November 21, 2018

Turning point

Usually, when I post naked photos on my blog, I tell a funny story. Even though the naked photo project is a serious feminist project about body image, our sessions are usually filled with joking and laughter. Trying to take a naked photo, often in a public space and in a hurry, can be silly and utterly ridiculous. But during the intimacy comes from those sessions, there are deeply serious moments as well.

Strength

Today I'm posting photos I took two years ago of a friend who had agreed to pose during a weekend in the mountains. I had intended to post the photos right away, but something dramatic happened in the days right after I took them. Donald Trump was elected President of our country. Suddenly, women all over the country became more vulnerable, more at risk. I just couldn't write my usual light-hearted post. My goal has always been to empower women, and I wasn't sure I still lived in a country where that was even possible.

Someday when I look back at the last two years, what I will remember the most will be the gatherings of women. We've met in homes, mostly, usually with mugs of hot tea and platters of chocolate. At kitchen tables, we've written thousands of postcards and letters. We've written editorials and poetry. We've signed petitions, and we've knitted pink hats. We've gone to rallies and protests. We've made signs. We've marched.

To each other, we've talked about our families, our fears, and our future. We've listened to each other's stories. We've shared our worst memories. In my experience, women have always done this. By the fire or at the kitchen table, we gather and tell each other our stories. In intimate circles, we allow ourselves to be vulnerable.


In darkness

During the naked photo project, women I've just met have told me all kinds of horrifying stories -- as well as uplifting stories about healing and growth. With the #metoo movement, I've watched these stories reach a bigger audience. All over this country, women have been speaking up publicly about sexual assault. They are stepping up to microphones. Women are writing their stories, and publishing their stories. When I look at facebook or twitter, story after story fills my feed.

I admire those women -- their frankness and their courage -- just as I admire the teenagers from Florida who have taken a horrifying experience and made the choice to use that experience to create necessary change.

"Did you read her piece?" a male friend said to me after a mutual friend published her account of getting raped at a young age. "I was shocked."

"What do you mean?" I asked. "You didn't know that this kind of thing happens?"

"I guess I did," he said. "But not to her … not to anyone I know." He seemed genuinely surprised. He is a kind and sensitive person, but because of his gender, he's been protected from this knowledge. Women in our cuture live with sexual harrassment and sexual assault on a daily basis, but when you're a man, it's possible not to see it.

The last two years have been shocking to those of us who live in privilege. Many white people have been surprised to discover how much prejudice is still based on skin color, how racism is still built into the fabric of our institutions, and how there are people who will still march in white supremacy rallies. In the past, it's been easy for white people to not notice this stuff, but during the last two years, the heightened level of racist rhetoric and action has become impossible to ignore. Many men are surprised to discover that women are still harassed, assaulted, and raped, and that sexism still exists. They thought some of these problems had gone away. Straight people thought that homophobia was something that had disappeared over the last decade. Many of us thought that we lived in a country that welcomed immigrants, that valued a free press, and that allowed religions of all types to flourish without persecution.

These are dark times, but they are times of enlightenment as well. It's getting harder and harder for anyone to pretend that we live in a country where people are treated equally and have equal opportunities.

Pensive

As I continue the naked photo project and I continue to spend time in circles of women, I've noticed that our conversations are getting even more intense. Something is happening in the country. Women are speaking out, women are running for political office, and women are getting more powerful. Women (and their many allies, including most men I know) are fighting back against misogyny, racism, homophobia, xenophobia and all forms of injustice. I hope someday when I talk to my great grandchildren about this period of history, I'll describe it as a turning point.

Read more about the history of the naked blogging project and check out the gallery of photos.

No place like home

Thanksgiving might be my favourite holiday. It involves all the usual holiday traditions -- gathering with friends and family, plus lots of food -- but it's the one holiday that I don't host, which means I don't have to do any of the work.

We used to have Thanksgiving at my mother's house, but now that she's in her eighties, the holiday has moved to my daughter's house, skipping over me altogether. It's perfect. In fact, we've even cut down on the drive time. My parents live only six miles away from me, but my daughter lives even closer: only 2.7 miles away.

I've got the week off from classes so Thanksgiving week is a relaxed week at home, enjoying the new snow and grading student portfolios in front of the fire. Last night, my husband and I watched a movie about Charles Dickens.

This morning, I mentioned to my son With-a-Why (the only one of my four kids still living at home) that I'd invited a student to join us for dinner. "She's from Kansas," I explained. "And it doesn't make sense for her to fly home so close to the end of the semester." "

He looked at me seriously. "Can't she just click her heels three times?"

September 17, 2018

Wildflower: Naked in the campus garden

Wildflower

When I read creative writing at conferences, I don't use pseudonyms. But otherwise, the way I write an essay isn't much different than how I write a blog post, except that it gets revised a million times. So I shouldn't have been surprised when I read an essay at the Maple Leaf Version of the Friendly Green Conference, and a woman in the audience — I'll call her Wildflower -- came up to tell me that she'd recognized me from Blogging Days of Yore.

Any blogger knows what happened next: we immediately began talking as if we'd known each other forever, comparing notes about which blogs we read, and sharing intimate details about our own lives. By the time we left the building to walk across campus for lunch, she'd agreed to pose naked for my blog. It's a tradition, after all.

"Let's go to the botanical gardens," I said. The gardens were marked clearly on the campus map. I wasn't sure how private they'd be, but all that lush green would make a lovely backdrop.

So we walked quickly along the road, talking the whole time, and soon we came to a small gate: the gardens! Stepping past the gate, we stepped into another world: one where ferns brushed against our legs and flowering trees dangled their branches into our faces as we walked along the path. We were both still carrying laptops and wearing conference nametags, but even so, I could feel the weight of the conference slide off my shoulders as we followed one curving path and then another.

We weren't alone. A young couple wandered hand-in-hand, a teenage girl had stopped to sketch something in her notebook, and a man in a blazer was checking his smart phone as he walked. But I led Wildflower confidently towards the back of the garden. Surely we could find a private spot.

Once all humans were out of sight, Wildflower stripped off her clothes and stepped off the path, walking carefully to make sure she didn't tread on any little plants.

"Listen," she said, turning her head slightly.

Perfect, I thought, I'll get a photo of her listening to birdsong.

But it wasn't birdsong she was hearing. The noise grew louder: squeals, chatter, laughter. As Wildflower posed naked amidst the trees, we could hear the unmistakable sounds of a party. I could even hear the clinking of glasses.

Had we walked in a circle back to the entrance? Was the botanical gardens holding some kind of gala event?

I snapped the photo quickly, and Wildflower began putting her clothes back on just as a man in a white dress shirt and black pants came around the corner. Curious, we walked towards the party, which was easy since it was about twenty feet away. The gardens, in turns out, had more than one entrance. In my confident stroll to the back of the garden I'd led us right to the back gate, and to a reception held just outside the gate. We waved to the bartender as we walked through, and then found our way back to campus.

Read more about the history of the naked blogging project and check out the gallery of photos.

September 12, 2018

Candles for Algernon

I couldn't figure out what the smell in the kitchen was. Finally, I pulled out the drawer underneath the stove and there, at the very back, was a dead mouse, caught in a mousetrap that I'd left there last spring. I pulled the mouse out and gave it a proper burial by tossing it into the woods, and then I scrubbed the linoleum.

But still, the odor lingered. So I grabbed the two small yellow beeswax candles in glass votive candle holders that were sitting on a windowsill. I lit the candles and set them on the floor in front of the stove. Surely that would get rid of the smell, now that I'd removed the source.

My youngest son, With-a-Why, the only one of my four grown children still living at home, came downstairs and looked at the candles curiously.

With-a-Why: What's that?
Me: There was a dead mouse.
With-a-Why: So you're having a vigil?

Yes. That's it exactly.

March 21, 2018

Naked in the sunshine state

Sunshine

Last month, when my usual conference roommate had to cancel her plans to come to the Big Creative Writing Conference, I found myself scrambling at the last minute to get a roommate. I sent out a plea, and within a few minutes, Gorgeous Writer Who Likes to Ski sent me an email.

Her quick willingness to invite me to share her room was lovely and gracious, but seconds later, another email chimed in. Her message got right to the point: "But I'm not posing naked for you."

Well, then.

I figured that with 10,000 writers all gathered in one place, surely I could find another volunteer.

First I asked a certain Red-haired Activist, who keeps promising that he'll pose SOMEDAY. I suspect by now that SOMEDAY will never come, but it's a tradition me to ask him. At the end of a ridiculous conversation in which he made promises about poses that weren't even possible unless he was secretly a contortionist, he admitted, "I'll probably never pose. I'm really just a tease." Yeah, I knew that.

It's my experience that women are more likely pose anyhow. "It's because we're used to it," one woman said when we talking about it at the bar. "We know it's expected of us."

"But this project subverts that," said another woman. "We're used to posing for the male gaze, but instead, we get to choose the pose that we like."

I love how my women friends get me. And I love how quick they are to volunteer. I turned to my friend Free Woman and said, "Hey, what are you doing tomorrow morning?" And she responded, "Posting naked for you." That's the attitude I like to see.

We were in the Sunshine State, so of course we immediately made plans to take advantage of the warm weather. "I've got a balcony," she said. Perfect.

It was still chilly outside when I arrived at her room the next morning. Free Woman and her partner had just finished eating breakfast on the balcony. I began moving the furniture into the room while she looked down at the river walk below, a lovely and it turns out, a very public place.

"There's a whole group of people just standing there," she said. It's true. I'd seen them on my way up. They were waiting for a tour or something.

"Oh, they aren't looking this way," I assured her. So she stripped off her clothes, while I tried to wedge myself into the farthest corner of the tiny balcony. I wanted to get her whole body into the picture, but the size of the balcony made it difficult. I could probably have gotten a great shot if I'd climbed onto the railing and leaned way out, but we were several stories up. I thought risking my life for the project might be just a bit much.

Free Woman's partner sat inside on the bed, looking at his laptop. That's usually what happens when there's an extra person in the room during a photo shoot. They generally try to stay out of the way. But then he looked up. I could tell from his face he didn't think me climbing up onto the rail would be such a great idea. "Take the shot from here," he said. "You could frame the shot with the door."

I moved quickly inside. "Just act natural," I called to Free Woman. But she wasn't even listening. She was leaning on the rail of the balcony with one elbow and looking out to see if anyone was looking at her. That's when I snapped the photo.

Read more about the history of the naked blogging project and check out the gallery of photos.

November 17, 2017

Reaching for the sky

SkyWoman

Our conference last weekend was held on a campus the size of a small city, nestled into a desert ecosystem. The walkways, shaded by tall arrays of solar panels, were crowded with students who are seemed to be in constant motion: walking, running, zooming by on skateboards, or weaving through on bicycles. Amidst this swirl of young energy, we conference folks gathered outside an art gallery to drink wine, meet new colleagues, and find old friends.

I'd been at the party for about twenty minutes before someone asked, "Who's going to pose naked for you this year?"

I looked at Sky Woman. We hadn't seen each other in a few years and were in the midst of catching up. "Want to pose?" I asked. I wasn't even sure if she remembered the project, but she grasped the point quickly.

"Naked?" she asked. "Sure."
 That's the level of cooperation I like to see in a friend.

"I just can't get arrested," Sky Woman said. "Or at least, if I get arrested, I need to be out of jail and on a plane on Sunday. I don't want to miss my plane."

"We're white, middle-aged women," I said. "We won't get arrested."
 "That's true," she said. "We're invisible. We can use that to our advantage."

We decided to meet early Saturday morning before the sunlight became harsh. I asked Local Friend, who worked on campus, if she knew of a private place where we could take a discreet nude photo. She said, "I can't think of any. There are always people around. We have 90,000 students."

She said helpfully, "But if you get arrested, call me. I'm good for bail." That was reassuring.

I'd seen a place earlier that I thought was worth exploring. It wasn't exactly private. In fact, it might well be the most famous building on campus. My roommate and I had walked past it every day, and we called it the Fancy Cupcake Building. Huge and circular, it was a performing arts center designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.

When we met up Saturday morning, Sky Woman said she loved the idea of posing with such a famous building. And the campus, as we walked along, seemed surprisingly quiet. Perhaps all 90,000 students were still asleep.

As we walked, we talked about the grey hair and wisdom that comes with age. "I have no fucks left to give," she said. "It's very freeing. I wish I could give that feeling to younger women."

Sunlight shone on the long curving walkway that led up into the building. About halfway up, we paused. We had a great view of the campus, with parking lots below us. Sky Woman stripped off her clothes and began stretching in the sun.

"I think yoga is paying off," she called out. The sunlight bounced off the building, off her skin.

"Woo hoo!" Someone yelled from the parking lot. We both looked down. Cars were pulling in, perhaps to begin their workday. A woman had stepped from her station wagon, and she raised both arms in what we could only assume was an encouraging cheer.

Sky Woman laughed and reached toward the deep blue sky. I snapped the photo.

Read more about the history of the naked blogging project and check out the gallery of photos.

November 08, 2017

The naked splashing woman

Splash

Every fall, I join women friends for a weekend retreat in the mountains. We bring food, and books, and stories about our lives. We dance by the fire, give each other massages, and hike through gorgeous fall foliage. This year was no different. The lovely lodge where we stayed, with it's floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking a mountain lake, was filled with conversation and laughter.

But it was a somber weekend too. We're all in our 50s and 60s. We've all been through difficult life experiences. Many of us have aging parents that we help care for. Some of us have been through divorce or difficult break-ups. We've lost siblings and friends. None of us are untouched by death or heartbreak. We're a group of friends who confide in each other, who listen to each other's stories, and we talk as we eat or walk or sit by the fire.

None of us have advice for each other. We know there is nothing we can say. But just telling stories and knowing that your friends are listening: that has value. By Sunday, we were all feeling lighter, happier, and more at peace. Sharing burdens has that effect.

And the weather was in our favor. The sun shone down as if it were July rather than October. Few of us thought to bring bathing suits, but that didn't matter. Skinny dipping is our tradition, after all. As we left the lodge, bringing towels with us, I grabbed my camera.

"This will be the perfect setting for a naked photo shoot," I said. 
Dancing Woman shrugged, "I'm in."

There were a few motorboats on the lake, but I assured Dancing Woman that they were far away. She stripped off her clothes and waded into the water. "Splash !" I yelled to her. I stepped in the lake too, up to my knees, in order to keep the sun behind me.

Dancing Woman splashed, tentatively at first, and then in bigger and bigger splashes of water. Pretty soon, she was playing in the lake the way a child would, getting everything around her wet. Any self-consciousness disappeared as she danced along, spraying lake drops into the sky, so that it fell onto her hair, her bare arms, her whole body.

She kept going long after I was done taking my photo.

Read more about the history of the naked blogging project and check out the gallery of photos.

July 20, 2017

The two-for-one naked photo shoot

Reflection

When LovesBooks told me that she was coming to the Friendly Green Conference, I knew that she’d get naked for me. Heck, she practically risked her life to pose for me two years ago – and she stripped naked IN THE SNOW to pose for me last year. I wondered what she’d be willing to do this year. I soon found out: she brought her husband and got him to pose too.

That’s one of the things I love about the naked photo project — the way it gathers momentum. Once someone poses, they usually start coercing their friends to get naked for me as well. When Great Blue Heron finally posed for me, after years of pressure from his friends, he said to me, “I’m relieved to be in the club.”

All the cool kids pose naked for my blog. Everyone knows that.

I had a fun time getting to know Trail Mix, the husband of LovesBooks, and we all agreed to meet on the last morning of the conference for an early morning photo shoot. I figured everyone would be relaxed because we’d have all of our obligations out of the way. What I forgot to factor in was how sleep-deprived we’d all be.

As the three of us stumbled sleepily out of the dorm, I looked around at the campus buildings, filled with windows and people, and wondered where the heck we could find a secluded spot. I was so tired that my head felt like someone had filled it with jello which was congealing nicely.

Luckily, Trail Mix had given the enterprise some thought. “Remember that building where we had the opening reception? There were reflecting pools. And even naked statues.” I knew the spot he meant. It wasn’t terribly private. In fact, it was right in the middle of the campus.

But he led us confidently over to the spot, stripped off his clothes, and handed them to his wife. It helped, actually, having an assistant. It’s nice to have someone to hold the clothes.

He walked barefoot over to the sculptures and began posing, while I yelled ideas. “Put your arms in the air! Now, maybe a sitting down shot? Like you’re doing yoga?”

“Ouch,” Trail Mix said as he sat down obligingly. “The stones are a little rough on my butt.”

“Think of it as a massage,” LovesBooks said helpfully. I snapped the photo pretty quickly, just as the sun was coming up over the building.

“You might as well get a shot of me,” LovesBooks volunteered, before I even asked. Seriously, I love this couple. She sat down near the water, her legs stretched out, and I took the shot.

We didn’t even have time to look at the photos on my computer. We squinted at the photos in the back of my camera and exchanged hugs all around before they went back to pack up for their journey home.

Morning Sun

Read more about the history of the naked blogging project and check out the gallery of photos.

June 29, 2017

Out on a limb

This spring, I got the distinct impression that my friend Maine Writer had changed careers. On facebook, I saw photos of her hanging upside down, supported only by a long stretch of silky fabric, and photos of her swinging from a trapeze. There was a fabulous photo of her body stretched out in mid-air, poised and confident, supported only by an aerial hoop.

Clearly, she’d run off and joined the circus.

I could imagine it all: raucous music playing under the big top, the smell of popcorn and elephant manure, the sawdust floor, the bright silks – and Maine Writer swinging from a trapeze to thunderous applause. I figured she would quickly make friends with the lion tamer, the clowns, and the ringmaster. She’s got that personality. Within days of joining a circus, she’d be star of the show, and what’s more, she’d be friends with EVERYONE.

But when Maine Writer arrived at Friendly Green Conference last week, she seemed just the same. Still a writer. Oh, she had the shiny brightness of a trapeze artist, for sure, but she was talking about a book she just wrote and brainstorming ideas for the next book. When I asked about the photos, she said, “I went to circus camp!” Ah. A once-per-week camp? That made more sense.

Her circus camp training, we both felt, would come in very handy for a naked photo shoot. We just needed to find a tree with smooth branches so she could dangle naked. We planned to get up at dawn — really, we intended to venture out early, before a single soul was out — but of course, the Friendly Green Conference means late nights with friends we hardly ever see, and so it happened that the campus was populated with colleagues walking to sessions by the time we began strolling about in search of a place for a naked photo.

Our friend Ocean Breeze came with us, and rain began to sprinkle down as we walked along. Conditions weren't ideal -- but then again, they so rarely are.

We’d been talking, that morning, about relationships, and the ways in which we are vulnerable. At Maine Writer’s reading the night before, she’d read a piece in which the emotion was so raw that half the room was crying by the time she was done.

“There are people coming this way,” Ocean Breeze warned in her quiet way, as we stopped by some trees and Maine Writer stripped off her clothes. We hadn’t gone very far. We were right in the middle of campus, in fact. And it was daylight.

“I’ll just climb into this tree,” said Maine Writer. It’s true that being naked in public can make most of us feel vulnerable. But perhaps it’s different for writers. I mean, once you’ve taken the smashed pieces of your heart, held them up to the overhead lights of a bookstore, and shown them to a roomful of friends and strangers and people who love you – perhaps being naked physically is easy in comparison.

Out on a limb

Read more about the history of the naked blogging project and check out the gallery of photos.

June 28, 2017

The Man with the Great Blue Heron Tattoo

GreatBlueHeronTattoo

You’d think it would be awkward, asking a man to come back to my room to strip off his clothes, but really it wasn’t. I’ve known the Man with the Great Blue Heron Tattoo for many years, but we only see each other at conferences, so we were both talking like crazy as we walked across the campus where the Friendly Green Conference was held. He shared with me the story of a dramatic health crisis (now safely in the past), and we were so busy catching up on the goings-on of our spouses and grown children that, before you knew it, we were in my dorm room.

The room was private, but otherwise not an ideal place for a photo shoot: lots of wooden furniture crammed into a small space, with a single window and a bed across the space in front of the window. My friend wanted his tattoo in the photo, but not his face (I assure all who pose for me that the photos will be anonymous), and unfortunately, he’s not a contortionist.

“I think you should pose with a computer,” I said. “You’re so quick to reply to emails, no matter what time of day.” I grabbed my laptop and handed it to him. He leaned over the computer, touched a couple of keys. And then he was so startled that, naked or not, he turned to look at me. “YOUR COMPUTER ISN’T PASSWORD-PROTECTED?”

I held up my camera and looked at my friend standing stark naked in my room. “THAT is what you find startling about this situation?”

“But really, you ought to have a password,” he said, patiently, gently, the way he likely talks to his daughters. He pulled up a photo of a great blue heron so that the picture on the screen would echo his tattoo. Yes, we are THAT clever. Then I told him that my smart phone wasn’t password protected either. It seemed ironic, somehow, for the naked man in my room to tell me that I’m too trusting. He’s probably right.

In the end, we managed to get the great blue heron into the shot. And we did find time later in the conference to sit and talk about how much we love that beautiful, graceful, ageless bird. He shared with me his decision to get a tattoo, to mark a moment in his life or perhaps, I should say, the graceful passage from one moment to the next.

Read more about the history of the naked blogging project and check out the gallery of photos.