Sunday, 3 February 2008

Intimacy in Small Places

I've written before about the differences between the two towns in which I live in terms of making new relationships. What about the prospects for developing deeper, intimate relationships while living a bisected life?

First I probably need to clarify what I mean by “intimate relationships”. The term is loosely used to cover a wide variety of personal interactions. I don’t, in this context, mean sexual relationships, some of which can be anything but intimate. I am using the term here to cover relationships where there is a shared ability and desire to be honest about yourself and the other, where you can feel safe opening up, and where you will be heard. A tall order, perhaps, but for me, a requirement for a fulfilling and illuminated life.

It is perhaps paradoxical that, in some respects, it is far easier to have the trappings of such a relationship with someone who is almost a stranger. There is so little to lose, no expectation, and no catalogue of interpreted stories to mask what is said. As a result, it can be easier to open up, and to listen attentively. Transient relationships can be valuable and insightful. They lack, however, the substance of an on-going relationship where there is shared risk in revealing. Intimacy between strangers is perhaps like striking a match in the dark: easy to do, briefly illuminating, but incapable of sustaining warmth, unlike maintaining a crackling fire of true intimacy over time.

Were you to want to pursue the easy life of serial intimacy with strangers, small places are not the best place to live. The pickings are slim, no-one remains a stranger for long (unless they live a life as a recluse), and you are going to interact with these “strangers” on a regular basis, ruining the idea of “nothing to lose”.

So with the intent of pursuing long-term intimacy, how do the towns suit a bifurcated lifestyle?

Most residents of Comox live there fulltime, apart from vacations. We are in the unfaithful minority that chickens out and chose to live somewhere warmer and drier in the winter. During the summer when we are there, social life for others in Comox turns inward. It centers around long-term friends from previous lives visiting from off-island, family vacations, or grandkids who come to stay for the season, and leaves little room for the time-consuming effort of developing new deep relationships. Indeed, almost all social clubs cease operations in the summer, waiting for the return of the dark dampness of the Fall to force people to begin interacting again. Of course, by then, we’ve left for warmer parts. When we return, it’s as though we are really extended holidaymakers, who aren’t part of the scene. It’s hard to get close to anyone under these circumstances.

Todos Santos has a different profile. Most of the residents are native Mexicans and, at the risk of offending others, I would suggest that it is unlikely that most Canadians or Americans are going to establish intimate relationships with this segment of the population. The cultural differences run so much deeper than appears on the surface, and I think that some common foundational beliefs are probably a necessary condition for real intimacy.

The “Gringo” Todos Santos divides into two main camps based on residency, with different characteristics in respect of relationships. The minority that makes Todos Santos their home will, naturally, tend to form their primary relationships with others who are in the same space, literally and figuratively. They enjoy the arrival of the part-timers (at last, someone else to talk to and about after the drought of summer!), but you can hardly blame them should they not want to invest their energies into deep relationships with those who aren’t around much of the time.

The others, in the “Seasonal” camp, only spend a few weeks or months here each year. Most of them have their established lives elsewhere, in the true Gringolandia Up North. For many of them, Todos Santos is an escape (a subject to which I’ll return in a future posting), a vacation from their real lives. They are here to have fun, to warm themselves in the sun, to surf, or any one of the other diversions that Todos Santos can offer. For most of them, I suspect, working on new deep relationships while “on vacation” is the last thing on their minds. They want party friends, activity friends, relationships that are as easy-going and digestible as the Margaritas that slide down their throats.

Different needs, different places, the same result as far as general desire to achieve intimacy afresh. The real barrier to developing new intimate relationships is probably an attitude of sufficiency, of being satisfied with the relationships you’ve formed to date, maybe ossified somewhat by the inertia of aging (as few that can afford to move to either place are young).

I’ve been told that you shouldn’t expect to have more than 2 or 3 truly intimate relationships in your life (and no-one has disclosed whether this mystical number is supposed to include spouses!). But then, I’ve never been one to settle for mediocrity or artificial limits, nor to think we should stop growing as we age, so I rebel against the idea I have used up my quota.

It’s not easy being intimate, and especially so when transplanting yourself to new, small places. Not easy, but, fortunately, not everyone fits the expected formula, and so, not impossible. We are not alone!

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