Jerry Raber Contributor
He opened and closed his mouth several times but no sound came out. It reminded Ralph of a penguin gasping for air. The date was January 24, 2015. The time was 9:40 a.m. He was a penguin.
This was a penguin-dominated world, The One True Penguin Colony. Strict care was taken to allow only worthy penguins into the colony and, once there, they couldn’t leave.
But the new penguins weren’t told that.
Much talk focused on how wonderful The Colony of penguins was. They all loved each other, helped each other, and saw each other at every Penguin Fest, which happened once a week, on Sunday, morning and evening; and again in the middle of the week, when they studied the rules delineating how to be good penguins.
During the week they slid on ice, swam in the freezing waters of the bay, and caught fish.
They had some rules about how they related with outside penguins, those who were not members. It was OK to do business with other penguins: buy fish, build penguin houses, and sell fish to the other penguins who lived on the island. Guidelines were made to minimize social interaction with outside penguins though, in case an inside penguin would be unduly influenced, become discouraged, or even be deceived into thinking it would be OK to leave The One True Penguin Colony.
They could only marry penguins from inside The Colony. They couldn’t watch any television that originated outside The Colony, or listen to music from potentially polluted sources. Books by worldly penguins were first censored for purity before approved as suitable reading material.
In the country where the penguins lived, they would not vote for a president penguin or take any part in politics. They knew they were separate and apart. With great satisfaction they established their own schools, so True Penguin chicks wouldn’t have the evil influence of public schools.
The Colony sometimes met with other colonies of True Penguins in a huge stadium, to decide more rules, change old rules, and rejoice in their unity.
Most penguins seemed happy and content in The Colony. Rule following came easy for them, or so it appeared. They grew up, got married, had penguin babies, and participated in penguin fests. They sang songs, gave talks, served on the school board, food committee, and many other colony duties.
They kept themselves separate from outside penguins and spoke in horrified tones of the atrocities committed by them.
For some penguins, though, it was not so easy. No matter how hard they tried, they would find themselves breaking some rule. One such penguin was Ralph.
He wanted to be a good penguin because surely, if he followed all the rules, he would find acceptance and love. But there was one rule he struggled with: The True Penguins were not allowed to eat raw fish. Only cooked or boiled fish could be eaten. Every time he broke this rule, he would make sure to confess it in order to get his conscience clean, and be accepted again. This didn’t work well.
“We should talk,” he had mentioned to George, an older penguin, as they slid down the ice slide one day and splashed into the water.
“Sure,” said George, shaking the icy water out of his feathers. They waddled back up onto the shore.
“What’s it about?” George asked.
“Look, I know this is wrong,” Ralph said, “but I keep thinking about eating raw fish, and I guess I have been tasting some. I wanted to tell you about it in case you have some advice for me.”
“Some penguins deal with that,” George replied, and continued,”You need to remember how bad for you raw fish is. What you should do is tell me every time you think of it, and hopefully it will help. As you get older, it will get easier. You would hate to face the consequences of eating too much raw fish, so you need to get your act together.”
Ralph tried. Telling George about it worked for a while, together with the relief of having opened it up, but after a couple weeks he found himself thinking about raw fish more and more, and was embarrassed to continue to tell George about it.
Eventually he just went and ate some.
It was so good, so much more natural, and he enjoyed it, but then afterwards he felt guilty. He wondered why he couldn’t ever fit in with the other penguins. He looked at their happy faces as they sat around eating their boiled fish and wished he could be like them. He knew something was very wrong with him. At least he hadn’t eaten a swordfish! That was automatic expulsion from The colony. Others had tried that in the past.
All fish could be eaten except for a swordfish which was unclean and could never be eaten, not even cooked or boiled.
Ralph continued to do his best, but one day he really messed up. He was just out minding his own business when he noticed something in the road on the way to a friend’s house. He moved across the road to look closer. It was a swordfish.
“That’s not for me,” he told himself. “I’ll just move right along.” He did, but he hadn’t gone more than ten steps before he turned back. Maybe he could just look at it? He stood there looking at the swordfish. Why had someone thrown it here? He fought with himself a little but here was his chance, the one he hadn’t realized he was wishing for. He picked up the swordfish and had a bite. It was amazing.
Later when it was all gone, and he was back in his room thinking about the texture and flavor of that fish, he knew he had really blown it.
He waited for George at the water slide the next day.
“What happened?” George asked, apparently seeing the look on Ralph’s face.
“I’m not sure how this happened,” Ralph replied, “but I ate a swordfish.”
He took in a deep breath and blew it out noisily.
“I wish I wouldn’t have, but it was there and once I started I couldn’t stop!”
“That’s too bad,” George responded. “You know I will have to tell the leadership, don’t you?” Ralph nodded as a feeling of dread gathered in the pit of his stomach. The gloom in his heart matched the gloom of the skies for the rest of the day, as he went about his daily swimming, sliding and fishing.
Ralph wasn’t prepared for how it would feel to have it shared publicly with The Colony, what he had done, He was to be thrown out of The Colony. The burning shame, the humiliation, and now to make things worse, everyone knew what he had done and he was all alone.
Every day Ralph walked along the line of stones ringing the edges of the colony, looking back in and wishing he was there. He wondered, “Why did this have to happen? Who put that swordfish in the ditch?”
How could he ever live this down? “How will I ever get back in?” He knew the only way was to have an encounter with The Big Penguin Spirit. Did he even exist? He wished he could find some friends to hang out with from the outside, but he didn’t know anyone.
When several months later, he thought he might have had an encounter with The Big Penguin Spirit, he was interviewed by The True Penguin Leadership. There they sat, with their black suits and black shoes, in a circle, with their somber faces asking him about his encounter. Had he seen how destructive his behavior was?
Ralph explained how badly he felt, how he would never ever even think about swordfish again, and how he had talked with The Big Penguin Spirit about it. After a painful wait in the lobby while they debated his case, they told him he could return to The Colony. Ralph was so relieved. Now things could get back to normal.
But they didn’t. If he was really honest with himself, he couldn’t see why eating swordfish had hurt anyone, why it was wrong. The way he had been treated by the rest of the penguins had hurt way worse. He told himself again it must be something that he wasn’t seeing correctly.
For fifteen years, Ralph stayed, and struggled to fit in. He didn’t eat raw fish, never let himself think about swordfish. He started a family, followed all the rules of The Colony, and hatched 3 beautiful penguin chicks. He had a lot of hope for the future, including, perhaps, becoming part of The Penguin Leadership someday. That looked like a way to be loved for sure. To be accepted, and to find worthiness.
It didn’t work that way.
Eventually, twice more he ended up having some swordfish, telling The Leadership about it, and getting kicked out of the colony. That circle of black suits was becoming way too familiar, apart of his life he dreaded every time he got called in
Ralph did a lot of thinking the year he was out of The Colony. He started to make friends with “outside” penguins, and was surprised to find that they were good penguins. He let himself listen to music that wasn’t approved by The True Penguin Colony, and to read books that weren’t approved either. He was so surprised to find inspiration and goodness from viewpoints that differed from the things he’d been raised to believe.
“Pin sticking” was one thing the One True Penguin colony did to penguins that were expelled that he decided to stop putting up with. ???
Whenever he was forced to live outside the colony whenever he saw a colony penguin, that penguin would stick him with a pin.
It was out of love, they said, a reminder to the wayward penguin that everything is not OK. We stick pins in you so you will want to come back to The True Penguin Way.
The penguins would have him and his family over for a meal of boiled fish, to show that they still loved him, and for an opportunity to stick him with pins, sometimes up to ten times in an evening. It hurt like hell and it confused his three beautiful daughters. He started to turn down invitations for dinner.
“I don’t like being stuck with pins,” he explained.
The Penguin Colony did not like that. This made Ralph and his family feel even more alone, but it still felt better than getting stuck with pins.
Eventually, when Ralph again decided that he would give it one more try, to see if The Colony life would work for him, he was called out in front of the whole group.
They asked: “Why did you avoid us just so we couldn’t stick pins in you? Don’t you know it’s one of our rules?”
Ralph was shocked that they would be so blunt. Rather than engage in this discussion he just said, “I’ve seen the error of my ways, and I support The Colony and the rules.”
Though they eventually voted to let him back in, Ralph and his wife knew they were done with The Colony.
That Saturday morning was bitter cold. Ralph told the leader of The Colony that he and his family were leaving. The brisk wind whistled through Ralph’s feathers as he stood there, anxiously, but bravely.
“We need to have you come in for a visit,” the elder said. “This is going to require some serious discussion.”
“That won’t be necessary,” Ralph said. “I’ve made up my mind. My wife and I will not be coming in for a visit.”
“But,” said the elder, “You are under my authority, and I command you to come in for a visit.”
“I’m actually not anymore,” said Ralph, chuckling to himself. “I’m under no authority but my own.”
The elder was so startled that he opened and closed his mouth several times but no sound came out. It reminded Ralph of a penguin gasping for air. It was January 24, 2015, 9:40 a.m.
Ralph and his family moved out of The One True Penguin Colony. Now that they were in the real world, they had a lot to learn. Sending the children to public school, for example, was initially terrifying. There was so much unknown. Still, they learned to eat raw fish. They started to think for themselves. They made mistakes, but they were committed to finding a better life for themselves and their children, one of individual autonomy.
They made new friends, having lost all their old ones.They passed some of The Colonists in the fish market sometimes, but they hurried by without a glance.
Among the things they learned was that true love and acceptance could only be found within. They learned how to have healthy communication, to talk about their feelings.
Ralph found a group of male penguins to hang out with. They shared what they were dealing with in each of their lives, encouraged each other, and practiced deep non-judgemental compassion. They held one another’s feet to the fire in a safe way, without shame or judgement. Ralph was amazed. His previous experience with male authority was always full of shame and rejection. He had found a new sense of community and meaning.
This led to a lot of good things happening in Ralph’s life. He loved penguins and started a podcast about all the good things that had happened to him. He started to write. He learned to play an instrument. And, as time went by, he found a deep sense of contentment and home, within himself.
He thought, “Swordfish for dinner. Yummy!“