Getting in touch with the physical

The announcement came via e-mail early last month. An acquaintance of mine, a gentleman in his 50s who lived on a sprawling property on Capitol Hill overlooking Interlaken Park, had died peacefully in his sleep. Over the course of the last several summers I'd had the good fortune of being his guest along with 40-60 other men when he threw pool parties at his home.

These events, primarily for gay men although women came now and then, were clothing optional. Our host made it clear no drugs or alcohol would be permitted on the premises, and for the most part people abided by his wishes.

As the perennial rains of November begin to beat down on Seattle, I cinch my Gortex jacket closely around my waist and begin to think about how this man's gatherings offered a new-found haven for me and other like-minded men - an urban oasis to express ourselves. It represented a new awareness of body and spirit.

Growing up Catholic, I learned early on from catechism that "the body is the temple of the Holy Spirit." In Catholic grade school and junior high I was self-conscious and shy during gym class and in the locker room. All the boys seemed so sure about their masculinity and strength.

I'm sure much of my lack of confidence had to do with the fact I had feelings about other boys but couldn't express or act upon them. While those feelings didn't change when I entered high school, I began getting in touch with my body by running, lifting weights - and after earning my lifesaving certification on my 16th birthday - swimming. I began to develop a greater stature and could see the difference as my body grew and changed. In my late teens and early 20s I began to become more comfortable with my physical self.

I came out at the age of 23, but not until my first foray to Europe four years later did I experience the liberating feeling of visiting a nude beach. On a backtracking trip I befriended Tomas, a Dutch engineer, who invited me to stay with him for the weekend at his home in Delft, a small town in the Netherlands famous for its blue and white China.

On Saturday we boarded our bikes and rode to Scheveningen on the North Sea. In broad daylight, mothers, fathers and children stretched out on the beach with their picnics. Nobody acted embarrassed or ashamed. The sun shone down on them, although the brisk breeze off the sea gave me hesitation.

Soon with the encouragement of my friend I had discarded my swimsuit and sat down on the top of a dune getting used to the feeling of nothing covering my white bottom. After a few moments, I slowly slid down the soft sand, stood up and ran toward the sea.

Exhilarated, I dove in the ice cold water and immediately emerged from the surface screaming like a banshee. I'll never forget that moment of pure joy standing there at water's edge proud and ebullient while Tomas photographed me, free as a bird.

When I returned to the United States, I became more aware of Americans' discomfort with the body. I always loved how Madonna (the singer) seemed to flout convention at every turn and challenge people to examine their sexuality and physical being.

Despite the impropriety of it, Bill Clinton was crucified for a sexual peccadillo in the White House, his integrity and values questioned. And yet, in the Bush White House, an attorney general covered up a statue of the voluptuous Spirit of Justice while W. invaded a country that resulted in the deaths of countless Iraqis and 2,000 American soldiers. We are a nation disconnected from our bodies and spirits. Violence is pardoned more than sex.

While I've never used the word nudist to describe myself, I've become more and more comfortable with the term. In my 20s I held a lot of judgments about nudity and tended to sexualize it. In my 30s I began to experiment and discover others who enjoyed clothing-free environments. Now at 42, as my body begins changing in middle age, I'm forced to accept the imperfections I never thought would arrive in my younger years: a waistline not as trim, a stomach not as taught, errant white hairs on my chest.

This last Fourth of July (unbeknownst to us for the last time), a large crowd of men descended on the estate of our recently deceased friend. We brought dishes to set on the potluck table, spread our beach towels around the built in pool, relaxed on the brightly colored floats and playfully roughhoused in the interior of a floating plastic spaceship.

Between chicken fights and water gun battles, we relaxed in the hot tub and peered over the green valley below. Many of us welcomed the opportunity to don our birthday suits while some chose otherwise. The sun gleamed on a perfect 70-degree day. When we left at 4 o'clock that afternoon we felt revitalized and full of spirit - we had vacationed in another world, not really part of the one we live in. We'd escaped the city and discovered nirvana.

I'd like to raise a toast to the gentleman who welcomed us into his world and made it all possible. May you find the freedom and peace you generously provided for a community of men looking to shed their skin and discover the beauty and goodness hiding beneath.

We are grateful to you.[[In-content Ad]]