November 26, 2014

On the Eve of Thanksgiving

Snow for Thanksgiving

The snow came this afternoon — fluffy wet snow that stuck to branches and tree trunks and eyelashes, covering my woods with a relentless beauty that was impossible to ignore. It’s winter here, the day before Thanksgiving, just two weeks since my sister’s funeral. I’ve been eating hot soup all day, lentil soup made with rice that a close friend dropped off yesterday. “I know that soup is your comfort food,” she said.

Tonight, we are gathered inside by the fire. With-a-Why, Boy-in-Black, and my husband are on the couch, watching something on With-a-Why’s laptop. My daughter is at the table, drinking tea and grading papers. Shy Smile sits next to her, laptop open. Sailor Boy is stretched out in the chair by the fire. The house has been full of family every weekend this semester, as we’ve coped with first my sister’s illness and then her death.

My son Shaggy Hair Boy and his fiancĂ© Smiley Girl spent today driving. They left when it was still dark to drive to Big Midwestern City to spend the holiday with Drama Niece – and her boyfriend, who is still so new to the family that he doesn’t yet have pseudonym. I am happy that Drama Niece, who has flown here twice in the last month, won’t be alone for the holiday. When I get the text that they’ve arrived safely, I call my Mom to tell her the news and I hear her call out to my father. He’s been busy getting out the extra folding chairs while she bakes pies for tomorrow’s dinner.

My brother and sister-in-law will arrive in the morning. They usually aren’t here for Thanksgiving, but they’re changing up the tradition this year. My out-of-town sisters won’t be here: we’ll see them at Christmas. Blond Brother-in-law will come, of course, and he’ll carve the turkey, like he always does. We’ll see his three daughters, of course. Blonde Niece will sit by Boy-in-Black, Red-haired Niece will bring her boyfriend and possibly her dog, and Schoolteacher Niece will come with her husband and her six-month-old baby, who has red hair and chubby legs and the cutest smile.

When I talked to my mother earlier, we went over the plans for Thanksgiving dinner — who was coming this year, how many chairs she needed — and we talked about plans for Christmas Eve and for Christmas dinner too. We always do that, counting up family members, making sure we know where everyone is and who is eating where and how much food we need. We didn’t have to say aloud what we were both feeling because we both knew. So we talked about whether or not we should have peas in addition to green beans, and I told her that we had to include green peas because Boy-in-Black and Red-haired Niece both love them, and once we’d adjusted the menu to suit every family member who will come tomorrow, I put my phone back in my pocket and walked outside in the snow to see what sympathy cards the mailbox held today.

November 16, 2014

My oldest sister

Blonde Sister has always lived within ten miles of me. Just two years older, she is part of every childhood memory I have.

On the first day of kindergarten, Blonde Sister walked me to my classroom and delivered me, scared and shy, to the teacher. The summer after eighth grade, she went with me to my first dance. The night before I began high school, she drew me a map of the school and said, “So long as you remember where the auditorium is, you can’t get lost.” Almost everything I've ever done, she did first, and that has made my life so much easier.

One of my earliest memories involves an Easter egg hunt at a neighbor’s house down the road. The older kids were running around, finding eggs. I kept chasing after them and looking in the same spots, which was not at all effective. I said to Blonde Sister, in despair, “I can’t find an egg.” She was five years old at the time. She took a bright green egg from her basket, walked a few feet, and set it on a wooden railing. I ran over, grabbed it happily, and then ran to brag to everyone that I’d found an egg.

We fought sometimes as kids because that's what kids do. The year she turned ten years old, she would say smugly “I’m double figures,” just because it made us younger siblings mad. And when she played Monopoly, she just HAD to put hotels on those light blue properties. Every. Single. Time. When we played the game Twenty Questions around the campfire and the rest of us were methodically asking questions to narrow down the search, she’d shout out things like, “Is it the Statue of Liberty?” in hopes of winning the game with one guess.

Blonde Sister was an eternal optimist. On our vacations at camp, we’d all be standing around gloomily on a dark rainy day, and she’d point across the river and say, “I see a patch of blue sky coming this way.” She was very artistic – whether we were painting the picture windows for Christmas or making travel kits for our annual trip to visit my grandmother and Aunt Seashell – her colorful drawings made my stick figures look a bit pathetic. I still have the colorful mural she painted for my daughter when she was a baby.

For many years, I saw my sister every day. I’d drop my kids off at her house on my way to work and I’ll pick them up on my way home. That’s why my four kids were so close to her. She helped raise them. In the summer, she’d call and say, “Let’s do a Kid Switch.” I’d drop Shaggy Hair Boy at her house to play with Blonde Niece, and take her older two daughters home to play with my kids. The seven kids, mine and hers, have always seemed more like siblings than cousins: they still hang out together, all the time.

My oldest sister was a private person who never liked the spotlight. Three months ago, when she was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer, I respected her privacy, as well as the privacy of her husband and three daughters, and I didn’t write anything about her struggles on this blog. I didn't write about her weeks in the hospital or what it must be like for my parents, who are in their 80s, to see their oldest child so ill.

Blonde Sister died last Sunday. She was 55.

I still can’t believe she’s gone. I keep wanting to pick up the phone to call her. All week, the family has been gathering at my house, to talk and grieve and eat food, and I keep expecting her to walk through the door. I am still in shock. It’s taken me a week to write this blog post. Writing is what makes things real to me. And this is something I don’t want to be real.

Hiding behind the newspaper

This photo of Blonde Sister taken in the early years of my blog. She and my son Shaggy Hair Boy were joking about how I never show faces on my blog, so they were hiding behind the newspaper and saying, "Go ahead! Take a photo for the blog!"

October 28, 2014

Naked as a tree trunk


“You get to pick your own pseudonym,” I tell women who pose naked for me. Or, at least, I try to remember that. Sometimes I’ve already flown home from a conference, photos in my camera, before I remember that rule. And sometimes it’s too late. Quilt Artist, for example, had appeared on my blog as Quilt Artist long before she ever posed for me. The pseudonym isn’t very original — but then again, she’s the only quilt artist in my circle of friends — so at least I always remember her name. 

The day I took Soulbent’s photo, the sun had disappeared behind the clouds, and the air was chilly, but she willingly stripped off her clothes anyway. “With this light, you will mostly be a silhouette,” I said.

She looked around thoughtfully, and then pointed to a tree that near the lake edge. “I’ll pose with the tree.” She walked carefully through the leaves and twigs, then stood with her barefeet on the smooth trunk of the bent tree trunk, moving her body to be in harmony with the other trunks, becoming part of the scene of water, tree, sky, and mountain.

When we rejoined the rest of our friends, who were sitting inside the warm lodge, we plunged immediately into a discussion of body image. Soulbent has lived in other parts of the world, and she thinks the American phenomenon of the push-up bra is a bit bizarre. “I’ve lived in cultures where women are more comfortable with the natural shape of the breast,” she said. “They don’t feel the need to push their breasts up like that.”

“Cleavage doesn’t exist in nature,” chimed in another woman. “It’s created by restrictive garments.”

“So often with the fashion industry, the female body is just a hanger for clothing,” said Soulbent. “The body becomes just another commodity.”

 “And in this culture, the naked body is almost always sexualized,” I said. “That drives me crazy."

While we were talking, my friend gave some thought to her pseudonym. She explained that in Sufi practices, you use names to call on qualities you want. That makes sense to me: I imagine that is how names like Faith and Joy came into being. So, since she is a woman who tries to live and breathe and act from her soul, from the essence of her being, she chose the pseudonym Soulbent.

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

October 22, 2014

What's my number?

Last weekend, two photographers and a film guy descended upon my house to interview me for a documentary called By the Numbers: Perceptions in Beauty, a project about women’s body images that involves taking photos of naked women. In their words, they want “to help people, especially women, be freed from the pressures of the media and society to fit into certain norms of beauty, sometimes expressed in the numbers about one’s body – weight, age, size….” It’s a project designed to encourage body love, rather than body hate. They’d heard about my naked blog photo project and they’d come to talk to me about it. They lugged in all kinds of camera equipment, rearranged my furniture, and asked me a whole bunch of questions. It was fun. In fact, the conversation was so stimulating that I forgot to ask any of them to pose naked for my blog. Clearly, I'd forgotten my manners.

Towards the end of the interview, Friendly Woman Photographer asked me what numbers have affected my body image or self-esteem. Put on the spot, I couldn’t really come up with a good answer. I don’t usually know how much I weigh: the only time I weigh myself is when I’m at a doctor’s office, and that’s hardly ever. I’ve never felt like I was too fat or too thin. I’m not self-conscious about my age. I like all the silver in my hair, and I’m quick to tell people that I’m 53. I’m happy with my bra size, my shoe size, and my clothing size — although I do fervently wish that some fashion designer out there would make bathing suits for women who have breasts and hips and other standard female body parts.

But today, I thought about my body image when I was younger — and I remembered how I HATED wearing glasses. So I think I’d have to say the number that affected my self-esteem was 20/20 — the ideal vision that I didn’t have. Glasses made me feel ugly. When I was a teenager and got a job, the very first thing I saved money for was contact lenses. For me, the five-minute process of taking off my glasses and putting in my contact lenses was a beauty ritual that utterly transformed me from shy nerd to attractive, confident woman. It was, in fact, the only beauty ritual I ever needed. I don't wear make-up, worry about my clothes, or do anything with my hair: it's all about removing the glasses.

I think that at an impressionable age I was exposed to way too many of those romantic movies and novels where main character is this nerdy, asexual woman with her hair in a bun and glasses on — and then at the end of the story, she takes off the glasses, lets down her hair, and is suddenly beautiful. It's possible that I internalized the cliche. I hate wearing glasses and I have always had long hair. Perhaps I’m more influenced by the dominant culture than I thought.

October 16, 2014

Getting naked in the mountains: it's a tradition

My friends were gathered in the lodge with bowls of soup, eating in front of a crackling fire and happily talking about our weekend plans, when I gestured toward my camera. “Who’s going to get naked for me?”

This question no longer comes as a surprise. My friends know all about my naked photo project. The flow of conversation didn’t even stop, but I could see several of the women pausing to consider the factors involved: How warm is it outside? How many boaters will there be on the lake? Did I shave my legs?

“Someone needs to pose,” said Denim Woman. “Our reputation is at stake.”

Years ago, we earned the name Wild Women after one of the husbands heard about a skinny dipping adventure in a cold mountain lake. But we hadn’t done much lately to keep up that reputation. The most spicy thing we’d done so far that weekend was to make soup.

“So what were you thinking?” asked Dancing Woman. “A photo out by the lake?” She asked the question casually, but by now I've learned to recognize that tone of voice: she was in.

So the next day, after we'd returned from a hike that took us through trees bursting gold in afternoon sun, I nudged her. “Hey, the light is perfect. Let’s take a photo.”

When it comes to these naked photos, I'm not really a photographer. I'm really more like a tripod, who happens to be pushing the button on the camera, the mechanism for women to take their own pictures. Dancing Woman chose the spot — stone steps by the lake with a handrail that looks like a branch. It's in a fairly public place, but she stripped off her clothes with a fine disregard for passing boaters.

Dancing Woman held her hands up to the sky in a gesture of release. “This is me,” she said, “letting go.” Sunlight flickered through a tree on the shore, casting a pattern of light and dark on her back and legs.

I yelled some helpful ideas for poses, but she yelled back, “I can’t really hear you. Not with the waves.” Balancing on the stone steps, she turned to smile at me and then stepped toward the lake, looking out across the water as if the lake had something to tell her.

Dancing Woman at the Lake

You can find the gallery of naked photos here.

October 14, 2014

Weekend at Silver Bay

Silver Bay

When I woke up Saturday morning, the sun was just coming over the mountains, lighting the lake with glints of silver. I unzipped my sleeping bag and pulled on some clothes. My women friends were still sleeping, scattered throughout the bedrooms of the lodge where we were gathered for our annual fall retreat. I always sleep on the floor in front of big stone fireplace, which means I get the best room to myself. I fall asleep in a room filled with moonlight and the soft glow that comes from red hot coals, and wake up to the dawn light shining through floor-to-ceiling glass windows.

I grabbed my camera and slipped out of the lodge for an early walk. The camps along the lake are mostly empty by October, the summer season long over. The wind pushed bright leaves about on little sandy beaches, and pine needles spread orange-brown across the tarps tied over boats and lawn furniture. Despite the sun, the wind was cold: I shoved my hands into the pocket of my hoodie and wished I had mittens.

A brisk walk in a cool wind was just what I needed. By the time I got back to the lodge, I was ready to make a cup of hot tea, build a fire, write in my journal, and start the day. My friends were waking up by then, wandering about sleepily with mugs of tea or plates of food. We've been friends long enough to tease each other about who snores and who needs a shower. I don't think I even combed my hair all weekend so I'm sure my hair was the wildest.

We fit as much as we could into the gorgeous fall day. We hiked a trail that followed the lake north. We ate bowls of hot soup. We walked down the YMCA property that has an outdoor labyrinth. And mostly, we talked. Sometimes in groups, sometimes in pairs, we talked and talked and talked, until by evening, we felt caught up on each other’s lives. The blues in the sky deepened into purple, and we gathered in the big room with the stone fireplace, relaxed in the way friends are when they have bared their souls to each other. LovesAnimals had set up her loom right in the midst of our circle of chairs, and we took turns at the loom, weaving yarns together while the fire crackled in the background.


October 09, 2014



My kids are mostly all grown up now, but they all still live in the area, so my husband and I have begun the tradition of Sunday brunch, with the idea that we can lure them home with food. It seems to be working.

That's my daughter in the hammock, talking with Drama Niece, who was here for the weekend, and Blonde Niece, who lives close enough that we've long considered her part of the household.