I had a major epiphany the other morning while reading Jan Pogue’s blog. Jan is the publisher behind Vineyard Stories, an independent press that publishes books about Martha’s Vineyard.
The epiphany-inducing blog (which you can read in its entirety here) began like this:
Yesterday, I had conversations (in no particular order, and all by 1 pm) about mosquitoes, goats, zucchini, gravel, lemonade, an artist’s new works, harpooned swordfish, carpet, tonsils, buying big rocks, selling books, organic farmers, the right bone for a dog, fishing, bell ringers, and shipping costs to Nebraska.
Now, if I had that many conversations in the course of a week, I’d suspect that my butterfly mind had kicked into dangerously high gear and probably needed a heavy-duty tranquillizer, but still those all sounded like sensible things to have conversations about, so I was taken aback by the next paragraph, which consisted of a single sentence:
What a small life I am living.
My life is not small. Why did Jan think hers was? This was what followed:
Last week when friends from Connecticut and Atlanta took me to dinner and we were having a fine conversation about some inane thing, one of them suddenly stopped and said, “I can go months without talking about things like this.”
You must be leading a piss-poor life, I thought, and that’s when I had my epiphany. It had to do with big lives and small lives, with the difference between year-round Vineyarders and summer people, and with a hybrid category that’s been gaining influence in the last dozen years or so, what I call the “year-round summer people.” The year-round summer people live here year-round, but they seem to think that real life takes place somewhere else. Big lives, small lives, thought I. Maybe the big-life people don’t recognize Vineyard lives as real lives. Maybe our lives are so small they don’t even see us.
I moved here from Washington, D.C. The D.C. I lived in is not the one you see on the news. The federal government had no more impact on my daily life than it does on the lives of USians in, say, Florida, Nebraska, California, or Massachusetts — with one exception: lots of my friends were employed or had been employed by a federal agency or two or three, as clericals and administrative staff. The news reported by the Washington Post, the Washington Star (which died in 1981), and the Washington Times (founded in 1982 and widely referred to as “the Moonie newspaper”) had very little to do with the D.C. I lived in.
When I moved to Martha’s Vineyard, it had been several years since I’d been a daily newspaper reader. The neighborhoods where I lived and worked, the lesbian community, the women in print movement, women’s music, street hassles, the Metro, the sex wars that were blowing grassroots feminism apart: these were real life, big life, whether they ever appeared in the Washington Post or not (they didn’t).
I knew very little about Martha’s Vineyard when I got here, and much of what I thought I knew turned out to be not all that important, but I did know one thing: that Martha’s Vineyard was real life, big life, and that if I wanted to be part of it, I had better pay close attention to what the place had to say for itself.
In the years since, the small place where I live has taught me an astonishing amount about the wider world. Big-life generalizations, however, haven’t taught me much about Martha’s Vineyard. Poets and playwrights, fiction writers and essayists, seem to understand this, that by writing perceptively about the particular, one is writing about the whole world. Journalists, I think, tend not to get it.