July 24, 2012

July days

The mural begins

Having all my kids live home this summer has worked out fine. Boy-in-Black sleeps on the floor of the living room and With-a-Why on the couch, but luckily, they're sound sleepers. My daughter and I have been sharing my office, with me taking the desk and her the table. There’s room for only one chair, which means only one of us can work at a time, but at least we each have a surface for our laptops. It’s all good.

Pretty much everyone in the house is busy with research or coursework, so the house is strewn with laptops. With-a-Why, the baby of the family, is still in high school, but he’s set goals for himself for the summer. He’s teaching family members chess, he’s got a stack of books to read, he’s writing a book, and he’s painting a mural on the wall upstairs. (That’s him in the photo, putting on the first layer of paint.) Oh, and he’s taking voice lessons, dance lessons, and piano lessons. Plus, everyone in the household is playing Ultimate Frisbee – that goes without saying.

During the day, most of the household is off at work or school, but at night, we’ll usually all here, crowded around the one fan in the living room. It’s been a hot, humid summer, but thankfully the house cools down somewhat in the evening. We spend a fair amount of time just hanging out in the living room, talking and drinking smoothies made from fresh fruit, or watching stuff on the laptops.

It’s been a relaxed couple of weeks, but my husband and I are hoping to relax even more. We’re leaving for a west coast vacation, just the two of us, leaving the household in the capable hands of our adult children. I’m not bringing my laptop because I enjoy vacations so much more when I’m offline. But I’ll take my camera and journal, and eventually, some of those photos and stories will make it onto my blog.

Summer days That's our backyard.

July 22, 2012

The grief we carry in our bodies

Dark Elegy

“We’ve got some extra time,” my friend Ocean Breeze said the day I arrived at her beach house. “I want to show you a sculpture. It’s currently set up in the artist’s backyard, but she allows people to visit.”

As we drove, she began telling me about the art installation. “The artist lost her son in a terrorist attack — when an airplane exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988.”

Dark Elegy? That’s here?” I asked.

She looked surprised. “You know it?”

“I’ve seen it before,” I said. “I taught at Syracuse University in the 1980s. We lost 35 students on the flight. Including her son. I had a student on that flight.”

The work of art is unforgettable. After the 1988 terrorist attack, artist Suse Lowenstein did a sculpture of herself, posed in that first moment of grief. Then other mothers and widows came to her studio. She talked to each, then asked them to remember with their bodies the way they felt when they first heard the news the plane had crashed.

She made 75 figures altogether, all just a little bit bigger than life. Some are screaming, some are pleading, some are begging or praying or falling. Some are reaching out, some are pulling inward, one is curled up like a baby. The figures are real women, with real bodies – breasts and hips and tucks of belly fat – and stripped of their clothing, they could be from any background.

When Dark Elegy traveled to the Syracuse University campus in 1995, I spent an afternoon looking at the grieving figures, and I’d never forgotten them. The art seemed even more powerful now, perhaps because I brought with me more experiences with life and with death. I walked amongst the statues, looking at each woman, feeling overcome with the many shapes grief can take. I thought about the student I’d taught many years ago, only 21 years old when he was killed, and wondered if his mother had posed.

A few days later, we returned with our friends. Ocean Breeze sat quietly at the edge of the circle with her journal. Jaybird wiped tears away as she walked amongst the figures. Ecowoman kept touching the statues, putting her arms around first this one, then that, as if to comfort them. Yoga Woman stood perfectly still, holding her body carefully upright, as she gazed intently at each grieving woman.

Ecowoman spoke to me in an undertone, the way you would whisper in any sacred place.“I want to hug them,” she said. “They’re statues, but they’re real women too. I can’t help wanting to touch them.” I knew what she meant. By the time you are my age, you recognize the gestures of grief; they resonate. Ecowoman had arrived late at our gathering because she’d been sitting shiva for a beloved cousin.

When the artist came out to her back patio, we walked over to talk to her. When I said the first name of my student, she gave me back his full name, immediately. “Yes,” she said, before I even asked. “His Mom is in there.”

Dark Elegy was supposed to be installed in Washington DC as a monument to all victims of terrorism, an invitation to remember history and work for a peaceful future. The artist herself agreed to fund the project. But then the National Capital Memorials Advisory Commission turned the project down because they were afraid that statues of naked women might be “offensive.” That’s why this amazing piece of art is still in the artist’s backyard.

Ecowoman wanted to take her clothes off and walk naked among the grieving women, in solidarity. “That’s where my naked photo will be,” she said to me. She asked permission from the artist, who said, “Sure, go ahead.”

Comfort

“This bright sunlight will be harsh,” I warned Ecowoman. She shrugged and stripped off her clothes. I think she forgot about my camera as she stepped up to first one statue, then the next. She touched them, comforted them, even lay down on the mulch to grieve with them. Free Woman, when she saw what we were doing, joined in.

Prostrate

We didn’t talk much. In the presence of such grief, there wasn’t much to say. The women’s bodies said it for us. When finally, it was time to gather our journals and leave, Yoga Woman turned to the sculpture and did some kind of yoga move that paid tribute to the artwork with her body. Then we drove back to the beach house in silence.

Grieving women

July 21, 2012

You don't need clothes for taekwondo

Black belt

As you can see from this photo, Tie-dye Brother-in-law is a Taekwondo Black Belt. Well, I guess he’s not actually wearing his black belt in the photo. For that matter, he’s not wearing his usual tie-dye either. It’s funny how much of a person’s identity can be tied into their clothing.

I needed a man to pose for Naked Photo Week, and my brother-in-law volunteered. Well, maybe he didn’t exactly volunteer. We’d all gone out to the island for a swim, and he was practicing some taekwondo moves. I liked how his silhouette looked against the summer sky, and it struck me instantly that it would make a good photo. When I said, “Hey, take off your clothes so I  can take a naked shot,” he obliged. He's awfully obliging when it comes to things like that.

Usually, I try to take naked photos discreetly, in private spots where no one will see us. This was not one of those spots. The river was filled with tourists zooming by in rented boats.

But it’s rare for men to pose for me so I had to take advantage of my brother-in-law’s willingness. My blog is the number three google hit for “photos of naked middle-aged women” but if you google “photos of naked middle-aged men,” I’m not even in the top ten. The Onion is higher than me! And if you’ve read the Onion, you know that they do not take naked photos seriously.

I’m not sure what “middle-aged” even means, but all my photographic subjects this week have been over the age of 50. I guess that means we’re planning to live to be at least 100. I’ve heard that posing naked extends your life. Or at least the quality of it. That’s what I tell my friends. And relatives.

(Readers who want the history of the naked photo tradition can check it out here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and  here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here.)

July 20, 2012

Naked in the sculpture garden

“Okay, we’ll meet at the car in twelve minutes,” I said into my cell phone. “I’ll get Free Woman, you round up the others.”

We had to get to the train station to meet a friend who was arriving after a horrendous night of traveling that included sleeping on a cot in an airport next to a violently snoring man. We wanted to be on time. 

But we were also walking through the most amazing sculpture garden, where art and nature seemed woven together, and I knew it might take some time to pry ourselves away. Despite our hurry, I took out my camera as we strolled through the gardens. Well, I say strolling, but it was more like running at top speed to keep up with Free Woman, who was determined to see every piece of art in the garden, despite our short deadline. Two gardeners, piling stuff into a wheelbarrow, looked up at us in surprise as we hurried past, with me snapping photos at the coolest sculptures.

Free Woman found a sculpture that looked oddly urban to me: blocks of cement piled the way that a child would create a city skyline. “Take my picture,” she said, turning to smile at the camera. She always looks urban and sophisticated, even in a sundress, which was of course, black. The sculpture she chose to pose in front of seemed appropriate. I snapped a photo and joked, “Oh, but you have clothes on.”

She gave a quick glance around and pulled the black dress over her head, kicking her sandals off at the same time. I glanced at my watch while she stripped off her underwear. We had just about three minutes left.

“Turn around!” I called. “The photo can’t show your face. It’s supposed to be anonymous.” She complied. She danced in place, her graceful body contrasting with the blocky angles of the sculpture.

I thought briefly about the gardeners we'd just passed. I wonder how often they came across women posing nude in the garden. But there was no time for speculation. I snapped a photo, she yanked her clothes back on, and we ran on through the gardens to get to the car just in time. It’s possibly the fastest naked photo I’ve ever taken.

Sculpture

(Readers who want the history of the naked photo tradition can check it out here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and  here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here.)

July 19, 2012

Today’s naked photo: Yoga Woman

Morning yoga

When I’m at a conference with Yoga Woman, she’ll stop me in the hall and say, “We’re meeting for yoga tomorrow at 7 a.m. Bring your mat.”

This is what I love about Yoga Woman. She thinks I’m the kind of person who gets up at 7 a.m. to do yoga.

The truth, of course, is that I don’t even own a yoga mat, but buoyed by Yoga Woman’s confidence in me, I’ll drag myself out of bed after about three hours of sleep, fold my blanket into a mat-shaped rectangle, and trudge out into the morning to meet for yoga. She’s an amazing woman – smart, articulate, compassionate – and I want to be just like her, even if that includes doing exercise at a most ridiculous hour.

As difficult as it is to get my body moving after a late night of hanging out with my conference friends, I have to admit that stretching my muscles in the cool of the morning, listening while Yoga Woman’s voice gives patient instructions, calms the conference buzzing in my head and brings me back into my body. I’m always glad I did yoga, and inevitably I think, “Maybe I should do this more than once each year.”

At conferences, the early morning yoga group is often given a dusty classroom, a hard linoleum floor, or some corner of a building that no one is using. The setting is usually pretty forgettable. It wasn’t until our get-together this June that I had a chance to do early morning yoga in a place that seemed perfect to me — on the beach alongside waves that spread foam in patterns on the wet sand.

After the yoga and some meditation, we walked back up the wooden steps to the beach house to eat breakfast. I was eating fresh blueberries and looking at photos of Yoga Woman’s grandchildren when I suddenly realized I'd made a mistake. I'd taken a photo at the end of the yoga session, but Yoga Woman was WEARING CLOTHES in the picture. I thought about the duty I had to my readers, and I spoke up right away, “Hey, I need a naked photo of you! How about a yoga pose?”

Yoga Woman was stretching her legs even while we looked at the photos of her grandchildren, so I figured it would be easy. She just needed to take off her clothes. She shrugged. “Okay.”

“Um, and can you go out on the deck?” I asked. “I prefer natural light. I’m sure the neighbors are still sleeping.”

She put down her coffee and walked out onto the deck, where she may or may not have been hidden by tree branches, and I snapped the photo quickly.

None of my other friends even looked up from breakfast. The naked photography doesn’t even surprise any of them any more. Perhaps it’s because we’ve spent hours talking about our bodies, from sex to menopause to what it means to be a DES daughter.

Or perhaps, like white-tailed deer, my friends and I just get habituated quickly, no longer stopping to stare at the headlights, but just grazing along the road no matter where the journey takes us.

Morning stretch

(Readers who want the history of the naked photo tradition can check it out here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and  here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here. )

July 18, 2012

Morning walk. Without clothes.

“It’s clear from your blog that you’ve been enjoying yourself this summer,” a friend said to me the other day. “But what about us readers? WHERE ARE THE NAKED PHOTOS?”

She had a point. I’ve been lax. It’s not that I haven’t taken naked photos – I have. It’s just that what with one thing or another, I haven’t gotten around to posting them on my blog. I’ve spent too much time enjoying my summer and not enough time sitting at my computer. Selfish of me, really.

But I’m home this week, and temperatures yesterday went over 100 degrees, and the inside of my house is as steamy as a dishwasher that’s just been opened. Clothes seem utterly ridiculous in this heat, and I’d be naked right this moment if I didn’t think it would freak out the other residents of the household, mostly young men who have made it clear they do NOT want to see their mother naked.

So I’m declaring this Naked Photo Week. I cannot reveal where and when I took the photos that you are about to see, and I’ve vowed to protect the anonymity of each and every person who posed. The only hint I will give about this first photo is that the woman, Ocean Breeze, has posed for me before. She’s a conference friend, and last time she posed in an unremarkable hotel room that was so bland I don’t even remember what city we were in.

This time, I had a chance to photograph her on a beach that she’s been coming to since she was a baby, walking through the place that she loves. We were the only humans on the beach that morning. The bank swallows were swooping in and out of their holes on the bluff, and the waves smashed down onto the wet sand to cover out feet with cold water. “It always feels great to walk naked,” said Ocean Breeze as she stripped off her clothes.

As I look through the photos of that morning and remember the way that the cool wind brushed morning sun off bare skin, I am in total agreement.

Early morning (Readers who want to know the history of the naked photo tradition can check it out here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and  here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here. )

July 16, 2012

Visit with Little Biker Boy

“Here’s my bedroom,” he said. I looked around. He’s got a real bed, with sheets and pillowcases. A closet where his clothes were hung, neatly. A shelf with a bunch of toy cars. A bin filled with plastic figures.

I reached into his closet and touched the red sweatshirt. “Do you remember the day we bought this?” He nodded and came over to rub his head against me.

Little Biker Boy is living in a stable home, at last. He and I talked, and he took me out to the garage to show me his bicycle. They live on a busy street but there are trails in the backyard he can ride on.

I spent several hours talking to his foster mother, filling her in on the last four years of his life. The list of abuses is pretty long and horrific. He’s only eleven years old.

We began the paperwork that will allow me to take Little Biker Boy on outings. I said to Foster Mother, “As wonderful as Little Biker Boy is, I’m guessing you could use a break now and then.” She laughed at that. We both know how difficult he can be.

When the sun came out, Little Biker Boy and I went out to the backyard. The patio has a raised cement edge, just like my front porch, and I saw the telltale line-up of toy cars that indicated that he’d been playing there. I sat down and began moving cars around, just like I used to when he played on my front step.

“Have you talked to my mother?” he asked. I knew he meant his biological mother.

“No,” I said.

“She didn’t call and tell you where I was?” he asked.

“No,” I said. He shoved a car angrily across the cement.

“I know you’re angry,” I said. “I know you’re sad.”

“I don’t feel anything,” he said. “I don’t feel anything about my mother.” He looked up at me defiantly. I didn’t say anything. Then he moved closer so I could rub his back, and we sat quietly moving cars around in the dirt while the sun moved in and out of the clouds.

July 15, 2012

We're gonna rock down to Electric Avenue

Summers are for dancing

That’s With-a-Why in the photo with Taekwondo Nephew and Dandelion Niece. They’re the three youngest of the grandchildren, and we used to call them the Littles. Shaggy Hair Boy, who thinks he’s grown up because he’s 21, still refers to them as the “young-uns.”

Even as teenagers, they’re pretty mature. Taekwondo Nephew teaches at the dojo, Dandelion Niece works as a model, and With-a-Why plays classical piano better than most adults. Yep, they seem like grown-ups now. That is, until they get on a raft out in the river and start singing and dancing and screaming with laughter.

July 14, 2012

L'arte di non fare niente

When my friend Scrivener and his two young daughters arrived on Sunday, I figured they’d be worn out from their adventures in Big City Like No Other, where they’d spent the week. It’s true that Scrivener looked tired from the drive. But his daughters were wide awake and full of energy.

It was fun to have visitors who are roughly ten years younger than my own kids. It’s been awhile since I could make Boy-in-Black happy by saying, “Hey, want to go to the duck pond and get ice cream?” But Scrivener’s two daughters are still young enough to get excited watching ducks chase after food, and so we did all the things I love to do in the summer.

We went swimming. We went to an outdoor art park, a waterfall, a beach, and a nature center. We saw baby swans, we watched an Ultimate Frisbee game, we stopped to tour the tunnels at my CSA farm, and we walked the cedar-scented trails at Pretty Colour Lakes. We stood on the old green railroad bridge, which is so rusted that it’s not really green any more, and watched as a train rumbled past below us. We were lured into a muddy pond by a bunch of frogs, none of which we managed to catch. We paddled around a lake in canoes and found a secret waterway shaded by overhanging branches draped with spiderwebs.

The best part, though, is that we spend lots of time doing nothing. On a boardwalk above a bog, we ate a picnic lunch and watched two big turtles swim. Then we lay on the dock, looking up at the clouds and thinking of songs to sing. When I asked for a soothing song, Older Daughter sang, “Seven Nation Army,” which was apparently her idea of a lullabye. It worked on her father, who fell asleep.

Another afternoon, we walked the trail to Round Lake so I could show them my favorite spot, a rocky bank where cedar trees lean over into the green-blue water. Younger Daughter climbed down into the lake to grab handfuls of grey clay, which we rubbed on our limbs until we looked like statues. The girls and I stretched out on the rocks to let the sun dry the clay while Scrivener took a nap on a bent cedar tree. And then, despite the signs that warned us that we could get 15 days in jail as a penalty for swimming, we slipped into the cool water to wash the clay off. Luckily, we were by ourselves, and we did not get arrested.

In the evenings, we hung out at home with my kids, who are already trained in the art of doing nothing. The girls played dress-up with my belly dancing outfits, sang while With-a-Why played the piano, and convinced my daughter to make them smoothies. Younger Daughter, who is not the least bit shy, somehow convinced With-a-Why to play chess with her, and they became the undefeated champions at bughouse.

Younger Daughter decided that she wanted to cook, and I was delighted to find she has the same carefree attitude I have towards food. One night we made supper by chopping up and sautéing anything we could find that was either yellow or green. The color-coded meal looked very pretty, and — as a bonus — it even tasted good served over rice.

Shaggy Hair Boy decided he would try to see if he could wear Younger Daughter out. I think he figured there had to be a limit to her energy. So he played one song after another on his laptop, while she danced and did cartwheels. But his plan didn’t work. The adults in the room got tired just watching her energy, and she remained wide awake. “That’s fine,” said Boy-in-Black, watching her. “She can chill with me.” He’s usually awake in the middle of the night, doing his physics research. Younger Daughter was totally prepared to stay awake and help him code, if only her father hadn’t made her finally go to bed.

We were all sorry to see the Scrivener family leave. We didn’t do anything special – just the normal stuff that people do here in the summertime. But I’d forgotten how much more fun these things are when you get to do them with two small kids who get excited about anything.

July 12, 2012

A phone call from Little Biker Boy, at last

It’s been more than three years since the night that the little neighbor boy, in barefeet and boxer shorts, rode his bike to my house in the dark because his mother’s abusive, alcoholic boyfriend was attacking the family in a drunken rage. It’s been more than a year since Little Biker Boy, his sister Ponytail, their baby brother, and his mother were evicted from the trailer down the street.

I taught Little Biker Boy my phone number, and so we managed to stay in touch, even though his mother moved several times. He’d call me whenever he could grab someone’s cell phone. Our phone calls usually ended with the sound of an adult yelling, “Hey! Biker Boy! Is that my cell phone?” and him saying hurriedly, “I have to go now.”

For the first year, I managed to see him about once a week. We’d get a slice of pizza or ice cream, and I’d take him somewhere outside to play. He’d tell me about his mother’s latest boyfriend – usually yet another abusive man. I’d buy him new sneakers if he needed them or clothing or the plastic wrestling figures he so loved. But there was little else I could do.

In February of this year, the phone calls stopped. At Easter, I bought egg dye, hoping I’d be able to dye eggs with him – he loves traditions like that. But he had disappeared.

This week, I’ve finally got news about Little Biker Boy. I’ve talked to him on the phone, and I’m planning to see him this Sunday.

He’s in a foster home.

I talked to his foster mother on the phone, and she sounded calm and supportive. She talked about his issues with anger, and I filled her in on some of his background. She didn’t know anything about his siblings, except for what he had told her. She said, “He keeps talking about you, so I promised that he could call once he got settled here.” She invited me to visit. If I fill out the paperwork and get screened, I can be approved as someone who can take Little Biker Boy for outings.

 It sounds like he’s in safe place. Finally.

July 03, 2012

Gone camping

I have stories to tell, naked photos to post, and adventures I want to write about. But it's July, and that means I'm at camp with my extended family, sleeping in a tent that most definitely does not have wireless, accessing the internet over a borrowed smartphone that's difficult to read in the light of a campfire. So I'm going offline once again to enjoy these lazy summer days.