Apr 30, 2013
On Sunday when J and I took the T into Boston to see the samurai at the Museum of Fine Arts, we stopped at Copley Square to visit the makeshift memorial that has arisen near the site of the Boston Marathon bombings. I wanted to see where it all happened—I wanted to stand on the very spot—even though the bombings happened in a place where I’ve stood many times before. Somehow, I hoped that being there, now, would help me understand what it must have been like to be there, then.
The Marathon bombings happened in a place where I’ve frequently been. Years ago, during the first year of my Master’s program at Boston College, I lived in a depressing, ant-infested apartment in Malden—a lifetime away from campus, it seemed—and the Boston Public Library at Copley Square was like a second home to me.
During the second year of my Master’s program, I lived in a garden flat in Beacon Hill, a stone’s throw from Boston’s Back Bay, so I’d regularly watch the marathon near the finish line on Boylston Street, right across from the library. In those days, I’d typically show up in the afternoon, after the elite front runners and fleet-of-foot had already finished, when the injured, the underdogs, and the unlikely—the folks, in other words, who really needed an audience to cheer them on—were gamely limping their way to the finish line.
Revisiting Boylston Street cemented the realization that the only thing separating me and countless other Marathon spectators from being at the Right Place at the Wrong Time was simply time and chance. If tragedy struck at 2:50 pm on April 15, 2013, it could have easily struck minutes, hours, or even years earlier: then rather than now, that year rather than this.
Why did tragedy strike here and now, with these particular people and passersby present? That is the great unanswerable question in the aftermath of tragedy, a version of the scandal of particularity, as theologians call it. If either grace or grief (take your pick) can happen anywhere and at any time, why did one or the other happen Now and Here? It’s not morbid curiosity that has been driving Bostonians to visit the bombing site in droves: it is the abiding, unanswerable question every survivor at some point asks: “Why not me?”
In the aftermath of tragedy, there is also a curious desire—one that might seem counter-intuitive, if you’re observing it secondhand—to immerse oneself in a large, anonymous crowd, or to simply be outside with others. Since the Boston Marathon happens on a state holiday, many of us watched coverage of the bombings in the relative isolation of our homes, with only our closest loved ones present. “Stay away from crowds” was one of the warnings issued in the immediate aftermath of the attack, as Boylston Street was blocked, the Marathon was cancelled, and confused runners were re-routed to safety.
This isolationist message was underscored on Lockdown Friday, when venturing outside and gathering in crowds were officially verboten. After the second bombing suspect was captured and the city-wide lockdown was rescinded, the collective psyche gravitated irresistibly in the opposite direction. Now, there is something hugely soothing about being outside and with others, whether at a memorial service, candlelight vigil, or bustling baseball game. The impulse is insistent: we will get through this together, and we will do it by coming together.
Sunday was a positively gorgeous spring day, a perfect day to take the T into town and walk around with throngs of placid pedestrians. Our trolley was packed with Red Sox fans and a woman who was proudly taking her grand-daughter to the Big Apple Circus, just as she had taken the girl’s mother years before. On Sunday there was a home Celtics game in the afternoon, a home Bruins game in the evening, and “Art in Bloom” all day at the MFA: a little something for everyone on a mild and sunny day when it felt like all of Boston was finally blooming.
It was, in other words, a bustling day in the city, with the entire world (it seemed) showing up stroll down Boylston Street and pay their respects at a makeshift, open-air memorial.
After arriving in Copley Square, J and I had to wait in line to view the piles of offerings left along a quadrangle of metal barricades set up in Copley Plaza to contain a teeming outpouring of flowers, running shoes, stuffed animals, handwritten notes, signs, paintings, T-shirts, rosaries, ball-caps, and origami cranes adorning every available surface.
In one corner of the memorial area, there was a heap of bracelets and meditation beads; atop another pile of flowers, someone had left a waterlogged copy of a favorite children’s book. Elsewhere, someone had left an unopened box of spaghetti and a tin of cookies—a nod, perhaps, to a marathoner’s pre-race stint of carbo-loading—and I saw several separate piles of coins, as if the impulse to leave a memento led onlookers to empty their pockets, offering anything at hand.
At the memorial, there were rubber ducks and stone angels, a plaster Pieta and candles. One tree was draped with rosaries and faded prayer flags, and another had seemingly sprouted a bouquet of American flags from its base.
The sheer volume of stuff was both amazing and overwhelming: such an outpouring of love for the dead, the injured, and for Boston on the whole.
As large as it was, the memorial mound continued to grow as we wended our way through the piles, pointing and reading notes and snapping photos.
One father helped his little girl add her contribution to the pile—it was shiny and sparkly, decorated with ribbons and glitter—while a loose cluster of twenty-somethings wrote messages on blue and yellow strips of paper that they added to an ever-growing chain, every link a prayer.
It was incredibly moving to see such an abundant, seemingly worldwide outpouring of love: a tidal surge of well-wishes from everywhere, as if a wave had overwhelmed us with a great teeming detritus of remembrance.
When we witness tragedy from afar, whether from across town or across the country, we want to do something in response, even if all we can do is sign a banner or leave a handwritten note.
Examining the neatly arranged assortment of offerings felt like browsing a giant yard sale or flea market where every item carried words of encouragement rather than a price tag: priceless.
But out of the many came the occasional one, individual messages that stopped me short with their poignancy: the note, for instance, from police officers in Colorado promising to take over the watch for slain MIT police officer Sean Collier…
…or the child who drew the “poisonous bomb” the only way he knew how, which was like something out of a Road Runner cartoon.
But the individual item that hit me hardest—a surprise surge of sentiment that threatened to turn my Boston Strong into Boston Sobs—was a still-packaged plaque showing a young boy with hands folded in prayer: the kind of thing you’d give a little boy for his First Communion.
I don’t know if eight-year-old Martin Richard was Catholic, but this much I know: he won’t be taking Communion with his classmates this year, having achieved a premature oneness with eternity instead.
I’m not sure I found any answers by visiting the Boston Marathon bombing site, but what I found was an upsurge of hope. Whether they acted alone or with accomplices, the Boston bombing suspects can’t possibly outnumber the people who came out to walk on Sunday or the people who continue to heap their blessings on a city it’s easy to fall in love with all over again.
Click here for a complete photo set of images from the makeshift Boston Marathon memorial in Copley Square, or click here for my earlier post about (and pictures from) this year’s Boston Marathon.
Apr 29, 2013
Yesterday J and I took the T into Boston to go to the Museum of Fine Arts, where we saw Paul Cezanne’s “The Large Bathers,” which is currently on loan from the Philadelphia Museum of Art, as well as an exhibit of samurai armor. Although I don’t know much about Cezanne or the samurai, I was enchanted by both exhibits, albeit in entirely different ways.
Cezanne’s “Bathers” are calmly monumental with their bold, blurry pastels. Although the painting is in oil, Cezanne creates a watercolor-like effect that is simultaneously provocative and mesmerizing: the kind of painting you could study for an eternity, drawn into the depths of its soothing pastoral vision.
Displayed alongside Paul Gauguin’s equally evocative “Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going,” Cezanne’s “Bathers” represents a turn away from the classical nude, which seems almost too-perfect in its idealized timelessness, and toward a more embodied Modernist vision. The bodies Cezanne and Gauguin depict look like actual, earthly bodies at rest, and it seems natural to rest a while in their presence.
The pieces of samurai armor currently on display at the MFA, on the other hand, are almost cartoonishly quirky, and I immediately fell in love with them. After walking through several galleries containing glass-case examples of helmets, breastplates, shin-guards, and other armature, J and I entered a room with two life-size free-standing displays: on one side, a trio of fully-bedecked warriors galloping on heavily-armored steeds…
…and on the other, a gang of walking warriors, their ornate armature letting enemies know in an instant that these guys mean business.
When you look like a bad-ass space alien and carry a big sword, you can let your appearance do the talking.
This is the last week of the semester at Framingham State, which means I’ll be swamped with paper-grading for the next two weeks. It felt good to take a virtual vacation at the MFA yesterday, traveling first to France to lounge with Cezanne and then to imperial Japan to stand with samurai. I’ve set the photo at the top of this post as my desktop background: a silent reminder to stay samurai strong over the next few, tiring weeks.
Click here to see my complete photo-set from yesterday’s MFA outing. Enjoy!
Apr 27, 2013
Last night A (not her real initial) and I met at Mount Auburn Cemetery to take a quick walk before heading to the Deluxe Town Diner in Watertown for pancakes and conversation: something we’ve done more than a few times in the past. Last night’s cemetery stroll and diner date was more than just another chance to chat over comfort food: it was an intentional act of purification. Ever since Watertown, Massachusetts made the national news a week ago for being the site of the Boston bombing manhunt, I’ve been wanting to reclaim a sleepy little city that’s just one town over from mine: a normally quiet suburb that most folks outside of Boston probably never heard of until the Tsarnaev brothers made it infamous.
Yesterday marked one week since the day-long lockdown that turned the greater Boston area into a ghost town. Lockdown Friday started with emails and recorded phone messages from the mayor telling us to stay indoors, and it ended with us watching televised coverage of people cheering in the streets after the remaining bombing suspect had been captured. In between, J and I did indeed stay inside, remaining glued to CNN and local televised news reports as we waited for some sense of closure to end a truly terrible week.
Lockdown Friday was a gorgeous spring day, which made staying inside that much more difficult; what made the day surreal was watching television coverage of places that are both nearby and familiar. Although I typically describe Mount Auburn Cemetery as being in Cambridge since that’s where the main entrance is, most of the cemetery actually lies in Watertown. To get to Mount Auburn from Cambridge, you take a Watertown bus from Harvard Square; to get to Mount Auburn from Newton, you drive down Watertown Avenue. During last week’s manhunt, local and federal law enforcement used the parking lot at the Watertown Mall as a staging area, and as I watched each televised press conference, I remembered the various times I’d parked there to buy socks, underwear, or other “essentials” at the Watertown Target.
J probably can tell you exactly how many times I said “Look, that’s the diner!” as CNN showed one of their reporters standing on Mount Auburn Street, reporting on every gunshot or dog bark she heard. (Jon Stewart on The Daily Show rightly skewered this same reporter for remarking that the streets of Watertown were eerily quiet, as if someone had dropped a bomb somewhere.) J didn’t need to be told again and again and again that the shiny silver building visible in the background was “the” diner where A and I go for pancakes after our cemetery strolls: he could clearly see that for himself. But I kept pointing it out because I couldn’t quite believe a quiet little neighborhood just one town over from ours was suddenly the site of Breaking News.
Last night A and I went walking at Mount Auburn Cemetery followed by dinner at the Deluxe Town Diner as a way of reclaiming Watertown: now that Suspect One is dead and Suspect Two has been captured, it’s time for Watertown to go back to being a sleepy little suburb about six miles outside of Boston. For the most part, Watertown seems to be returning to normal: last night, Mount Auburn was as lovely as always, and the diner was bustling with Friday night customers. The only indications that Watertown hasn’t completely returned to normal were the “Boston Strong” and “Boston We are One” slogans on MBTA bus marquees and a curious rush-hour traffic jam I experienced near the intersection of Watertown and Galen Streets. From my vantage point near the end of a long queue of cars, I could see flashing lights as several police vehicles escorted something large and white out of Watertown. Only later did I figure out I’d probably witnessed police moving the infamous boat that Suspect Number Two was captured in.
Apart from traffic delays caused by evidence removal, it felt good to return to the familiar calm of Mount Auburn Cemetery, and it felt even better to enjoy comfort food at a diner that was bustling with Friday night customers. Like other businesses in the greater Boston area, the Deluxe Town Diner lost a day’s worth of business on Lockdown Friday, so A and I made a point to leave our waitress an extra-generous tip: a small token of appreciation for a sleepy little suburb that I’m guessing is eager to return to relative obscurity.
Click here for more photos from last night’s purification trip to Mount Auburn Cemetery and the Deluxe Town Diner. Enjoy!
Apr 24, 2013
On Sunday, J and I went to an afternoon Red Sox game. It was a picture-perfect day with a cloudless sky and comfortably cool temperatures: the kind of day when you can’t think of anywhere you’d rather be than sitting in the centerfield bleachers, watching a ballgame on a sunny Sunday afternoon.
When J and I bought tickets to this particular Red Sox game months ago, we had no idea the timing would be significant. Happening less than a week after the Boston Marathon bombings, Sunday’s ballgame was the first time after the attack that J and I went to a crowded public event. When J and I bought tickets to this particular Red Sox game, in other words, we had no idea that simply showing up and sitting in the centerfield bleachers surrounded by strangers would feel like an act of purification: proof that life in New England can return to “almost normal” in the aftermath of heartbreak, and proof that we can still gather in a crowd with anonymous others—a big, teeming throng, just like Marathon Monday—without anything bad happening.
When you go to a Sunday afternoon ballgame at Fenway Park, it’s easy to feel like you’re attending a kind of grassy, open-air church with a diverse community of baseball “believers.” There’s something inexplicably wholesome about watching a ballgame on a sunny Sunday afternoon, with everyone’s eyes fixed on the same Field of Dreams, and on Sunday I craved the quiet calm of this kind of secular fellowship.
Today I read a news story about a local priest who spoke at Marathon bombing victim Krystle Campbell’s funeral on Monday, then attended a Red Sox game with his father later that night, and something he said resonated with my own experience:
“Sports has been so important in the past week,” Fr. Hines said. “You’re gathering a lot of people in one place, whether it’s at the Garden or Fenway Park, and it allows them that sort of civic moment where we’re all together. It’s kind of a concentrated moment. Sports in Boston is so important. We’re indoctrinated from a young age. We follow them and bleed their colors and offers us an opportunity to come together and have some enjoyment even if it’s just a moment for us to get together and talk and laugh.”
Fr. Hines talks about the communal feeling fans experience when they’re gathered to root for the same team, and on Sunday, it felt good to feel that kind of fellowship again. Given that I sometimes feel claustrophobic in crowds, I’d wondered if I’d panic when I found myself surrounded by strangers so soon after the Marathon attack, but the familiar atmosphere of “Friendly Fenway” helped quell that reaction.
When you go to church on a sunny Sunday, you expect to sing hymns, and I’d wondered whether I’d get weepy when we sang the national anthem before the start of the game, “God Bless America” and “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” during the seventh inning stretch, and “Sweet Caroline” in the middle of the eighth inning. Instead, it was a song I hadn’t expected to hear—Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds” piped in on the public address system—that caused my eyes to mist when I heard a handful of fans join together to sing the chorus:
Don’t worry about a thing
’cause every little thing gonna be alright
I don’t know if I believe in that Field of Dreams enough to say that every little thing is going to be all right: it certainly was bittersweet to enjoy a ballgame on a sunny Sunday with the memory of those who were killed, injured, and traumatized in last week’s attacks. But it felt good to feel like every little thing might be okay, eventually, the fellowship of a ballpark full of fans feeling as close to “back to normal” as I could have hoped for.
Click here for more pictures from Sunday afternoon’s ballgame between the Boston Red Sox and the Kansas City Royals. Enjoy!
Apr 22, 2013
At 2:50 pm last Monday, I was taking a break from grading to sort through and edit the photos I’d taken at the Boston Marathon that morning, which I used to illustrate yesterday’s post. It wasn’t until about a half hour later that J and I received a phone call from a relative asking if we were okay: our first indication that something bad had happened in Boston, and we should turn on the news.
I spent the rest of last Monday not grading papers, listening to news coverage while continuing to sort through and edit happy, festive photos that in no way matched the version of events I was hearing, as if I were watching one movie while listening to the audio of another.
Today at 2:50 pm, I was taking a break from grading to sort through a handful of photos I’d taken around lunchtime–the photos illustrating this post–when an alarm I’d set earlier in the day went off, sounding with a cascade of cathedral bells. The governor had requested that Massachusetts citizens observe a moment of silence at 2:50 today, one week after the first Boston Marathon bomb went off, so when my alarm sounded, I stopped what I was doing, closed my laptop, and sat in silence for a minute, thinking about the people whose lives ended or were irrevocably changed one week ago today.
Apr 21, 2013
Now that the second Boston Marathon bombing suspect has been taken into custody, a wave of relief has washed over the greater Boston area after an emotionally draining week. Now that the Boston Marathon is no longer breaking news, I want to show you some scenes you haven’t seen in the national coverage: images of the Boston Marathon I want to remember.
The Marathon you saw in the news was the site of carnage, trauma, and heroism: a series of events set into motion by cowards with pressure cookers. But the Marathon I want to remember is the one that happened earlier in the day and out in the suburbs, before the elite runners and the regular Joes who follow in their footsteps had reached Heartbreak Hill, before anyone other than the fastest wheelchair runners had crossed the finish line, and before everyone’s heart was broken.
This is the fifth year J and I have watched the marathon wend its way through Newton, walking from our house to an intersection on Commonwealth Avenue between Miles 18 and 19. Over the past five years, we’ve established something of a ritual, standing at “our” corner and cheering for the last of the wheelchair runners, the first of the fleet-footed women, the arrival of the elite men, and then the throngs of anonymous runners who come next: a surging sea of pounding footfalls.
Last year, I’ve explained how I always get choked up watching the runners pass on their way to Heartbreak Hill, and this year was no exception. Newton residents take our responsibility as spectators seriously, devoutly believing that if the runners are going to survive the series of elevations that give Chestnut Hills its name, they are going to do so only via the impetus of loud cheering, clapping, drumming, bugling, and cowbell-ringing. It’s as if Marathon Monday is a massive love-fest where the sheer enthusiasm of residents rooting on strangers will push everyone up and over Heartbreak Hill.
New Englanders are renowned for their reserve, but that chilliness melts on Marathon Monday. For this reason, I’ve come to think of the Marathon as being Massachusetts’ high holy day: an event that coincides with the arrival of spring (finally!) after another long winter, and an event that gives the residents of greater Boston an excuse to spend a day outside mixing and mingling with their neighbors.
If you watch the Boston Marathon near the finish line on Boylston Street, as I did when I lived in Beacon Hill, you’ll find yourself in a cosmopolitan mix of locals, tourists, passersby, and passers-through. You’ll hear a babel of languages as friends and family cheer for “their” runners, and you’ll be reminded at all turns that the Boston Marathon is a world-class event that happens in an international city. Everyone around the world, it seems, loves Boston, and everyone around the world, it seems, eventually shows up at the finish line of the Boston Marathon: the whole world in a single, thronging crowd.
Out in the Boston suburbs, however, the scene is much more pastoral and parochial…and I mean that in a good way. Out in the ‘burbs, most of the people watching the Marathon are locals who camp out for extended stretches of time, toting coolers, picnic baskets, and wagons filled with footballs, soccer balls, Frisbees, and ball gloves: the accoutrements of a day in the park.
This year, a child watching the marathon next to us was practicing her pogo-stick skills; across the street, a child was mastering his scooter moves. Viewed from the finish line, the Boston Marathon is a world-class sporting event; viewed from the suburbs, Marathon Monday is a massive, very loud block party that happens to have a road race running through it.
In the days after Monday’s bombing, I’ve experienced the usual emotions that arise in the aftermath of a terrorist attack. I’ve experienced grief and helplessness, fear and anger. The nature of my anger has surprised me because of how primal and territorial it has felt. Once the initial shock and sorrow at the unfolding carnage settled, I felt a sense of violation. Whoever did this doesn’t deserve to be in my city, I remember thinking with fierce resolve. This wasn’t a xenophobic reaction, since initially we didn’t know who the bombers were or where they hailed from; instead, it was the visceral reaction of a person whose home has been invaded or whose sacred space has been desecrated.
As I said above, Marathon Monday is a high holy day in Boston, a day devoted to the secular observance of Good Neighborliness. On Marathon weekend, Boston is inundated with visitors who come to run, cheer on runners, or just watch, and on Marathon Monday, locals turn out in droves to display extreme hospitality.
“Hospitality” might not be the first word you’d associate with the Boston Marathon, but it’s a virtue that’s entirely apt. On Marathon Monday, locals volunteer in droves to hand out water, direct traffic, aid the injured, and cheer until they’re hoarse. On Marathon Monday, locals hand out fruit, wave signs, and offer an infinite number of high-fives, all in the spirit of spurring on strangers.
The Boston Marathon is Massachusetts’ annual holiday of helping, and it’s that willingness to help, I’ve decided, that chokes me up every year. All of us, deep down, have the urge to help others: to feel like we have made a difference. Cheering on a marathon runner—especially the ordinary folks at the back of the pack who need encouragement—makes you feel like you’re somehow contributing. Maybe someone is beginning to tire or cramp; maybe someone’s inner enemy is saying “Quit” or “I can’t.” When you cheer on a marathon runner—when you hold out a cup of water, an orange slice, or a freezer pop, or when you wave your sign or hit your drum or hold out your hand for a high five—you’re holding out hope that we, collectively, can somehow help a stranger. Maybe at a particular moment of need, you can offer exactly what’s needed: the right words, or a heartfelt bit of encouragement.
I believe that deep down, we all want to help—we all want to encourage—we all want to be a part of something bigger and greater and more decent than our own individual egos. This, my gut tells me, is what the marathon bombers simply Did Not Get. Marathon Monday is a celebration of radical inclusion, where everyone cheers for anyone and alongside anyone, regardless of who they are or where they come from. Turning this 26-mile festival of inclusion into an occasion for injury and trauma is more than criminal: it’s sacrilege. Whatever the bombers’ motivation turns out to be, this much I know: they are already the victims of their own small-mindedness.
There was one photo I almost didn’t take on Monday morning. After J and I had spent a few hours cheering ourselves hoarse at “our” intersection, we did what we always do, which is follow the runners on foot, walking toward Newton City Hall. Along the way, we saw a runner lying on his back in obvious pain, suffering from a leg cramp or other injury. In the past, we’ve seen runners stop on the side of the road to stretch or take a rest, and we’ve passed them quietly, allowing them the privacy of their own pain. But this was the first time we saw a runner lying prone, in obvious need of help, and somehow it seemed wrong to photograph a stranger in a moment of duress. After a split-second of thought, though, I took that photo, but not because it shows a stranger suffering. I took that photo because of what else it shows.
The Boston Marathon is Massachusetts’ high holy day of hospitality because if you fall down in our neighborhood, we will stop and help you. It doesn’t matter who you are, what you believe, or where you come from. It doesn’t matter if we know or like you. If there is a man or woman down, anonymous spectators will stop and help. By the time J and I reached this runner, a police officer had already arrived, and by the time we’d walked by, a medic was jogging to the scene. Help was on the way, but it almost seemed like a moot point because help had already arrived.
National coverage of the Boston Marathon bombings has shown image after image of people helping the injured and traumatized, and that coverage is true. But don’t think for a minute that this sort of heroism happens in Boston only in the aftermath of a terrorist attack. Even before everyone’s broken heart turned toward Boylston Street last Monday, out in the Boston ’burbs people did what they do every year on Patriots’ Day: they showed up and helped.
When we cheer for marathon runners, we get a surge of satisfaction knowing that maybe our encouragement was appreciated. Some have wondered whether the Boston Marathon will happen next year, and my reply is that the Boston Marathon will happen next year even if I have to lace up shoes and walk every last inch from Hopkinton to downtown Boston myself. The Boston Marathon must go on, next year and every year, because as long as there is an inkling of hope and decency in the human heart, that impulse cannot be denied.
Click here for a photo set of happy images from the 2013 Boston Marathon, taken before last week’s heartbreak happened.
Apr 19, 2013
You’ve probably heard the Boston area is on lockdown while authorities search for the second suspect in Monday’s Boston Marathon bombing. Luckily, our cats are highly practiced when it comes to hanging out, hunkering down, and otherwise doing a whole lot of nothing, inside, so we’re spending the day taking lessons from the lockdown experts.
This is my contribution to today’s Photo Friday theme, Pets.
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