Our friends Tuesday Ryan-Hart and Tim Merry interviewed Caitlin and me for their podcast From the Outside on the subject of community. It’s a really rich conversation.
In the podcast, we cover a lot of ground including really understanding the act and practice of crossing boundaries and thresholds to enter a community. There is a cost to crossing a threshold, a requirement to put something down before we take up the shared identity of community. That act is almost always accompanied by rituals and ceremonies that help to mark the liminal space through which we move when we change from what we are on the outside to what we become when we step inside.
These boundaries are important because there is no community without boundary crossing. Peter Block writes really well about this in “Community: The Structure of Belonging” and I refer to his work in the podcast. He talks about practices for entering and leaving containers, including creating barriers to participation that balance inclusion with commitment and also the practices of leaving a container. He suggests that when people leave a meeting, they let everyone know why they are leaving. Such an act is a kindness as it shows a concern for clarity in the space.
A couple of weeks ago I was reminded how important that practice is. I was having a lovely long coffee with my friend Bob Turner who is a former mayor of Bowen Island and has lived on our island since 1989. We were both sharing our experience as long-time islanders that we don’t recognize so many people anymore and nor are we recognized by as many people as used to. In the times we have lived on the island, the community’s population has turned over many times. In fact, we have probably experienced 50% turnover in the last five years alone. We are both open to change. Having devoted ourselves to living long-term in this community, we have seen it go through phases, epochs, and generational shifts. And while that’s fine there is a lingering sense of something – sadness? nostalgia? grief? – that is hard to put a finger on. And I think we named it
I was telling Bob that I was recently working with the Squamish Nation and their Language and Culture Department and I was very struck by how the Squamish people who work in that department are motivated in their work by the deep family histories they come from, rooted in the villages of the Squamish Nation. There is growth and change in those communities, but there are powerful rituals for acknowledging the losses of people.
Bowen Island is a settler community meaning that, other than a very small handful of descendents from original settler families, most people have only lived here for a maximum of two or three generations. People come and go, with very little tying them to the place. Squamish Nation people can’t do that. Your village is the source of your history and it spans back hundreds of generations out of remembered time. When someone is born or comes home or dies, there are important ceremonies that recognize that connection to the past. You might be given a name that was held by an ancestor or receive songs and responsibilities that are rooted to place. You are inextricably tied to the community
It’s just not like that on Bowen Island. Notably, while Bob and I were trying to put our finger on the melancholy feeling we were having, we decided that it came down to the fact that so many of the people we knew here and had close relationships with have just slipped away into other lives in other places. We don’t really hear from them anymore. They certainly don;t form the background of relationships and conversations that make up community. And unlike those who have died, there was no ceremony to acknowledge their passing out of our community. You just wake up one morning (or one post-pandemic year) and realize that person you played soccer with, or sang with or used to see on your regular walk is just no longer there. You don’t know why they left or where they went. There is just an absence and then a small space where they used to be that closes ever smaller until a person who was an unforgettable part of your life is suddenly “What’s his name, the guy with the brown dog that drove that old work van.”
There are boundaries we cross to join community and I wish for the boundaries to cross to leave it. When folks are leaving Bowen I love it when they tell me. I get to honour them, thank them, share some stories with them and then send them on their way. It gives all of us closure. It always a little sad when folks who have been a part of my life take off for their new chapters, but the ritual of saying goodbye makes it so much easier. Otherwise, we just imagine the slow trickle of voices flowing away into silence and nostalgia.