I’ve come to the woods to remember who I am. As I write this, I’m off-the-grid, offline and unplugged, tucked into a tiny cabin by a lake, with just enough solar power to occasionally charge my laptop so that I can write. I cook over a propane stove and haul water in a bucket to wash my few dishes. The only bathroom facility is a compost toilet in a little outhouse just a little further up the hill. I brush my teeth with a cup of water and then spit into the woods. I haven’t showered or looked in a mirror for two days. When I need a break from writing, I wander down to the dock and watch the ripples on the lake. In the evenings, I light a fire and sometimes I read under the light of my headlamp.
Just now I wrote in my journal, “I love it here. It soothes my nervous system. It ignites my creativity. It allows the words to flow onto the page. I love it in all its variations – the rain of yesterday, the sun and warmth of the day before, the deep fog of this morning, and even the chill that made me pull my sleeping bag tighter in my little loft bed last night.”
This kind of solitude and connection with nature nourishes me and re-ignites the spark that sometimes gets dampened by the over-stimulating, demanding, noisy world. I am more myself here, more grounded, and in greater equilibrium.
I know myself here. I remember that I am part of nature – both contributing to it and receiving from it. I am in reciprocal relationship with the woods, the birds, the lake, and the trees. I talk to chipmunks and listen to the songs of the loons floating across the lake. Sometimes I talk to myself.
I know my body and I trust her needs. I know how to meet those needs with the simplicity of what’s available to me. I have little judgement of my body out here in these woods, because I see it in relationship to all that is around me – everything that is both imperfect and wildly beautiful. There’s a gnarly oak tree not far from where I sit and… gosh, she is beautiful in all her imperfection. Out here, I begin to move to the rhythm of the woods and the moon, and my body remembers herself into beauty.
The noise of the city makes me forget these things sometimes. I forget my natural rhythm and my place in the order of things. I forget my beauty and I begin to see myself through the lenses offered up to me by social media, advertising, and capitalism. My body begins to absorb the ways that she has been devalued. In the city, I am fat and aging, and both of those things make me more invisible. In the city, I know my flaws and I get sucked back into the drive for perfectionism. I judge myself through the yardsticks that the patriarchy, white supremacy, and colonization have imposed on me. I evaluate myself through the expectations of other people.
Out here, I disconnect from all of that. I disentangle myself and I stop performing according to the script for which I was trained. I become more fully embodied, more fully in love with myself, more fully visible.
Sometimes I find myself wishing I could stay here, in these woods, but I’m not sure that is wise or even possible for me. I know that I need community too. I know that I need to be part of the world. And I know that this deep connection I have nurtured with myself and with the natural world I am part of is a gift that many are longing for, so I have some responsibility to bring it back into the city with me. I know that, so I sit here in this beautiful place and I write words that I will share with you, my readers and friends.
Sometimes when I teach people the practice of holding space for themselves, they think it’s simply about self-care, but that’s only a small part of it. Holding space for yourself is about knowing yourself, truly seeing yourself. It’s about living a deeply embodied life. It’s about making yourself visible so that you can see yourself more clearly without the lenses that have been passed down to you. It’s about recognizing the harm that’s been done to you by the systems you’re part of. It’s about healing that harm, and then divesting yourself of those systems as much as you can so that you can be free.
Ultimately, holding space for yourself is about freedom. It’s the kind of deeply embodied freedom that I feel when I’m out in these woods. It’s about connection with all that is and acceptance of all that cannot be changed, and it’s about presence. It’s about nurturing relationships of reciprocity and grace with all human and non-human beings, knowing that you are an integral part of all of it.
No, I can’t stay in these woods. I will emerge in a few days and return to the places where people gather to have meaningful conversations and to wrestle with the many complexities in the world. I will emerge because I still have work to do and a contribution to make. But I will return to these woods whenever I need to be reminded of who I am.
I’ve been sick this week. Congestion, fever, a nose like a leaky faucet. This morning, I was just going to carry on with my day as though my body wasn’t begging to stay in bed, but then the fever finally convinced me a day under the covers was justified. One of the dangers of working from home, though, is that I can take my computer to bed and the inner drill sergeant still expects me to get stuff done.
I can chalk it up to the work ethic I was raised with. My dad was known to push through every sickness and more than once, he passed out in the barn when he was too sick to stand (and then got up and went back to work). My mom came home from the hospital, where she’d just had a radical hysterectomy, and re-washed the floor that sixteen-year-old me had washed the day before (but had used too much cleaner so it was sticky).
Yes, even after all of these years, there is still a voice in my head that becomes hyper-critical whenever there is evidence of laziness. Perhaps it’s still sixteen-year-old me reminding me that I’m not living up to the expectations of the hard-working folks who raised me.
There are not a lot of things pressing that I must do today, so a rest day is not unreasonable, but here I am writing this blog post because I’d told myself I’d write one today and whenever I try to rest, my brain spins in circles and makes it nearly impossible. Here’s what I’m thinking now… maybe if I get this post out of my brain, it will allow me to nap. (Fingers crossed.)
It’s ironic to be writing this, so soon after I wrote a post about why Krista needed to rest, but isn’t it always easier to tell other people what they need than it is to meet those needs for ourselves? (I’ll let her get revenge when she comes back to work.)
I’ve been thinking, though, about the bigger picture about how we treat our bodies and why we need to be more tender with our own bodies and each others’ bodies. As I mentioned in the earlier post, grind culture is abusive and we shouldn’t contribute to that abuse on capitalism’s behalf. Let’s face it – capitalism is never going to be kind to us, even if we break our bodies on its behalf, so why make such a huge sacrifice?
The other thing I mentioned in that post is that when we rest, we send a message to people that we value them whether or not they make measurable contributions to a capitalist system. When we are cruel to our bodies because they don’t perform as well as we expect them to, we are upholding a values system that places bodies in a hierarchy, with healthy, productive, physically fit bodies above those that are chronically ill or disabled. We contribute to the marginalization of other people by not valuing our own bodies when they are sick, weak, or tired. (And then we succumb to internalized oppression when we’re hard on our own bodies for being sick.)
This isn’t just about rest, it’s about all of the ways that we treat our bodies. It’s about the ways we punish our bodies with restrictive diets to try to lose pounds so that we can be seen as acceptable and attractive. It’s about harsh exercise regimes that make us feel like our bodies are more worthy. It’s about supplements and cleanses and… so much more.
You don’t have to spend much time on social media to realize just how much we are inundated with messages about how we should treat our bodies to make them conform to a certain standard. Influencers tout the latest exercise trend or body-enhancing supplement, ads tell us which bathing suit to wear so that we’ll look slimmer, and movies remind us that slim, attractive, fit people will find love before we will.
Wellness is a huge industry and, sadly, much of it promotes healthism. Healthism, defined in the 1980s by Robert Crawford, is “the preoccupation with personal health as a primary focus for the definition and achievement of well-being; a goal which is to be attained primarily through the modification of lifestyles”. When we believe the wellness influencers who tell us that our health is within our own control, then we make health a moral issue and we treat those who have attained good health as superior to those who haven’t. Those who are disabled, fat, chronically ill, immuno-compromised, aging, or simply out of shape can easily be blamed for their status in life because they “just haven’t done enough to take control of their own health”.
Healthism “ignores the impact of poverty, oppression, war, violence, luck, historical atrocities, abuse and the environment from traffic, pollution to clean water and nuclear contamination and so on. It protects the status quo, leads to victim blaming and privilege, increases health inequities and fosters internalized oppression.” (Source: https://newdiscourses.com/tftw-healthism/)
A healthy lifestyle is not a bad thing, but when you begin to define health as only one thing, then it becomes problematic. What is healthy for you might not be healthy for someone else. What is the right size for your body may not be the right size for another body. Many health experts are now revealing, for example, that fatness is not nearly as unhealthy as it was once believed to be. Many of the health risks and diseases once associated with fatness have now been linked to other factors. (Listen to the very informative podcast Maintenance Phase for more on this.)
It turns out, in fact, that our culture’s phobia of fatness is not about the health risks at all, it’s about white supremacy. In the book Fearing The Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia, Sabrina Strings does a thorough excavation of history to find out why western culture became so afraid of fatness, and it turns out it’s largely because elevating the status of white bodies meant denigrating Black bodies. According to Strings, “…the current anti-fat bias in the United States and in much of the West was not born in the medical field. Racial scientific literature since at least the eighteenth century has claimed that fatness was ‘savage’ and ‘black’.” She goes on to say that “…racial discourse was deployed by elite Europeans and white Americans to create social distinctions between themselves and fat racial Others. Black people, as well as so-called degraded or hybrid whites (e.g., Celtic Irish, southern Italians, Russians), were primary targets of these arguments.”
Recently, I heard someone on a podcast talk about the rise of “body fascism” and I was intrigued, so I went digging to find out more. Collins Dictionary defines it as “intolerance of those whose bodies do not conform to a particular view of what is desirable.” Taken to an extreme, though, it’s not just about intolerance, it’s about control, oppression, marginalization, and violence. When a culture becomes too consumed with the elevation of a certain body type, as Strings points out was the case within the western world’s obsession with whiteness and thinness, then that culture will naturally vilify any body that does not fit the ideal. It will become harder for those who don’t fit the ideal to access social programs, to be treated fairly, and to be seen as worthy.
It doesn’t seem like much of a stretch to see body fascism as the next dangerous step in the progression from healthism. When you assign personal responsibility to each person to reach a certain standard of health, and you devalue those who are unable to attain that standard, then you’ve created the conditions where it’s socially acceptable to marginalize people. Consider, for example, the Aryan race that Hitler was determined to create and uplift, while extinguishing those who didn’t fit his standards – that’s body fascism to the extreme.
When I consider the concerns currently being raised, especially in Hollywood, with the way that Artificial Intelligence can now be used to recreate video images of bodies that don’t even need to be present (or consenting), I can’t help but wonder whether this is another step toward body fascism. For one thing, if they can make movies without having to deal with the fallibility and imperfections of real bodies, what’s to stop movie producers from even more significantly elevating a certain body type while denigrating others? For another thing, why pay real bodies, when they can simply create images of bodies that will do their bidding without the annoyance of contracts or the need for fair treatment?
What does all of this have to do with me being sick? Well, it all comes down to the way that I choose to treat my own body. Do I view it as an unworthy body when it can’t perform the way it’s expected to perform? Do I punish my body for failing? Or do I cherish it, find a way to be tender with it, claim its inherent value, and divest myself of the systems that teach me to abuse it?
After all of that… I’m going to answer my own questions by turning off this computer, crawling back under the covers, and having a nap. Not because I’ve earned it, but because this body is worthy of it.
p.s. If you’re on a quest for a more tender relationship with your body, join us for A Full-Bodied Life. Sign up to study alone, or join the community for meaningful conversations.
It all starts when a real estate agent sees me naked. It’s 8:30 a.m. and I am emerging from my bathroom, where I’d been blow-drying my hair, into my bedroom where I am about to get dressed. He is standing there, in my hallway, looking completely flummoxed.
My real estate agent (not the one standing in my hallway), had told me that the first viewing by a potential buyer was happening at 9 a.m., and I’d planned to be dressed and gone from the premises before then. Due to some mixup, this agent had booked an 8:30 showing that hadn’t been communicated to me (a pattern that repeats itself later in the week, though not with such dramatic results).
I dress quickly and hurry out of the house. At the doorway, I see a large pair of men’s dress shoes – an unusual sight in a house that has housed only women for the past seven years. Outside, in my driveway, stands the young, flustered agent, in his socked feet. I suppress a giggle when I consider the mad dash he’s made from the house. Trying to save face (but not looking at mine), he swears to me he’d booked the appointment and swears he’d called out when he’d let himself into the house. I brush it off, climb into my car, and drive away.
Throughout the remainder of the day, as I juggle the chaos of running a home-based business while multiple showings disrupt my day, I burst out laughing whenever I remember the man in my driveway without his shoes.
Only later – perhaps the next day – I surprise myself with the realization that the encounter did not trigger me. A strange man intruded on my private space and saw me naked, and… I laughed!
I have spent years healing from the trauma of what has happened to me in bedrooms, and years creating a sanctuary where my body can finally release its hypervigilance and feel safe. Many times, I have despaired at how long it takes for my body to learn a new story. But now, thirty-four years after a man climbed through my bedroom window and raped me in my bed, and seven years after I ended the marriage that compounded (in smaller increments) the trauma of that rape, my body didn’t respond with fight, flight, or freeze when a strange man burst through the boundary I’d so carefully constructed. My only response was laughter.
By the next day, my sense of humour has dwindled. The chaos of having my life so frequently disrupted starts to take its toll. Though no other agents see me naked, they want to come at all hours of the day, they change their appointments at the last minute, and I am left juggling the many Zoom calls my work requires with their expectations that I be out of the house so that their clients can snoop through my bedrooms and poke around in my kitchen. Ten minutes before teaching a class, after learning of a last minute scheduling change, I rush to my sister’s house to borrow her internet and kitchen table.
Surprisingly, the agent’s gaze on my naked body seems to impact me less than the parade of people whose gaze falls on my naked house. I don’t know what to make of it. Despite my efforts to distract myself, including a short road trip out of town with my sister-in-law over the weekend when the greatest number of showings are happening, I can’t ignore the churning in my stomach when I think of all of those people in my private space, looking through my closets, intruding on the sanctuary of my lovely backyard, judging my stained furniture, and casting a critical eye on the cracks in the walls and peeling paint on the kitchen cupboards.
There are moments when I want nothing more than to chase them all away, change the locks on the doors, and hunker down in my own house, protecting it from intruders as though it were a city under siege. There are moments when I want to yank the For Sale sign out of the front lawn and commit to the house that I will never, ever leave it.
This house and I have been through so much together. Twenty-four years ago, with a toddler and a new baby, my former husband and I moved in, our hearts full of dreams of the home this house would become. Perhaps I should have known, at the end of that long day of moving, when my body was completely spent but I still had to find a few more drops of strength and kindness with which to feed my babies and help them feel safe in the midst of monumental disruption, that a pattern had been set that would repeat itself again and again in this house. “The way you start your day determines how well you will live your day,” some motivational speaker once said, and perhaps the way you move into a house determines how you will live in that house.
I spent many, many days exhausted, trying to muster up those last drops of strength, courage, and kindness in this house. There were all of those years of mothering small children while working a full-time job. There were the years of my former husband’s depression and there was his second suicide attempt. There were the many times I tried to convince myself I was happy in a marriage that didn’t nourish me. There was the way that my body kept telling me that my bed was not as safe as my brain pretended it was. There were fights and heartbreaks and disappointments and there was that moment, every day, when my body tuned in to the sound of the door opening, trying to anticipate the mood that I’d need to decipher, manage, soothe, support, or deflect in order to help my children feel safe.
Despite what the motivational speakers say, a pattern can only hold for so long before something shatters, before you choose to end a day differently than it began. Seven years ago, it was time for that shattering, time to rearrange what had so long ago been set into motion.
Though I was restless and ready to leave this house and all of the memories it held when the marriage was dismantled, I knew that, more now than ever, I had to muster those last ounces of strength, courage, and kindness in order to give my daughters the home and stability they needed for the tumultuous teen years. With resolve, and much trembling, I pushed through all the paperwork, stress and worry of buying the house all over again so that it would only be my name on the land title. I didn’t know if I could afford it alone, since my business was still in the early days of making enough money to survive on, but for my daughters’ sake, I knew I had to try.
Not only did I succeed in keeping the only home they’d ever known, I worked hard to make it better and more safe. Even before the marriage ended, knowing that they’d each need their own tender space to hold them through the disruption, I redecorated each of the girls’ bedrooms. Then, when the master bedroom was finally mine alone, I did the same for me. From there I moved on to the living room and kitchen, and finally the backyard, tearing out old flooring, painting old cupboards, hiring people to redo the floors and backyard, and learning to use power tools so that I could build shelving units, desks, and tables. I did the best I could with what I had.
A week after the naked encounter with the agent, the date arrives when my agent will accept offers. There have been about 30 showings in a week, so she expects there to be a bidding war that will land far above the asking price, but it doesn’t turn out that way. The repairs needed on the foundation, the cracked basement walls and cracked living room ceiling have scared people off more than we expected. We’ve priced it much lower than comparable homes in the neighbourhood, knowing that it will require repairs, but even that low price doesn’t convince people it’s a good investment. Add to that the interest rate increase and talk of recession, and buyers have become more reluctant than they were a month ago.
The only offer I receive is below my asking price, and there are conditions that include a full inspection. I decline their offer and make a counteroffer. They decline that with another counteroffer, just a bit higher than they offered in the first place. I am devastated, but I give in, knowing that there’s very little chance anything better will surface.
I consider declining it and taking the house off the market. I consider staying here and pouring more money into the house to increase its value. I consider whether I’m willing to give up my plans to relocate to another city and whether I can be happy living here alone with all of my children moved away and only the memories for company.
I spend a lot of time crying in the next few days as I wait for the house inspection to happen and the deal to be finalized. I cry about the fact that people don’t love my home as much as I love it. I cry about the 29 people who looked and then turned away. I cry about the fact that all of the work I’ve put into the house in the last seven years feels like a financial waste. I cry about the fact that I will leave this home less financially stable than I’d hoped to be at the beginning of the next phase of my life. I cry because it’s so easy to turn “they don’t value my house” into “they don’t value me”.
I cry especially on the day that the house inspection happens. For three hours, I have to be away from the house while a stranger pokes even deeper than all of the people who came before. This time, they will evaluate every square inch of the house, critiquing the windows, the furnace, the appliances, the walls, and the foundation. This time, they will open every closet and look for leaks under every sink.
I wake up that morning suddenly remembering that there are some old mildew stains I hadn’t managed to clean off the trap door at the top of my closet that opens up into the attic. It’s one of the only spots I forgot to clean in the two-month frenzy to prepare the house for sale. I worry that the inspector will take the mildew too seriously and warn the buyers to back away from the deal. I cover the clothes hanging in my closet with an old blanket, climb onto a chair, spray bleach onto the ceiling and scrub.
A few hours later, when it’s nearly time for the inspection to be over and for me to be allowed back in, my agent calls. The inspector wants to know if he can move the clothes in my closet to access the trap door into the attic. I say yes, both relieved that I took the time to clean the mildew and annoyed to know that someone is currently rummaging in my closet.
When I get home, there are far too many signs that someone has been in my home and the frustration boils into rage. I feel disrespected and somewhat violated when I see how many items have been moved away from walls and not returned to their rightful places. On one of the hottest days of the year, all of the curtains have been pulled open and the furnace has been left on.
What is the value of a home? As I wait through the evening for my agent to give me the final word, I ask myself that question. Can the value of this home, that has held so many of my heartaches and born witness to so many of my traumas, really be measured by a dollar figure on the piece of paper my agent passes across the table to me? Can any amount of money tell of the worthiness of this house, when it has been a refuge through so many storms?
It’s the lie of capitalism, I realize, that tells us that worth can be measured. It’s the lie we’ve been told again and again – the lie that has taught us to commodify our lives, our bodies, our stories, our talents, our land, and all of our possessions, placing the value of one above another, diminishing it all to a dollar sign on a piece of paper.
The feminist rage boils up in me as I realize the grief and shame that I’ve been feeling about people devaluing my home is the same old grief and shame I’ve felt about people devaluing my body. “The basement is cracked and the house is showing its age,” they say, casually, as if this home is only a commodity. “Take $50,000 off its value.”
“Your body is fat, female and showing its age,” they say, casually, as if this body is only a commodity. “Take $50,000 off your value.”
My agent finally arrives, and the evening drags on with multiple back and forth phone calls while the buyer’s agent points out what the inspector has revealed. He tries repeatedly to bring the price down even more. Fed up, I say a firm “NO” when my agent is on the phone with him. “He heard your no,” she says when she gets off the phone and I’m not sure if she’s admonishing me or cheering me on for being so clear. Either way, I don’t regret it. I know that I have the power to walk away rather than let this agent chip away any more of my value, and I know that I will carry my head high whatever the outcome.
Finally, the sale goes through and my agent leaves. I crawl into bed, unsure of how I feel.
The next morning, it begins to settle in that I have sold my house. The remnants of grief still cling to me, but I become resolved to pick myself up and carry on. “It’s only money,” I tell myself. “It says nothing about the value of my home and nothing about the value of me.”
I look around my home and see it through the eyes of love. I peer out my bedroom window and watch the birds land in the branches of my sturdy maple tree and the squirrels scamper along my fence. I touch the walls with tenderness, like I used to touch my children’s skin when they were little. I soften my gaze as I peer at my naked body in the mirror. Home and body – both priceless, both loved.
I remember the words of Sonya Renee Taylor in The Body is Not an Apology. “Living in a female body, a Black body, an aging body, a fat body, a body with mental illness is to awaken daily to a planet that expects a certain set of apologies to already live on our tongues. There is a level of ‘not enough’ or ‘too much’ sewn into these strands of difference.” I feel that in my body and I feel it in my home.
Our systems – capitalism, patriarchy, white supremacy – are structured to profit from our self-hatred, Taylor says, convincing us to buy more and more things to try to cover up our shame and prove to each other and ourselves that we are worthy of love. We are measured with yardsticks that teach us whose bodies have more worth, whose lives should be protected, and who should be shamed for taking up space. And when the walls of our homes are similarly measured, it feels personal.
“Think of body shame like the layers of an onion. For decades in our own lives and for centuries in civilization, we have been taught to judge and shame our bodies and to consequently judge and shame others. Getting to our inherent state of radical self-love means peeling away those ancient, toxic messages about bodies. It is like returning the world’s ugliest shame sweater back to the store where it was purchased and coming out wearing nothing but a birthday suit of radical self-love.”
The only way to disrupt a system that oppresses people by measuring their worthiness is to stop complying, stop measuring.
It’s now a few weeks since a strange man saw me naked in my bedroom. It’s a few weeks since I burst out laughing at the thought of him standing in his socked feet in my driveway. I notice now, as I think of all of the people who have passed through these rooms since then, measuring the worth of what I love, that I am able to laugh at that too. I see them all in my mind’s eye – buyers, agents, and inspectors – lined up in their socked feet in my driveway, unable to look me in the eye as I walk by. But my head is held high and I am dressed not in a shame sweater, but in my “birthday suit of radical self-love”.
That young real estate agent can know nothing of the value of an aging, saggy female body. He can know nothing of what this body has carried, how this body has triumphed, and how many times this body has nurtured and protected those who are scared or lonely. If there is shame to be had in that moment when this body was seen naked, then he can carry it. I refuse.
Similarly, nobody who walked through these rooms can know anything about the value of this home. They can peer into the closets and peek into the attic, but nothing they see with their untrained eyes will tell them of the stories this house has held or the way it has sheltered my family through the storms.
If there is shame to be had in the cracked walls or mildew stains, I refuse to carry it. Two months from now, when I walk away from this home that I have loved so dearly, ready to start the next chapter in my story, I will do so with my head held high. There may be fewer dollars in my bank account, but the value of what this house has given me will never be measured by that.
In the middle of the house sale, I decide it’s time to finally book the tattoo appointment I’ve been considering for several years. A few days after the sale is finalized, I visit the tattoo parlour and have the words of Mary Oliver inked on my forearm where I can see them easily: “…let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.”
I will wear those words as a promise to myself to the end of my days. This body cannot be measured. And neither can my home.