witness in the aftermath of disaster

There were lilacs at the table where I worked on my novel this morning, which made the day smell like home — although back in Nebraska, the lilacs don’t start blooming until the end of April or May. (I couldn’t quite remember that and had to look it up; that’s how spoiled I’ve gotten by California and their green-wet winters and January-blooming daffodils and year-round gardens.)

I’m deep in morning sunshine, I’m listening to the kids shouting during gym class at the playground a block or so away, I’m watching the dog try and climb the fence after the squirrels. I’m trying to figure out why it matters for me to sit at this keyboard when there’s a garden to tend and a dog to throw the ball for, friends I need to call, muscles to stretch, grass to feel beneath my toes — I mean, when there’s real and embodied life to live, why am I here sitting in front of a screen, giving myself carpal tunnel (knock wood)?

I don’t want to write about Boston yet, so I go online and read a news story about yesterday’s bombings. I look at the map, red starbursts marking the sites where the IEDs exploded on Boylston Street. I haven’t been to that neighborhood for years, not since my last Boston Pride. I think about what it’s like when throngs of people are gathered in one place, and how terrifying it would be to have those masses suddenly panicking in fear for their own and their loved ones’ lives. I think about Martin Richard, an 8 year-old boy, and the other two people who died as a result of the explosions, and the over 170 people injured (many of whom lost limbs). I think about the trauma that everyone at the Marathon experienced, and how their lives are changed forever.

I think, then, too, about the people around the world (in Syria, in Pakistan and Israel, in Somalia, in Nigeria, in Mali, in Iraq, and so many other places) who deal with the threat of this kind of violence daily, those who have had to learn how to go about their daily lives — taking the bus to and from work, sending their children off to school, attending worship services, going to the market to buy bread and vegetables for the evening meal — because the violence does not cease and they still need to live, those who have to hold somewhere in their bodies, in their hearts, that those they love might not come home. I don’t know what that kind of life is like, and this morning I am thinking of the profound privilege that is, that not knowing.

The authorities are wondering whether or not this was an act of terrorism, and I want to know in what way was this not an act of terror? This was an act explicitly designed to terrorize many, many people — no matter who the perpetrators were, no matter their nationality, no matter their politics. What language do we use for this if not terrorizing? When did we give our descriptive words over to the government and news media so that they could decide for us what we experienced — so they could tell us what is and is not terrorizing.

Last night, at the first meeting of the spring Write Whole survivors writing workshop, we did not talk about the bombings in Boston. We talked about other traumas, we wrote about what remains as our lives continue around the scars of that history, we wrote into the possibility of beauty existing in that aftermath — even when writing about horror, the words themselves are a generous and specific work of art. We wrote our stories, we gave them voice, and then we allowed others to be witness to our creativity and experience.

I thought, last night and this morning, about my hope that those impacted directly and indirectly by the bombings yesterday in Boston (and elsewhere around the world) have a place to go with their experiences and emotions — my hope that that there are people to talk to, a shared community willing to hold and witness the survivors in all that they are feeling. I hold space for all those who were triggered into flashback and/or terror, into their own difficult memories of bombings, when they heard about or watched ongoing news coverage of the the violence in Boston.

Many people at the Marathon yesterday, the people of Boston, rallied to help those hurt in the blasts — runners donated blood, strangers opened their homes, folks carried the injured to safety and medical care. We can be excellent in a crisis, coming together to help in the physical labor in the immediate aftermath of a disaster or emergency. We are sometimes less helpful after the immediate trouble has passed — once a leg has been set or the police have been called or the flow of blood has been staunched; we don’t always know how to be present for the longer-term aftereffects of a traumatic experience. We feel like there’s nothing we can do to help someone who is hurting and scared, or depressed, or triggered. We feel like listening isn’t doing anything — it’s not active, and you can’t see that you’ve accomplished anything after it’s done. Yet, in my experience, it’s one of the most generous acts we can perform: being willing to bear witness to another’s pain, helping to carry the memory/struggle/loss, is a physical act, requiring courage and generosity.

The page can help with this sometimes, can be the place where we set down some of our burdens — as powerful, though, is the opportunity to give those words voice and share them with those who understand us, who will listen to the full body of our experiences without silencing or turning away. It is a profound act of grace — no one ought to have to carry their struggles alone.

I’m grateful today for your words, for what you have shared with others, and what you have made room for others to share with you.

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