New Year

Threshold: A Poem for New Year’s Eve

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As the clock ticks towards midnight

and but for a microsecond I will be between two months, two days, two years,

I realize what Janus must have felt like.

Janus, that god of Roman antiquity

with his two faces:

one, looking into the past;

the other, facing the future.

I find it hard to look backwards with regret

or to glance over my shoulder at sorrow

because like Lot’s wife

I know the dangers of looking back at the burning wreckage:

I feel it each time memory bleeds salt from my eyes.

The severed friendship.

The missed opportunities.

The closing gates of another year gone by

in a body destined for decay.

My mortality

—the knowledge that I am but a speck of dust

star-stuff, but nevertheless, only here for a whisper of celestial time—

ought to guide my gaze towards the year to come with eagerness

or hope, at the very least.

But I find myself, at every moment

on the precipice of the future

desperately trying to perform alchemy

and transform fear into bold curiosity.

We make offerings to soothe our worry:

no figs or honey left at altars

but promises and resolutions,

penned on our calendars

tabula rasa, a fresh slate—

we make incantations to time itself.

Beginnings, endings.

Birth, death.

War, peace.

Open, close:

can we not linger in the doorway,

between two rooms,

for just a moment longer,

even as the bells strike twelve?

Laying It Bare: Nude Beaches, Broadcasters, and Body Shaming

It’s the start of the new year, and, as with every year, the body-shaming weight-loss parade is well at work in our society. The bookstore displays are laden with every diet plan possible; the dieters are beginning their journey down many of the promises they’ve made themselves year after year (promises, which, by the way, function poorly when they derive from shame and self-hatred); the television is abuzz with shiny deals on diet plans and gym memberships.

Body-shaming season is in full force.

But there’s something more insidious going on. It’s not just that we, as a society, as producers and consumers of media, and as networks of individuals, are shaming those bodies which are not perfectly toned and fabulously styled: we are waging war on ALL bodies. We are attempting to erase the body (the sensuous, moving, functioning, glorious body) from existence.

Here’s what I mean.

No less than an hour ago, I decided to flip on the television and watch the noon news hour on GlobalTV. I don’t usually watch the news, nor do I watch this particular broadcast, but it seemed like a good as thing as any to do while I prepared my afternoon tea.

The usual news headlines of January 2nd: the first babies born this year in our province; polar bear swims. Joyful bodies! New bodies, tiny ones. Brave ones, leaping into the frigid waters for a moment of delight.

AND THEN…a small montage of bodies – mostly older, male ones – wading into the waters at the clothing-optional beach near White Rock.

The responses from the three news anchors – two women and one man, all in their 30s or 40s, very attractive – were thus:

Amongst their giggles and awkwardness, the anchors made comments about the editing people having to suppress their “gag reflex”, about very “careful editing” having to be used, and when one female anchor was, in jest, asked if she would participate in one of these events, she laughed awkwardly, shook her head, and another round of collective laughter and disgust ensued.

I rarely get up in arms over bullshit comments on the news. But I’m very, very angry about this, for a number of reasons:

1) There is a societal and cultural problem with the way that nudity is treated. Nudity is often seen as inherently sexualized, and public nudity is considered by many to be part and parcel of some sort of sexual deviance. (I should note that while it is not illegal for women to be topless in public here, that it is nevertheless monitored and discouraged by both law enforcement and the public at large.)

2) There are demands (perceived or actual) on bodies that are revealed on public beaches which are mindblowingly hostile. You’ve heard it before, the snarking about which girl looks fat in her bikini, or the friend that REFUSES to buy a bathing suit because she’s terrified about being judged for her appearance.

3) There are pressures put on aging bodies to cover up, to be extremely modest, and not to reveal loose flesh and wrinkles to the world (especially not on a beach). (In fact, a recent photography project that used older women as pin-up models reveals, in some of the comments received, ongoing prejudice against the aesthetics of the aging body.)

4) There are pressures put on male bodies to conform to a series of aesthetic principles (muscles, little to no chest hair, abs, etc), and these are increasing with each year. I know many men, of various ages, that struggle to feel as though their bodies have worth, as though they are lovely and perfect just as they are.

And so, when three broadcasters make jokes and implicitly denigrate nude beaches and naturism – which, by the way, they (like the rest of the public) are in no way obligated to participate in or attend – it is symptomatic of a culture that has reduced the natural body, the sensuous-but-not-always-sexual body to an object of disgust.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, but this has to change. We need to think seriously about our aversion towards certain bodies, and towards certain situations in which those bodies are in.

For many, being able to attend clothing-optional beaches has been a source of shedding (if you’ll pardon the pun) the layers of shame and of public humiliation that has long covered their bodies. I know many women for whom being able to lounge in the sun and swim in all the gloriousness of their imperfectly perfect beautiful bodies has been life-changing. The spectres of body image problems and sexual abuse/harassment can do GREAT damage to people’s perceptions of their naked flesh, and while there may always be a gawker or two at clothing-optional beaches, the community that is built there (one which is implicitly based on trust and respect) is one that can facilitate healing, for men and women alike.

I know of no other venues in which male nudity is not seen as TOTALLY ALARMING AND EXPLICIT. I know of no other venue in which bodies can just BE BODIES, where people are not reduced solely to the visible markers of their gender or their sexual function.

I’ve only visited Wreck Beach a few times in all my years of living in Metro Vancouver, but I can say that those days were liberating beyond my wildest imaginations. No shame. No discomfort. No insidious, negative self-talk. Just BEING, as I came into this world, nakedly.

Ultimately, here’s the lesson to take away: if you don’t have anything nice to say about others’ naked bodies, or about those who choose to attend nude-beaches, keep your hateful comments to yourselves. If you’re a news anchor, move to the next piece of news instead of making faces and talking about how people had to suppress their gag reflex. If you’re someone who has concerns about “modesty” and “decency”, well, please keep your comments to yourselves, and don’t go to a nude beach if it offends you – no one is forcing you to go. If you’re someone who has issues with your own naked body, please don’t take them out on perfect strangers by using their bodies (the old ones, the wrinkled ones, the fat ones, the too-thin ones) to make yourself feel better.

We all come into this world being both naked and vulnerable.

We should all aspire, regardless of our beliefs, our personal practices, and values, to respect the bodies of others, especially when they are simply just BEING.

auld lang syne.

This is what we believed when we were young: we reveled in the idealism of a fresh slate when at midnight, our cheeks rosy with the flush of too much wine, all was forgiven, and all could begin anew. Our hair tousled and our makeup smeared, runs in our stockings and our ties loosened, we sprawled ourselves in the damp grass of a nearby park, hardly noticing our chilled and shivering skin as we gazed up into the infinite stars.

And how quickly it all fell apart.

How quickly we returned to the glossy idolatry of less weight and more money. How eager we were to believe that we were unworthy of love, that the only fulfillments were the grasping hands of lust and the glittering bands of matrimony and down-payments for real estate. How easily we whispered divinity out of ourselves, how suddenly we preoccupied ourselves with our own turmoil, our mortality, our insufficiencies, our faces in the mirror.

And then, as age and time seeped into our skins, as we greeted the first of the year with bleary eyes and the not-too-distant hums of unpaid bills, leaky faucets, unsatisfying sex lives, the ghosts of loved ones and the ache of this mortal coil, the last drops of the awe and wonder of this last day of the year finally faded into the peeling wallpaper in our parents’ basements.

Hoping to outrun grief and sorrow, knowing its inevitability, we sat with it year-round, swaddling ourselves with its weight. We stared open-mouthed at the wide expanses of absence and loss, not noticing the quivering life that pooled in our hollowed hearts. Resolutions were made. And even as we flung ourselves forth into our good intentions, we knew, quietly, that we would continue to cling to all that pained us. We lovingly crafted self-fulfilling prophecies of unworthiness and emptiness, and found a perverse delight in the predictability and safety of our cocooned lives.

Silently, it made itself known.

The universe cracked open our wounds from within, bursting our fragile flesh at its seams, and we knew God. We knew God as the laughter of children, as the remembrance of those we have lost, as the breath in our lungs, as the kindness of strangers. We knew our own sacredness even as it spilled down our faces in floods of tears.

We recognized that time is both finite and endless, and that the connections that have been lost by circumstance or severed by death are never lost in the depths of our loving memories.

We realized that our bodies held more wisdom and pleasure than we had ever imagined, and we vowed to praise each scar and wrinkle for the beauty of its story.
We embraced compassion as the guiding principle of our lives, no longer determining our relationships to others by a series of projected emotional, sexual, or material returns and gains.

We rejected materialism as a practice, liberating objects instead to function as themselves, instead of surrogates for our insecurities and misplaced desires.

We resolved to free ourselves from the cult of individualism, having known the power of voices raised in protest, in song, and in the chorus of laughter.

Years later, we found ourselves sprawled on the dewy grass at midnight once more, our joints creaking with the heaviness of age, our children’s heads nestled on our soft stomachs, our friends’ or lovers’ or parents’ hands entwined with our own. 

Watching our breath disappear into the night air, the rise and fall of our chests the only certainty we had in that moment, it was enough. It was always enough.