I am really lost in how to think about this thing, like an algebra problem with too many variables. I was scared, but only briefly, as you are when something unexpected and violent happens in your comfort zone. Bombs going off on Boylston Street. A firefight in Watertown. These are aberrant events in locations that are deeply familiar to me.

I thought to write last week, when bombs first exploded downtown, but couldn’t get my thoughts together well enough to attempt it. Even now, I feel confused, struggling to fit the thing into its correct context.

The brief fear that welled up in the heat of the moment was quickly supplanted by a deep sadness, certainly for the victims of the violence, also in a strange way for the perpetrators who must have been very frightened, angry people. And then also the sort of sadness you feel when a thing you thought was safe and fun turns out to be dangerous and scary, an accident on a summer roller coaster, a shark attack at a favorite beach.

One of the cool things about living in Boston is the sense of living in a space where history has been made, the knowledge that big ideas have sprung from this soil and the tides of change have surged from what is, today, only a badly organized city, perched on the edge of a cold, northern ocean.

I came here nearly twenty-five years ago, a college kid with no clue how Boston would lay claim to me. I spent a year trying to understand its haphazard geography by train and foot before a bicycle presented itself as clearly the best solution to a difficult problem. Subsequently, I have ridden nearly every inch of this place from Harbor to western suburb.

To cruise past the Common late on a summer night and think of the dramatic events that transpired there generations ago, town meetings and riots, the hanging of witches, the grazing of cattle, right there in the middle of everything. This is how you get to know Boston. The stray patches of cobblestone that dot downtown, they take you to the Boston Massacre and to the shifting of American sentiment that preceded the Revolution. You can’t ride the city without feeling that history.

For nearly a decade, before I switched jobs, I rode into town every day, my wheels spinning the path down the river into Back Bay. My commute took me across Clarendon Street, which runs behind the big, old Trinity Church. It’s a narrow artery through the heart of the city. The Marathon finishes a block west on Boylston Street, where the massive Boston Public Library sits at the other edge of the Square facing the church. That’s where the bombs went off last week, another mark on Boston’s timeline.

Days later, in a maniacal car chase/shootout, the young men who apparently planted the bombs met their end in Watertown where I work now, the second kid, the subject of a massive manhunt turning up, bloody and finished, under the tarp of a trailered boat right down the street from my office. That’s Franklin Street, our cut through to Watertown Square, where lunch comes from. A casual cruise around the neighborhood turns up cars and houses bearing the obvious scars of an intense gun battle. There is a blood stain in the street.

I had a text from work in the early morning on Friday saying, “Don’t come in. Check the news.” I went to the Guardian site and saw a picture of a SWAT team filling the main intersection around the corner. History seemed to be happening in the streets I live in.

And as I watched the news and worried about how it would all change the city, my city, I kept thinking, these are the streets I ride every day. How do I process this? How will I go on riding there?

The word aftermath refers to the consequences of a disaster, the period of time when we’re left to contemplate what’s different now. It might as well mean the math we have to do after the lesson, the part where we apply what we’ve learned. Having ridden the city up and down, studying  its history, I’m left wondering just which lesson to apply.

Perhaps it will occur to me in time. Or maybe the lesson is the same as all the others,and the answer is just go on doing what you’ve always done, but try to do it better, more gently, more thoughtfully. To borrow a line, there has been chaos. Keep pedaling.

Last Monday, the day of the bombing, I rode home by a route that crosses a park that overlooks the city. The sun shone brightly in the soft-stirring air, and the skyline was unaltered, the Prudential building and Hancock Tower standing off to one side, the lump of downtown jutting grayly into the horizon. You would never have known what had happened down on Boylston Street.

This week I resolved to throw my leg over the top tube and go on about my business. I rode straight into Watertown, past the same houses and schools I pass everyday. The potholes, I noticed, are all still where they were before.

Image: Susan Margot Ecker

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  1. Paul I.

    “I went to the Guardian site …”

    Interesting that you can get better US news from a British paper, isn’t it?

    Nice article, thanks.

  2. randomactsofcycling

    “The potholes, I noticed, are all still where they were before.”

    Life must go on. If not, terror wins.

  3. becomingblue

    “also in a strange way for the perpetrators who must have been very frightened, angry people.” Hmmmm. I’m not trying to get to that place that would urge me to think that thought. I’m not saying I’m right, but it’s just so alien to me.

  4. Author

    @Paul – In my experience, the Guardian does a better job at vetting their information than most US news outlets. There is MORE information available from my local news organizations, but too much of it ends up being incorrect or inaccurate.

    @randomacts – Yes.

    @becomingblue – I respect that it’s an alien thought. It’s a hard one, and very deliberate on my part. I can’t help but feel that reactions that split us into “them vs. us” dichotomies only perpetuate the problems that lead to these incidents in the first place. I am fully willing to be wrong about this, but it feels better for me than just giving license to my own fear and anger.

  5. Patrick O'Brien

    “When people lose their sense of awe, they turn to religion. When they no longer trust themselves, they turn to authority.”
    Tao Te Ching, translation by Stephen Mitchell

    I keep going back to that little book because of the simple things that ring true. I think that it contains, chronologically at least, the old wine you find these days in many new bottles.

    Looking at your idea of frightened and angry people in this context, I see weak and angry people, unlike people in different parts of the world who also suffer from poverty and ignorance, that have turned to both religion and authority with complete abandon. They were turned into unthinking animals and then used by someone who had no other goal than to exercise power over others. Someone who thinks they are right, everyone else is wrong and less that human, and who will not compromise or listen. Sound familiar?

    Robot, I am sorry this happened in any town, and certainly in your home town. Watch out for those damn potholes. We are even getting them in the desert; Tucson has some whoppers!

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