Tuesday, July 27, 2010

There Be Changes Round Here...

As I'm sure you've noticed, there's been some changes here at tall penguin. I'm all about full disclosure, so here's what you need to know.

1.  I've got a new layout and design which I think better reflects my blog and myself.

2.  I've added an "About Me" page which gives a more detailed background on who I am and why I write this blog.

3.  I've added a "Contact Me" page which will connect you and I for a more private discussion if that's what you'd like.  I love hearing from my readers and welcome your correspondence.

4.  I've added a "Buy Me A Cupcake" page.  Some of my readers requested the ability to make donations to be able to say thanks and to support my continued writing.  This page will allow you to donate through PayPal or with a credit card.  You can donate any amount you like. Any and all donations are greatly appreciated.

5.  I've hooked up with Amazon as an associate, which means that when I review books, movies or music and you click on my supplied link over to Amazon and subsequently choose to buy that item, I will receive a percentage of the sale.  I will continue to only provide honest feedback on the items I blog about here and you are, of course, free to buy from Amazon without my blogged link.

If you have any questions, concerns or comments on these recent changes, feel free to let me know.

Onwards and Upwards!

tall penguin

The Brain That Changes Itself...

The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science (James H. Silberman Books)
I've just finished reading The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science (James H. Silberman Books) by Norman Doidge.  And wow.  I think I wanna be a neuroscientist when I grow up. Or a psychologist.  That would be cool.  Might be time to put my "therapist face" to good use.  But I digress.

Sometime over the last few months, I became acutely aware that my brain has changed.  That my mind, my thought processes, my reactions are now different than they once were.  It has become obvious to me that my brain has changed itself.  It is startling to realize that your brain is different.  I woke up one day and wondered where all the suicidal thoughts went off to.  Along with the deep self-loathing and challenges with accepting life as it is.

Really, I was shocked to notice what wasn't there anymore, what isn't floating around my head on a regular basis.  The daily "I think I should end my life" thought wasn't the only one missing.  Along with that thought, the following thoughts had also vacated my mental premises:  

"My health will always limit what I can accomplish in this life."

"I'm not good enough."

"I'm not going to amount to anything in this life beyond what I am now."  

But not only have certain thoughts left my mental meanderings, but new thoughts have arisen to take their place.  Thoughts like:

"Life is short.  I'm not going to let anyone or anything keep me from living the life I need to live."

"My best is good enough."

"My life is going to be awesome, because I'm gonna make it awesome."

And so on and so forth.

I don't know when those changes happened, or precisely how they happened, but they have happened.  And that is amazing to me, considering how long I had all that other guck floating around in my consciousness.  Don't misunderstand me, it's not all roses and unicorns in my mind all the time.  There are moments where the old thought patterns come up, but these new patterns are gaining such momentum that it isn't long before they take over again.  And that, to me, is nothing short of a miracle.

So, what does this have to do with the book I just read?  Well, Doidge's stories from the frontiers of neuroscience validate the idea that the brain is capable of such phenomenal changes.  It can indeed change itself, and profoundly so.  

Doidge, psychiatrist and researcher, gives examples of people whose brains have reacquired functions lost during a stroke.  The unaffected parts of the brain, thanks to neuroplasticity, have the ability in many cases to take over what the stroke-affected parts lost, recovering speech and motor skills.  

Doidge also goes into the mystery of phantom limbs and how the work of neuroscientist VS Ramachandran has helped people, via a mirror box, release the pain they feel after a limb is lost.  

The book also goes into how psychotherapy has the ability to change our brains. Over the years I've tried just about every kind of therapy imaginable.  And they all had their place.  But I firmly believe it was the intense reading, reflecting and questioning I've done since leaving the Jehovah's Witnesses that was the most therapeutic intervention for me.  Over the past five years, I have become my own therapist.  And it's pretty awesome how it's paid off.  

Of course, nothing happens in a vacuum. I also have friends and my social network to thank as well as the meds I finally found to help me smooth out my moods and let me sleep at night.  I believe all of these things together helped my brain change itself.  As my friend D often says, "It takes a village to live a life."  

I highly recommend Doidge's book.  You can also watch a full documentary on Doidge's discoveries here.

Here is one of my favorite quotes from the book. Regarding the plight of widows or those who've lost partners due to the end of a relationship, Doidge writes:

"Often such people cannot move on because they cannot yet grieve; the thought of living without the one they love is too painful to bear.  In neuroplastic terms, if the romantic or the widow is to begin a new relationship without baggage, each must first rewire billions of connections in their brains.  The work of mourning is piecemeal Freud noted; though reality tells us our loved one is gone "its orders cannot be obeyed at once."  We grieve by calling up one memory at a time, reliving it, and then letting it go.  At a brain level we are turning on each of the neural networks that were wired together to form our perception of the person, experiencing the memory with exceptional vividness, then saying goodbye one network at a time.  In grief, we learn to live without the one we love, but the reason this lesson is so hard is that we first must unlearn the idea that the person exists and can still be relied on." 

I think that this applies not just to a loss of romantic relationship but can apply to any person or situation that we have lost; a job, our health, personal autonomy, a social network, our childhood; anything that feels like a loss to us.  I believe grief is one of those foundation emotions that locks us up.  It stifles our ability to move forward in life.  I think it is stronger than fear, stronger than anger. In fact, I think that underneath all of our fears and anger is unprocessed grief.  I know that the most profound mental and emotional shifts I have experienced over the past five years have been in confronting my grief.  While grief can lock us up, when released, it can also free us beyond measure. 

I've said it before and I'll say it again, the mind is a vast universe.  That three pounds can be our greatest heaven or our deepest hell.  I'm happy I stuck it out long enough to see it become the former.  And damn, I love books!!! 

tall penguin

Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Return...

Once upon a time, there was a penguin. A tall penguin. And this tall penguin wrote. A lot. And she wanted somewhere pretty to store her writing, somewhere much prettier than the plastic Rubbermaid tub that had housed her journals and poetry for as long as she could remember.

One day, when she was but a teenager, she happened upon a gorgeous, mahogany-colored carved wood chest, imported from China. It had a beautiful scene of birds and flowers and a golden latch. It was the perfect home for her writing. She wanted it. It wanted her. It wasn't expensive by any standard of expensive, but it was still too much for her to spend at the time. So, she let it go, hoping that one day, when she had the money, she would be able to find something like it again.

But, she didn't. For many years she looked and looked. Sure, there were carved wood chests in every little Chinese furniture shop she looked in. But not like the one she had seen in her teens. They'd have flowers but no birds. Or birds but no flowers. Or too much of one and not enough of the other. Or it would have no birds or flowers, but instead, a whole lot of dragons. And she wasn't a dragon sort of girl.

So, she waited. And looked. And looked. And waited. Until, one day, in her early 30's, she stumbled upon a chest, a mahogany-colored carved wood chest, with the most perfect scene of birds and flowers. And a golden latch. And she had the money to buy it. But she didn't have a car to bring it home.

So the tall penguin went to the shopkeeper and paid for the chest, making him promise to keep it until the next day when she would return with her car to pick it up. He took the money, put a SOLD sign on the chest and promised it would be there upon her return. She didn't sleep the whole night. She prayed to the carved wood chest gods that no one would sneak in and steal it, that no one would offer the shopkeeper more money for it, nor any other possible events that would keep the chest from becoming hers.

The next morning she returned to the store and the chest was still there. She squealed with delight. She pulled her car around the back of the shop and the shopkeeper squished the chest into the backseat. She drove home with a smile, at peace with the knowledge that finally, after all these years, she would have somewhere pretty, somewhere deserving, to house her treasured writings.

She pulled her car into the parking lot of her apartment building and realized that she hadn't thought about how she would get it up to her third floor apartment, since it was large and awkward to carry, and there was no elevator in the building. So, she called her evil boyfriend (well, he wasn't evil yet, but he would be eventually) and he told her to just leave the chest in the car until he came home later that night, when he would bring it upstairs himself. But that just wouldn't do. She knew that he would be very late (he was always working late, which eventually became part of his evilness) and there was no way she was going to leave her beloved chest in the car all day where some covetous neighbour might decide that they wanted a mahogany-colored carved wood chest of their very own. No, that would not do.

So, she pulled the chest out of the backseat of the car and, extending her arms to their full breadth, she hugged the chest to her and slowly made her way up the three flights of stairs to their apartment. Panting, sweating and swearing obscenities under her breath, she made it into the apartment and placed the chest in the center of the room. And then, she promptly sat down on the couch and cried. Finally, it was hers.

The chest housed her writing for two years, until the day that the evil boyfriend broke up with her and subsequently told her that she and her belongings would have to vacate the premises by the end of the month. The end of the month! (He had now fully earned the evil title.)

In the following weeks, she packed her things, emptied the carved wood chest and prepared it for travel. The evil boyfriend came home one night, and, realizing that the carved wood chest would be leaving along with the tall penguin, groaned and lamented, "But it goes with the rest of the decor. Can't you just leave it here?"

And the tall penguin, who was already leaving behind her heart in a million shattered pieces, shrugged her shoulders and sighed, figuring it didn't really matter if the carved wood chest she loved so much got left behind as well. And so, she let the evil boyfriend keep the chest.

(Grief makes people do stupid things.)

And she regretted it every day thereafter. Some days she missed the carved wood chest more than she missed him. But there was nothing more to be done. She moved on with her life sans chest, and swore she would never buy another. It just could not be replaced.

Two years later, the evil boyfriend returned. Called the tall penguin up and invited her out to coffee, whereby he sincerely apologized for his previous evilness (and whereby she did as well...because evilness runs both ways in any relationship). And they, from that moment on, once again, were friends.

In time, she was invited over to see his new apartment. He had been through a few apartments in the two years they were apart (and as many girlfriends) and he had sold most of the furniture they had shared. But one thing he had kept. She entered the living room of his new apartment, and there it was, the carved wood chest. She went over and stroked the birds and the flowers and the golden latch.

"You kept it," she said, tears welling up in her eyes.

"Yes," he said, smiling at her, "There's no way I could have sold it. I know how much it meant to you."

She hugged him. And cried on his shoulder.

She allowed the chest to stay in his possession for a year. She knew it was safe there and she could visit it whenever she wanted. And she also knew that one day, at just the right time, it would return to her.

Four days ago, boyfriend-turned-friend, preparing his move out of the country, called the tall penguin and said it was time to return the carved wood box to her. He rented a car, squished it into the backseat as the tall penguin had done some five years before, and drove it over to her apartment. She met him in the parking lot of her building and smiled as he struggled to get it out of the car and up the three flights of stairs to her apartment.

She just laughed, saying, "It's your turn."

They reached her apartment and he put the chest down on the floor at the end of her bed. It was the perfect spot. They hugged and he left.

And then, she promptly sat down on the couch and cried. Finally...finally...it was hers. And she would never, never let it go again.

tall penguin

Friday, July 23, 2010

Penguin Gets Schooled...

"You don't get anything worth getting by pretending to know things you don't know."
~~Sam Harris

Unless, of course, you're me.

I love Facebook. And I'll tell you why. Because every day I am exposed to information and articles and points of view that are new and different. And every day I wander into discussions with people, generally people I don't know. And every day I pick a side to debate, often not quite knowing fully what I'm talking about, and often pretending to know something when I don't (although I do this more out of ignorance than out of ego). And every day I get my ass kicked at least once by someone cooler, more articulate and a helluva lot smarter than myself. And damn, I'm lovin' every minute of it.

If you don't mind looking stupid, you can learn an awful lot.

tall penguin


“I love people. Everybody. I love them, I think, as a stamp collector loves his collection. Every story, every incident, every bit of conversation is raw material for me. My love’s not impersonal yet not wholly subjective either. I would like to be everyone, a cripple, a dying man, a whore, and then come back to write about my thoughts, my emotions, as that person. But I am not omniscient. I have to live my life, and it is the only one I’ll ever have. And you cannot regard your own life with objective curiosity all the time …"
— The Journals of Sylvia Plath

For the better part of the past five years since leaving the Jehovah's Witnesses, I have conducted my life as a great social experiment. Digging through all of my belief systems, and abandoning most, I was open to exploring life with a deep curiosity and willingness to try new things and have new experiences.

And I have enjoyed this exploration. Much as a scientist enjoys looking through the microscope, I have delighted to watch myself explore this life. But you cannot continually be both the observer and the observed. It is a great thing to dive into when you need some perspective, but it's no way to live life from
moment-to-moment. At some point, one must jump back into inhabiting the human experience fully and be content with that human experience as it is, however limited and finite it may be. I cannot be everything in this life, or everyone. I cannot live every possibility. There are choices to make, paths to choose.

I have had one recurring dream for the past five years. In my dream I am a bird circling the earth, but I cannot find a place to land. I fly and fly and fly, but to no avail; there is nowhere for me to stop and find rest.

This has been my life for the past five years; I, the bird, circling above my own experience, watching, observing, taking it all in. I have been freed to fly by means of letting go of what I no longer needed and I have flown well. But now, it is time to find a place to land. It is time to choose a path and a set of beliefs to govern my life, an operating system if you will. It is time to find my place on this earth.

I knew this moment would come. I feared it for a long time. But now, I am excited to choose for my life. This life is mine. Really mine. And although I cannot do everything I want, I can do anything I want. And that is enough.

tall penguin

Thursday, July 22, 2010


It hurt to leave
But it hurt more
That you let me.

tall penguin


Having found that what I believed about myself, the universe and the world around me was almost entirely incorrect,

Having spent the last five years deprogramming, unlearning and otherwise reworking my brain,

Having realized that the mind is a tool that requires constant monitoring, as it is prone to error and deception,

Having rejected concepts of gods, monsters and all things supernatural,

Having realized, assimilated and come to appreciate that life is innately meaningless and that the universe is indifferent to my existence, is not made for me and that I am not "special" in any ultimate sense of the word,

Having faced my own mortality and accepted the reality that one day I will no longer exist,

Having grieved my losses, my errors, my regrets and defeats, and having made amends where possible,

Having let go of far more than I held on to,

Having realized that a balanced life is a play between emotionality and rationality,

Having noticed that the once desperate desire to enter into relationship and/or have a child has spontaneously and mysteriously lifted,

Having come to a wider acceptance of my family dynamics,

Having found the constraints of poor finance and ill health currently endurable,

Having found moments of intense fear being replaced with intense curiosity,

Having come to a place of relative mental quiet and calm,

Having fallen into very deep love with myself, all of myself,

I find myself in new territory, as if born anew. There is an openness here that is beyond words. And for the first time, in a long time, I find myself dreaming...



could be.

tall penguin

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Wisest Words I've Heard Recently...

"It just is. The mind will try to figure out the rights and wrongs in all of it - take no notice of the mind - at the end of the day it's a calculator trying to balance the spreadsheet."
-my friend Simone.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Are You There God? It's me, Penguin.

I read a lot, both on and offline. Online, thanks to my Facebook friends, I am pointed to a number of interesting articles on a daily basis. Articles that both challenge and refine my views. Sometimes it is the comments section of an article that gives me the best insights; everyday people commenting, presenting their point of view and often challenging the article's content. I came across this discussion today and it hit me right between the eyes.

On an article by John W. Loftus, a former Evangelical Christian preacher who is now an atheist, and author of the book Why I Became An Atheist, he discusses thirty things that would have to be true in order for Christianity to be true. It's a great list which shows the improbability of the basic Christian tenets.

What caught my eye though was a few of the comments at the end of the article. Commenter "Hendy" writes:

"We trust god in things we would never credit a human for.

Case in point: at a Christian couple's group my wife and I are in a friend's wife shared a prayer sense that came from (I believe) Therese of Lisieux. She said that god seems distant and near at various times because he plays 'love games' with us. It's his way of being friendly with his children.

I immediately wondered how that would work if when my men's group split off to talk about life if I explained that I had been playing 'love games' with my wife and that I sometimes express affection and then disappear completely for a couple weeks and then come back to surprise her with a loving visit. We translate god's actions into 'love' and 'revelation' in ways we wouldn't in a million years use to describe human behavior."

God plays "love games"? Hmm...this struck me hard, for the reasons commenter "Lynn" writes in response:

"I like what you said re accepting things in our relationship with god that we would never accept in real relationships. All that elusiveness and undependability would definitely be negatives in a spouse.

To me, it's like being married to someone who's neglectful of you. You are so thrilled with the tiny bits of attention and affection you do receive. You make excuses for the neglect-you aren't WORTH the attention and care."

In every single relationship I have had with a man, I have accepted scraps of attention and affection, like a dog at a table waiting for someone to throw it a bone. Having recently walked away from yet another example of this, I am struck by how deep that pattern has been grooved into my brain. And I see that the source of the belief that I'm not worthy of attention and care runs deep and long. It goes back not just to my relationship with my actual father, but the relationship I developed as a Jehovah's Witness with my "heavenly" father.

From a very early age, I was taught that I could talk to God at any time through prayer, that he was there to listen and respond. Of course, I could never tell what that response was. I was always looking for signs that God was responding to my prayers. At times, I saw God everywhere, in every conversation I had with others, in the events taking place around me, in what I would read...I was constantly on the lookout for God's personal attention and care for me. But at some point, I became aware that it was not so easy to parse out God's communication with me. Was that book I just read and my connection to it really God's voice speaking through the book, or am I just imagining something I wish to be true? Sometimes, God felt so close and other times, so very far away. "Love games" indeed.

When you talk to an imaginary friend (read God), you get imaginary answers; answers that you can tell yourself are true over and over and over again, but deep down you know that it's just your wishful thinking trying to make something real that isn't. And the same thing can happen in relationships that have this same sort of perceived closeness/actual distance, you begin to take every little scrap of attention as a sign of more than it is creating an imaginary relationship, one where you're receiving more than you really are. You want to believe that the scraps you are receiving indicate love, when really, the most consistent thing you're receiving in the relationship is neglect. And a deep and gnawing sense of dissatisfaction.

Add to this hide-and-seek I was playing with my unseen father, I had a father in real life who was emotionally and verbally absent. He worked a lot to provide financially for the family, and as my mother would say, "Your father is a man of action; don't expect him to use his words to show his love," as if to excuse the fact that he was emotionally distant and talked very little. If he was feeling things, he wasn't sharing them. He has, in recent years, told me that he just didn't have the words to express his feelings, or thoughts; that he didn't grow up in a family that shared stuff. And while I am saddened by this revelation and feel pity for him, it doesn't make up for the groove that got created in my brain as a result.

Somehow, between the inaction of these two fathers, I grew up thinking that accepting scraps was okay; that I could survive on the meager attempts of my partner to show me love and affection; that it was okay to go for weeks without open communication, if it happened at all. That it was okay that emails didn't receive responses, that matters that needed to be discussed got shifted off to oblivion to await the "right time" for discussion. That I felt as though I had to weigh every bit of communication to see if it was worthy of discussion, since there was so little time to share anything at all. That there was such a lack of open time...spontaneous, unscheduled time...to feel safe enough, to trust enough, to open enough, to share what I was really experiencing.

Eventually, after experiencing so many relationships like this, I learned to be all things to myself: partner, friend, therapist, God, parent, all of it. Sure, I'm grateful for the ability to be so self-sustaining, but now I don't know how to be with people in a healthy way. I don't know how to communicate in a way to be heard. I don't know what to share and what not to share and when it's okay to do so. I don't know how to choose healthy relationships that meet my emotional needs. I don't know how to express myself without feeling completely defeated the instant the words leave my lips. There is this voice in my head constantly censoring, choosing, parsing out what I say because I just don't know what's of value, or whether the person I'm sharing things with is truly interested in what I have to say.

But the worse feeling of all, the worse feeling of all, is that when I speak I feel as though I'm wasting the other person's time, that I'm not worth their attention and care. I have learned to be very sparse with my words as a result. Some say this is a good thing, that concise communication is useful. But it leaves me feeling desperately hollow, that somewhere in between the carefully-chosen words lies the death of a child who just really wanted someone, anyone, to listen to her.

A commenter here on this blog once said that my entries were "timid". He was right. And now I know why.

tall penguin