When I’m at L’Arche I like my body and, because of that, I’m learning to love it when I’m not.

By Nem Tomlinson

I came to L’Arche when I was twenty two. I was straight out of university and I celebrated my twenty third birthday just weeks later. My housemates baked me a cake, fumbled thank yous and gifted me slippers (they didn’t know me well enough then to know that I tolerate shoes at the best of time. I still have those slippers; unworn. They remind me that I am loved). For the last ten years I have been woven into the L’Arche Community in Edinburgh and, for the last six years, here in Manchester. I have grown up in L’Arche; for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health.

I have lived my greatest joys and my deepest shames amidst my communities, and they have been the contexts and often the sources of my healing; the messy, ugly putting oneself back together that inevitably happens with life.

At university I wrote my undergraduate dissertation on naked Quaker women and my Masters dissertation on the function of seventeenth century breasts. Before L’Arche, and during my studies, I spent a lot of time thinking about what having a body meant and perhaps less time thinking about what my body meant to me. This changed when I joined L’Arche. Life in L’Arche is an embodied experience. There are baths to run, teeth to brush, feet to massage, arms to link. There are shared, noisy meal times where we join hands to sing, and impromptu dance parties as we wash up. There is signing to tell a story: the one that happened long before she moved in, but that we all know and tell, and tell again, fingers moving to share it with someone new. I do less of this now and I still miss it, sneaking it in whenever I can.

Embodiment is a term that is slowly becoming more recognised. It has taken time because we are, largely, a society that values the head and intellect over the body, it seems. For me, embodiment describes the process of locating myself within myself (all of me, my body), and in the present moments. Body Positivity is a movement that espouses the idea that all bodies are good.

Yet having a body can be a complex thing. Loving other people’s bodies has been a much simpler process for me than loving my own.

I can tell you about our core members in Manchester. How Milly has eyelashes that could launch a thousand ships, or what it does to my heart when Crispin giggles and twitches with delight. I can tell you about helping Joe to have a shave in the morning, listening to Herb Albert, and how the process would take twice as long because we would dance as he shaved. I can tell you of the process of falling in love with people time and time again. But my relationship with loving this body I inhabit has not always been simple. I would struggle to tell you what I find precious about it, and could tell you how I have hated it and hurt it and shamed it.

Embodiment has given me a language to explore the idea that there is no separation between me and my body. We are all me. But it is in L’Arche that I’ve learnt what embodiment feels like and perhaps feeling might be the key to embodiment.

R.S Thomas has a line in his poem,The Kingdom, which reads ‘…and love looks at them back.’ I think so often that this has been my experience within L’Arche. Lou doesn’t care how much I weigh; she cares about whether we will talk about the time I forgot to pick her up from her nana’s, and arrived sweaty and beetroot red from a run.

In the autumn I dyed my hair green impulsively and Zeynep tugged at it and screeched with delight. Crispin and I twirl at our Community Boogie Nights, and I feel free and alive. Milly pumps her arm up and down with unabashed joy and grabs your clothing as you pass her, so that you stop and bend down to share a joke with her.

‘In their loving me, they have taught me that I am good; all of me. The embodied me is good.’

It is not our differences that have taught me peace with my own body. It is not some misplaced, harmful, platitude along the lines of ‘if they are happy with their bodies, I should be happy with mine.’ No. Rather, it is that in their loving me, they have taught me that I am good; all of me. The embodied me is good.

People tease me about when I last brushed my hair. It is speckled with grey. The laughter lines that started ten years ago in a three-storey house in Leith where this story began are now embedded in my skin. I throw on clothes in the morning and rarely think about what I look like. I have started to think less and less often about what I look like. Instead I am learning to understand my life by asking myself: ‘what do I feel like?’

So when Lou and I, after many false starts, climb up the stairs on the water flume for the eighth time and slide belly laughing all the way down, I feel like I am eight years old again and riding my bike. When Zeynep runs towards me with arms wide open, I know that I am good. When Crispin jumps up when I knock on his front door, and raises his arms and dances from side to side, I know I belong.

This hard-earned friendship that says ‘you are important to me and me to you.’ Mary Oliver wrote ‘You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.’ This simple revolution. To ask what does this beat up, broken and put back together body of mine love? A work of a lifetime; learning to listen and love and inhabit myself.

‘I am learning to centre myself within myself. To twirl and twirl and dance, hot and sweaty and imperfect, and know that this is good.’

I am learning this in L’Arche. Most of the people who I share my life with don’t speak, but they don’t need to. They tell me who they are and what they want in a myriad of different and deep ways, and they tell me that I am their friend and that they love me in embodied ways. ‘Love looks at me back’ each day and because of that I am learning to centre myself within myself. To twirl and twirl and dance, hot and sweaty and imperfect, and know that this is good.

When I’m at L’Arche I like my body and, because of that, I am learning to love it when I’m not.

Nem Tomlinson is part of the L’Arche Manchester Community, which she co-founded in 2013.

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