September 22, 2019

Waiting

Tomorrow is my daughter-in-law's due date. That means every time a message chimes on my phone, I run to grab it, hoping for news. And then I'm disappointed when it turns out to be my youngest son, asking where the scissors are.

BoyinBlack in not really a boy anymore, but a full-grown man although his favourite colour is still black. He and his wife BlondeChef live about 15 minutes away from us. My husband and I stopped there Friday night to see the baby's room. Everything is all set: the crib, a chest of drawers with a changing table, a rocking chair, and a bookcase filled with children's books. It's an exceptionally cute room because they've chosen Myazaki's Totoro as their theme. BlondeChef's sister even made a mobile with knitted Totoros that will dangle above the baby.

BlondeChef is tall, so even though her belly is huge, she still looks great. She and Boy in Black were nestled on their couch, with their little dog Webster and Tilly the cat. BlondeChef began her maternity leave two weeks ago, and she's enjoyed the time off.

"I'm no longer on my feet all day long," she said. "Besides, it's the first time I haven't worked since I was seventeen. It's been nice to relax."

Of course, everyone is getting impatient to meet the new baby, who has not shown any signs of emerging.

"It's weird," said BlondeChef. "It's like getting ready for a marathon, but no one gives you the start date. Maybe tomorrow. Maybe next week ...."

Boy in Black laughed. "It'll be like someone waking you up in the middle of the night, saying, 'Okay, time to go run a marathon. Start running, right now.'"

Exactly.

And in the meantime, I'm sleeping with my phone next to my bed, ready for the call.

July 17, 2019

July 09, 2019

The naked fishing photo

Fishing

I was at an academic conference in the Golden State, discussing Thoreau with several colleagues over breakfast, when my phone dinged. The text message read, “Ready to go. Naked and afraid.”

I stood up. “I’ve got a photo shoot.”

My male friends sighed with relief as I hurried away from the table. I heard Chicago Friend mutter, “I’m just glad it’s not me.”

It was time for some men to step up to the plate and shed their clothes for my camera, and my friends at the breakfast table knew it. Women have been carrying Project Naked for long enough.

Two friends, Copper John and Kestrel, have joked for years about posing together. “It will never happen,” I told them last conference. “Men are weird about getting naked together. I think it’s some kind of homophobic thing. Men aren’t used to that kind of intimacy.”

Apparently, my words were a challenge. Copper John and Kestrel showed up at Friendly Green Conference with fishing poles, a car, and directions to a scenic river spot. What’s more, they’d convinced a third man to join us.

This is the kind of cooperation that gives me hope for our culture.

Besides, it's always fun to leave an academic conference and go visit a creek. We acted like kids playing hooky as we drove through the Golden State countryside.

Copper John gestured to the third man in the car. "You can explain the Project Naked to him."

I stumbled through an explanation — really, it's a feminist project about body image — and added, "You can choose your own pseudonym."

"Really?" he asked. "Aren't I just Subject X?"

"You need a cool name, " Kestrel said. "Like River Otter."

Flashing lights in the road cut short our conversation. As Copper John slowed the car, we saw firefighters in full gear swarming the hills while flames devoured the dry brush. A controlled burn.

“Oh, I should get one of them to pose,” I said without thinking.

Firefighters

“ARE YOU SERIOUS?” Kestrel said. He gestured to the other men in the car. “AREN’T WE GOOD ENOUGH?”

Yes, yes, I assured them. I’d chosen the three best-looking men at the conference. If I had thoughts about the fragility of the male ego, I kept them to myself.

Leaving behind the scorched earth, we drove to a turn-off and climbed down a path to the creek. The men had picked a perfect spot. The water rushed and swirled beneath golden hills dotted with dark green trees. Before stripping off their clothes, the men discussed props. They'd brought fishing poles, binoculars, and fishing vests.

"Look at this," Copper John said, showing me the fabric he wore around his neck for sun protection: the brand name was BUFF. I laughed, which was perhaps not the appropriate response.

"Who goes first?" River Otter asked. He was still fully dressed.

"We're posing together," Kestrel said. "That's the point."

"It's a milestone for my naked photo project," I said. "Multiple men getting naked together."

For most people, I think, getting naked involves vulnerability. And trust. I knew that Copper John and Kestrel were close friends who weren't afraid to be vulnerable with each other, but I didn't know how River Otter fit in. I looked over at him to see if he was comfortable with the plan.

He nodded. "Okay."

He continued talking as he pulled off his shirt. "So many of our feelings about our bodies are cultural,” he said. “If you walked into a store in your underwear, people would react. But a bikini? Perfectly acceptable. And what’s the difference?”

He offered his experience in Japanese onsens or hot springs, where men bathed naked together all the time. “Men often have this little towel – the size of a washcloth – and they cover their genitals with it when they’re walking around. But the towel doesn’t go into the water. You take it and put it on your head once you’re submerged. It's a protocol that everyone is used to.”

Unlike a hot springs, this water was icy cold. As the men plunged into the waist-deep water, Kestrel nudged Copper John and joked. "Oh no! This could ruin the shot."

No matter how sophisticated or sensitive the man, he will always make jokes about shrinkage in cold water.

"Go stand on the rocks!" I yelled above the rushing water. "So I can get your whole bodies into the shot."

Obligingly, the men waded over to the shallow spot. A bird called from the other bank, and Kestrel pointed to it. I couldn't hear their conversation above the water noises, but they were so busy discussing birds that they barely noticed me clicking photographs.

Birdwatching

Afterwards, of course, we went swimming. I love cold water, the way it makes my whole body come alive. And submerging your whole self was the best way to get to know a creek. It would have been rude, really, to leave this creek without a swim.

“You can take another photo,” Kestrel offered. "This one of us swimming." As River Otter walked out, he began to slip on the rocks. Kestrel reached out his hand, and Copper John gestured to me. “Capture that moment.”

Going for a swim

I loved the way these men weren't afraid to reach out for help, or be tender and vulnerable with each other.

Playing in the water didn't last long. It was too cold, and we needed to get back to the conference. But it was a lovely morning. I could catch the scent of burning on the wind, and I thought of the firefighters, less than a mile away, wearing heavy suits to protect their vulnerable human bodies from the flames while we swam in this creek of cold, rushing water.

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

June 24, 2019

Women's stories

Gazing

All across the country, women are talking openly and publicly about issues that were once taboo – rape, sexual assault, and abortion. Many established writers have made the decision to go public with personal stories. “When my friend published the story of her assault, I decided I would stand with her and publish mine,” a writer explained to me. “Solidarity.”

Flyer

Another woman said, “Our stories are important. That’s how we will change this culture.”

The women who pose naked for me are women who are willing to be vulnerable, who are willing to tell their stories. I’ve decided, to add a measure of protection, to put several of their photos up without any identifying information, to allow them to stand together.

Safe

These are women I’ve met at conferences, who have talked to me about intimate details of their life and willingly posed for my camera.

From the balcony

One woman is a writer. One woman is an artist. One woman does yoga. One woman likes to surf. One woman likes to knit. One woman has given birth. One woman has chosen not to have children. One is happily married. One is divorced. One woman was taught as a child that she should stay quiet, that she should be polite above all else. One woman was taught to always speak up.

One woman says it’s our moral obligation to tell stories. One woman was sexually assaulted when she was a teenager. One woman says she is afraid to travel alone because she doesn’t feel safe, but she travels alone anyhow because she doesn’t want fear to rule her life and cost her opportunities.

One woman has worked as a full-spectrum doula. That is, she is a doula willing to support a pregnant woman no matter what her decision is. So she has many times accompanied a woman as she undergoes an abortion. Her philosophy is that people having abortions should have nonjudgmental physical and emotional support just like people giving birth.

The best part of the naked photo project has been listening to the stories of women from all over the place, women are smart and strong and scared and brave. I have learned so much from them.

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

January 13, 2019

Winter walk

Waterfall

I've spend the last couple of weeks at home with a bad cough. I've done lots of reading and writing, as well as cleaning and organizing the house. But today when the sun was shining, I needed to get outside, even if the temperatures were in the single digits. A friend suggested a walk through an urban park down in the valley. Four of us went, hiking through the snow, feeling the sun on our faces, and breathing the cold, fresh air. A nice way to spend the last day of my winter break. Classes start tomorrow.

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.