My friend Rhonda has seen me naked.
Rhonda and I met in graduate school where she was a semester ahead of me. When she told me that a section of her thesis involved nude portraits of several women, I gladly volunteered to buzz around helping her recruit, my unspoken way to show appreciation for the absence of my name on her list. The last night of our residency, Rhonda plopped down in the cold metal folding chair to my left and asked, “So, are you gonna’ pose for me?” “Absolutely. Yes,” I said, the absence of hesitation surprising me. “Just tell me when and where.”
We met early the next morning, when the air had a crisp edge to it and layers of fog added dimension to the landscape. “I have two special places picked out for you,” she said as she led me first to the Meditation House, a small one-room-with-a-fireplace structure on campus. I wasn’t really nervous, but you’d never believe that by the way nonstop chatter (mostly about my body issues) poured from my mouth as I disrobed while Rhonda readied her camera.
“Oh,” she said with a tone of surprise as she looked up to see me standing completely naked. “I was only going to photograph your top half.” We laughed, then I shrugged and she shrugged, positioned my fully-nude body in front of a wall whose age could be gauged by the various colors of peeling paint, backed her tripod up (considerably), and snapped away. That done, she beckoned me follow her into the woods where I eventually sat my naked bum on moss and logs and the occasional stick or stone, the click of her camera providing us background music.
It was my first and only nude photo shoot, and well, etiquette books just don’t cover such things as this. Figuring the less said the better, I said nothing on the outside, but oh my goodness: on the inside, my arms stretched out wide enough to embrace the earth – the whole planet, I tell you – and my head threw itself back with a smile bright enough to confuse the moon. On the inside, my entire body laughed and danced and delighted to be a part of this project celebrating women and their bodies in all their varied shapes and sizes and (so-called) imperfections . . . a project made even more significant by the fact that Rhonda has MS, Multiple Sclerosis.
Winter semesters found her using crutches, but the heat of summers was hard on her body, sometimes forcing her to resort to a wheelchair for transportation. Sitting in circles was not at all an infrequent occurrence at Goddard, and as we sat in one circle, I made a rare audible contribution and noted the dramatic change in Rhonda’s mobility when she held a camera in her hands. Give her a camera, and Rhonda sat on top of picnic tables, climbed trees, stood in chairs – why I believe that girl would’ve crawled to sit on the roof of the bell tower if it meant getting a better shot. With her muse in hand, the transformation was a sight to behold.
She found a small, seldom-used room for her Graduating Senior Presentation and lined the walls with our nude portraits. I thought there might be some nervous tittering, but the silence of awe ruled the day. Rhonda spoke quietly about the project, sprinkling her words with comments we’d each written after our respective photo shoots.
She’d recently seen The Vagina Monologues, and in keeping with the tradition, she wrote her own Vagina Monologue, including it as a chapter in her thesis. Words haven’t been invented to tell you how downright tickled I was when she asked me to read her V.M. as part of her presentation. Lord, that was fun.
Rhonda is now in hospice, and though she doesn’t fear death, she does dread it a bit because she still has so much she wants to say. And there’s so much we need to hear. “Jeanne, they tell me to rest,” she said in a recent phone call with a tone that’s as close to whining as I’ve ever heard come from her lips. “Fuck that,” I said. “You can rest later. Now you write. And write. And write.”
And write she does – with the aid of talk-to-text software – when and as she can. Her computer nearly crashed week before last, and she’s just getting everything set up again. I’ve offered to host her writings here – the essays she’s currently writing about life in the hospice, interviews and chats we’ve had and will have, and eventually her thesis. There’s no schedule here – I can’t tell you when or how often her words will appear, I can only tell you that they start tomorrow. There may be a post a day, there may be multiple posts a day. There may be days between posts. It goes as it goes. I’ll tweet (@WhollyJeanne) and post on Facebook (InJeanneious and WhollyJeanne) when there’s something new here, so be sure we’re connected, or just peek back in when you think about it.
And listen – don’t be shy. Take a few minutes to talk to Rhonda in the comment section – make your comments as long as they need to be, come back and leave additional comments if you think of something you wish you’d said. Rhonda doesn’t flinch. She doesn’t flinch in living, she doesn’t flinch in dying, and she doesn’t flinch in her writing. That’s one of the many, many, many, many reasons I love her. Talk to her. Let her know what succulence you take from her words and how they touch you. Join me in bearing witness and holding the space for Rhonda to live and live fully until she dies.
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