Rushing between off-site meetings, I carve out some time to sit and eat lunch in the lobby of one of the hospitals in the Longwood Medical Area. There’s a huge family at the table next to mine that has an entire catering setup — I guess to feed everyone who’s come down to support their loved one. They take up four tables and are eating delicious-looking Indian cuisine, speaking in what may be Hindi or one of India’s many other languages.
Seeing them makes me think about frugality, and how it requires you to stop worrying about what other people think of you, and about what it means to live in a multicultural society, and about how diversity is hard because humans are hard-wired to fear the Other, and also about what it means for me to live so far away from the support system of an extended family. I’m lucky to have a huge constellation of family-by-choice, and friends, and kindred spirits — I know more wonderful people than I can possibly have deep friendships with. But the bond of shared DNA runs deep, even with the low-level irritation that can develop among grown-up relatives. When I’m in the hospital, it’s my family that comes to visit me. And if they’re not related to me, I begin to understand who truly is my family of choice.
For better or for worse, that’s my life: to be a stranger in a strange land, even when it’s one I’ve lived in for years. Writers and artists often live at the edge of society. It’s what gives us the perspective and the fearlessness to speak our own truths about what we see. I’m most comfortable on the edges of things, observing the swirl and color of human existence — I see things that I wouldn’t if I were at the center of my own drama.
And perhaps it’s why I need the company of plants and animals to recharge myself. They speak a quieter language free of the body-mind duality that plagues humanity.
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:
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.