Saturday, 24 January 2009

A panoply of friends?

Despite the general richness of the English language, there seems to be a paucity of terms to cover the enormous field of relationships that we simply call “friends”. At a minimal end of the spectrum, we have the term “acquaintance”. More often than not, we just categorise “friends” with adjectives to indicate the degree of closeness – “good friend”, “close friend”, “BFF” (for those instant messaging-challenged readers, “best friend forever”). Beyond “friend”, the different words that are available are often tinged with sexual overtones - for example “mate, “companion”.

Perhaps this limited vocabulary, and the lack of precision with which it is used, hinders us in understanding what, if I may put it in crass business terms, the rights and obligations are of the parties engaged in the friendship should be and even what “cloud of friends” (just what is the collective noun for the varied set of relationships we call friends?) you have or need in your life.

I’ve been led to think about what friendship means through a hectic period of socialising at many levels of intensity in Todos Santos, and by a passing comment from someone that the nature of their friendships seemed different here to those in their home town. She remarked that many of her friendships in Todos Santos were superficially close, involving much discourse and hugging, but that the true lives and makeup of these people were, in fact, unknown to her.

In Todos Santos, the most frequently encountered “friend” (Amicus Familiaris Todos Santos) is indeed akin to that encountered in a work environment or, more precisely, a project colleague. You are both here for a limited duration, brought together for disparate reasons and having little in common other than this co-location, and you spend a lot of waking time together. Your joint project is … the TS season, which you work on together tirelessly. What drives you internally is not for discussion; it’s protocol that you show only one facet of yourself to others. And the pressure of the project causes a temporary sense of intimacy and bonding.

Back in Comox, we are the exceptions in being seasonal, rather than full-time residents, and so the fauna of friends is different. The friend species that we encounter most is the newly arrived retiree (Amicus Familiaris NovoComox), who bears a close similarity to a type encountered in childhood – the “playdate”. Coming together for the purpose solely of enjoying group play activities (biking, hiking, kayaking, …), little is shared beyond this bubble.

Though I may be poking fun at these strange interactions that get labelled “friendship”, such relationships do play a vital part in participating in life in the different communities. But, just as a life eating only chocolate may appear delicious at first, yet is hardly a recipe for healthy longevity, so do we all need a varied cloud of relationships to protect us and allow us to function and flourish – in my terms, perhaps, a “panoply” of friends.

As I have tried to understand what I want and need, and the reasons for subtle dissatisfaction, it has occurred to me that the field of relationships that one might call “friendship” has many independent dimensions. While the nature of the relationship will be wildly different along each dimension, it is not true that there is a “correct” point on the scale. Each may play a valuable role in your life – if you understand what you have, and don’t expect it to meet a different need. Consider, perhaps, as a starting point, the following sample of possible orthogonal dimensions of (asexual) friendship:

1. Intimacy (in the sense of the extent to which secret and difficult parts of your life are shared): it’s a vital relief valve; a means of checking your own perceptions. But I tire even at the thought of maintaining many such intense relationships. Sometimes life should just be FUN!

2. Reciprocity: strange though it perhaps seems at first, there is not always a need for complete reciprocity in actions and intents between the parties in a successful relationship. Our needs may be quite different, yet be satisfied by the prescribed dimensions of the relationship.

3. History: long lasting friendships provide glue, a rooting of your life. Losing contact as we moved from Calgary to Comox and began our peripatetic lives has been traumatic. But people change over time and some needs become no longer relevant. And there is wonder and value in the injection of new people into our consciousness.

4. Commonality:
living a life bereft of anything in common with the people with whom we interact would be very dislocating. Commonality allows a sense of safety; a forum to share views and work collaboratively. But living in a Stepford Wives commune would be stultifying. We all need to be reminded of different perspectives; to have a kick on the side of the head to make us grow.

Considering my cloud of relationships within such a framework has given me some matter to chew upon. But, least you be tempted to imagine that I have become, of all things, deeply analytical in my dotage, I have to admit that I am often most fascinated by the ambiguity that exists in relationships. The shifting inconsistencies and unknowns that define us as humans are often the magic that draws and intrigues me.

Monday, 19 January 2009

It's a grey day

One of the reasons I, and many others, spend their winters in the Baja is the seeming impossibility of endless days of naked sun pouring down from transparent skies. In my particular case I have found that I am extraordinarily susceptible to the influence of the weather and so desperately crave this winter dream. As the sky clears, so, generally, do my spirits. When, as is inevitable, the blue perfection of Baja skies are marred by the intrusion of clouds trumpeting the passing of a winter “Pineapple Express”, the closing of the heavens reflects my darker thoughts.

The closing of the heavens

On this incongruously named Sunday
A heaviness of grey permeates the town
Sucks familiar colour from the world

This is not the coquettish grey of springtime mist
Heat buried in refreshing damp coolness
Ready to reveal all when shamelessly seduced by the sun

No, this is the winter grey of ennui
Begat from surfeits of necessary losses
From watching the watcher in the mirror grow older
In a shrinking universe of possibilities

A grey that washes away the glittery brilliance
That often blinds our senses
To reveal the wounded flaws in all the structures of our life
The cracks in our buildings, untended relationships

The grey we try to push away
To revel in the affirmation of sunshine
Only for it to return, fortified

The wise grey bird sits patiently
Silhouetted against the grey sky
On the stilled dead branches of the grey tree
As it has always done
Graciously immune to vagaries of the weather.

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

Full Moon Drumming

We could see that we were uncharacteristically late as we joggled slowly in our car along the Otro Lado dirt road. The sun was saying its last goodbyes as it prepared to drown in the sea. A vivid glow from wounded clouds that had sprung up in the late afternoon now ebbed toward shades of cooling blood. As we dropped off the spine of the ridge, we saw and heard our destination: a circle of people gathered around a flickering bonfire on the beach, and the attenuated bass notes of drumming.

Full Moon drumming is a secret Todos Santos tradition. It’s not that it is deliberately kept secret. Indeed it has now reached the elevated state of being noted in the Baja Western Onion, the biweekly newsletter that Todos Santaneans regard as the Oracle for all that’s happening in the area. No, it’s that, even in this liberated town, drumming is looked upon by some as akin to a demonic act, probably performed by wart-encrusted spinsters and fallen monks dressed in black, and possibly involving the sacrifice of small furry animals. Mention that you participate in Full Moon Drumming circles in other places in Southern Baja and you are even less likely to be taken seriously. “You do what?!” followed by guffaws of laughter, and a quick change of subject. Occasionally, you will get the wistful apology “I wish I could do that”, as if it were some deliciously dirty sin that they cannot participate in through a lack of bravery or strict moral or civil laws.

Despite these reactions, every full moon, a fluid group that ranges in size from a dozen to maybe 30 or so gathers at sunset on the beach at the bocana to drum in the full moon around a bonfire. There are a variety of drums; mostly African djembes, but also conga and even steel drums, accompanied by an eclectic set of other percussion instruments such as shakers, tambourines and even water garafons. Few are expert drummers; some just come to hear and maybe keep a beat when the mood strikes. And there is no leader. The rythyms start spontaneously and evolve, ending when the group senses it has lived its life. It may be a secret tradition, but it is one of the most magical ones in our little “Pueblo Magico”.

We unpack the car in the deepening gloom, and walk across the sand to the group, the sounds growing and becoming more distinct with each step. As we take our seats in the circle, the clouds thin, and the moon emerges. We take in the dull afterglow of the sun’s demise persisting over the water, the full moon now resplendent over the Sierra Lagunas, and the heat of the fire replacing the searing of the day. The threatened strong winds hold in abeyance at the sun’s funeral, and the world seems at peace.

As the moon burns away the final wisps of shrouding cloud, it is as if the landscape is illuminated by a faint, chromatically challenged street light. All is visible dully, painted in shades of grey; the world of colour contracted to a small sphere around the alternate sun of ravenous fire.

A rhythm starts and, at first, I panic, unable to recall how to drum, how to make my tuneless hands and fingers coax patterns from the inert goatskin. And then I relax out of my critical mind into awareness of the other drums, and I am in the groove, laying a base line and then soaring in ad hoc syncopated beats before I subside back to the core. Playing, and hearing something greater than the sum of the individual drum patterns.

Ghosts slide along the shoreline, then break into a march to the beat of our drums. Drawn by the hypnotic beat and the warmth of the fire, the ghosts draw closer, evolve into women and girls, and start to dance spontaneously to our sound. Exhausted and giggling, they draw back into the greyness and disappear into the distance.

As the improvisation dies, friends chatter amongst themselves. An ember is pulled from the fire, drawing laser red lines in the air, followed by the familiar sweet aroma drifting across the group.

Later, the wind appears, rolling off the land toward the sea. The group disperses, little by little, in the wind, leaving nothing but ashes that the tide will erase, and memories of magic that will last for ever.

Tuesday, 6 January 2009

Busy doing nothing?

Recently, I asked a fulltime resident how they managed to fill their days, especially in the off-season, when the town empties substantially. Her reply was that she had had to cut back on participating in things as she felt she didn’t have enough time. My initial reaction of incredulity evaporated as I recalled my own experiences.

I have found that there are several successive and distinct stages in the perception of time as you progress through a “season” in Todos Santos. Initially, time feels like a master against whom you fight, trying to cram all the myriad of activities necessary to breathe life back into the house and re-establish relationships that have been suspended over the summer. Life is a rush, a bustle of appointments jostling for space. It’s really an extension of normal life back in the North, or at least normal life for those who have careers to build or families to raise.

Usually, this phase ends in a few weeks, and I progress into the boredom stage – “so what do I do now?” There are no emergencies to address, no burning material needs to be met, and no links to be re-ignited. In fact, nothing that demands attention from the “doing” part of a person. This is the most difficult time for me; the time when I challenge why I come here repeatedly, try to think of projects (and then discard them as not being worthwhile), and generally drive Diane crazy. This year, the transition to this private wasteland took longer, probably because our arrival was punctuated with family emergencies and a trip to Guatemala. But I have been firmly entrenched in the treacly perception of time for a while now.

Eventually (and, unfortunately, even knowing that this will happen does not seem to belay the need to pass through the steps and worry at each that, this time, it won’t pass), the barren wasteland opens up, imperceptibly, to a state where time again becomes fluid. In this stage, though, time is not the master, but rather is somewhat incidental. I relax into the sustained pace of life in Todos Santos; find that the time passes almost imperceptibly and yet that isn’t a problem. And it is true that, after a while, it does appear that you need to cut back on outside activities because “there isn’t enough time”.

Since I am a transient resident, I never get beyond this stage. Before its time (or so it seems) the tyranny of the calendar intrudes and we must return North. The jolt of realization pulls me out of this dream state and back into a precursor of the frantic initial perception of time. I sometimes wonder what it would be like to remain in the protective bubble of Todos Santos. Whether there are states beyond that of doing little for a while, but having time independently running at fast forward speed?

The transitioning does give me the opportunity, and cause, to reflect on the appropriateness of my perceptions of time and the ways I spend my life. From the smug stance of the comfortably indolent stage, it is easy to see the insanity in the time-starved way we typically spend our days in North America. A life of constant activity, without time for reflection or steeped contact with friends. But equally, it is an experience of time that leads to achievements, to pushing oneself beyond levels of comfort. The quiet life of contemplation reveals a hidden side of yourself and others. But there is a fine line between contemplation leavened with gentle activity and sliding into facile laziness and rusting. Perhaps the transitioning I go through is, in fact, an ideal fertile environment?

Saturday, 3 January 2009

The party’s over

As the beginning of the New Year staggers to an end, so does the Great Party Season in Todos Santos. The time when we all put on our sparkly dresses (in my case, metaphorically) and head out to cavort with permutations of the same flock of people, who share being in the same place at the same time, but often little else.

I’m sure other places have a party season, but Gringolandia in Todos Santos must be able to claim the dubious honour of the crown; the latent intensity of such a bunch of off-centre people as are found in Todos Santos fertilized by the absence of a family environment for many residents, and, for others, by the influx of friends, relatives and hangers-on who, for some strange reason, consider that a party season in sunny warm climes beats suffering through another cold, dark, ice-encrusted family event up North.

When, partway through this Olympic season, I explained to a friend that I used to be a wallflower at parties, he looked at me in disbelief. Apparently, I have developed a reputation as becoming livelier when surrounded by people at a party. I had to explain that, lacking the essential training in party etiquette that we should all receive as part of growing up, my party skills are a learned behaviour, determined heuristically later in my adult life.

Parents are supposed to provide the first lessons in party behaviour. Mine were very self-contained, and socialising, let alone partying, was kept to a minimum. One Christmas, my parents, uncharacteristically, went to socialise with the neighbours in our duplex (whom I never met in the 12 years we lived side-by-side), leaving us children to fend for ourselves. No more than 30 minutes into their experiment, I tried an experiment of my own, consuming large quantities of peanuts and imbibing several glasses of Coca Cola. I can report that the results of my experiment were that I explosively decanted the mixture through my nose, causing my brother to have to run next door and retrieve my Parents , screaming “Vic’s being sick through his nose!” And so ended the socialising experiment, never to be repeated. For the sake of squeamish readers who may now think twice about inviting me into their homes, I can honestly say that I also have never repeated my experiment. Half-chewed peanuts and acidic Coca Cola are not meant to be expelled through delicate nasal passages.

University is where most people develop their graduate party skills. Regrettably, for me, University was socially more traumatising than educational. I had come from a working class background, only one step removed from “Downstairs” in the caste system of England. Indeed one grandmother had spent her life working as a cook “Downstairs” in the Country Houses of a succession of English Lords. I won a scholarship to Oxford, and suddenly found myself alone in a credible facsimile of “Brideshead Revisited”, populated by the “Upstairs” graduates of Eton, Charterhouse and other bastions of the English Public School system. For those unfamiliar with the term, English Public Schools are only public in the sense that entry is bought, though often also requiring the facilitative salve of being a scion of generations of alumni. Not surprisingly, my social encounters at Oxford were limited, never enjoying, for example, the experience of escorting debutantes to May Balls, nor attending grouse shooting events.

Highly educated, but totally naïve in the skills of partying, I entered adulthood and have had to divine the rules through empirical research. The recent season has highlighted a few of them:

1.You must be able to simultaneously balance and use a plate, a wine glass and a fork, and still be able to converse in a manner that appears, through an alcoholic haze, to be sentient. I have often thought that, if God had wanted us to be party animals, he would have left us with prehensile tails.

2. Interactions with any one person must be limited to no more than 10 minutes. Transgressions of this rule can lead to fertile and inventive rumours of the intent of the interaction, and social ostracism. Adherence to this rule is aided by two points
a. You are going to meet mostly the same people at every event over a short period of time, so you will eventually run out of things to discuss
b. Rule 3 below

3. You must, at all costs, keep conversations at an appropriately frothy “party” level. Topics of substance, or likely to require the other party to think or feel, are to be avoided. And similarly, all responses must also be packaged for party consumption: “party answers” as a friend put it. Responses sufficiently tasteful, simple and glittery to satisfy the equally polite enquirer, but revealing little beneath the shiny exterior.

You could be forgiven for thinking that I am a party pooper. That, having come to them only as an adult, I hate parties. But such thoughts would be untrue. I am energised by parties, at least when the novelty remains. I enjoy the thrill of the game, for a game they are. However, just as a diet of party appetizers would fail to nourish, so the thin gruel of party interactions and conversations palls after time.

So, though it was fun while it lasted, I am not sorry to see the Great Party Season end. I long for the opportunity to let the party answers marinate in the complexities of developing friendships, to see the glittery shell dissolve, the fibrous protective sheaves below the shell slowly part and allow, eventually, the delicate naked humanness within to be revealed.