Ever since moving to Boston in 1999, I’ve been keenly aware of the ways in which I am separate from the city’s mainstream culture. As a queer woman, as a poet, as a [insert any one of a variety of labels that apply to me], I’m used to feeling different, apart, separate. About this time last year though, an odd thing happened.
In the hours and the days following the Boston Marathon bombing, I began to feel like I was part of a unified whole. That the Boston portrayed in the national press, the Boston of skinny white women sporting Tiffany bracelets in the Back Bay, the Boston of drunken Red Sox fans on the Green Line, the Boston of disaffected immigrants in search of a reason for living — that all of these Bostons — was also the Boston that I know: the Boston of slam poets congregating at the Cantab in Cambridge, the Boston of nerds in black turtlenecks eating sushi and joking about obscure internet memes, the Boston of queers congregating in living rooms and church basements, the Boston of police brutality and entrenched segregation.
I’ve known for years that shared trauma will draw people together, whether they’re college freshmen or Iraq war veterans. But I’m not sure that I’ve ever experienced the phenomenon with such force. My childhood involved years of loneliness and neglect, highlighted by a few moments of abject terror. It’s not an unusual story; there’s piles of books written by people who had shitty childhoods. But what’s particularly crazy-making about my experience was the sense of isolation it engendered. I spent all of my childhood and a good chunk of my adult life denying and minimizing what happened to me. It was a powerful tool, one that allowed me to excel academically, earn a degree from a good college, and scrape together enough marketable skills to pull myself out of the poverty I grew up in. But it had its consequences, which in their worst form can make me question the very nature of reality.
So to see a horrible thing happen, and to see millions of people all agreeing that it was a horrible thing, was a real revelation for me. Sure, some snarky New Yorkers bitched and moaned about the Amtrak shutdown. But most of Boston was happy to shelter in place the day after the Tsarnaev brother killed two more people the next morning. My poet friend Wendy Drexler describes it well:
…the city was a dark harbor,
hardened and congealed, the streets
furrowed with chase, with grief,
and turns — hairpin, wrong — and dead
ends, a desert of dead ends without
provision or cure
Shock, horror, and grief brought us all together that day, and in the days that followed. We could all agree that a terrible thing had happened and we were unified in that agreement. In particular, I remember seeing a video interview of one of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s classmates. The Tsarnaevs lived just a few streets away from me in Cambridge, and I used to walk past his high school several times a week. The young man apologized for his tears at the end of the video, but they touched me deeply. I understood his feeling of betrayal, because I felt it too.
Cambridge suffers from the same problems endemic to Boston: ridiculous housing costs, entrenched segregation, and a growing wealth gap. And yet Cambridge, with its zeitgeist of multiculturalism, lefty politics, intellectual curiosity, and community spirit, embodies for me all the best things about Boston. That someone could come of age in such a place, and then choose to create weapons of mass destruction from an object designed to cook food — it seemed unthinkable.
And yet not so. From what little I read about them in the press, the Tsarnaev family led a difficult existence. To feel isolated and alone in one’s suffering — especially when surrounded by happiness on all sides — is a terrible thing. It can warp a soul and lead a person to do something he’d never consider otherwise.
Most of us emerge from the experience just warped enough to be interesting. The most horrible thing we might do is bounce a few checks or yell at our loved ones. But it’s a year later and I’m I noticing all the ads for plastic surgeons, heterosexual meat markets, and half-million-dollar condos in Boston magazine. Posts about the Red Sox are cluttering up my Facebook feed. I stayed away from Marathon route and its draconian security measures. My sensation of being part of a unified whole is passing away. Which, as any Buddhist teacher would tell me, is what happens to all sensations.