Friday 14 August 2015

Talking to Strangers

One of my friend Alisha Ruiss's pals spent a day in Edinburgh, and I invited her over to the Historical House. The pal was fresh from Herrang, the Swedish village that hosts the principal Lindy Hop camp every summer. She's a professional Lindy Hop DJ and has been dancing since she was sixteen. Being newly converted to the Lindy Hop movement, I felt a bit like how a new first century Egyptian Christian must have felt had Saint Mark dropped by. I gave her tea and cookies and asked such questions as "What are your favourite swing blogs?" and "What are your favourite swing songs?" and, naturally, "How do I become a better dancer?"

And to this last question my guest replied, "Get to know the people that you're dancing with."  She asked me if I talked to people between dances and drank beer with them, and I admitted that I kept this to a bare minimum.

My guest travels all over the world with her 18 kilo backpack, putting a lot of faith in the kindness of strangers. This rather impressed me, as I don't have a lot of faith in the kindness of strangers myself. The iron entered my soul in elementary school, I was wary of most of the other girls in high school, pro-life activism did little to improve my expectations of humanity, and I was utterly terrified of strangers at uni. The paranoia of the faithful Scottish (cradle) Catholic minority has nothing on me.  I didn't relax until I entered Catholic theology school in Toronto. That was a very healing three years.

Outside Catholic circles, however, I expect strangers to hate, fear or despise me for being a practicing Catholic, the kind of Catholic who never says, "I'm a Catholic, but..." or "Well, I'm a Catholic and I think [exact opposite of Catholicism]." It was absolute torture to have to tell people at cocktail parties in Edinburgh the name of the paper I wrote for. Thank heavens I can now say, "I write thrillers." That said, an admission that I write for Catholic media led to a very interesting conversation with a straying member of the Separated Brethren, so maybe I shouldn't be so cowardly.

The admission was at a swing social, and the conversation began during the lunch break of a Saturday swing workshop. My conversation partner was a Canadian, because as I relax into the swing-dancing scene, I keep my ears open for transatlantic accents. Canadians who swing-dance often relieve the loneliness of travel by dropping into the local scene, and I hate the idea of some poor guy or girl from Toronto or Vancouver or Charlottetown or Saint-Ouain-Ouain standing on the sidelines not having anyone to talk to.

Putting aside my fear of strangers is thus made easier by my power (I live here) meeting his or her vulnerability (he /she doesn't) and feelings of responsibility (he/she's a Canadian abroad, I'm a Canadian abroad, I owe him/her a hello). Just bopping around the world talking to locals and hoping they'll give me a safe place to sleep---eek! Couldn't do it.

However, I was talking to thirteen year veteran of the international Lindy Hop scene, so I took her words about getting to know fellow dancers to heart. Friendships develop slowly in Europe, or in middle age. Becoming part of a scene, or recognized by people in one, can be glacial in speed. But happily in Lindy Hop circles one shares with the others a common interest--the music or the dance or both--and that provides a no-fail topic of conversation. Meanwhile, I've noticed that after five months of my turning up weekly (and saying "Hi"), more and more of the regulars have begun to say "Hi" first and ask my name.

So this week at swing-dancing, I didn't worry about dancing. I sat on a busted couch and watched the dancers. If I was asked to dance, I accepted with thanks, did my best, and chortled at our mishaps. But much of the time, I sat on the couch and talked with whoever else sat on the couch. We talked about how great the best dancers were and joked about our own efforts. I heard a suspiciously Canadian-sounding voice and marched up its owner to find out where he was from. Toronto. Really Toronto or near-Toronto-but-you've-never-heard-of-it? Scarborough--aha! Here for long? Just a few days to see the Festival, heading out tomorrow. Cool.

Alisha's pal told me that what is great about going to Herrang every year--and to other international swing festivals--is catching up with friends. I was puzzled about what these friendships were based on until I remembered that my father, a scholar in his seventies, still goes to international conferences at least twice a year. He sees the same people year after year, and they are all in his field. They are united by love for the field. Presumably they don't talk about extraneous controversies, for what would be the point of that? Wasted time--let's get back to the field! Presumably what these Lindy Hop friendships are based on is love for the jazz. Alisha's Pal is all about jazz.

Listening to Alisha's Pal after the dance this week turned lights on in my head. I mentioned to her that she really sank into her steps, and she observed that some of us Edinburghers dance rather "high", especially in our triple steps. "You have to love the s**t out of the triple step," she said sternly, as if the triple step was seriously that important. It obviously was to her, and it showed on the dance floor, not only because she was great but because of the way the other great dancers responded to her.

"That girl in the red top is the best Follower here," said Alisha's Pal when she plunked down beside me on the couch, and I smirked because talking to the girl in the red top is like pulling teeth. I suspect Red Top is so in love with jazz that it hurts her that so many people come to Lindy Hop without properly loving jazz. I suspect she feels that there is no point speaking to these ignorant people. So when Alisha's Pal asked her to dance,  I was suffused with glee, knowing that a smile would soon transform her gloomy face. Within two bars, Red Top lit up like the Mediterranean at dawn. I'm not the best reader of faces, but even I could see respect spread across it.

"She does a lot of solo jazz," I explained afterwards.

"I can tell," said Alisha's Pal.

All this is the EXACT OPPOSITE of those Tinder encounters we read about yesterday. The Tinder stuff is all about the cheap, the exploitative, the animal thrill of scratching a biological urge with a complete stranger, and bragging about it later. At best it's about getting something for nothing--a conversation with an interesting stranger to pass a boring afternoon. But a community based on a shared interest--like jazz dancing or tango or crime writing or Catholicism (more on this later)--is about shared enjoyment and service of that interest, with a hierarchy of respect, based on commitment and excellence, but with a certain amount of hospitality, too. You can show up to the Lindy Hop just to meet people but--guess what? Between dances, you won't get much more than the time of day from the best dancers unless you are (or get) serious about the shared interest.

If you shrieked in horror that I listed Catholicism as a shared interest like "jazz dancing", you haven't spoken to a seriously committed jazz dancer. The seriously committed jazz dancer is not lukewarm in his or her faith. He doesn't think "What has the jazz community done for me lately?" or "How come the jazz community doesn't do more to help jazz dancers marry each other?" or "How come the jazz community doesn't offer jazz camps for my four year old so I can get some time for myself?"  The seriously committed jazz dancer is, in a weird way, a better Catholic than a lot of Catholics because the jazz dancer is constantly looking for, and listening for the Source of All Jazz, and since the Source of All Creation is God, the jazz dancer is (bear with me here) seeking God.

I was very troubled while reading a post on a Traditional Latin Mass Facebook page: the poster said her non-Catholic roommate had just been diagnosed with multiple cancers and had very little time left to live. The poster sounded frantic. How did she convert her roommate to Catholicism before it was too late? Dear Lord, I thought. Somewhere is this poor person, shocked, terrified and facing the abyss, and instead of holding her hand and crying with her, her roommate is on the internet looking for help with last minute apologetics. No wonder people so often think Catholics are crazy and mean.

I've been puzzling over the solution to that situation, and to tell you the truth, I don't know. I admit it is a serious worry that so many people go to their deaths without believing or knowing or accepting the love of God, but I really don't think scaring or arguing a dying person into believing the Nicene Creed is what God wants us to do. The image I have in my head is of Alisha's people-trusting pal sitting with this unknown person for awhile in silence, and then playing her some Miles Davis.

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