The large bubble envelope arrived before Christmas. It was addressed to my partner and I, but used only our first names. The postmark was blurred and there was no return address. It contained something soft and round and I wondered what kind of present it was and who had sent it. Unable to control my curiosity, and with the encouragement of my partner, I opened it.
To our surprise, as I peeled back the envelope there emerged a beautiful, soft toy penguin! We adopted it immediately and christened it Duk Dik - a Thai name for something small, cute and round. It now spends most of its time hanging out in the bedroom waiting to be cuddled by one or both of us. We still haven’t figured out whom it is from; but it has to be someone who knows about me and penguins.
If you walk around our house you can’t fail to notice the presence of a number of these Antarctic birds. There is the penguin clock in the kitchen, the penguin calendar in the office, the various large and small penguin statues, the penguin soap holder in the bathroom and even a penguin alarm clock from Japan which makes a wake-up noise that no-one could ever sleep through. So what’s the fetish?
As a child I had recurring nightmares about being chased by penguins - not just one penguin but a pack of them; and not just any old penguins but big Emperor penguins! It was the kind of dream where I was frantically trying to run away but unable to move forward and escape. They were closing in on me and just as they were about to catch me I would wake up in a panic. They weren’t really malicious but just very big and overwhelming. I even painted a large watercolour of an Emperor penguin when I was at primary school. It filled the entire sheet of paper. The teacher was so impressed with the magnificent black, white and yellow beast that she pinned it up on the wall for all to see. My mother kept it and I still have it rolled up in a cupboard.
“Were you taught by nuns?” one of my friends enquired searching for a possible explanation for my dreams. Nope. “Did you have picture books about penguins when you were a little boy?” offered another. Again no. To this day I have no idea where my unconscious mind got the dream image from.
The meaning of the dream was a puzzle to me until I was 42 years old. In that year I attended my first Voice Dialogue training with Hal and Sidra at their home in northern California. As an optional afternoon activity one of the assistant teachers organised a “play with clay” table. As I sat there, I was encouraged to kneed a lump of clay and just allow my hands to form whatever they wanted as I chatted to the assistant. To my amazement what grew in front of me was a very large, erect, clay phallus! “Don’t be embarrassed,” she said, “You won’t believe how many guys create one of those.” I felt reassured but wondered what it could mean.
She sensed that the phallus represented one of my disowned selves and invited me to give it voice. As Lawrence Novick PhD writes in his article “Some Thoughts on Working With Disowned Selves” (Voice Dialogue Newsletter, August 2008): ‘What is important is clarity about what the essence of the particular energy or self is, in contrast to the form in which it is being expressed.’ What the form of my clay piece nominally suggested was something sexual. However, when I spoke as the voice of the phallus I found that it represented a confident part of me that was not afraid to show itself; it would have me stand tall in the world and be full blooded, full bodied, physically assertive and powerful; it was creative and proud.
As a child I was very shy. My parents encouraged me to be a good little boy and not show off or boast. I learnt to embrace the modest, retiring, sensitive energies and shun my more proud, assertive and physical selves. It was not OK to be big and full and take up space. How perfectly an erect phallus symbolised these disowned energies.
Amazing and enlightening as my clay session was, it was not until the next day while out for an early morning jog that I got my big aha! moment. Of course! The energy of the selves represented by the clay phallus was exactly that of the Emperor penguins of my dreams. The tall, proud, confident penguins standing erect and pursuing me in my dreams were exactly those parts of me that I had had to disown as a child. What a wonderful physical image my unconscious had given me of my disowned instinctual selves.
Even now my rational mind would suggest all sorts of other interpretations as to the meaning of my Emperor penguins - the birds that cannot fly (grounded imagination?); their ability to survive extremely harsh winters (endurance?); their awkwardness on land and elegance in the sea (at ease with the “ocean of emotion”!?). But I will not be seduced by these speculations. Instead, when I sit in bed with Duk Dik by my side I just try to energetically connect with his larger cousins - the Emperor penguins of my childhood - and embrace the gifts they bring me.