The second post in this new series of Disrobing Suspense interviews with writers is a very special one, because it was the first time I was actually able to meet with my interviewee in person. Robert Longpré, the SkyClad Therapist, has written numerous books that happen to include naturist titles such as his three volumes of Naked Poetry and a new novel, A Small Company of Pilgrims.
A retired academic administrator, Robert is a Jungian psychotherapist and proud husband, father, and grandfather. He is also an inveterate Canadian snowbird who has begun “winterludes” in Mexico, and last month, while I was enjoying a vacation along the Riviera Maya with my family, I was able to travel with my wife and mother-in-law to Puerto Morelos for an afternoon to meet Robert and his wife Maureen. We enjoyed drinks and conversation at La Casa del Farito with live music as well, and then we walked a bit along the main stretch of beach and plaza to observe some fantastic sand sculptures. It was a lovely afternoon!
|Robert Longpré (left), with yours truly
|One of the sand sculptures in Puerto Morelos
|I was already familiar with Robert’s poetry, having written a forward or two and helped with a bit of editing, but Robert and I had not met. What a joy it was to get to know Robert and Maureen, who together had just recently finished the photographs for the third volume of Naked Poetry. While in Puerto Morelos, Maureen and Robert were assiduous beachcombers (as you can read on his blog), walking ten kilometers daily in training for the famous pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, Spain, which they plan on trekking later this year. In fact, Robert’s research for writing the novel A Small Company of Pilgrims, including very specific geographical descriptions, has served him in preparation of their own pending pilgrimage. I asked Robert if he would be willing to engage in some follow-up questions about his fiction for this interview, and he graciously agreed.
In A Small Company of Pilgrims, Robert tells the story of an impromptu family-like community that forms among contemporary pilgrims along the Camino Francés to Santiago. It is the story of René Beauchemin, a Canadian psychotherapist and something of a doppleganger for Robert, although the plot is not strictly autobiographical. From the French, his name means Reborn Beautifulpath, which indicates a forecast of his trajectory in the novel. René is a middle-aged father, recently divorced, who makes the sacred trek not out of devotion to Catholicism but because he has heard the Call, the Call to go and walk, and reflect, and achieve a greater consciousness of his life and circumstances. In Robert’s words, René undergoes a “process of transformation (alchemy), sort of a waking up to a bigger universe with mid-life”; his pilgrimage is a dare “to take the challenge of the heroic journey (a la Joseph Campbell).” Along the way he meets an almost unreal cast of characters, each with his or her own personal quest.
Each character, as well, in her or his own way, helps Robert overcome his resistance to nudity, a resistance that surprises and mortifies Robert initially. Some of the characters are already familiar with the practice of meditation, and prefer to meditate skyclad. Other characters are only beginning to understand the benefits of spiritual mindfulness, let alone the gift and wonder of being able to meditate nude. At first, René becomes known jokingly as “the half-naked pilgrim” (shirtless), and this causes him embarrassment and stress.
Here is an excerpt from the novel that depicts the tension between pilgrims clothed and unclothed, a tension that is essentially the “disrobing suspense” that naturist writers inevitably confront and utilize in building characters, settings, and themes. In this passage, René’s meditation is interrupted by a vision worthy of Akka Mahadevi, the twelfth-century Indian poet and holy woman:
René took off his socks and boots and took a sitting position for meditation. Try as much as he could, he just couldn’t find a comfortable posture. He struggled trying to hold his meditative attention for quite a few minutes before giving up and laying back on the grass to enjoy the heat of the sun. It wasn’t long before his tee shirt was off so that he could feel the breeze coming off the river. He was tempted to remove his shorts and sunbathe, but the possibility of someone seeing him naked was enough to kill that idea. However, perhaps meditating half-nude would work. Strangely, it was much easier, though he could still feel the strain that his shorts put on his body in comparison to the freedom he felt on the rest of his body.
As he closed his eyes and began focusing on his breathing, he heard a voice singing, a woman’s voice. Rather than have the beautiful sounds become a distraction, he simply accepted the music as part of this place and time and returned to noticing that small space between the outbreath and in breath, that in between space of nothingness. The woman’s voice became stronger,letting René know that whoever was singing was coming closer. Almost against his will, his eyes opened and he saw her on the other side of the river, slowly walking as she sang. Her long black hair framed her unclothed body which was glowing like dark gold in the sunshine. As if aware of René’s eyes on her, she turned her head and smiled. Giving him a slight wave of her hand, she then turned and continued her song and her riverside stroll. He listened as he watched her. He heard the words of her song:
blush when a cloth covering their shame
lives drowned without a face
in the world, how can you be modest?
When all the world is the eye of the lord,
onlooking everywhere, what can you
A half hour later, René put his tee shirt, socks and boots back on and walked into Zubiri wondering if he had imagined the scene with whom he could only describe as some golden goddess. Was she real? Or as with Sid the day before, was this simply an illusion, another product of his mind?
It didn’t take too long for René to reach the Albergue Escuela in the town, an old school building that had been converted into a basic needs hostel. The talk among the group from the night before had suggested that this would be the first place they would check into upon reaching Zubiri in hopes of meeting up together for another afternoon of enjoyable company and of recovery from two good days of hiking. As expected, the hostel had lots of room for pilgrims yet to come. René checked in and found that Sid had already claimed their bunks in one of the three dormitories. Then he saw her, the golden woman from alongside the river. She was talking to Sid in a manner that suggested that they knew each other.
René claimed a bed near their bunks after greeting them with a smile and a voiced “Namaste!” with hands clasped together as if in prayer, something René had learned from the month spent in India. René liked to honour others in small ways such as with greetings in their own language if he could. In his opinion, it was all about respect. It was obvious from their smiles that both were pleased with his efforts. As he set his backpack on the bed, he asked about their walk that day, as well as making small talk about the pleasant weather. As they chatted, he got out his change of clothes and his shower kit. He knew that washing his socks and tee shirt needed to be done early so that they would be able to be dry by the evening for repacking. As he headed to the shower, René asked Sid and his friend if they would join him for a late lunch at one of the local restaurants. Receiving a nod of assent from both of them, René then left the room to shower, shave and wash his few items of clothing.
In the shower, he thought again about the incident at the side of the river. He could still hear the words of the song and the voice that sang them. The words seemed to have been burnt into his mind, or perhaps his heart. Wearing a clean top and a pair of lightweight runners, René rejoined the golden woman and Sid as they set out to discover a place to eat. It wasn’t a long walk before they found a sidewalk café just past the non-descript square building that appeared to be the village’s church. Before leaving, René had posted a note on the bulletin board letting Gabe and Karl know that he and Sid had already checked in and were out for lunch.
“Sid,” inquired René, “could you introduce me to your friend?”
“Of course, René, forgive me,” he apologised. “I thought you already knew Asha. Asha is from my country as you have probably guessed. Thank you for the honour you gave us with your greeting earlier.”
“Pleased to meet you, Asha,” smiled René. “Your presence is like sunshine.”
“It is an honour to finally meet you, René,” she replied.
With a bocadillo, a glorified Spanish sandwich, on his plate with some fries, and a cup of café con leche, René felt like he was in heaven. It wasn’t too hot out, if that was ever possible in his mind, and it was sunny. What more could a man ask but to share this with someone? That thought brought a small cloud over his mood . . . ‘with someone’ . . . he didn’t have someone to share this with anymore. Sensing his quick change of mood, Sid asked René how his meditation by the river had gone. René was jolted out of his inner mood with a start. How did Sid know he had meditated beside the river?
“Ah, my friend,” soothed Sid as he noted the look of surprise on René’s face. “Asha had told me earlier that she saw you meditating by the river.”
“She saw me?”
“Yes, she said you were meditating half-naked, and so she finally got to know why others call you the half-naked pilgrim.”
Turning a deep shade of pink, René mumbled, “Uh, yeah, I was meditating there. I didn’t think anyone would see me there hidden from the road and nearby buildings.”
“Oh,” remarked Asha, now speaking for herself. “I am sure that I was the only one who saw you. I thought that you saw me, René?”
“Um, I guess I did see you. I, I . . . I just thought that, maybe I was imagining that I saw you,” he replied softly and with a hint of embarrassment.
“Oh no!” apologized Asha, “I hope that I didn’t offend you.”
“No.” René quickly returned. “I just thought that maybe you had hoped to have privacy while you walked and sang.”
Asha looked at René with a hint of a smile of understanding. “You are so gentle, René. Yes, you saw me walking without my clothes on while I was singing one of my poems. I didn’t mind that you saw me. After all, it was an honest and innocent moment that we shared by the river, don’t you think?”
“Um, yes; I guess,” he spoke hesitantly. All of a sudden, what Asha had just said about singing her poem registered in his head. “You wrote that song, er, poem?”
“Yes,” replied Asha, “Did you like it?”
“It was beautiful, your voice was even more beautiful. I can still hear the words – People, male and female, blush when a cloth covering their shame, comes loose. That you were nude as these words came from within you was somehow appropriate; I mean, it just seemed so perfect.”
“Yes, for me it was a holy moment,” agreed Asha. “For me I feel closest to the gods and goddesses when I sing to them without hiding behind clothing. As you say, it was a moment of perfection.”
Robert explains that his protagonist is “intellectually accepting of nudity in private” but needs to be shown how to progress to social nudity. Several of the characters help in this regard, to the extent that René eventually “becomes comfortable with participating in social nudity within the context of the group.” His ease with the idea increases as he approaches his sacred destination – the physical destination of Santiago, as much as the spiritual destination of enlightenment that is brought forth in the “small company of pilgrims” who meditate together, every day of their journeys, gradually adopting nudity in the process. Disrobing becomes a literal manifestation of enlightenment over the course of the novel. René’s growing ease with his body also parallels his involvement with Frieda. She is a strong-willed character at ease with her own nudity. René initially clashes with Frieda as a result of misunderstandings, but eventually bonds with her in a deep and reciprocal trust.
Robert’s delightfully surprising and profound novel is in fact not just naturist but “a blend of fantasy, Jungian psychology, Buddhism and naturism” (“Afterword”). In A Small Company of Pilgrims, all of these philosophies and modes of perception, mutually reinforced through the practice of daily nude group meditation, combine to produce a unique and seamless message of self-acceptance and compassion.
|The naked pilgrim treks onward