My feelings about living in Boston at this particular moment become harder to articulate by the hour. My clarity of thought is impeded by little sleep. But, I hear the train starting in again, its rush from downtown, and I’ve never been happier to hear it. Along with so many others, I’ve been up since 3 this morning, contacting students and colleagues to tell them to stay home. Friends in Watertown called me to describe the sight of armored cars trawling their streets. The glut of traumatic images flood every sense channel and the very limit of emotional capacity.
I know I am not alone in having felt disenfranchised, overwhelmed and completely helpless much of this week. I’m most overwhelmed by the underlying sensation that such events that are out of my control, and such violence, beyond my scope of comprehension, will continue to warp our lives and sense of safety in coming years.
Along with many others, I’ve been thinking about Boston, its complexity and its resilience. Many have written eloquently about this city and its people in the last days. For me, to see such mindless destruction in a city that celebrates and organizes itself around the life of the mind is jarring on a number of levels. It hits viscerally, of course, as we sat inside, trembling and unsure. It hits emotionally, as we read the recounts of the injured and saw the faces of the families of the dead. The violence of the last week strikes at the heart of what this city quite literally stands for: creativity, the pursuit of knowledge and progress.
In 2001, I crowded into a little dorm room with fifteen or so other Harvard freshmen to watch the news footage of the towers falling. Then, as now, the images were difficult to process as real. In the decade that followed: we studied, we persisted, we graduated, we got more degrees, we went on to work and play in the big world. And in that time, our political process became increasingly schizophrenic. Today, entire American towns are going bankrupt. Our social and civic infrastructure is fraying. As one person pointed out, we lock down the whole city of Boston, but we won’t allow a five minute check on gun buyers.
My ambivalent relationship with Boston proper has morphed into one of begrudging respect, even love. This city is where many of us realized, as students, what we were made of. I learned what I want to do with my life – teach and write. Here is where I encountered great minds. It is where I met my dearest friends, individuals with unstoppable ambition and huge, unwieldy dreams. Friends who went on to become artists, doctors, public defenders, poets, environmental activists and financiers. Working here, now, I’m ever reminded of that ethic stretching back some three hundred years, an ethic you see in the stone and lines of libraries, museums, schools….
What is left to glean in the wake of such frenzy? For one, a deep sense of community here: the police officers, fire fighters, ambulance drivers, the doctors, nurses and selfless people who threw themselves at the problems without really thinking of themselves. They were thinking of their mission; they were thinking, as Lincoln once described this, with the better angels of their nature.
What is left, are the relationships and the act of relating, all the bonds we make and choose to invest in. What is left is all of the people who have helped us to get to where we are. I didn’t make it here by myself. None of us made it to where we are without our parents and families; without our teachers who gave us their time and insights; without our colleagues; and of course, without our friends, who sustained us in thousands of thankless, unspeakable ways with their support and their belief.
I wish I had the courage to say something grand here, like, We Will Persevere, but I’m not sure how we will. I’ll have to follow, like others, in the great steps of those with more courage. I wish I could even be sure that just living to tomorrow, that being unafraid is “enough,” and will “show them,” but I do not feel sure. The fear is very much still there.
But I do hope I can honor the city that molded me by living the best life I can, and by bringing Boston and its ethic, its striving, to the rest of the world in some way. I really do hope that is enough.