City on a Hill: An Expat Reflects on the Boston Marathon Bombings

Commonwealth Avenue, January 1, 2010

As Gertrude Stein called America her country but Paris her hometown, St. Louis may be where I was born and raised, but Boston is where I am from. When the Tsarnaev brothers bombed, shot at, and otherwise terrorized my beautiful city last week, they illuminated how much a place I didn't grow up and haven't lived in years still carries the formative imprints and instant solace that determines where we call home. And if my pale expatriate experience is any guide, the Tsarnaev brothers picked the wrong city to try and terrorize this fealty out of. For Boston's very distinction is the unbroken chain of its people who have given themselves marathons to run and world orders to upend, and have responded to adversity with a reflexive determination and dignity.

I found Boston as a freshman at the University of Vermont. I was aching to transfer elsewhere and criss-crossing the northeast to visit schools nearly every weekend, but it wasn't until December that I took my first Greyhound bus to Boston. I almost ran through South Station when we arrived, trying to shake off the bus' cramped chatter, which felt too emblematic of my life at large, of my frenetic transfer-inspired interning and hand raising. This gregarious opportunist persona was serving its purpose, but was also fundamentally at odds with my personality--my inclination to observe rather than engage, write rather than speak, be with one person instead of five. As I walked to the T, I found myself turning the commotion around me into what was becoming a habitual construction--a blur of people and sounds I could float through and not be a part of or affected by.

I dropped a token into a turnstile, and boarded the Red Line to Alewife. And as we moved over the Charles, that iconic Bostonian vista of sailboats dotting the river's inky water, silhouetted against the brownstone lights of Back Bay, easily and indelibly pierced the blur. I thought it was as majestic and calm as the Europe I hadn't been to yet, and saw suddenly that I might not have to be so frenetic and ubiquitous to succeed, that I might have been making everything more complicated than it had to be.

I got off at Harvard Square, and sat on a stoop in the Yard. Far from the muggy breeze that blew off the Mississippi in St. Louis, the snowy air seemed to carry a sense of immediacy on it, of precision. I was listening, embarrassingly enough, to a Bobby Kennedy speech on my iPod, and staring at an American flag cracking in the wind as students barreled past me towards the red brick buildings looming above us in the twilight. Quite unexpectedly, I was flooded with terror that I would not be able to live in the city of this air, of this river view and this feeling that was how I'd heard grace described.

As luck would have it, I got to come back. And in the years after I transferred, Boston's solace never wavered. It remained to me a holy equilibrium of liberal and disciplined, pragmatic and optimistic. In it I could see that being tough and gracious were not mutually exclusive, that it was lazy to pretend I had to choose between the gentle nature of a city devoted to literature and history, tolerance and manners, and pursuing what I wanted with verve. Whatever frailties crept into my efforts to strike this elevated balance, the sight of that Charles River tableau was always enough to make me believe again it was possible.

I found endless peace in walking Beacon Hill's streets of red-doored, book-lined, chandelier-lit Federalist townhomes, whose careful and uncompromising elegance reminded me that everything I did mattered, that fate was made of human movements. I would rise some mornings as the first sfumato edge of sun crept over my courtyard in Cambridge, take the train in, and read at a cafe over coffee as the neighborhood awoke around me. This was how I chose to remember the morning after President Obama's 2008 election, trying to ingrain the lapis light of this particular dawn falling over old brick and ivy into my psyche forever. And at night, there is an hour when stars start to lace the sky above the brownstones, cast iron lamps flicker on, and soft, safe-looking light pools from living rooms onto the street. Save for the cars, I could have been standing in 1909 instead of 2009, and could again believe I had been making things unnecessarily complicated.

For history is Boston's very ether. I remember walking down Brattle Street one night in the beginning of one winter, and stopping in the shadow of an old Tory home. Slivers of white moonlight shone down through the sloping, bare tree branches, and I could feel something positively puritan in the wind. It became real to me only then that a girl my age had once stood where I was standing as the battle of Bunker Hill raged nearby, and wept because her brother was there, because she thought he would die, and for nothing. This inherited experience helped me understand Camus' Oedipan invocation: "Despite so many ordeals, my advanced age and the nobility of my soul make me conclude that all is well." This was the very breath of almost-night in Beacon Hill, of Harvard Yard's sharp air.

By senior spring, I thought I was too world-weary for Cambridge, and got in the habit of dragging my friends to the Fairmont in Copley for $18 cocktails, beer nuts, and mediocre piano music. One memorably misguided afternoon, a friend and I brought our laptops to Oak Room and attempted to write history papers over martinis. I remember standing outside afterwards in the shadow of the Boston Public Library and its inscription--"The Commonwealth Requires the Education of the People as the Safeguard of Order and Liberty"-- and feeling like a particular sort of heathen, tipsy and wasteful, having neither enjoyed the drinks nor written anything cogent. What was I even trying to be? Thoughtlessly smart, marginally serious? That was not the Boston I'd brought myself to.

I found the rejoinder to this insolent schtick in my runs. I ran almost every day--towards Boston, across the MIT Bridge, and down Commonwealth Avenue, which is lined with limestone townhomes I knew by heart when I finally saw their London inspirations, and trees that stay wrapped in sparkling white lights all winter. That this test of endurance was set to such ethereal scenery was proof to me of sweat and composure's perfect symmetry: You could not build anything as solid and careful as Commonwealth Avenue by ending a run cool and collected, or by turning a paper in with the easy air of one who's made it too easy for herself.

I returned to Boston for the first time six months after graduation, in a ferocious snowstorm on New Years Day. I had woken up in my misbegotten Upper East Side apartment, which was essentially underneath the Queensboro Bridge, and admitted to myself that I had no idea why I was in New York, and had de facto followed everyone from college in the least self-possessed-Boston of ways. I called an old roommate who lived in Brookline, and was heading north an hour later on the only Chinatown bus daring to run in the blizzard. When I arrived in even heavier snow, I found two more of our old roommates arriving by train and car. We all burrowed in bed as the snow raged outside, I read an old copy of The Great Gatsby I found in the kitchen, and later, we flocked through the snow to a rowdy bar down the street and grouped in a corner, talking to each other. Boston was, for all of us, home. And it was where home came to mean what I hope it remains--a warm room in a snowstorm full of people who know you, and still believe there is more to learn.

I know I am far from alone in my sense that Boston was formative. As Andrew Cohen pointed out in The Atlantic, Boston is many people's first self-appointed home by virtue of its many colleges. It is the first place we fall in love, lose people we love, test our values, and begin to develop the sense of self that comes from making choices and living with them. It may be a place in our memories where many of our regrets are yet to come. It is also a place many of us leave for elsewhere after graduation, elsewheres where we learn there can be irreconcilable differences between doing what we're best at and paying our rent, that it is sometimes sadder to forget someone than it is to mourn them, that uncertainty is the world's operating system rather than a condition to overcome.

But Boston sends its graduates off steeped in a history of tenacious optimism particularly helpful in countering these potentially dispiriting facts. Boston has shown us that failed presidential candidates can become secretaries of state and lions of the Senate, talented baseball teams can snap long strings of wrenching luck, and upstart colonies can build universities and governments to surpass those of their old colonial masters. As such, Boston is a city of faith to me, evidence that whatever gods there may be have some semblance of a plan. As rumors proliferated after the marathon bombing of explosions at the John F. Kennedy Library, it seemed like this very will to keep building in the wake of destruction was under siege. It is no accident that marathon day in Boston is also Patriots' Day, which commemorates the battles of Lexington and Concord. Together they honor audacious aspirations and the tenacity to see them through, and the celebration of that quiet grit yoked to classic American gumption was what I felt shattering all the way in New York.

Boston's ethos of service is another of its virtues. It pursues and worships money less than any city I have ever lived in. It's leading hospitals, universities, and politicians are fearsomely endowed, but their money is a means towards curing our bodies, souls, and society, rather than an end in itself. The retrenchment of that value system alone was worth the price of my degree, and is something I think back on often in the midst of Manhattan's ten million dollar apartments and glittering fundraisers of girls in $5,000 gowns.

To claim Boston's values every time I walked its streets was an affirmation that I was all right inside, no matter what was going on outside. For people who believe every detail of their life at a given moment is a commentary on them as a whole, and can be harsh in their evaluation, that affirmation is a particular benediction. Boston a gentle place for people who are not particularly gentle with themselves.

But if it is gentle, Boston is by no means a pushover. Its scaffolding has always been what I dare to predict it will always be--books, medicine, history, innovation, and public service. While New Yorkers love or hate their mecca of bustling extremes and most Washingtonians are ambivalent at best, I have never met a Bostonian who didn't honor their city. Its self-possession countered my feverish college girl impulses to do and have and be more, to scan the room for new things to do and be and want when even what I wanted wasn't enough.

"Stay within yourself," Jeffery Eugenedies once advised a group of young writers, in times when doubt in their abilities arose and the pressure to produce was on. Boston was a good place to do that, a city for introverts whose poise and determination get them mistaken for extraverts. It gave me a real world to walk around in when I otherwise would have retreated into a blur. People have stressed the need for Bostonians to come together in the wake of the bombings. But I suspect they will also go inside themselves, and come back out committed to living their city's meaning even more emphatically. Through their quiet and collective resolve, Boston will remain a city on a hill for good and brave people to come build what they believe in, and to remind them such things are possible after they have left.

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