at the top, parenting has replaced Self-Actualization because, as the authors of the paper surmise, self-actualization, although interesting, isn't an evolutionarily fundamental need.  As Doug Kenrick explains: "Among human aspirations that are most biologically fundamental are those that ultimately facilitate reproduction of our genes in our children's children," Kenrick explained. "For that reason, parenting is paramount."

Wow.  Hear that spinning sound?  That's Maslow spinning in his grave.  Maslow allowed for all of these possibilities (mate acquisition/retention, parenting) but didn't make them the end all and be all of human needs.  He, and rightly so in my opinion, put at the top of the pyramid loftier ambitions by including the concept of self-actualization.  Sure, parenting may be driven by a biological and evolutionary imperative, but that doesn't make it the pinnacle of human needs.

This "renovation" smacks of a justification for the narrative that currently fits the status quo.  It seems an awful lot like the Boomer generation patting itself on the back for the choices they've made, choices to marry and stick it out "for the kids".  And the abandonment of self-actualization for those mating/parenting "needs" again just seems like a justification for all those choices made by the Boomers, choices that have ultimately left their children and grandchildren with a planet in environmental crisis, a destabilized world economy and a future that feels more uncertain than ever before.   Perhaps, if the Boomers had actually paid attention to becoming self-actualized we wouldn't need to rewrite Maslow's Hierarchy at all.   

tall penguin

A Fine, Fine Line

Thanks to Dave for sharing this song with me from the great musical Avenue Q, which I hope to see one day.   I love the lyrics to this song.  It describes my feelings of late.  It really isn't so easy to sort out human relationships, is it?

There's A Fine, Fine Line 

"There's a fine, fine line between a lover and a friend;
There's a fine, fine line between reality and pretend;
And you never know 'til you reach the top if it was worth the uphill climb.

There's a fine, fine line between love
And a waste of time.

There's a fine, fine line between a fairy tale and a lie;
And there's a fine, fine line between "You're wonderful" and "Goodbye."
I guess if someone doesn't love you back it isn't such a crime,
But there's a fine, fine line between love
And a waste of your time.

And I don't have the time to waste on you anymore.
I don't think that you even know what you're looking for.
For my own sanity, I've got to close the door
And walk away...

There's a fine, fine line between together and not
And there's a fine, fine line between what you wanted and what you got.
You gotta go after the things you want while you're still in your prime...

There's a fine, fine line between love
And a waste of time."

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Back to the Start...

When I became a blog writer, I was not a blog reader.  At the time, I didn't even really know what a blog was.  So, when my then-boyfriend recommended that I start one, he also recommended that I read a bunch of other blogs to see how it was done.  I accepted the first recommendation, but totally ignored the second, as evidenced by these, the words that started my blogging journey almost four years ago:

"So, this is a blog. It's all new to me. I figured I'd just dive right in rather than look at what other people have done here, since my inner voice will kick in and tell me I can't do it as well as everyone else and all my creative juices will pool in the lower recesses of my brain causing me great angst. So, here goes. Be gone inner voice."

I was afraid.  Terrified actually.  My mind used to be so easily scared away from doing things, particularly if there was a good chance that someone somewhere could do those things way better than I could; which, of course, applied to most things.  I have spent much time since that first blog post negotiating a safe space in my mind; a place that acknowledged and reassured the scared bits while allowing the adventurous bits to push forward. 

It's taken me a long time but, somehow, of late, I'm reading a lot more blogs.  And it's not so scary.  Perhaps it is because I am beginning to truly value my own writing talent and self in general. Or maybe it's just the maturity that comes with age to realize that there will always be someone out there that's better than you at things and that's good because it means you've got something still to learn, something still to explore and something still to feel wonder about.  And that is worth having.  And, for me, worth writing about. 


I'm feelin' a little misty-eyed tonight.  For all amazingly wonderful reasons.  I've come a long way.   And I've been reflecting lately, both on and offline, on just how happy I am to be where I am in my life right now.  How free I feel.  How open I feel.  How joyous I feel.  And so, I want to thank you, dear blog reader, wherever you are, for being a witness to my journey and a participant in my ongoing becoming.  I feel truly grateful to all of you.


Thursday, August 26, 2010

So Much...

I saw you today
But you didn't see me.

Or did you?

You were wearing lime green
And a smile
Just as you were the last time I saw you.

Funny how things come full circle.

I watched you come and go
Not seeing me seeing you
And all of a sudden
All of a sudden
The bubble burst.

The. Bubble. Burst.

And twenty-three years of story
And fantasy
Disappeared into the ether
From which they came.

You're not the person I thought you were.

Neither am I.

I'm so much more.

tall penguin

Moving Right Along...

Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman's Search for Everything Across Italy, India and IndonesiaTall Penguin sees her psychiatrist.  Tall Penguin shares story of heartbreak and grief over a lost love and her attempts to come to terms with the situation.  Psychiatrist recommends Tall Penguin read "Eat, Pray, Love" and/or see the film as "homework".  Tall Penguin is now looking for a new psychiatrist.

It could've been worse.  Psychiatrist could've recommended Tall Penguin read, "The Secret" or its equally abhorrent companion, "The Power", at which point Tall Penguin would've released years of "repressed rage" on psychiatrist and been subsequently sedated and hospitalized. 

Sigh.  It's a sad day when you realize that you're more intelligent than your therapist. 

tall penguin

Tuesday, August 24, 2010


The last time I saw you,
You wore lime green
And a smile.

If we'd known then
What we know now
Maybe we would have found
Something better to talk about
Than the weather
And business

And maybe
You would've let that phone call go
And the one after that too

And maybe
We would've stared a bit longer
Over our lattes
Savoring those long glances
That had once solidified
Our tenuous grasp on love

But I remember you laughing
And I remember thinking,
I love this silly man
And I remember thinking,
I hope I get to do this forever

And then
Then it was goodbye
But we didn't know it was goodbye
Not yet,
Not then.
If we had
I'm sure we would've
Lingered a little longer
In each other's arms
And maybe the kiss on the cheek
Would've been one on the lips

And maybe the secrets
That had kept us together
That had kept us apart
Wouldn't have mattered

And maybe
Just maybe
For a moment
It would have been okay
To just

Let go.

tall penguin

Monday, August 23, 2010

Still I Rise...

I find Maya Angelou and her poetry inspiring.  On this, my Anniversary day, this poem seems fitting.

Still I Rise
Maya Angelou

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I'll rise.

Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
'Cause I walk like I've got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.

Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I'll rise.

Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops.
Weakened by my soulful cries.

Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don't you take it awful hard
'Cause I laugh like I've got gold mines
Diggin' in my own back yard.

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I'll rise.

Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I've got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?

Out of the huts of history's shame
I rise
Up from a past that's rooted in pain
I rise
I'm a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that's wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.

Five Years Out and Counting...

Five years ago this week, I wrote a formal letter of disassociation to my local body of Jehovah's Witness elders to inform them that I no longer wanted to be part of their religion.   I also wrote a final email to a number of my JW friends before I left.  It's been a while since I looked at these and it makes me sick to my stomach to revisit this time of my life but, for the sake of the narrative I'm sharing with all of you here, I feel compelled to share this rather crucial bit of my journey.  I will give you my reflections after. 

This is the email I sent out to my closest friends, which includes the formal letter of disassociation I submitted to my congregation elders.

August 17, 2005.

Dear Friend,

I am writing the following because I hold you dear to my heart and want you to know the truth about the decision I've made.  This decision has not been made lightly.  Rather it comes from my years of experience in the organization and the many questions and concerns I've had over those years that can no longer be ignored.  This decision also comes from diligent Bible study and prayerful consideration.  I have no desire to interfere with the way you choose to worship Jehovah, as I do not appreciate those who would interfere with my personal dedication to Him. 

If you choose to shun me, that is your choice and I will respect that.  If you choose to continue your association with me on any level, I welcome that.  Whatever you decide, be assured of my love for you.

What follows is the actual letter I submitted to the body of elders dated August 17, 2005 and which will be announced I assume next Tuesday, August 23.  I wanted you to have the same information, information that is not usually at the disposal of the individual congregation member to be informed of why a person might make the choice that I now make. I believe it is your right to have this information so you may know the truth. 

Dear Brothers,

I hereby disassociate myself from the WatchTower organization. I have, and will continue to, diligently aspire to the Christian principles of truth, honesty, love and justice. And as this is my goal in my dedication to Jehovah God, I can no longer in good conscience be affiliated with an organization that consistently violates these principles as well as my desire to follow them.

Thank you for the learning experience.  I hold no ill will towards you or the organization of which you're a part.  I leave you in peace.  May the "Father of tender mercies" be with you.


[tall penguin]

Although I feel great grief in the possible loss of some relationships, I'm incredibly happy with my decision, having made it from a place of strength and good conscience, and a heartfelt desire to worship Jehovah with "spirit and truth" and to fulfill my dedication to Jehovah, the "Most High over all the earth."

I hope that you will be able to retain your memories of me and remember the person you know that I am and have shown myself to you to be over the years of our friendship.  I realize though, with great sadness, that not unlike myself when I was part of the organization, you may choose to "rewrite" your view of me and the times we shared in order to stay part of something that you may not fully understand yet cannot disagree with for fear. 

I ask now that you please forgive me for anything I've ever done or said that may have hurt or offended you.  I am truly sorry.  I love you and will keep you in my heart.  May Jehovah strengthen you and may your relationship with him, through the most gracious ransom of His son, Christ Jesus, grow in love.  And may the Holy Spirit provide you with "the peace that excels all thought."  I leave you in peace.

Much Love,
[tall penguin]

Blech.  It pains me to read this now. 

Why?  For a few reasons.  First of all, when I wrote it, I was obviously still of a religious mindset.  The grand irony is that at the time I wrote that letter, I felt I was leaving a false Christianity for a true one, not that different than my mother felt when she'd converted from Catholicism to the Jehovah's Witnesses when I was 5.  My thought process at the time went something like this: Ahhh, that wasn't true Christianity after all.  Now I know what true Christianity is.  Of course, it didn't take me long to figure out I was still just blowing smoke up my own ass, that the whole concept of a True Christian was as ridiculous post-JW as it was as a JW.  

The other thing that strikes me as sickening about that letter is how calm and cordial it was, and nauseatingly apologetic.  It was how I felt when I wrote it, but it didn't take long for that to shift.  Within months of writing that letter, about the time that I realized that religion in general, and god concepts overall, had no real backing to them, I was writhing in rage and grief.  If I'd written those letters at that point I'm sure they would have included a few choice expletives.  Fuck a few.  Many choice expletives.  And a point by point analysis of all of the bullshit teachings Jehovah's Witnesses believe, how they've changed and flip-flopped over the course of their history and how the organization they trusted was horribly misguided.

Of course, in hindsight, perhaps it would've been better to say nothing at all.  To just leave quietly and move on.  (I received few replies to my letter, by the way.  One of my friends who I'd known for 25 years was irate...How dare you question The Organization?!...Only two people genuinely wished me well.)  I really had hoped that my letters would have prompted some to question their beliefs.  Silly, naive me.  Silly, naive me, still.  I'm still that girl who thinks that I can make a difference in the way people live their lives or the beliefs they hold.  It's why I keep writing here.  But belief is such a funny thing really.  It's rarely motivated by logic and reason.  Beliefs are mostly based on emotion and intuition, which, divorced from reason, leads us astray again and again.  If it was emotion that got you into a belief system, it's rare that logic will get you out.  If I've learned anything in the past five years, it is the proneness of the human mind to deception. 

Even in my own case, it was emotion that was the initial catalyst for my leaving the Jehovah's Witnesses.  I had fallen in love with a friend in my congregation who had, unbeknownst to me, been doing research on the JW movement and had come across some very damning evidence that things weren't quite as they appeared.  Sure, it was eventually logic and critical thinking that got me to where I am today, but make no mistake, it was love that got me thinking to begin with.

And this is a common story amongst some who leave the Jehovah's Witnesses.  A member falls in love with someone, often an outsider, "a worldy person", and that throws their life into upheaval; it is difficult to reconcile one's love for God with love for someone you've been taught is the enemy.  And unless that person can throw some logic into the mix and question the foundation of their beliefs, or has someone to help them do so, inevitably they return to the JW's at some point or another, still believing that the Jehovah's Witnesses have "The Truth" and that the sacrifice of this "unevenly yoked" (read evil) relationship is what their God wants (Been there, lived that.  But that is another story).  When you're trapped in a mindset, love is often not enough.  The emotional pull of that mindset (whether it's religion or culture or anything else you unquestioningly operate your life by) is stronger than logic and cannot be persuaded easily. 

How strong is this emotional pull?  Let me tell you.  To this day, as much as I've read, and as much as I'm convinced that it's unlikely that there's a god (although I'm still open to any sound evidence to the contrary), there is this strong emotional pull that I must constantly monitor in my head that really wants to believe otherwise.  It is easier to believe than to understand the science and reason that proves those beliefs unlikely.  It is easier to accept something we seemingly understand and have known for a while than to question our premises, investigate and learn new things and adjust our beliefs accordingly.  Faith is easy; reason is hard.  I don't know that I will ever overcome the hard-wiring that many years of indoctrination have left on my thinking processes; it has left its scars, no doubt.

But I digress.

On this, my five year anniversary of being out of the Jehovah's Witnesses, let me pause and give thanks for the following:

1.  My parents don't shun me.  To their credit, even though still devout JW's, they socialize with me, and are still an integral part of my life.  Go Mom and Dad!!!

2.  I have an awesome brother.  If you know him, there's no explanation needed.  If you don't, take my word for it.  He's pretty great.

3.  I have great friends, an awesome social network and a supportive work environment.  I have friends that know I'm in transition and still learning how to live and be, and are forgiving, patient and kind.  I have an online social network that challenges me daily to think about what I think.  And I work with people who appreciate me, laugh with me (and at me, which I love) and who are there to pick up the slack when I have my occasional meltdowns of mind and/or body.

4.  My life is my own.  Well, as much as can reasonably be with this mind and this body.  But, for the most part, I feel free to live as I see fit.

5.  Life is good.  I'm not a fan of the word happiness (it's been co-opted and has become a religion in and of itself), but I do feel quietly content most of the time.  Sure, I have my bouts with melancholy (it's a deep part of my personality which I doubt will disappear anytime soon), but overall, life is good.

And so, here I am, five years out of the Jehovah's Witnesses and I wonder, what's next for the tall penguin?  And the truth is, I don't know.

And that's okay. 

tall penguin

Sunday, August 22, 2010

This Tall Penguin Moment Is Brought To You By The Letter D...

I work in a bookstore.  Last night, a customer comes in and says, "I'm looking for this book about a dog and the dog explains what human life is like through his eyes."

I pause.  Wait for it...wait for it..."Is it fiction?"  I ask.

We look at each other for a moment, then break out laughing.

"Well that's definitely the dumbest thing I've said today," I add.

It's official.  I need a vacation.  Soon.

tall penguin

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Growing Up...

"Growing up, growing up,
Looking for a place to live...

The breathing stops, I don't know when
In transition once again
Such a struggle getting through these changes "

~~Peter Gabriel, Growing Up

As a Jehovah's Witness, I spent most of my life in the saving business.  It was my daily concern to take any and every opportunity to declare my faith to others in the hope that I could save them before God's final war of Armageddon came to destroy the unbelievers.  In order to sustain this mindset, a JW must cling to the idea that their beliefs are right and the beliefs of others are wrong.   And this, I'm finding, is not an easy thing to set aside.

Having shifted into a more skeptical, atheist, science-based view of the world, I find myself seeing the world quite differently than I ever have before.  And yet, it seems you can take the girl out of the cult, but you can't take the cult out of the girl.  I am still consistently battling with that savior model in my mind; rather than saving the godless, now I want to save the godful.  There is still this drive in me to prove the rightness of what I believe and the wrongness of what others believe.  And it might be okay if it just stayed as a battle in my head, but I find it spilling into my daily life to the point where I'm becoming confrontational in a way that I don't enjoy. 

I don't like feeling defensive.  I felt defensive my whole life.  Everywhere I turned, I had to defend my beliefs to someone somewhere.  Even if I weren't formally knocking on people's doors to bring them the "good news", I was answering questions from someone about my beliefs: Why don't you celebrate birthdays?  Why don't you take blood transfusions?  Why don't you vote?  Even when I just wanted to relax, I still felt like I had to be on high alert for opportunities to defend my faith.  It was exhausting. 

And that anxiety persists.  Although I've changed my worldview 180 degrees, I still feel this strong pull that I must now defend this worldview and work on converting others to my point of view.  I am rationally aware that this is arrogant and foolish.  And yet, sometimes it feels as though I can't quite help myself.  Those defensive feelings, that drive to save others from their "wrong" beliefs is still so strong that it takes me great effort not to act it out.

The other belief system I'm currently working hard to overcome is again tied to others having different beliefs than mine.  As JW's there is this sameness of belief, so much so that you can go anywhere in the world, step into a Kingdom Hall (JW equivalent of a church) and hear the same beliefs being expounded.  There is no cultural or regional variance.  This sameness created a very secure feeling, close-knit environment.  And anyone who questions or challenges that sameness, through action against official JW dogma, is removed, excommunicated, kicked out and shunned from the rest of the group.  You can get back in but only once you conform your thinking and behavior once more to the group's.  There's very little room for individuality.

This desire for sameness of thought still pervades my psyche.  I watch as my brain has changed itself. I see how my thinking is so very different from where I was five years ago.  And I can see how my worldview and operating philosophy is different even from the friends I've acquired in these past few years.  And my knee-jerk response, my patterned reaction, is to want to cut off those friendships and seek out those who see the world as I do.  

It was a definite moment of grace recently when I was out with my friend G and we quite obviously disagreed on something and she must have noticed the complete look of terror on my face ("Oh my goodness, one of my best friends doesn't share my views on something that's really important to me, what do I do now?!") and she said something very simple and very profound, "Ya know, friends don't have to agree on everything." 

Of course, she's right.  And I knew this intellectually, but my behavior was still being driven by the JW mindset of sameness and uniformity of thought.

I watch these battles play out in my mind and in my life.  I still feel very much like a child in so many ways, just trying to bash my way through a world I still don't quite understand.  But honestly, I'm terribly exhausted.  I don't want to defend myself anymore.  I don't want to fight anymore.  I don't want to convert anyone ever again.  I'm out of the saving business.  If I can save myself from myself I will have accomplished much in this life.  And really, who else needs saving but me? 

I am fortunate to have friends, like G, who put up with my growing pains and keep me around even when I behave foolishly.  This is the kind of friendship I've longed for my whole life, friends who love me for who I am, not for what I believe or don't believe.  Friends who won't kick me out of the group because I'm no longer "one of them".  I hope I can continue to become that kind of friend to others.  I'm learning.  Pain by excruciating pain, I'm learning. 

tall penguin

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Here Comes The Flood...

If you're a regular reader, you know that I'm a huge Peter Gabriel fan.  Peter and I have been through a lot together.  His music has punctuated every one of my major life events over the past fifteen years and has gotten me through many a difficult period, not to mention the fact that my relationship to Peter's music has outlasted most of my "real-life" personal relationships. I had the pleasure of seeing him perform live this past April as part of his New Blood Tour which was Peter and a live orchestra; no drums, no guitars.  It was a magical, unforgettable night.

Peter has just released a video of him performing 'Here Comes The Flood', which he recorded in Hollywood on May 5th 2010 as part of the Guitar Center "Sessions" program, which will debut August 21st on DIRECTV.  (A free download of this live version is available at Peter's site.) It's just Peter, his glorious voice and a piano.  This song has always been my go-to song when I am processing grief.  Whenever I need a good cry, Peter's evocative vocals and penetrating lyrics bring the flood flashing through me.

"When the flood calls
You have no home, you have no walls
In the thunder crash
You're a thousand minds, within a flash
Don't be afraid to cry at what you see
The actors gone, there's only you and me
And if we break before the dawn, they'll
use up what we used to be."

tall penguin

On The Ride Home...

"Ya know Dad, over the past five years, you and Mom have still kept contact with me and you have no idea how much that means to me.  Thank you."

"Of course.  Why wouldn't we?"

"Well, because your religion says you shouldn't."

"Nothing has changed.  We love you.  We're here for you.  That will never change.  Ever."

tall penguin

Monday, August 9, 2010

Shout Out...

Much of my blog here is writing about my experiences after leaving the Jehovah's Witness cult.  Most of the time I write without feedback and comments from my readers.  But sometimes I receive emails from those who are still in the Jehovah's Witnesses, those who've seen the "man behind the curtain" and are doing their best to get family members out before they too take their leave.  And so, today, I want to honor those readers.  I know you won't be able to comment on this post because you're in hiding, but I wanted to say hello and wish you well.  It takes great courage to see the lies of what you once believed to be "The Truth" and to take action to leave this hurtful construct.  May you one day soon be able to be free of the Watchtower organization and its suppression and live a life that is truly yours.

And to those who have left the Jehovah's Witnesses fully and are trying to build a life post-cult, I applaud your daily efforts.  This journey is not an easy one and it takes courage every moment of every day to live a life free from mind control. 

Cheers to all,

Thursday, August 5, 2010

The Compartment

"You need to put me in a compartment," he said.

Compartment? she thought.  Compartments are for shoes and old tax returns, not for people.

"I don't do compartments," she replied.

She wondered how he could even conceive such a thing let alone request it of her.  She wondered how long he'd kept her in a compartment in his mind. She wondered what that compartment looked like.  Was it a box with small breathing holes cut into the side or a padded room with a lock on the door? And how often was she allowed out?  But the question that burned most in her mind was, after all this time, if she wasn't spilling all over his mind, his heart, his life, what the hell was she even doing here?

He looked at her as if he had heard all of her questions, but he did not answer them. She sighed and wiped away the tears now streaming down her face. His carefully chosen silence hurt as much as his carefully chosen words.

tall penguin

Tuesday, August 3, 2010


The greatest lies are the ones we tell ourselves.

When I first began my departure from the Jehovah's Witnesses five years ago, I felt a lot of anger towards all those complicit in feeding my mind lies and calling it truth.  I was five years old when my mother converted into the Jehovah's Witnesses from staunch Catholicism so it wasn't difficult to indoctrinate me.  I trusted that the people around me--my parents, the JW elders, the JW community--were telling me the truth about life and the world I lived in, as any child trusts the adults in their life to provide them with accurate information to navigate their existence.  And it would've all been much more acceptable and manageable if that information was taught as truth in a relative sense.  But that was not the case with the Jehovah's Witness training I received, nor is it the case with most children raised with religion.  No, the whole JW construct, is taught as the Truth with a capital T.

The Jehovah's Witnesses take this to the extreme extent even referring to their belief system as "The Truth", as in, "Is he in The Truth?", "When did you first learn The Truth?", "She left The Truth five years ago."  This is where indoctrination differs from education; whereas education is an open learning process where skepticism and re-evaluation is encouraged, indoctrination leaves no room for doubt or question.  Indoctrination is your oath to the religion's truth, their whole truth, and nothing but their truth, so help you, [insert your God of choice here].

It hurts to be lied to.  Even when it's done unknowingly it doesn't necessarily make it hurt less.  Sure, my parents are just as indoctrinated as I was and I would guess that most of the JW hierarchy really does believe the bullshit they peddle and is not knowingly feeding its flock untruths.  The difference though is that they are adults and I was a child.  I didn't have a choice.  Or did I?  I eventually became an adult, didn't I?  Why didn't I choose to leave once I became an adult?  I was 31 when I left the Jehovah's Witnesses. What took me so long to leave? Why did it take me so long as an adult to figure out it was all a bunch of crap?  Valid questions all.  And this is where indoctrination is so clever a process, because eventually the beliefs you were raised to believe as a child become so deeply ingrained that even as an adult you perpetuate them; the mind viruses of belief have so firmly taken root that you tell yourself the lies all on your own.  And that, that is one of the most difficult things to come to terms with once you leave the religion or cult you grew up in.

Some time after you leave, you wake up one day and you realize that you were a co-conspirator in the destruction of your own mind, your own life. Suddenly, you remember all of those moments of doubt that arose as you were growing up, those doubts that you quickly dismissed and replaced with the official religious dogma. You remember all of the lies you told yourself to keep from fully recognizing the reality of what was going on around you.  And you want to blame it all on the power of indoctrination, but you know, you know that those moments, so many moments of doubt, where something deep inside of you screamed, There's something not quite right going on here! came to you, not just as an indoctrinated child, but as an adult.  And you kick yourself for not listening to your gut, for not heeding the pangs of cognitive dissonance, for continuing to lie to yourself.  And you get angry with yourself.  And you cry.  A lot.  And you lament over and over and over, "Why, oh why, didn't I trust myself?  Why didn't I listen to my gut?  Why didn't I leave sooner?"

But it's not that simple.  It wasn't just a matter of snapping out of it and coming to your senses.  No, as the years pass and you get some distance from the whole religious experience, you learn that hindsight is 20/20, that it really wasn't so easy when you were in it to see the reality of what was going on and that the mind you thought was yours at the time really wasn't.  It belonged to a collective idea, a collective illusion.  And although, yes, you ignored your intuition for a very long time and lied to yourself over and over again, you were only working with the tools you had, and those tools were shoddy at best.  And so, you learn to be gentle with that co-conspirator in your head and you find a way to forgive it for its ignorance. And then, you find a way to educate your own mind and free it, piece by piece by piece, from the indoctrination of your youth.  But you never quite make friends with your mind; once you've seen it betray you, you will never trust it fully again.  And perhaps, that is as it should be.  The mind is prone to error and bias and deception.   As Desiderius Erasmus said, "Man's mind is so formed that it is far more susceptible to falsehood than to truth."

And so, you live your life the best you can, knowing that the world is filled with more lies than truth, knowing that your mind must be constantly patrolled and knowing that it is inevitable that you will retain some illusions (quite possibly because it is impossible to live a full life without a few of them).  But now you choose your illusions with great care and awareness and hope that when those moments arise when your gut says, There's something not quite right here you will be able to listen and heed accordingly.

And that makes all the difference.

tall penguin

Sunday, August 1, 2010

The Pleasure In the Pain...

My brother is all kinds of awesome.  More than a brother, he is my friend. Not only is he generous with his time and his money, but he is always there for me with a listening ear and another perspective on whatever I'm going through.

But my brother is one serious dude.  He's an engineer by trade and I'm not sure if it's the chicken or the egg here, but his brain is definitely hard-wired for logic.  Not that being ultra-logical should also make one ultra-serious, but in my brother's case, it does.

I've made it my personal life mission, since I was a very young child, to ensure that my brother laughs pretty often.  Being five years younger gave me a definite advantage when we were kids.  I could make silly faces or weird noises, engage him in burping contests or otherwise act like a complete fool and wait for him to crack a smile.  Now, it's not always so easy. Sure, I can still do all of those things but they're less funny now that I'm 36 and he's 41.  Well, they're no less funny, but we pretend that they are.

So, now, thanks to the internet, I send my brother funny videos and photos that I know will reach his twisted funny bone (a twisted funny bone that we both share and when I say twisted, I mean twisted...stuff like this).  But then there are times where I make my brother laugh without quite intending to. Just by being my neurotic, verbose, tall-penguiny self.

The other night, unable to sleep, I sent my brother an email.  And well, you read my blog, you can imagine what my personal emails are like.  I won't go into the details of this particular one, but, suffice it to say, it was a beautifully-crafted lamentation on heartbreak, entanglement and the dilemma proposed by Schrödinger's cat.  

Dear Brother calls me the next day and leaves me this message:

"Got your email.  (snicker)  Yes, I hear your pain.  (snicker, snicker)  I noticed you even managed to work Schrödinger's cat in there.  (snicker, snicker, snicker)  All very entertaining.  (full-blown laughter)  Call me later."

So, I call him later.  "I'm so very glad that my pain entertains you," I say, pretending to be angry.  Well, half-pretending.  Fine, I was a little pissed.  My heart's broken.  Work with me here.

"I never said your pain entertains me.  I just find the way you express your pain entertaining," is his reply.

"Okay fine," I concede, "But shit, who else do you know that can work a historical thought experiment and quantum mechanics into a commentary on love and grief?  No one.  That's right.  No one but me. So fuck you."

And then we both start laughing.  Because sometimes, pain is funny.  And sometimes, even your own pain is funny, because, well, it's just as ridiculous as the rest of your life.  

Sh*t My Dad SaysWhich brings me to the book I'm currently reading:  "Sh*t My Dad Says" by Justin Halpern.  This is one very funny book.  It's what the title says it is and Justin's Dad says some really funny shit.  There's this gnawing pain inside as you read the book because you wonder how it is that Justin was able to become a functional adult growing up with a father who says what his father says. Stuff like this:

"On Getting a Dog:

"Who's going to take care of it?  You?...Son, you came in the house yesterday with shit on your hands.  Human shit. I don't know what happened, but if someone has shit on their hands, it's an indicator that maybe the whole responsibility thing isn't for them.""

But still, as painful as it is, you have to laugh, because it's just so damn hilarious.  And it seems that time has given Justin the perspective it gives most of us in relation to our parents; all said and done, they're alright.  And although time doesn't heal all wounds, it gives us the distance to find the humor in them.  And sometimes, that's enough.

tall penguin