On Living in Bubbles

I’ve been accused of living in a bubble. It’s true: I live in a bubble. Several bubbles.

bubblesBubbles have a bad rap. If someone accuses you of living in a bubble, they generally mean you associate only with people who think like you and live lives that look a lot like yours.

True, some people do this. It’s the only way I can explain, say, the Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee. Their inability to grapple with, or even hear, uncomfortable information is a common symptom of living in the kind of bubble that includes only people who think like you. This makes it difficult to defend your ideas to people who don’t share them without going on the attack, whereupon many people will give up trying to communicate with you except on neutral subjects — whereupon you may accuse them of living in a bubble.

Not all bubbles are like that. Some bubbles are more like workshops, where a team works together on a common project without continual interruptions from outside. Or like master classes, where a certain degree of preparation is required so that participants can reach for the next level. Let’s acknowledge that living in a bubble can be a good thing, especially when we live in several bubbles at once — as many of us do.

At the moment I live in a Martha’s Vineyard bubble, a feminist bubble, a woman bubble, a white bubble, a blue-state Democrat bubble, a writer bubble, an editor bubble, a dog-owner bubble (which contains a sub-bubble for roommates of Alaskan malamutes), and a tenant bubble. For starters.

When I lived and worked in the D.C. women’s community, roughly from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s, people sometimes asked me “But aren’t you limiting yourself?” It hadn’t occurred to me that I might be limiting myself because my knowledge of history, music, ideas, writing, art, and what women were up to across the country and around the world was expanding so rapidly. But of course the question had a subtext, and the subtext was “if you’re focusing on women, you’re leaving out the really important stuff, like, you know, men.”

When I moved from D.C. to Martha’s Vineyard in 1985, I expected some culture shock, and I got it: Almost no one read the same authors or listened to the same music that I did. No one said the word “lesbian” out loud. AIDS didn’t become a household word for several more years, and when it did people talked about it as if it could only be contracted through blood transfusions or dirty needles. At the same time, I’d grown up in small-town Massachusetts, so people looked and sounded pretty familiar. As in D.C., everybody seemed to know everybody else’s business and the grapevine was a major source of news.

But before long I started to see my women’s community experience through a Vineyard lens, as well as the Vineyard through a lens colored by years in a diverse, politically engaged community. Nearly everyone I knew in D.C. was born within 15 or 20 years of each other. We were in our mid-20s to early 40s. Many of us had fled families and/or churches that ranged from indifferent to hostile to violent. Most of us knew few of each other’s relatives.

Within a few years on the Vineyard, my acquaintance ranged from kids in single digits to people in their 80s and even 90s. Those who’d grown up here were, it seemed, related to half the island. Family, I realized, could be a curse, or at least a cross to bear, but it could also provide the network that got you through hard times and helped raise your kids. Churches played a similar role, as well as providing meeting space for 12-step programs and rehearsal space for concerts and theater productions. It also seemed that, at least for the Protestants, the feel of the congregation and the personality of the pastor were more decisive than doctrine in choosing a parish.

So I wound up with a deeper understanding of why some people saw religion as an enemy and others embraced it as essential to community life, and why some defended the so-called “traditional family” and others were actively engaged in transforming it in ways that some traditionalists abhorred. The complex inter-relationships of the Vineyard make for frustrating politics: people who’ve lived here a long time are often reluctant to speak out on remotely controversial issues, which means the lead often goes to single people (without multiple family connections) and relatively recent arrivals.

On the other hand, the D.C. women’s community lacked the ballast that can keep controversies from turning into bloodbaths. For all our incessant talk about “community,” we often didn’t step back long enough to consider what effect our words and deeds might have on the whole bubble, as opposed to our particular sub-bubbles.

Substitute “the country” for “community” in the preceding sentence and the result has plenty of truth to it. “The country” may be too damn big, diverse, and amorphous for any single one of us to grasp the whole of it: I have a hard enough time making generalizations about “Martha’s Vineyard” or “the D.C. women’s community.” But on the whole I believe that people who live in several bubbles and are willing to keep making translations between them are our best hope for holding the country, and the world, together.

NOTE: My feminist buddies will probably realize that the imagery in that last sentence owes a lot to Donna Kate Rushin’s “The Bridge Poem” (1981) and the book it gave a title to: This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, edited by Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa, first published in 1981 and now in its fourth edition.

About Susanna J. Sturgis

Susanna edits for a living, writes to survive, and has been preoccupied with electoral politics since 2016. She just started a blog about her vintage T-shirt collection: "The T-Shirt Chronicles." Her other blogs include "From the Seasonally Occupied Territories," about being a year-round resident of Martha's Vineyard, and "Write Through It," about writing, editing, and how to keep going.
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