April 30, 2013

Creating intimacy in borrowed spaces

I don’t really know how I came to be the naked photographer. It’s not something I planned. The first time I posted a naked photo, I was just being silly. But then my readers (and their clamoring for more photos) made it a tradition.

I do love the way that taking naked photos creates intimacy, often with a woman I’ve just met. What’s funny is that I’m almost always taking the photos in some kind of borrowed place: a hotel room, a park, a balcony, a hiking trail, a cabin in the woods. Only once have I taken a photo of a woman in her own home — even then, I had to open the front door to get the best light, which made the photo shoot a bit public. I like that tension, actually — the intimacy of a woman telling me the stories of her body against the backdrop of an impersonal hotel room or a space that neither of us has any connection to.

I’d known Caregiver for about an hour when my friends started telling her about the naked blogging project. I could tell she was listening carefully to everything they said. And unlike many people I’ve met, she didn’t burst out immediately with, “No way, I’m not posing.” I took that as a good sign.

By the next morning, she had volunteered to be photographed. We ducked into a bedroom on the first floor of the mountain cabin we were all staying in. I’d noticed the room before when I went looking for a bathroom. I liked the lack of curtains, the soft light spread across the bed.

Caregiver stepped into the bathroom to strip off her clothes and emerged naked. “I’m going to tell you what I don’t like about my body,” she said. Every woman has a list, it seems.

When she was done, I asked, “What do you like about your body?” That list was much longer.

 She stretched across the bed, first propping herself up on an elbow to look out the window. “How do you want me to pose?” she asked, turning.

“Hide your face,” I said. “That’s the body part I don’t show on my blog.” So she rolled over, and I snapped the photo.

Mountain Bed

If you don't know the history of the naked photo tradition, you can check it out here. Or go look at the gallery of photos.

April 29, 2013

We sewed dolls

When I go away for the weekend, I pack books and a journal. But I love that my friends bring knitting or craft projects — or even their whole loom. In addition to the weaving project, LovesAnimals brought a bag full of fabric and blank doll bodies, each about six inches high. She announced that she was making the dolls to donate to the women’s shelter.
Yarn hair
“Many of the women have nothing when they leave, and so we give them a doll handmade by other women,” she explained. Each little doll serves as a reminder that to the woman that she is not alone. 

It’s been about 40 years since the last time I made doll clothes. LovesAnimals had already drawn eyes onto my doll; I sewed a mouth with red thread and then added yarn hair. Maybe it’s because I grew up with a Raggedy Ann doll, but I am partial to yarn hair on a doll. 

I tried to think healing thoughts towards the woman who would someday be handed the little doll that I was sewing. I chatted with my friends as I worked, holding the doll up every few minutes for them to admire. The sun came from behind the clouds as we worked and filled the room with warmth.

April 26, 2013

The Naked Weaver

At last weekend’s gathering in the mountains, LovesAnimals set her loom up near the big window and announced her intention to teach us how to weave. Her goal, she said, was to create something that we'd all worked on. I never did figure out what exactly what we were making, but it looked to me like a thneed. Perhaps I’ve watched the Lorax too many times.

I'm not usually one for crafty projects, unless you count those potholders I made in fourth grade. I still remember how proud I was of the one I made for Aunt Seashell. Her favourite colours were green and blue, and I wove them together. Clever, huh? My other brilliant move was to mix pastel blue loops with pink in potholder for my grandmother, who always said that her favourite colour was sky-blue-pink. Other fourth graders just grabbed whatever fabric loop was near the top of the bag, but not me. I was an artist. I chose my loops carefully. The potholders were such a success that I figured I could rest on my laurels for half a century.

I found it relaxing to listen to the gentle thump of the loom while MakesBread worked on the thneed. I wrote in my journal, Signing Woman read a book, and Caregiver chopped vegetables for our next meal.

Weaving is a metaphor used often in ecofeminism literature. I kept telling this to my friends. “How cool that we are ACTUALLY weaving,” I said. “I mean it’s the perfect symbol for the way we make connections with each other. We tell our stories, our yarns.” About every two minutes, I’d look up from my journal and make another comment about the loom. I couldn’t resist. I mean, you have to admit, it was pretty cool.

My friends were too polite to roll their eyes or tell me to shut up. Instead MakesBread jumped up, and offered me the chair. “I think it’s your turn,” she said.

“You can pick which yarn to use,” LovesAnimals said in the voice you’d use when offering a bribe to a small child.

“The sparkly purple!” I said right away. I’d had my eye on the sparkly skein all along. I abandoned my musing about the metaphor and sat down to do the real thing.

My mad potholder skills came in handy, it turned out. The loom worked under the same principles, except that I had a cool wooden shuttle instead of that awkward metal stick. Weaving is faster than knitting, and it was satisfying to watch inches of material form. I felt like Ma Ingalls. If Caregiver had announced we were churning butter next, I would have tossed my vegan tendencies to the wind and joined right in.

“Who’s going to pose naked at the loom?” I asked as I worked. “A naked weaving picture would be great.” I hadn’t totally abandoned my obsession with the metaphor.

“The Naked Weavers,” said Denim Woman. “That could be our band name.”

Of course, the only real weaver amongst us was LovesAnimals. “You should have the honor of posing,” I told her.

“It’s an honor now?” Denim Woman asked. I looked over at her, and she added, hastily, “Good strategy.”

 LovesAnimals took off her clothes, sat down at the loom, and began weaving. I love how cooperative my friends are. I climbed up onto the coffee table and snapped the photo.

Naked Weaver

If you don't know the history of the naked photo tradition, you can check it out here. Or go look at the gallery of photos.

April 24, 2013

Mountain retreat

Hanging out with friends

I spent last weekend with some women friends in an incredibly beautiful summer house lent to us by Makes Bread’s sister. It’s nice that people who have lovely vacation homes are often so generous about sharing them. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a wonderful weekend in a house owned by someone I’ve never met.

The place had a great view of the lake, a working fireplace, some hiking trails right outside the door, and furniture that was way nicer than what’s in my living room. It was pretty clear to me that whoever owned the place did not have a pack of teenage boys. And yes, we ate well. From what I could figure, each woman had brought enough food to feed all of us, which meant that we had nine times the amount of food we could reasonably eat.

We were in the mountains, which meant there was still snow on the ground. I keep promising not to put more pictures of snow on my blog, but I couldn’t help snapping a picture of Makes Bread as she strode ahead of me on the dirt road, as we set off to find the trail and explore the woods.

She and Dancing Woman, somehow not yet tired of the snow, lay on the ground to make angels, but I refused, just on principle. I don’t make snow angels in April. Someone has to take a stand against the winter weather, or it will never go away.

The toughest part of going away for a weekend in April is that it’s too short. Without a holiday, we all had to come back on Sunday, back to work, back to our families, back to the stress and confusion and hectic busyness of everyday life. But still, thoughts of that relaxing time, those conversations by the fire, keep creeping into my week.

April walk in the mountains

April 22, 2013

Dancing Woman poses naked for the blog

“I’ve brought my camera,” I told my friends when I arrived at the mountain cabin for the weekend. “I need some volunteers for the naked blog project.”

“It’s a project now?” asked Denim Woman. “When did that happen?”
 Dancing Woman looked up from her journal. “You can take a photo of me.”

I reminded her of that promise that afternoon when we hiked to the Point, a peninsula of land that jutted into the mountain lake, where gale force wind whipped the water into whitecaps. Denim Woman pulled the hood of her winter coat over her head and braced her body against a tree, with the theory that the trunk would serve as a wind block. Signing Woman tied a scarf around her face and pulled her hat down to her eyes, but the rest of us had to contend with an icy wind that blew hair into our faces.

“I love how the wind is whipping everyone’s hair,” I said. “Wouldn’t this make a great place for a picture?”

“It might be just a little cold,” said Denim Woman, shivering as she huddled against the tree, her arms folded against her winter coat.

“I think in porn films, they use a fan,” said Dark-haired Woman. “In a WARM studio.”

Well, I couldn’t let my standards sink below the standards of a porn studio. I decided that asking my friends to strip naked when there was still snow on the ground might really test the bounds of friendship.

We were back in the warm house, drinking tea and eating chocolate, when Dancing Woman started talking about her latest dance exhibition. We gathered around a laptop to watch her performance. She was 49 years old before she had her first dance lesson, but apparently, she’s a fast learner. Paired with her instructor, she moved gracefully around a dance floor, in first a waltz and then in a series of other dances I don’t even know the names of. She’s got the body of a dancer, with long thin legs, but the dance was beautiful in more ways than that — she danced like the music was inside of her. She danced the way a woman dances when music brings the deepest parts of herself to the surface.

“I even bought a journal,” she said, “just to write about all my dancing experiences.” She pulled out a notebook that had the word “DANCE” on the cover.

“Let’s go take your photo,” I said abruptly, “while we’ve still got light.”

So we retreated to an upstairs bedroom, where I’d noticed light coming in from a high window. Dancing Woman stripped off her clothes without hesitation, and sat on the bed, her long legs folded as she looked out the window.

“Sometimes I hear the music I’ve danced to,” she said, “and all these emotions just come flooding back.”

Dancing Woman poses for the blog

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

April 21, 2013

Early morning on a mountain lake

Early morning in the mountains

I woke up this morning to early light shimmering from a mountain lake, reaching through big glass windows to the couch where I was curled up with a pillow and blanket. Only coals and ashes remained in the big stone fireplace next to me.

I was up late last night, playing games around a wooden table with eight of my women friends, all of us relaxed after a day of hiking in a cold wind, talking non-stop, and of course, eating. Whenever I go away with my friends, they bring huge quantities of delicious, homemade food. We ate steaming squash soup with curry, squares of garlic bread with hot tomato dipping sauce, thick white bean soup, carrots and red peppers slathered with hummus, carrot salad made with mashed cashews and raisins, cold beet salad, steamed asparagus, tacos with refried beans and mounds of chopped lettuce, vegan lasagna, pasta with pesto, wedges of ripe canteloupe, slices of orange, squares of mango, dark chocolate bark, and many cups of herbal tea.

I ate so much that when I woke up this morning, I wasn't even hungry. So instead of heading into the kitchen for breakfast, I slipped on my sneakers and put on my winter coat. Yes, my winter coat. We'd gotten snow. The wind had blown the snow into patterns on the beach, filling the frozen footsteps. I stepped out of the warm cabin that smelled of woodsmoke and soup, and into the cold fresh air of morning.

April 19, 2013

Music meditation

I’m still not very good at the piano. In fact, I’m pretty terrible. It’s becoming rapidly apparent that the amazing musical talent my four kids all seem to possess didn’t come from me.

But I have a lesson today, so this morning I sat down at the piano to practice. I’m learning the song Sunrise, sunset. My piano teacher says that once I master it, I can play it whenever one of my kids gets married.

I can’t think and play at the same time. Whenever I start thinking about what my right hand is playing, my left hand gets confused.

So for an hour this morning, I stopped thinking about all the appalling news scrolling down my twitter feed. I let go of all the anxiety, the stress, and the helplessness that I feel every time I click through to another news story or see another headline. And instead, I spent the hour staring at a sheet of music, running my fingers over keys on the piano, trying to make music.

April 15, 2013

Lambing season begins at the monastery

Pregnant ewes

The stone walls of the old farmhouse are so thick that I don’t hear the rain, but when I wake up and look out the window, I can see that we’re in for another cold, wet day. I put on the teakettle and take a slice of the homemade banana bread that Retreat Friend brought. My instinct is to reach for my laptop computer, and then I remember that the monastery has no wireless. Instead, I put on my raincoat and boots — and walk out to the sheep barn to get the news of the day.

The pregnant ewes in the barnyard stare at me as I trudge through. A couple of them rise unsteadily to their feet. Some of them are so swollen they can barely walk, but they seem to be in no hurry to have those lambs. It doesn’t surprise me that they’re waiting for the spring weather. My own kids were all born on lovely, sunny days — well, except for Shaggy Hair Boy, who came amidst the gorgeous whiteness of an exciting snowstorm. I can’t blame any mammal for not wanting to give birth on a dark, rainy day.

The birthing pens, filled with new straw, remain empty until Brother Tractor and Youngest Monk bring in a ewe who gave birth out in the field. Her two little lambs are shivering despite their wool coats. The large one stands up and nurses vigorously, while the other curls into a ball on the floor of the barn.


It’s cold in the open barn, so I make my way over to the chapel. I pull the heavy wooden door open and step into the warmth of musty incense and melting wax. The chapel always smells exactly that way. You could kidnap me, put on a blindfold and earplugs, drive me in circles, then dump me into that chapel, and I would know exactly where I was by the smell. It’s a comforting smell. I like things that never change.

I descend the stone steps into the crypt below the chapel. The stone statue of Mary in the middle of the room glows, lit by about hundred votive candles flickering at her feet. A couple of the candles have burned out. They last five days, so they were lit by someone visiting earlier in the week. I pick up the empty jars, the glass clinking as I do so. In the side room, where I slide them back into separate compartments of a brown cardboard box.

I carry several new candles over to the low stone altar and sit down on the stone floor to light them, as I have many times before. I light the first candle for a friend who will be celebrating his 42nd birthday this week. As I lean to put the candle into an empty spot, I hear a hiss. I’m startled to see flames leaping from my shirt: my hair has caught on fire! I clamp the strands to put them out, and I’m rewarded with the unpleasant smell of hair burning.

I’ve never caught fire before while lighting a votive candle. I wonder whether the flames have some deep significance. Or perhaps it’s just time for a haircut.


I sit cross-legged on the stone floor and stare at the candles. The flickering can be very mesmerizing.

My meditation is interrupted by footsteps. They sound young. It’s too quick of a pace for any elderly monk. Legs stride into my line of vision, clad in jeans and sneakers, a nalgene bottle dangling from a young hand. Two high school kids, it looks like, probably here on some kind of retreat. One girl sits down on the stone floor, off to my right, her back against the brick wall. She fiddles for a moment with her nalgene bottle, but then she calms down and sits still, just staring into the dark spaces.

The other girl chooses the nook where some light falls in orange and yellow squares from the high stained glass windows. I’ve sat in that very spot, writing in my journal. I always like how the color stains the pages. She too carries a spiral-bound journal, along with a sheaf of papers which she spreads out on the floor. She bends over the papers, her long curly hair touching the stones, reading intently. Then she begins writing furiously.

I’m warm all the way through by the time I leave the crypt. I skip the bookstore to roam through the barns. It’s hard to resist the smell of hay. The newer barns are open and airy, with wooden stalls that are used when animals come inside, but the oldest barn has low ceilings, peeling paint, and pens that look like an old-fashioned zoo. Most of the rooms are used mostly for storing equipment.

In the barn -- a monk

I’m wandering aimlessly when I see a figure in a black robe. He turns. It’s Brother Jolly. He grins at me, “Want to see the newest addition? A baby donkey!”

I peer into a stall – an old concrete one that opens to a bigger stall in the new barn, with another door to the barnyard. The baby donkey is only a day old, but she looks like a full -grown animal, just in miniature. The only baby-like thing is the way she moves – jumping and prancing about as if she’s just figuring out what knees are for. The dim light of the barn is terrible for pictures, but I take some anyhow.

Newborn donkey

It’s still cold, and Brother Jolly keeps his hood pulled up. “Last time, she had a baby on St. Patrick’s Day,” he said. “So I was surprised that this baby came in April.”

“Well, it would depend on when she’s bred,” I say. He looks at me, but says nothing. Clearly, Brother Jolly doesn’t do much of the work on the farm. Brother Tractor is always all to happy to talk about the time they had a batch of early lambs because some rams got loose when the ewes were in heat.

I put my hand inside the stall and touch the rough fur on the baby donkey’s head. The mother ignores me: she’s busy eating. Brother Jolly and I chat for a few minutes, but then we hear the chapel bell. It’s time for the next prayer of the day.

April 12, 2013

Gone monking


It's still rainy and cold here. I'm still wearing my winter coat. I've stopped wearing mittens, just on principle, but I haven't yet given up winter socks.

The dreary weather isn't stopping me from one of my favorite spring rituals. I'm heading off today to the monastery. It's lambing season, and the sheep barn will be filled with pregnant ewes and baby sheep. 

Even if it rains the whole time, I'll hike the trails beyond the sheep pastures. I'll visit the eight-sided chapel with its musty smell of incense. I'll sit on the stone floor in the crypt and light votive candles for all the people I love. I'll eat meals in the Women's Guest House and talk with my friends. In the early morning, I'll help out in the sheep barn and watch baby sheep slither into the world.

April 10, 2013

On the lilac bush near my back door

On the lilac by the back door

I keep writing posts about how it's almost spring, but I'm beginning to wonder if it's all just wishful thinking. It's true that the snow has melted, the ice has left the lake, and the peepers are singing. But mostly, the weather has been pretty cold. We had a spectacular thunderstorm this afternoon, which counts as a sign of spring, but it's still chilly and damp.

"What's that saying about April showers?" one of my students asked today.
 Another responded without hesitation, "April showers suck."
 Yeah. That pretty much sums up the sentiment on campus.

Still, when I got home this afternoon, I couldn't help but notice that the lilac bushes near the back door are covered with buds, tightly furled leaves just ready to burst open in the afternoon light. Another sign of spring.

April 08, 2013

Winter recedes

Ice recedes

“Let’s go out to the lake,” said my father. “I bet the ice is finally gone.”

He and my mother picked me up sometime before noon. We drove past fields just beginning to turn green, past woods where bare trees stood in pools of snowmelt. The wind at the lake was still cold, but the sun beat down on the shore.

In the familiar bar, we took the booth by the window, where we could look out at the whitecaps on the lake. “Just last week, we were looking out at ice,” my mother said as the waitress brought us plates of food.

The young waitress nodded. “I think it went out on Monday. And then on Tuesday, we got that snowstorm. Weather’s been crazy.”

“Where does it go?” I asked.

“Oh, it’s piled up down on the other shore,” my father said vaguely, waving his arm.

He’s known this lake for more than 80 years. While I ate pasta cooked with peppers, tomatoes, onions, and mushrooms, my father talked about his adventures on the lake. My mother chimed in with the story about the time she and my father and another couple took us out sailing — us being six small children — and the weather turned rough.

“I remember how relieved I was once we got passed the point,” my father said. “That’s when I knew we were going to make it.”

When we done eating, we walked outside to look at the last of the snow melting on the banks. I could hear the waves smacking against the shore. Despite the cold wind, it was pretty clear that spring had arrived.

April 05, 2013

Woke to singing

It’s the silence of winter that gets to me more than anything. When I walk in the frozen woods, I hear nothing but my own breathing, my own boots crunching through the crust of snow. The tracks at my feet are the only indication that I’m not alone in the vast white world. Here, a deer came running through hours ago: there, a rabbit passed by.

When I wake up on a winter morning, the only sounds I hear are low and harsh: the scrape of a metal snow shovel against porch or pavement. The frantic scratching of a cat, paws against glass, trying to get into the warm house. The salt truck rumbling down the street, scattering crystals onto ice. The distant whir of snow blowers.

This week, here at the beginning of April, I’ve been listening anxiously every time I slide open the door for the cats or run down the muddy driveway to the mailbox. I’ve been waiting for the music that means the return of warm weather.

At dawn this morning, I woke to hear songs loud enough to vibrate through the double panes of storm windows, the twittering and chirping and chattering of spring birds. Tree frogs chimed in with their shrill melodies. A woodpecker began a rhythmic tapping. I opened the window to hear it all: the singing, the thrumming, the awkward squawkings.

Every creature welcomes spring. My old cats don’t roam far any more, but just the opportunity to sleep outside in the sun or creep under the lilac bushes is enough to make them happy. (And by happy, I mean that they stop peeing on the living room carpet.) Boy-in-Black and Blonde Niece have already been throwing a disc out in the backyard, getting in shape for Ultimate Frisbee games.

We still have pockets of snow — tucked against the north side of the house and beneath the stand of old conifers — but the birds and frogs have made their announcement: spring is here.

April 03, 2013


Sunshine along the creek The snow is beginning to melt. Every day, the sun lasts just a little bit longer. When I took a walk along the creek, I had to wear mittens, but the angle of light made me think that spring is almost here.