I Love You January


By Eric Francis

I Love You, January

EVERYTHING has a beginning, and for the Selflove Support Project, it was a spontaneous one, among God's Frozen People of St. Paul, Minnesota.

One winter evening in the living room of a house she shared with some friends, Aja Clearwater was reading, or trying to read, but found herself once again ensnared in the midst of a brutal fight between two of her housemates, who were supposedly lovers. It was a struggle that had been going on for the better part of six months, and was showing no sign of abating. At first unnoticed by the two lovers, both her good friends, who were energetically shredding one another, Aja had undressed masturbated to orgasm right there and, well, gotten their attention.

At first they were stunned. Moxy, the female housemate, who was about five years younger than Aja, was offended, and walked out of the room. But a series of very honest conversations followed the experience, and over the next two days there was an immediate change in the ecology of the household. Over time, something shifted as a result of this encounter, something profound and beautiful. With no other event to mark the transition, authentic communication opened up among the three of them.

Aja was, at the time, a graduate student researching applications of Marxist thought in contemporary culture when she realized that most sex, even between the most ordinary people with seemingly straightforward intentions, functioned as a business, and that relationships were often miserable as a result. In a marketing culture, we are all trained to consider ourselves commodities, exchanging ourselves in a kind of marketplace, for profit. Sex is usually the medium of exchange. Her intention was to do her master's thesis on Marxism and Sexuality. Discovering the effects of masturbation within and upon the capitalist institution known as romantic love, she got her angle.

But academics were the least of it. A newfound peace had descended upon her household. Communication rose to the top of the priorities. The three were so aware of one another's emotional states that the kind of discord experienced for many months before was just about impossible, and in fact never happened again. Selfpleasuring together slowly became as natural as eating together, and that living room, once the scene of so many emotional attacks and misunderstandings, had become the setting of the most exquisite displays of erotic joy and freedom. Aja could feel the connection between their social ease and their complete absence of shame around masturbation, but why it seemed to have such a deep effect on them remained a mystery to her. Marxism pointed to a possibility: they were freed from being commodities and could at last be people with feelings and needs. But that answer didn't quite do it for her; intuitively she knew there was much more.


SOME TIME after that first evening, Aja had experienced a dream that gave her some clarity: a conscious, vivid experience involving a green and blue mushroom, which she had recorded in detail in her diary. Though not a lucid dream, it felt like a visit to an astral world, or what one of her teachers later explained was the causal world.

The experience went like this. Late one night, she was exploring the attic of the ancient farmhouse that she shared with several of her friends. It was the same house, but not the same house. In her dream, the household had functioned continuously for so long that it had become known as the West 11th Coop, and there was a waiting list to move in. The somewhat large attic was now comically vast, sprawling on forever, as long as she searched through its corridors.

It was a galaxy of the past, with rooms of old furniture and mysterious trunks and chests and drawers full of history, the stuff of dead grandmothers such as dishes and newspapers about Kennedy and Johnson, and boxes of winter clothing that nobody could yet part with. She opened one box, which was full of girdles and large female underwear. Looking through these garments, she thought consciously: how absurd to save this stuff, but then what do we do with it? It seemed equally important not to let go of it all; the garments seemed to radiate power. She did not consider it strange that while handling a large, moth-eaten girdle, she began to feel sexually aroused, her body flooding with hormones. The arousal shifted to the form of curiosity, which felt like heat in her blood.

She noticed something standing against the wall covered in cloth, and wanted to see what was behind it. Removing the cloth, she saw that it was a magnificent round mirror, framed in burnished mahogany, like an old mandolin. She wanted to look at herself, in particular, her eyes, in the mirror, with a deep craving, but she could not bring herself to do it.

Moving the mirror, she found that it acted like a door, and swung open on a hinge, and she went through the door, into a new room, which was lit bright with sunlight.

At first all she could see was the light, which was stunning in its warmth and intensity. The room was spacious and round, and it was full of her friends: perhaps ten or fifteen people she knew and loved well, though she did not recognize them all, and then suddenly she was standing among them naked. She stood up tall, and had the sense that she was consciously putting her breasts on display, to cover for her embarrassment.

But the others were naked too, kneeling in a circle. There was a sculpture of a mushroom in the center of the group, set on a round wood-framed mirror, like a miniature of the one she had opened to get into the space from the attic. The mushroom had a name, and she knew it: Anais. The sculpture was beautifully detailed in paint, and it was a rich, earthy green and the color of a vibrant sky, with the spiral-pattern detailing in fine black and white. She studied the mushroom, fascinated by it. It reminded her of something. The spiral pattern painted on Anais was an energy diagram of some kind, and she could see that it was explaining the energy movement in the room. As she noticed the pattern, she could see the same energy in the room, which seemed to rotate or swirl around the sculpture and then be drawn into it. So distracted by the mushroom had she been that she did not realize that everyone in the room was masturbating, but suddenly the sounds of pleasure got her attention. This felt like waking up. But she knew she was still dreaming.

She looked up and surveyed at the beautiful faces of her friends, which were rich with emotion: joy, sorrow, pleasure, surrender and the deep release of feelings. Some were laughing, others were crying freely with tears running down their cheeks, and others expressing their sexual joy. One woman got her attention. She recognized her but could not place her name. She made love to herself freely and as she did so, her face melted from one emotion to another, soft and pliable as her vulva, her deep eyes looking into Aja's eyes. There was energy pouring from her, which joined the pattern in the room. As the energy moved, it collected around Anais, and was drawn outward and down a vortex away from everyone, out of this world. As the energy left, she could see that everyone became happier and freer.

She recognized that the energy was self-judgment. She could see and feel it leaving her friends, and she could feel it leaving her, and a sense of ease and freedom filled her as this happened. She looked into her friends' eyes one by one, and was in tears with how beautiful and easy their feelings, in fact, their lives, were becoming because they were consciously giving up their judgments of themselves. These judgments and all their effects were invisible outside of this room, so much a part of life that nobody noticed. But in this space everyone was free to deal with the truth. Everyone held self-judgment and needed to let it go, but either could not feel it, or was unable to let it go, and this was killing the world, a world of people who tried to hide the fact that they secretly hated themselves.

She now realized she was holding on to her own ideas about herself, about how she was not good enough to be there. She grew weak in her legs and seemed to collapse, now kneeling, now holding onto the floor. The energy was calling her to let go. Everyone else was free. She felt embarrassed by this, horribly embarrassed that she, usually the free one, was in truth not free, and they could all see her resisting in her struggle to be free. She was now on the floor and could not get up, and found herself face to face with Anais, watching the hatred and self-reproach and self-judgment swirl away. But she was still holding on. Then she caught a glimpse of her face in the mirror. She saw what holding harsh feelings against herself did to her face, that they made her seem older, and tired and pinched.

There was a moment more of clinging, of refusing, of holding back, and then she let go, pulled free as if into a stream of water.

As her energy released and her darkness was drawn into the swirl, she observed her face, looking into her eyes, and her expression captivated her. The vibrations of a full-body orgasm wove through her in pulses, then in waves and then one last emancipating release. Unable to stop herself, she moaned, looking at her eyes, aware of being surrounded by her friends, and surrendering to the overwhelming sense of being witnessed.

In orgasm, her face, her wide, bright eyes, looked beyond beautiful to her. Beyond beauty, she thought to herself. But beyond into what, or where? She looked with deepening compassion, and suddenly was flooded with a sense of recognizing her own face. It seemed strange to recognize something as familiar as her own face: no: her soul. I am looking at my soul. This was the last thing she remembered of the dream before floating to the surface of consciousness in her bed, with sunlight blazing across her face, arched in orgasm, her body throbbing in the original impulse to exist.


IN THAT MOMENT, alone in the sunlit Monday of her bedroom, she lay touched by the sprit world, vibrating with the clarity of her own understanding. Though it would never again be so palpably clear the extent to which shame and self-judgment she and just about everyone were clinging to, the experience would never leave her. As she lay there in the liquid clarity of sensing her own life and beauty, she knew it in the simplest possible terms: in truth, this was shame about being alive.

As she remembered the ease of the circle of friends, she knew that to give up this struggle is easier with help, with a consensus surrounding us. That we judge and hate ourselves is a process that was built and is supported by consensus, and served a larger whole. At the core of this shame, self-judgment, self-hatred and self-doubt is a deeper emotion: fear, even terror, and at its core is fear of sexuality: fear of the creation that is life. Few people, she knew, could bring themselves to admit this.

But she knew it was true because she had seen its undoing. She understood that when the core fear is dissolved, the rest goes with it. She was witness to this, and she had been witnessed. In fact, as she would discover, many therapy methods and spiritual processes had discovered the healing power of witnessing, but none that she'd heard of, so far had applied it consciously to sexuality, or in particular, masturbation.

That day she did two things. First, she asked her friend January to create a likeness of Anais for her. Aja sketched the shape of the mushroom, and mixed acrylic paints to get the colors right, which she made as swatches on the sketch. The next thing she did was to create flyers for what she decided, eating breakfast, would be called the Selflove Support Project, and left them in every café, bookstore and community center in the city. To her surprise, the phone started ringing that evening.

By Friday, a five days later, there were five people who had contacted her from the public, and four of her friends had said they were interested in participating.


HER OLD FRIEND and modern dance teacher Leemor came through with the space, in the form of his studio on the north end, home of a thriving jazz and tap dance academy called Jessamine Street. The drawback was that it was a hike to get there from many places, and the Minnesota winter had been especially brutal that year. But the draw was a beautiful, warm room, finished in wood, with skylights and a lot of mirrors. Most important, it was available each and every Sunday morning, the Biblical seventh day that Leemor kept holy for what he called his recreational priorities, which these days involved figure skating. After hearing a description of the project, he did not want money for rent. Instead, he handed her a key and a photocopied sheet of the closing procedures and said, "Have fun. Promise?" and walked away. Leemor knew his old student too well. Dance teachers watch their students' bodies, and pick up more than anyone else knows.

Standing there in the middle of the mirrored dance floor, this comment gave her a moment's pause, as Leemor walked back to his office. Have fun? This was about healing. Wasn't it? She almost said, "What do you mean?" when her common sense seized her. Right. Have fun. And just in time: the first meeting was tomorrow.


SUNDAY MORNING AT 11 a.m., the first gathering of the Selflove Support Project began to take shape. The meeting time was set for the full hour before noon, to give people time to be early or late, since at noon, the door would be locked. It was a warm morning, about 40 degrees, and the sun shone bright and high for the first time in days. Ice was melting off the rooftops and the world smelled like water.

Aja looked around. There were familiar and unfamiliar faces. The room was a mix of men and women. Two men were sitting together with a woman, all holding hands. The woman was Rococo, to whom she had spoken a few days earlier; the men were her lovers, whose names she did not know. A lesbian couple sat near them, one woman in her 30s and the other in her 40s; she had spoken to one of these women. Of her friends, there was January, there were Moxy and Jass, her housemates, and there was Aart, a close male friend someone whose lover she longed to be. At the center of the floor was the mushroom Anais, crafted from three pounds of polymer clay and magnificently painted by January. It stood about 12 inches high, vibrating with color, and was displayed on a round platter with a mirrored surface.

As Aja locked the door, the room had slipped from boisterous conversation into silence, and the circle formed at one minute past noon. She took her place in the circle, facing the mirror. All eyes were on her. Suddenly she remembered that she had not brushed out her hair before leaving the house. Then she looked down and noticed that her socks did not match. Loss for words was gripping her, until several escaped her mouth.

"So, what are we doing here?"

She thought this would be a question without an answer, and realized she had forgotten to say hello, thank you for showing up, isn't this lovely, we're all here to learn how to do something besides judge ourselves, welcome or whatever.

"I am here to reclaim my masturbation." The bold voice was January's. The words my masturbation rolled across the surfaces of the room. She paused, and then continued, her round, brown eyes peering as if from behind her delicate face. Her hands pressed into the floor.

"Two things happened to me as a child, speaking sexually. First, I was molested by my uncle and my father, between the ages of five and nine. And second, I was punished for masturbating. It was not enough that they could literally take me for themselves as their sexual property for four years of my life; they had to make sure that I did not possess or enjoy myself at all. If I was caught touching myself, I would be slapped - where I touched myself - until I was red with welts that would take days to heal. This shame was the far greater injury. Aja told me about her dream, and I understood. I am here to reclaim myself. I am here to reclaim my masturbation. I understand what this space is for. I am asking for your help."

Aja looked at her friend, and January returned her gaze, angry, passionate and loving, and then her face softened. She had never spoken these things to her before.

"Thank you," January said. "Thank you for having the vision to create this space. Thank you everyone for being here."

There was a tense silence, as if people did not know what was expected of them. It lasted a little while. The sun cleared the top of a building and the room lit up through a skylight, casting a ray of sun in which Anais seemed to spill her blueness and greenness into the air.

"We have been using masturbation to heal our relationship for a long time." The voice, strong and baritone, belonged to Rococo, a strong-bodied woman, heavy-set and centered.

"It just seemed obvious. The men in my life, Thomas and Mario, were competing with one another." She gestured as she said their names. "They both desired me sexually. But they seemed to be afraid of one another. They could not touch one another, and they could barely talk. They would hardly ever be in the same room. Their desire for me did not feel good at all, as if I was splitting in half. I took radical intervention. I was familiar with the work of Betty Dodson, who taught masturbation workshops for many years, so I had an idea that some kind of healing was possible. I invited both of my partners over at the same time one evening without saying what I was doing. When they got there, I invited them up to my room, and I told them that if they wanted to have sex with me, they had to masturbate together. It worked. We have grown very close since that time." One of her boyfriends was nodding, and the other just sat smiling.

"Now, masturbating together is an important part of our erotic life. In a way it's the basis of our erotic life. That is why we're here. To share what we have learned and to express something new."

"We had a similar experience in our household," said Moxy. "Jass and I had been fighting in a bad way. It was like we were lulled to sleep or something, a tortured sleep of emotional violence. I think what happened was that Aja couldn't take it any more. I think it was dissolving her like acid because she had to live with us. Our other housemates were gone most nights so they didn't really have a sense of how bad it was. One night sitting there with us, she just opened her bathrobe and went at it and had this huge orgasm in the living room. I didn't even notice anything was happening until she started moaning, that's how caught up I was. And to be honest I was really angry at first, I thought it was incredibly rude of her to - "

She paused, and Jass finished the sentence. "To intrude on our pain with pleasure."

Laughter rippled through the space, and the drop in tension was palpable. The room was also growing warmer, and January peeled off her sweatshirt and was wearing a somewhat minimalist tee shirt spattered with green and blue paint, matching Anais the mushroom. She had not taken or been given credit for her sculpture.

"I don't masturbate," said Aart, a man of about 35, who was handsome despite balding and wearing some tension in his face. "I'm starting to figure out that something is wrong. Aja knew my situation and when she called me I figured I had nothing to lose by being here."

"Well, we don't have sex," said one of the two women sitting together. "My name is Anna, by the way. This is my partner Jane. We haven't had sex in two years. Your flyer looked interesting and we're here to see what happens." Anna turned to Jane, who was looking tense, and she added, "I dragged her here." Jane cracked a grin and was met with more laughter: people were eager to laugh.

Aja looked around the room, hearing the sounds of dripping outside. It seemed like everyone who wanted to speak had done so. The silence had a gentle quality, but it was a questioning silence, as if to ask, what now?

"So I was thinking," she said, "that it would be best to take a few weeks, or maybe a month to get to know one another before getting into anything openly sexual. How does everyone feel about that?"

"Very disappointed," January said, smiling, but clearly serious. "I thought I would break the ice."

Everyone looked at her, this lanky, dark young woman with onyx eyes and two long, thick braids woven down her breasts, breasts that were barely concealed by some worn out teeshirt fabric clinging to her frame. Her hands were colored from clay and pottery stain that would not come off, or that she had not bothered to wash off. It became clear that she was offering to masturbate for everyone, "to break the ice."

Aart said, in all earnestness and a bit too eagerly, "That would be fine with me."

This struck Rococo as especially funny, and with a blast of laughter from her distinguished voice, the room ignited in laughter and even some applause.

"Good of you," said January, smiling at Aart. She then stood up, crossed the dance floor in what seemed like three strides, and returned with a low, heavy wooden stool that was usually used by Leemor to stand on so he could see the whole room while his students rehearsed. It was like a lion tamer's stool, but heavier, reaching about halfway up January's thighs.

She set the stool down directly in front off the mirror, which had a dance bar running in front of it. She then unzipped her backpack and produced a strap-on dildo, which she attached to the stool, turning the whole thing into a floor-standing dildo. Her audience, as it had now become, watched this process curiously. To January it seemed like some kind of second nature. Then she tuned and faced the mirror and watched herself undress, as everyone looked on. The tee shirt disappeared like a swatch of paper, exposing her delicate breasts and long torso, on which some more clay was smeared. Then she removed her socks, exposing her bare feet, which were muscular and seemed go grab the floor when she stepped down.

There was no tease to her strip. She wanted to be nude, or needed to be; it was not clear which. She slipped out of her sweats and tights, sat down on the hardwood floor in front of us, and stretched her legs and back, and opened her hips in a display of perfectly unselfconscious, or perhaps perfectly self-aware, beauty.

"I just want to say this. I was taken away from myself. I am giving myself back to me. I want to show you this to remind myself that I am really free." As she spoke, her hands cupped her vulva, and she stroked her puffs of long brown hair to either side as her labia began to blossom. As she did this, she looked from eyes to eyes, psychically touching every person in the room. Her face softened, and the edge of nervousness was replaced by a deeper state, and she seemed to descend into herself. A sensitive person would detect a hint of sadness. Aart was one who did.

Then she dangled her fingers over her nipples, leaving her labia exposed, allowing us to see her genitals grow erect as we watched.

"I also want you to know that this is truly embarrassing but I'm not going to let that stop me."

"Thank you for showing us your beauty." Rococo said in her soft, rich voice, and they held one another's gaze. Around the room, eyes were fixated on January, particularly those of the women, who seemed to edge closer. She continued to meet the eyes of each person in the room as she warmed herself up. "I'm feeling like I want to show you my most personal self. I'm feeling like I want to show the world, and I'm here to show you."

Her masturbation was natural and very beautiful to see. She gave no sense of showing off, but that she was aware of being observed was clear. Finally her voice opened up, with vibrations of her emotions emanating with some urgency from her. She built to little peaks of pleasure, and would rest, settling back down, then going a little further the next time, finally penetrating herself as she massaged her clitoris and vulva with extended fingers. Her face was a study in compassionate surrender.

Then, at one of her peaks, she stood up.

People had been so distracted by the sight of her that when she raised to her feet and pulled the strap-on stool away from the mirror a few inches, one person let out a little gasp. Someone else mumbled oh my goddess, anticipating what would happen next, for there were not many possibilities.

January faced the mirror, and did so the whole time, seeming never to lose contact with herself. What this meant was that everyone in the room could see her face as she looked at herself. She straddled the stool and, holding the dance bar with her face several inches from the mirror, she lowered herself down, in a pliée with her feet about twenty inches separated. What began as a moan, a primal sound, blended with the feeling of penetration, and morphed into the guttural articulation of I - Love - You - January.

When several people spoke about this later, they discovered they had all felt similar experiences of an energy rush, not a chill, but heat, as she melted these words into the hearts and minds of those watching.

She raised herself and then plunged down, in long, deliberate strokes. She clung to the dance bar, supporting herself delicately as her passion deepened. Her face melted and another person appeared, an unknown but not unfamiliar woman, as if a mask had been removed and the real humanity of her had been exposed, and yet somehow she kept going deeper and revealing more.

Her hands came off of the dance bar, with one reaching in front and the other behind. She dropped herself down with her full weight onto the penetration, massaging both her clitoris and her anus, and rocked and looked at her eyes and panted,

I love you January.
I - Love - You - January.

Her braids danced as she rocked and loved and absorbed the reality of her existence. And she whispered, though few heard her: tell the truth now.

There were empathic moans from among the witnesses. And finally January gave herself over, taken from us, her face hot and strange, and magnificent, and exposed to all eyes and all hearts. She came to orgasm squatting with her legs spread wide over the penetrating object, facing herself, truly facing her own reality, and her eyes seeming to examine their own astonishment and free in all her heart.

She grabbed the dance bar to steady herself, still deep in a plunge, penetrated to her core. Wave upon wave of energy rippled through her woman's body, rolling empathetically through those watching like sheets of rain blanketing a field. People had drawn nearer to her, and were practically gathered at her feet.

She settled down finally, and leaned her head on the mirror and breathed for a while, taking her time. Her body was coated in sweat and she seemed to hang limply on her bones. Her feet were flat on the dance floor and her vulva was pressed against the stool.

After some time she stepped off of the dildo and, though in plain view, hesitated before turning toward us, but then she did. Everyone looked at her in a moment of suspended awe, and, somehow still in the spirit of her passionate demonstration of surrender, the room erupted into applause and cheers and laughter. She took a slight bow and sat down, her legs spread and her knees pulled back, her genitals in full display, her thighs wet, her hands on the floor, her feet on the floor, breathing a little heavy, and she just smiled. She smiled and laughed and looked at us until she cried.


SOME LENGTH OF THE AFTERNOON stretched by, perhaps half an hour, and no words were spoken. Rococo held January in her spacious arms, and the group was siting close in around Anais. The silence had a nourishing quality, more restful than sleep. Though after a while, Aja felt a need to bring things to closure for the day.

"Does anyone have something they would like to offer?" she asked.

"I feel free," Aart said. "Thank you for letting me free. Thank you January."

Anna, the older of the two lesbians who never had sex, seemed to float as she spoke into the afternoon: "I can't believe I've seen something so beautiful. I want what you have. Thank you January."

"A lot of shame came up for me," said Jane, her partner, speaking to January, who was directly opposite her. She spoke just barely concealing the anger and hurt beyond her words. "I was nauseous with embarrassment for you, that you had to put yourself through that. I wondered why you would have to do this, to demean yourself in that way.

"That was how I felt at first. And then I looked at Anna and realized she was having a totally different experience. Then I felt a huge pool of sadness inside myself and wanted to drown in it."

January took her in with soft, dark eyes, with her lips slightly parted.

"And how do you feel now?" January asked.

"I don't know. I can't decide." Her hands were knotted together in her lap.

Thomas, one of Rococo's lovers, spoke next. "We have something special here," he said, looking at January and then at Aja. "There is the potential for a lot of healing in this space, but we need to pay attention and be very gentle with ourselves. That gentleness is the essence of selflove. It can transform your life in a way most of us have always wanted."

"I don't know what you people know about mushrooms," said Mario, "but there are geographically the biggest organisms on the planet. Some of them stretch for miles under the ground and pop up somewhere else, but it's all the same mushroom. I feel like we've discovered this about one another. We're all one mushroom."

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