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Ways of Seeing: A tragedy might possibly end with love

Now it’s time for the healing to begin. Our community needs closure. Let’s make things get back to normal. Today, we will start moving on.
After every tragedy in a community — especially those that gain media attention — we hear these stock phrases. They are well-meaning and they speak to our natural — sometimes desperate — hunger for order in the midst of chaos. But, to me, they feel so wrong.
Sept. 11, 2001. Tropical Storm Irene. Hurricane Sandy. Mass shootings in Aurora, Colo., and Newtown, Conn. Do these wounds ever heal? Do things ever get back to normal? What does “closure” mean or look like for these particular people, in these particular places?
I suppose we do move on. Time passes. The present becomes the past. Numb turns into feeling. Shock moves on to grief and the cold grip of grief eventually loosens. Ever so slowly, a loved one who has died becomes more than just gone, becomes present in unanticipated ways, becomes part of a memory that makes us smile or laugh or feel inspired. I’m grateful for that.
I am deeply grateful too that no one I know was hurt in the bombings that — as I write this — exploded on Boylston Street only two days ago. But if I belong to any city, it is Boston. If there is any holiday to which I feel a deep, childhood connection, it is Patriots’ Day. If there’s any race I’ve longed to run in, but probably never will, it is the Boston Marathon.
My friends and I never had school on Patriots’ Day. On those early April mornings fife and drum music would echo throughout the towns surrounding Boston. I was already a self-declared pacifist at age 12, but I liked to run along the route of the Patriots’ Day parade, so I could get more than one look at the farmer-soldiers dressed in colonial garb, marching in time — well, most of them — to a boy-drummer’s beat. Some of the minutemen I could recognize from “real life,” but I still felt that I was stepping into 1775. I experienced the electricity of the day, but without the battle, blood or fear — none of which I contemplated very much at the time.
Now it’s different. Now, Patriots’ Day has to do with real blood on real streets, run upon — first, in joy and then, suddenly, in fear — by very real people. In truth, I’m not a Bostonian “proper.” I’ve lived in Watertown, Cambridge and other surrounding towns. But these downtown streets where the marathon ends are ones I walked on as a child and as a college student. I re-visited them when I was in grad school and continue to do so when I drive down from Vermont to see friends and family. And so what happened feels personal to me, more personal than I ever imagined.
I know that my feelings are widely shared and much more painfully felt by some. I know that my attachments are not as deep as those who walk down Boylston Street every day. And I know that if I had decent knees and could still run long distances, I would feel even more derailed by the fact that it was our sacred Boston Marathon that someone tried, but failed, to kill. But that isn’t really the point. The point is that there’s a certain “normal” we can’t recover, a certain closure that we’ll never have, a certain healing that won’t unfold as quickly as the media might like.
But it seems to me that it’s better this way, even if it makes people uncomfortable. I think it’s OK to say (if maybe not always out loud): “You’re wrong. It won’t go back to normal.” For when I think or say that, I’m not “refusing to move on” or “giving in” to grief; rather, I am giving in to love. I am saying — without being shy about it — that it is possible to love a city, to love a holiday, to love a race, to love the people of Boston and to love those who come to visit. That’s not closure. That’s opening. And that’s how I want to live.
Rebecca Kneale Gould is Associate Professor of Religion and Environmental Studies at Middlebury College and a “boutique shepherd” in Monkton

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