The Bubble Life

I was on the bus once, a city bus in a neighborhood with a lot of affluent older white people. A crowd of people got on, loud teens, laughing. One of them stood out, a really large African-American man, baggy pants, stretched out t-shirt, long jacket, hat turned to the side, big chains, larger than life. The bus had been my bubble until these people got on; then it seemed different. I and the other people on the bus kind of shrunk into ourselves, growing quiet and still, like small animals who don’t want to be noticed. Until I woke up and realized that larger-than-life man was Richard, who I had watched grow up through high-school, as part of an after-school program that I volunteered with, and – after he graduated – volunteered beside. I relaxed and said hello to him, asked him about what he was doing. I grew more relaxed and other people, seeing me chat with Richard, identified him as a person and relaxed, too.

Another time, my nephew and I were on a train and a crowd of loud, slightly drunk, white teens got on. They were so clearly prep school kids on their way to show the city how cool they were, loud, boisterous, invincible. I felt a little uncomfortable and my teenaged nephew shrank into himself (confident white kids being something that feels definitely threatening to him). We got very quiet, as did many of the other people on the train. Then the people across from us, a sophisticated couple who I had been studying out of the corner of my eye because they looked so interesting and my nephew had been admiring because of obvious cost of their jewelry and clothes, picked one of the teens and began to speak to him, asking him what school he went to, what he was studying, what the night his friends were planning was. As the kid engaged with them and, as I heard more about him, I saw him and his friends as just kids and relaxed.

We all living in separate bubbles. We’re in a bubble in our home, with our family. We’re in a bubble with our extended family, a bubble extended through texts and emails and video chats. If we’re working, a bubble of company culture – and maybe even departmental culture – surrounds us, encasing us in How We Do Things Around Here. Where we live is a bubble – New York > Manhattan > Kips Bay, is so different from New York > Manhattan > Beekman Place (only a few blocks away from Kips Bay) OR New York > Ithica > Willow Creek OR New York > Brooklyn > Greenpoint – each of these places its own little bubble.

Even within my neighborhood, each building can be a bubble. As I got off the bus one evening, a thunderstorm erupted and I dashed under the shelter of a bus stop. Another man, who had been walking down the street, took refuge there also. I glanced at him – he was wearing very expensive hand-made shoes – decided that refuge under a bus stop counted as a temporary bubble, and remarked in a friendly way that I was trying to decide whether to make a dash for it or not. He said something about it being a long dash back to his building although it was only a couple of blocks away, and asked if I lived in the neighborhood. I said just a block or two away. Suddenly we were in the same bubble. We chatted for a moment then he named his building – The Highpoint, The Brevard, I don’t remember — and asked what building I lived in. I laughed and said, without resentment, that my building didn’t have a name, just a number. He took a second look at me and, without another word, dashed out into the rain and disappeared into the night. Knowing that my building didn’t have the distinction of being named burst the bubble that we had shared and turned me into An Other.

We also live in virtual bubbles, watching channels or shows — Rachel Maddow or Lovecraft Country — that fall within our own bubble and are outside the bubbles of people who watch competing shows on Fox News. Our news feeds and social media feeds are bubbles, encapsulating what we want to know about or reflecting our world view, excluding perspectives other than our own. When I was in high school – before cable was ubiquitous – my television received two signals: one was the channel with the local farm report and the other was the Canadian Broadcasting Company. I was very well-versed in Canadian politics but could tell you very little about what was happening in the US, aside from how the weather would impact the local crops. I was in the Canadian bubble instead of the US bubble.

Throughout your day, you move from one bubble to the next. Your family bubble bounces up against your work bubble: for a moment, the outer edges kiss and you transition from one to the other. Your mind moves to the work bubble until the door to your office bursts open and your husband sticks his head in to tell you that he’s going for a walk, and it’s a little disorienting, this sudden shift back into family bubble. You leave your home to go for a walk and you step out of one bubble into another. As long as that bubble remains what you expect of it, it seems safe; but crowds flooding your neighborhood with people that aren’t usually in your bubble can be unsettling. Something that hasn’t been there before – in my sister’s small town, it was a toy store painted with a giant purple octopus – can be frightening. What is that doing there? (Her town’s chamber of commerce finally took the toy store to court – after over 10 years – and had the octopus painted over, to everyone else’s regret.)

Our bubbles feel normal to us; even if our bubbles are painful or uncomfortable, they are what we know. There’s a safety in resting in what you know. It’s one reason that people or animals who are abused don’t leave their abusers: where would I go? You also assume that your bubble is the same as everyone else’s bubble; when those in other bubbles act in ways that make sense to them, you are alarmed: why would anyone think that way? How could anyone think that? Don’t we all live in bubbles like mine?

So here we all are, bouncing around in our bubbles, blithely going our separate ways. And then something happens: one more senseless death, for example, one more sample of the friction that occurs when a police bubble and an African American bubble come into contact with each other. And a bubble begins to expand, to come into contact with more bubbles. People in those other bubbles are frightened and angry, look out, my bubble may pop! They frantically push away this other bubble that they don’t understand, that they are afraid will imperil their bubble; what they know about life is suddenly revealed to be fragile, incomplete.

Some people welcome this other bubble. They want to learn more, to understand what life is like in bubbles that aren’t their own. To look for ways for bubbles to coexist.

Perhaps they take up meditation, the work of the heart, to try to create space for other bubbles, to practice becoming friendly with the fear that coming into contact with other bubbles can create. They practice noticing other bubbles, seeing people in those bubbles, observing them with a friendliness and a curiosity. What are these people like? What do they want out of life? What decisions have they made that brought them here today?

Perhaps they take time to read perspectives from people who live in other bubbles. People who feel fear every time they leave their home, not because of Covid, but because they feel like humans living in an alien world. The humans put on masks to fool the aliens but, even then, they know that their bubble could brush up against the bubble of an alien that doesn’t like humans, or is scared of humans, or just sees humans as a monolithic culture that threatens their bubble. If these people let their guard down, even for a moment, it could end badly for them. Reading these perspectives helps us understand the other bubbles, find the people in those bubbles less threatening because they become understandable.

One of the things I love about New York, are all the bubbles I get a chance to brush up against. All the different lives I get to peek into, whether I am on a bus riding down Riverside Drive, and a I get a glimpse through a second story window into a really expensive apartment, with wood paneling and Tiffany lamps. Or I am walking through Chinatown and I discover a vendor set up in a tiny hole in the wall, literally a door into an alley, who is selling freshly made tofu to a line of people who have brought their own containers. These moments are powerful to me. They make me feel alive.

Some people find them exhausting and threatening: they come to New York with a bubble of knowledge that is firmly intact and all these other bubbles bouncing up against them make them feel frightened. I felt that way sometimes when I first moved here but the excitement of growing my bubble helped me push through the fear much of the time.

There is a kata, a story about a warrior who went to a wise man and asked him to explain the difference between heaven and hell. The wise man looked at him for a moment and began to insult him, calling him names, questioning his bravery and prowess as a warrior, berating him for thinking he was bright enough to comprehend such a deep question. The soldier, enraged, drew his sword and lifted it high to smite the wise man down.

“That,” the wise man said, “is hell.”

The warrior suddenly had a moment of clarity – bing! Enlightenment! – and his sword slowly dropped to his side.

“That,” the wise man said, “is heaven.”

When our bubbles bump against each other, there is a moment of possibility for heaven or for hell.

The choice is ours.

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