SKINNY DIPPING WITH MISSIONARIES
The Question of Legitimacy:
Who am I…to write the story of my life?
Isn’t memoir-writing self-centered, whorish naval-gazing?
In the following six posts, I will consider this question: Who am I, an ordinary person, to write a story of my life?
Changing all names, to protect the innocent, I begin with a story from my adolescence…
I learned from a fatherly Canadian missionary, one sunny day in Hokkaido, Japan that it is not illicit or exhibitionistic or narcissistic, but a fine and natural thing, to skinny dip.
I was seventeen. It was the summer between high school and college and I was spending July at a work-camp in then-wild northern Japan, helping young, pioneering dairy farmers bring in their hay. This was a rare afternoon off, and the father of one of the twenty or so of us Canadian and American kids had fetched eight of us and transported us to a lovely spring in the hills up behind our sea-village dormitory.
It was a warm day, and we were all sticky with sweat and muscle-strained from our morning’s efforts—pitching hay is back-and-arm-killing toil—and giddy with freedom. Once out of the van, we girls started casting about for a tree behind which to change into our bathing suits, when Hamish, the son of our chauffeur, said, “Phooey! Forget all that. Let’s just skinny dip. We do it all the time at home.” We all looked at Hamish’s father, a worn-looking man with his shirt tails out and a kind, sun-beaten face. In a small Hokkaido town, he taught the Japanese both good agricultural techniques and the bible.
I had skinny dipped with my family once or twice in the past, but never with friends, and never in mixed company. To think of it made my heart race. It seemed daring, risqué, and—potentially–acutely embarrassing. I’d never displayed my breasts or bottom in public before. Wouldn’t it be immodest, exhibitionistic, improper? What would the boys think? If I revealed my body, wouldn’t it be a sexual come-on? I didn’t want that. I was a nice person, these were my pals, and I had a crush on one of them. (And if I was worried about that boy, wasn’t this revealing too much? Shouldn’t I keep the mystery, the allure, like in my eighth grade Victorian romance novels?) And then, when you came right down to it, wouldn’t it be showing off? And: Wouldn’t it be sort of bad? I was with a Christian missionary, and a lot of these kids were missionary kids too. Some of their parents, I knew, forbid them to dance or play cards. Surely they viewed the body as sinful.
But this was 1972, and other currents were also in the air. Hippies reigned these days, and nudity and greater physical openness had taken hold of the culture, even among us kids sheltered far away from London or Berkeley. To reveal the body no longer had to imply loose morals. It could mean care freeness, spontaneity, a kind of fearless stripping down to the truth. And another thing, this was Japan: where communal bathing was the norm, and where the human body was viewed as as much a part of nature as a pine or a rabbit…
These various breezes wafted and these thoughts tumbled through my mind but Mr. Crowe, the missionary and good Christian who, I think, simply viewed people as clean and good like cows, just nodded to his son. “Sure,” he said, as if this were the most normal and natural suggestion in the world. And then he settled himself under a tree with a book.
His daughter, Rowena, and Hamish both threw off their clothes, stood with their strawberry-blond heads, lanky legs, and slender pink bottoms poised at the edge of the pond, shouted “Ready, Steady, Go!” and tore into the water. Seeing them reveal their whole selves, natural and free as elves—and imperfect and perfect as apples in a gnarled tree–gave us all courage to hurl off our own clothes, devil-may-care, and fling ourselves, too, into the cooling, equalizing elixir of the pool.
Stealing looks at each other’s bodies, was revelatory, arousing even, but not in the way you’d think. What was striking was that none of us was perfect like the kids in the Seventeen magazine ads. Hamish was long and lanky, a little loose at the joints. Sakiko was perfectly proportioned, but certainly her legs were shorter than a model’s legs. Dan was tall as a statue but narrower in the shoulders than the average Marlboro man. And my breasts were nearer to mikan-tangerines than grapefruit.
But, with all we were (and weren’t), we charged into the water and swam and splashed and dunked each other until we were exhausted. Then we dried off on rocks in the sun.
Almost immediately that day, on seeing that first naked flank, I realized all my worries had been off. Skinny dipping wasn’t self-centered, show-offy or whorish. It was natural—innocent, even. (These were days before MTV, when innocence was still possible.) It was freedom. It was just plain old human. This conferred a deep and refreshing comfort: We were all imperfect. And, here, splashing about in the buck together, shining-wet in the glinting pool, we were—at the same time and in the truest sense–perfect. Showing all our birthmarks, warts, and scabs, we were beauteous, mammal-sublime. This is what I learned that day from that middle-aged missionary in Japan.
All the same, an analogous series of second-guessings, frettings and self-questionings have beset me as I’ve set about writing a memoir of my childhood abroad: yet another kind of skinny-dipping: “Isn’t this naval-gazing? Strutting? Whoring? Or just basic and bald self-promotion?” I thought. “Who am I, an ordinary person, to think my story interesting? To strip down before the world? Wouldn’t I be better off to maintain the sense of mystery, to hide my tiny breasts?” Accusations of self-aggrandizement, of solipsism, of cheapness: these are the poised daggers held to the throats of all memoir-attempters. The torture of these taunts—especially to the shy people many of us memoir-writers are–is enough to make one crawl into a cave. But that’s what many of us have always done, and that’s why we’re writing. So the wooly bear of truth can slink out into the sun. Splash in a shining pool.