Remembered

Yesterday when I heard that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev had received the death penalty for his role in the Boston Marathon bombing, I knew I’d have to visit the newly dedicated memorial to slain MIT police officer Sean Collier. Whenever I’m at MIT, I stop by the spot outside the Stata Center where Collier was killed by the Tsarnaev brothers while sitting in his police cruiser, and since I had plans to be at MIT today, paying my respects at the newly dedicated memorial seemed fitting.

Ellipses

When I heard yesterday afternoon that the jury in the Tsarnaev case had reached a decision on his sentence, I stopped what I was doing and turned on the TV to watch. Just as I’d wanted to hear the verdict in the case as soon as it came in, I wanted to hear the sentence as it was announced. But as soon as CNN reported that Tsarnaev had been given the death penalty for placing the bomb that killed Martin Richard and Lingzi Lu, I turned off the news coverage. Although I wanted to hear the sentence that would determine Tsarnaev’s fate, I didn’t want to hear endless editorializing about that sentence.

Big heart; big smile; big service; all love.

Instead of listening to opinions and arguments about the wisdom or appropriateness of the sentence—what do you, I, or anyone else think should be done with Dzhokhar—I wanted simply to sit with the solemnity of the decision. What is it like to kill anonymous strangers—innocent bystanders you somehow think have wronged you—and what is it like to hear a sentence of death in return: an official legal pronouncement that he who lives by the sword shall die by it?

Ovoid

Tsarnaev will have ample opportunity to contemplate his own death as his lawyers file appeal after appeal, but neither Collier nor the other Marathon dead had that luxury. Two years ago on a beautiful April day, the Tsarnaev brothers irrevocably changed their own and countless others’ lives with the flip of a switch. Neither the death penalty nor life in prison can change that fact: the dead are still dead, severed limbs are still lost, and the grief-stricken still grieve. “Closure” is a word uttered by optimistic and well-intentioned folks who dare open their mouths in the face of irredeemable heartache. It doesn’t matter whether you, I, or anyone else supports the death penalty: before the jury decided anything, Tsarnaev and his brother made their own irrevocable choice.

Arching

The memorial erected to Sean Collier is a graceful and expansive thing, constructed of slabs of smooth gray granite that arch elegantly overhead. The five upright slabs, I read, radiate outwards like the fingers of a hand, but the point where they intersect is empty and ovoid, evoking the empty-handedness that is the human condition. The monument draws you in and invites you to circumnavigate it, and as I walked around taking pictures from this angle and that, several passersby stopped to look at and walk through the monument, touching the stone and reading its inscriptions.

In the line of duty

Nobody seemed to be talking about Tsarnaev and his sentence; nobody seemed to be talking at all. When you stand on the spot where a promising life was cut short, it’s difficult to find anything at all to say.

Memorial Drive near MIT

We’ve had a relatively snow-free winter so far this season, but on Saturday we had a weekend nor’easter that dumped about five inches of snow on the Boston suburbs before changing to rain. I had a meeting at MIT on Saturday morning, so I took the T into Boston, then I walked over the Mass Ave bridge to Cambridge. Usually, there are plenty of pedestrians crossing the Charles River, but on Saturday morning it was just me, a few intrepid cyclists, and a handful of Lycra-clad runners muddling through the unshoveled snow. The mid-river view of the MIT skyline veiled in snow and fog was worth the walk.

MIT from Mass Ave bridge

At my meeting, most folks from the outlying suburbs–people who would have had to dig out their cars to drive into Boston–had stayed home, leaving those of us who could get to MIT by T, foot, or both. On the T ride to and from Boston, I noticed the wide range of winter footwear: rubber rainboots, leather hiking boots, quilted nylon boots with fur or flannel linings, and steel-toed work boots. The people riding the T on a snowy Saturday seemed to realize their own two feet are their most dependable all-terrain vehicle and dressed accordingly.

MIT snowman

After a relatively snow-free winter, we’re now hunkered down for a blizzard that could bring one to two feet of snow. It looks like the enterprising undergrads at MIT will be well-equipped to engineer more and bigger snowmen.

Marble altar

The chapel at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is a paragon of simplicity. MIT is a place where brilliant people think deep thoughts while solving complex problems involving complicated technologies. Perhaps it’s fitting, then, that famed architect Eero Saarinen designed a chapel that is almost painfully austere in its simplicity: a windowless brick cylinder surrounded by a shallow moat and shaded by a grove of elegant birch trees. Everywhere else on campus is where Thinking Happens, but the MIT chapel is where Thinking Falls Away.

Altar and skylight

I didn’t take any photographs of the outside of the MIT chapel when I was on campus for a meeting yesterday, but I did take several photos of the inside sanctuary, which features a plain marble altar and a metal sculpture by Harry Bertoia. This sculpture flows like a cascade of glittering metallic dust motes from a circular skylight that serves as the sanctuary’s only source of natural light. I’d arrived on campus early yesterday, giving myself plenty of time to get lost on a campus where a maze of buildings huddles around an Infinite Corridor, the name of which is enough to make you think you’ve left this world for an alternate one. But inside the chapel, there are no infinite corridors, only this present room, this present window, and an Infinity that streams down from above.

The simplicity of Harry Bertoia’s metal sculpture is so alluring, it finds echoes in a piece of even greater simplicity: a student-designed display of thousands of origami cranes folded, strung, and hung in the MIT Stata Center in memory Officer Sean Collier, who was slain while on duty protecting the MIT campus and community.

Skylight

Where do souls come from before we are born, and where do souls go after we die? Is there, somewhere, an Infinite Corridor where souls stream as free and unfettered as sunlight, and where time stretches inevitably into eternity? These are complicated questions, and their solution lies beyond my ken. But here and now, in this sadly mortal world, I know that sometimes the simplest gestures resonate with infinite profundity.

This is my contribution to today’s Photo Friday theme, Simplicity.

Flags and flowers

On Tuesday morning, on my way to a meeting, I stopped outside the Stata Center at MIT to pay my respects at the makeshift memorial to Officer Sean Collier, who was killed this past April by the Boston Marathon bombing suspects. Although most of the mementos left by students, staff, and passersby have been cleared away, the site of Officer Collier’s death is still marked with flags and flowers. I’m not sure I can explain the human desire to create memorial shrines at the sites where people have passed, but I certainly understand it. To anyone not from Boston, the Marathon bombings are old news, replaced in our attention by other breaking stories. But those of us who live here haven’t forgotten what happened at and after this year’s Marathon, and even if we did, the places where these things happened would by their very presence remind us.

Thank you for the items you have left here

When J and I showed visiting relatives around Boston earlier this month, for instance, we insisted on walking them down Boylston Street to the Marathon finish line, showing them an otherwise ordinary patch of sidewalk outside Marathon Sports where the first of two deadly bombs went off. I’m not sure why J and I felt an insistent need to show this spot to relatives who hadn’t asked to see it. There’s technically nothing to see on this particular patch of sidewalk: the teeming memorial of mementos left at Copley Plaza in the immediate aftermath of the Marathon bombings has been removed and carefully archived by the city, and nothing in the way of a permanent memorial has yet been planned.

Marathon bombing site

Because the two Marathon bombs exploded outward rather than upward, there isn’t eye-popping evidence of a massive bomb-blast at either site: the bombs’ legacy was left on human flesh—so many amputated legs—rather than as lasting architectural damage. On the Sunday we visited, the only indication that Something Happened Here was a pair of running shoes discreetly hanging from the shady trunk of a midsized plane tree: a hidden memorial visible only if you stood right under that tree.

Memorial to slain MIT Officer Sean Collier

But just because there’s not much to see these days at sites related to the Marathon bombings doesn’t mean these sites haven’t achieved a kind of sacred power, like other places of pilgrimage. Regardless of whether visiting family wanted to see precisely where the bombings happened, both J and I wanted to show them. I’m not sure we could have explained why this was so, but in retrospect, I think we wanted to show our guests something indicative of what it’s really like to live in Boston, today. Visiting historical sites might help you understand what Boston was like in the distant past, but visiting the finish line on Boylston Street might help you understand why Bostonians were simultaneously heartbroken and outraged in the aftermath of terror.

BPL Strong

As Red Sox designated hitter David “Big Papi” Ortiz so memorably phrased it, “This is our fucking city,” and standing on the sidewalk outside Marathon Sports, you might feel some of that territorial defiance, even if you’re just visiting. These are our streets and sidewalks, the place where one Monday every April, we practice radical hospitality. If you want to know what kind of spirit, swagger, and pride makes a Bostonian, sit in the nosebleeds at a Bruins game, cheer from the bleachers at Fenway, or spend a silent moment contemplating an otherwise ordinary patch of sidewalk outside Marathon Sports.

Memorial cross

These spots on Boylston Street in Boston and on the MIT campus in Cambridge are places where lives were lost, bodies were disfigured, and survivors were forever changed. These are the spots where those of us who live in and around Boston came to realize in our guts what it means to be “from” this city, regardless of where we were born. This IS our fucking city, I find myself thinking whenever I’m walking down Boylston Street, and by showing visitors this now-sacred spot, J and I wanted to share that solemn realization.

MIT Police / Boston Strong

As I stood outside the Stata Center at MIT on Tuesday morning, I felt a similar spirit of solemnity. Here at this spot, someone died simply because he was doing his job, and the very least I can do is stop and pay my respects, remembering someone who had his unfortunate moment in the headlines and is now gone. Folks elsewhere might have moved on to other, more gripping stories, but here in Boston and Cambridge alike, we haven’t forgotten.

The photos of the running shoes in a tree and the “Boston Public Library Strong” sign come from Boylston Street in Boston; the other photos come from the makeshift memorial to Officer Sean Collier outside the Stata Center at MIT. Last night, Officer Collier was posthumously sworn in as a Somerville police officer, a job he was supposed to have taken in June.

Stata Center from Whitaker Building

I’ll admit it. In the aftermath of any mass shooting—particularly ones that happen on college campuses—I find myself harboring an occasional unsettling thought: could today be the day it happens here? On any given day when I’m driving to campus, making last minute plans for whatever I’m planning to do in class, I’ll occasionally wonder whether today is (as the Sioux battle cry goes) a good day to die.

Stata Center from Ames Street

When this thought arises, I’m usually en route to a campus where I teach and work: a campus, in other words, where I “need” to be, a campus where I know my way around, and a campus where I feel a responsibility to protect “my” students. When I’m wandering a campus that isn’t mine, on the other hand—a campus where I don’t know where I’m going, I don’t know anyone, and I honestly have little business being—I’m not wondering whether today might be my last day on earth. Although being shot at work is senseless, at least there is an entirely sensible reason for being at work on an unlucky day. When you’re on your way to a writing retreat at a campus where you’ve been only one time before, however, you’re not wondering whether today might be the day when you’ll be at the wrong place at the right time. Being shot at work is senseless, but being shot at a place where didn’t truly have to be seems even more senseless.

Abstract

Today is the BRAWN writing retreat at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. BRAWN is the Boston Rhetoric and Writing Network—a group of Boston-based college writing instructors—and I went to their summer writing retreat last August, when we basically spent the day in a boring classroom at MIT working on nothing other than our own writing: a kind of creative peer pressure where you make a shared vow to write rather than endlessly checking email, Facebook, Twitter, and Google Reader. Today is the BRAWN writing retreat at MIT, and it’s also the day a person with a rifle and body armor was allegedly spotted nearby, sending the campus into a lockdown.

Ames Street, with Pru view

It turns out there was no such person…or if there was, he was just passing through. But before Cambridge police announced the “all clear,” my fellow retreatants and I did what any sane person would do: we retreated from campus to set up shop in a nearby café, where we spent the morning “sheltering in place” over croissants, hot beverages, and our writing projects.

“Sheltering in place” is an interesting term. It suggests that the safest place to be is right here, right now: given a vague report of a possible threat, the best thing to do is basically nothing: stay where you are, keep a low profile, and wait for the danger to pass. Many prey species instinctively shelter in place when something scares them: when one of our backyard blue jays cries “hawk,” for instance, the feeder birds automatically hunker down and the squirrels freeze in the trees. Whereas the natural human reaction in the face of danger is to turn tail and run, many prey species rely on stealth and camouflage to protect them: by remaining completely still, they play the odds that a threatening predator either won’t notice them or will choose to strike someone else.

Viewing through

There is, I suppose, an eerie similarity between spending a day on a retreat and spending a day sheltering in place. Both activities involve hunkering down where you are, anchoring yourself to your present location as a safe haven against possible threats. I think of Ulysses and his men lashing themselves to the mast of their ship: come what may, we won’t be moved. When you sit a meditation retreat, you emulate the Buddha’s decision to sit and stay under the Bodhi tree until he’d answered the question of why we’re born only to grow old, get sick, and die; when you participate in a writing retreat, you promise to remain glued to your seat until the day (or your writing) is done.

Wiesner Building

When you shelter in place, you trust that whatever threat is “Out There” can’t broach the borders of “In Here.” At today’s retreat, the three of us who had managed to arrive at our boring classroom before the full nature of the threat had been announced quickly decided to move off campus, sending an email to those who hadn’t yet arrived, telling them to meet us elsewhere. As we walked across one of MIT’s grassy quads, one of my fellow retreatants remarked, “I keep scanning the rooftops,” and at that moment I realized that something as simple as walking across campus becomes a bold move when you think there might be a gunman lurking somewhere, watching. As Annie Dillard remarks in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, quoting the medievalist Dorothy Dunnett, “There is no reply, in clear terrain, to an archer in cover.”

Rooftops

Call me morbid, but this isn’t the first time I’ve wondered what it would be like to be shot by a stranger. I first started meditating in the aftermath of the 1991 shooting in which six Thai Buddhist monks, a nun, and two other victims were killed in a temple in Arizona. We think of senseless mass shooting as being a recent phenomenon, and perhaps they have indeed increased in frequency and subsequent news coverage. But when I first started meditating at the Zen Buddhist temple in Ann Arbor, Michigan in the aftermath of the Arizona shootings, I often experienced a moment of panic when I vividly visualized a silent gunman creeping into the Buddha hall and methodically shooting each one of us in the back as we meditated, quietly (and quite helplessly) facing a wall.

London plane trees

The first time I went camping, I had a similar moment of panic, wondering what could stop a homicidal gunman from walking up to our tent and shooting straight at it, his bullet piercing both tent nylon and layers of sleeping bag before hitting the warm, vulnerable bodies therein. Again, this might sound like a morbid thought, but it’s not an entirely unrealistic one: in his book A Walk in the Woods, for instance, Bill Bryson recounts several murders that have happened on the Appalachian Trail, including the 1988 murder of Rebecca Wight, who was shot along with her partner while hiking in Pennsylvania.

This way

The practice of sheltering in place rests on the assumption that the world out there is more dangerous than the world in here; sitting a meditation retreat might lead you to question that assumption as you explore the layers of your own delusions. But when you’re pondering the possibility you’re on a campus with a gunman, you can solace yourself with odds and likelihoods, and one relevant statistic still remains: mortality always has the last word. A sniper’s bullet, a sudden heart attack, a prolonged illness: in the end, does it matter what hit you? When you’re shot by an arrow, the Buddha famously argued, it doesn’t matter who made the arrow out of what material or for what purpose: you’re dead all the same.

BRAWN Writing Retreat

Yesterday I almost got run over by a delivery truck while crossing a particularly tricky intersection by Symphony Hall. A group of pedestrians was crossing, and I was the laggard, walking in dress boots. Had I been hit by a truck that didn’t stop but instead thundered past just as I hurriedly stepped onto the curb, I would have been like a dawdling antelope snagged by a lurking lion: the rest of the herd would have continued on, either oblivious to my demise or secretly relieved it hadn’t befallen them.

After yesterday’s near miss, I looked at the photo I had taken seconds before stepping into that intersection near Symphony Hall and realized it could have been my last. Today at MIT, I took a handful of photos on my way to the BRAWN retreat, and fortunately it turns out that today at MIT was neither a good day nor a good place for me to die. Had today’s story turned out differently, however, this would have been my last shot before being shot.

Dreyfus Building

Stata Center

Last Thursday, I arrived about a half hour early for a writers’ retreat at MIT’s Stata Center, so I spent some time scribbling in my notebook as a warmup to the day’s writing. It’s funny how the experience of being on a new-to-me campus–the simple novelty of trying to find the right room in the right building–brings back all kinds of school-day insecurities: am I doing the wrong thing, wearing the wrong outfit, or otherwise standing out as a clueless, uncool newbie who just doesn’t belong here?

Stata Center

Outside, as I walked around photographing the Stata Center–itself an architectural oddity–I kept expecting some sort of authorities–the Campus Coolness Police, perhaps–to approach me, automatically pegging me as an outsider: a fake or fraud. Clearly I don’t belong here: clearly I’m not smart enough, not cool enough, not cosmopolitan enough, and nowhere near hip enough to belong at MIT, home to some of the smartest and most cutting-edge scientists in the world. Clearly I’m just a bumpkin from Ohio who just doesn’t belong, but somehow pretends to.

Stairway

As I tried oh-so-sneakily to casually take pictures inside the Stata Center (as if taking pictures didn’t immediately identify me as an outsider, an intellectual tourist just here to sight-see), the irony hit me. Am I really enough of a geek that I think I can’t hang out with (and even pass among) other geeks? If there is anywhere that a photo-snapping freak–someone quirky enough to take picture pictures inside an architectural anomaly, as if regular people naturally did such a thing–could fit in, wouldn’t it be at MIT, famed (or infamous) for its freaks, geeks, and creatives?

Upstairs

There’s something oddly intoxicating–infectious, even–about being on a campus that is renowned for innovation: it’s as if you can sense the buzz of new ideas reverberating in the air. After spending my subway ride reading Siddhartha Mukherjee’s engrossing biography of cancer, The Emperor of All Maladies, I did a double-take to see a young man walking ahead of me suddenly enter an MIT building devoted to cancer research. Could it be I’d shared a sidewalk with a student who will one day cure cancer, or do something equally awe-inspiring? Stranger things have happened, and many of them have happened on campuses like this, where freaks and geeks are allowed and encouraged to shine, slump, or settle into their own comfortable quirkiness.

Entryway

A few weekends ago, J and I ventured into the computer science building at Harvard, looking for restrooms while out for a walk around Cambridge. While there, we looked at a curious specimen preserved and arranged for display: the Mark I computer, a giant apparatus that was one of the world’s first computers. A wall of switches connected with an elaborate circulatory system of cords, the Mark I was controlled by a re-purposed typewriter, an ordinary device of the kind any writer alive back then would have used. Is the mind so elastic as to see no boundary between art and science, the tools of writing and the tools of science being one in the same?

Stata Center

There was something inspiring in the way the Mark I was preserved and put on display–an outdated relic that nevertheless ushered in its own revolution, its own New World. Today we have no patience for wires, cables, and switches: why twiddle with a manual typewriter when you can text with your thumbs? But every Big Idea has to germinate and gestate somewhere: the seeds of even the biggest innovation start small and unpromising, just a speck of speculation.

Who among the nameless souls sharing the streets and sidewalks of Cambridge with me last Thursday will be the next innovator? Who among the other writers who spent the day writing in a nondescript, windowless room will be the next creative person to change the world?

This is a lightly edited version of the journal entry I wrote last week, before a Writers’ Retreat organized by the Boston Rhetoric and Writing Network. Additional photos from the Stata Center are posted here: enjoy!