This is a sequel of sorts to “Vineyard Exceptional.” At the end of “Vineyard Exceptional” I said that I’d bitten off more than I could chew. This was true. I said that a follow-up on community would be along soon. Ha ha ha. If October 16 is “soon” after September 17, then that’s true too.
When I lived in D.C. the second time round (1977–1985), “community” was in the air. Women’s community, lesbian community, gay community, black community, Dupont Circle community . . . We talked about community a lot, but I rarely thought about what a community was, or what made one work.
Many of us had fled our home communities, finding them stifling or intolerant. We were misfits in one way or another and mostly proud of it. We wanted to start something new. What we started was wonderful in many ways, but volatile and often turbulent. It was exhausting, trying to keep my balance on the bow of a pitching ship. Eventually I fled.
I landed on Martha’s Vineyard. Like most new arrivals, I was continually comparing the Vineyard to the place I’d just left. The comparison highlighted a few things I’d never really noticed about the D.C. women’s community. There nearly everyone I knew was within 10 years of my own age. Most of us came from somewhere else. I could know someone for years and never meet any of her blood relatives. Kinship in the lesbian community was about non-blood relationships: the women you’d lived, worked, and/or slept with, past and present; and the women they’d lived, worked, and/or slept with, and so on.
Within a year or two, my Vineyard circle was multigenerational: I knew people from 8 to 80 and then some. I knew people who’d been born and brought up here, whose parents and grandparents and even further back had been born and brought up here. Many of the people I met had kids, parents, cousins, and siblings in the vicinity. (One of the first things I learned was to keep my mouth shut till I figured out who a new acquaintance was related to.)
What my D.C. community lacked, I realized, was ballast, the stability that comes when people are linked several times over in a web that goes back generations.
The more I learned about the way the Vineyard worked, the more I marveled. It wasn’t just the volunteer energy that sustained everything from the town fire departments to community theater, after-school activities to houses of worship. It was the way neighbors kept an eye out for neighbors who were ill or frail or just having a hard time. Kids from screwed-up families found refuge in informal fostering arrangements that often didn’t involve blood relatives.
The old island fabric of multiply interrelated families was part of this, of course, but the fabric managed to incorporate plenty of new arrivals who weren’t related to anybody. I arrived as a single person who not only wasn’t related to anybody; I knew only one year-round resident, period. Yet within a few months I was pulled into one informal “family” group, and later I became part of others.
Everybody, it seemed, knew everything about everyone else, though they didn’t say much about it in public. After a while I realized that this tightly woven web had a downside.
In 1987 my friend Nancy Luedeman (1920–2010) made a panel for the AIDS Quilt (which I had seen in D.C. at its first showing earlier that year, when it contained fewer than 2,000 panels). It memorialized four Vineyard men. Two were identified only by their initials, two by first name and last initial. Nancy knew who they were. Their families didn’t want their names used.
Martha’s Vineyard, in other words, was one of those places that people like me had fled.
The conundrum has perplexed and intrigued me ever since. Communities are like any other amalgamation of human beings. They ask each individual to give up some autonomy in the interest of cohesiveness and harmony. Some deviance is allowed, even expected: “Oh, she’s such a character!” Deviance that’s seen to threaten community cohesiveness usually isn’t.
When I moved here and for several years afterward, I never heard the word “lesbian” said aloud in public unless I said it myself. That’s changed. My Mud of the Place deals with a gay islander’s fear of coming out: he’s afraid he’ll be cast into the void if he does, rejected by family and community. The novel is set in the late 1990s. More recent arrivals want to be reassured that this couldn’t happen today. I equivocate. “It’s not just about being gay,” I say. “It’s about anything you’re afraid to say or be or do for fear of being shunned by the people you love and depend on.”
On Martha’s Vineyard “community” is often talked about as if it’s endemic, one of those inherent qualities that’s said to make the Vineyard exceptional. I tend to disagree, not least because what we’ve got is plural, communities. They overlap, of course. They overlap and intertwine, but they also bump up against each other and bristle when they do.
So what sustains a community? What fosters the sense of mutual responsibility and obligation without which community falls apart? I’ve come to believe that it’s ultimately rooted in need. We don’t have to like each other, though it’s nice if we do. But if we have to get along in order to survive, we mostly will — most of the time.
But on this ever more affluent Vineyard, many of us no longer need to get along. If you can jump in the car and drive to the store for a half gallon of milk, why bother to go next door and borrow a cup from your neighbor? We consider tolerance to be a virtue and ourselves to be tolerant, but when we don’t need to get along, how tempting it is to associate with like-minded folks and avoid those we consider prickly or disagreeable, even when they live just up the road.
We’re still talking about community, though. We want it, but do we know what it takes to keep it going?