On Boston

Twice in my teaching life, I have sat in rooms with students and tried to find the words to convey tragedy. The first time was twelve years ago, in my first year — my first month — of teaching outside of grad school. When I learned of the attacks on September 11, 2001, I was on a long commute through the Texas backcountry and I had a good hour or so to process the events and plan what to say when I met my students on campus. When I did finally arrive at school, I’d decided to simply dismiss class so students could call loved ones or meet with friends and process, but I also left the classroom open in case students wanted to talk as a group. I told them that there are few better places to talk about these sorts of things than a college classroom. And almost all the students did stay, and we talked. I realized later that the resulting discussion was as important for me — maybe more important for me — as it was for them.

When I learned of the attacks on April 15, 2013, I was already in the classroom, down in McMinnville, Oregon, between classes. I had maybe 20 minutes to read online as much as I could about what had happened, and no time at all to plan what to say. My plan for the next class was to conduct a group-building exercise designed to promote audience awareness, language building, and camaraderie in my students’ small workshop groups. We were playing the game Taboo. As students came into the room, I could see that none of them had heard the news — or if any had, they weren’t talking about it — and so I decided, in the space of about five minutes as students arrived for class, that I couldn’t derail that exercise. The communication — and the fun — were too important. So we played the game Taboo. We laughed, and we celebrated correct guesses and earned points, and we had a fun couple of hours. When class was over, one student stayed behind. Last week, this same student had lingered and talked with me about how hard it was for him to make friends, and one reason he’d come to college in the first place was just to meet new people and try to make new friends, and he was having a very hard time doing that. Yesterday, he lingered with a huge grin on his face, and he told me my class was the coolest class he’d ever had. He said I made learning fun. I wondered how differently he might have felt if I’d abandoned the game and discussed the news instead, and I was glad we’d played the game. I also realized that I had needed to laugh, too.

My last class, though, was my creative writing workshop, a small class of bright, thoughtful second-year students, some of whom I’ve taught before. One of the essays we were discussing in class was Susan Straight’s “Travels with My Ex,” an essay partly about racial prejudice and the knee-jerk assumptions we make about people. Just before class, a friend of mine — a scholar in postcolonial Arab literature and culture and an Arab-American herself — posted on Facebook a link to a Washington Post piece: “‘Please don’t be a Muslim’: Boston marathon blasts draw condemnation and dread in Muslim world.” She added to the post the comment, “What it’s like in my head today. *sigh*”

I put that Post editorial up on the projection screen and shared (with her permission) some of my friend’s other comments with my students, and we talked about the essay in the book and the article on the screen and the events in Boston. We didn’t talk a lot about Boston, but we made a space for it. And it was enough.

I value my students so much for that. There’s something special — something that, for me, feels important, even necessary — about knowing that when I approach these subjects in my classroom, I am responsible for so much more than my students’ education: I am a curator of their experience of these events. I am an editor to their stories, working with them to shape their comments and process their experiences. I am a quilter stitching together from their discussion a warm, safe place in which to lie down and cry.

And they are all these things for me.

And I am so grateful for that.


Just one month ago, many of the writers and editors and publishers I know were in Boston. They weren’t there to run — they were there for the annual conference of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs. I didn’t get to attend, but I enjoyed all the updates and photos on Facebook and blogs, because they reminded me of the only time I’ve been to Boston, back in April 2006, for the annual joint conference of the Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association. When I was in Boston, I spent a whole afternoon visiting the Boston Public Library — the first public library in America and a model of public libraries around the world even today — and many of my friends in Boston last month made the same literary pilgrimage.

The explosions yesterday happened just across the street from the library’s north side.

I have no idea what it feels like to run that stretch of Boylston Street, let alone to run it in the Boston Marathon. I have no claim to any special connection with the events of yesterday, other than that the trauma was experienced by human beings like me, and the people who raced in to help were human beings I want to be like. But I know what that area of Boston looks like, what it feels like to walk it in the springtime.

I understand how important it is to preserve that. I understand why people will return to that street, spring after spring. I understand why they will never be scared away.


Here are some other things I’ve been reading today. Not news. Commentary. Reflection. Calls to action. Love.

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3 thoughts on “On Boston

  1. Firstly, Sam, it is so typical of your sensibilities that you would note the proximity of one of the blasts to the first public library in America. I kinda love you for that.

    Times like this are difficult. It’s not easy to say something that doesn’t sound like a platitude. It’s also not easy to remember that such things happen round the globe as a regular occurrence without making it onto our TV screens. It’s also not easy to remember that anger and outrage are valid human emotions which are as much a part of the instant reaction to events like this as grief, shock, horror, and fear – it’s too early to ask people not to dwell on them, they have to be worked through. I can remember friends who, within a day or so of 11th Sept 2001, were making admittedly valid comments about America’s relative wealth and world power, and the disenfranchisement felt by some now-politically-active people in poorer countries, particularly countries with a muslim heritage; I remember saying, “Look, true though this is, it’s much too early to be making these observations. Let people grieve.”

    And yet recent history tells us that it’s the sense of anger and outrage which will be most exploited, most cynically used to justify this or that political or military action. So just when IS the proper time to bring these subjects up?

    I can say with certainty that it is always right to create a totally honest historical record, to have machinery in place which means that posterity is not kept in the dark. It is for that reason that I have recently praised a book that exposes the brutality in Spain during and after the Civil War (‘The Spanish Holocaust’ by Paul Preston); although its main investigative target is the atrocities committed by the victorious Fascists, it is scrupulously honest about all the brutality of that era, including that of the Anarchists – as someone with strong Anarchist sympathies I felt that these were facts I was obliged to know and acknowledge, because openness and honesty are supposed to be Anarchist virtues. ‘9/11’ was over a decade ago and the administration which reacted to it with two invasions is no longer in place, and that event and its consequences should, now or soon, be subject to good, clean, objective analysis.

    When will the same point come for the Boston explosions? It’s shocking to say this – it’s a relatively small outrage – shocking because I don’t really believe outrage is something that can be properly quantified like that. How would I feel if I had lost a limb, a friend, a person I loved? Inconsolable, I should imagine – and all I can do is imagine. The Episcopal ‘Book of Common Prayer’ contains the line ‘In the midst of life we are in death’. I guess sometimes it is easy to miss the word ‘life’ in that. My hope is for the healing of Boston’s wounds – these days physical wounds are left to ‘breathe’ as part of the healing process, and so maybe my concept of honesty in reportage is part of the air to which the wounds should be exposed, I don’t know, I am not a wise woman. Further, my hope is for the healing of the world’s wounds; again honesty is necessary for that. Maybe the metanarrative of progress is illusory and my hope is naive and unrealistic. I don’t know that either.

    The final image in my mind today is a Facebook picture. I don’t know if it is genuine (what is ‘genuine’ on social media?), but it shows a small group of robed and kerchiefed Afghan women, holding up a handwritten sign saying, ‘From Kabul to Boston, with Love’; the ‘v’ of ‘love’ is a heart shape. It would be good to think that it’s a true picture.

    1. That good friend of mine who is a scholar on Arab culture and who has given public lectures on women in Arab and Muslim cultures — she was sharing a few of those photos today, too. She’s usually pretty scrupulous about the facts, even in her Facebook posts, so for now, I’m trusting those photos are real. I know for certain they are True, in the abstract sense, and I love them.

      You wrote that “these days physical wounds are left to ‘breathe’ as part of the healing process, and so maybe my concept of honesty in reportage is part of the air to which the wounds should be exposed.”

      I love that! That is one of my favorite pieces of writing all day. No kidding. It’s that beautiful.

      Buddhism, as I practice it, has an attitude toward life and death similar to the one you mention from the Book of Common Prayer. And we work hard at letting go of emotion. But that concept often gets misunderstood in the West. When a Buddhist talks about letting go, we are not rejecting or suppressing emotions. We’re not even giving up emotions. We’re simply opening our hands — our hearts — and giving emotions the space to leave of their own accord. Which means that if people are outraged at these events, that’s perfectly okay; we Buddhists understand and accept that. If someone is crippled by grief, we understand, and we are there. The outrage and the grief will run their course. The trick is to not cling to them — that’s how those emotions get twisted. Just make space. Let there be room for breath.

      I think that’s what you’re describing here. That’s how I understand it, anyway. And I love that. I’m so grateful you wrote all this, that you shared it here. It’s what we need.

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