This is not a great time to be a sensitive person walking the world.
I’ve read a number of lovely blog posts that are clinging to hope, despite the dark and interesting times that our new administration seems to have put us in. I’ve read poems and shared in the general outcry of the many, many people that are horrified at the recent actions of our country to tear apart Muslim families. As the wife of a former green card holder, it’s been difficult not to walk around in panic, because our story can’t be told without also being an immigrant story that is very much like the people that I am reading about now — people who are being detained not 10 miles from my house.
My heart is not light, so I’m finding it hard to write light-hearted. I have half a dozen blog posts that are queued up in draft, because I can’t quite seem to get to the right frame of mind to put something silly and frivolous into the world.
There is much that I could tell you about, much that I should have told you about by now. We moved into a new house at Hallowe’en and settled into it. There were new couches and holidays and visitors and movies and books. I’ve been deep in research for a big writing project that’s now transitioning into plotting and draft writing. I even went to a really big feminist party the day after the inauguration and cried at the sight of the hundreds of thousands of people with me that were standing up to say that they were watching the new administration.
I even got a new hat.
But it all feels very trivial, when turning to news or Facebook is such an onslaught of terrible things. I found myself crying at work as I came across an article of a breastfeeding 11-month-old that was separated from her mother for a full day because of Trump’s Muslim travel ban. Each story of adult children just trying to get their elderly parents back home or spouses trying to reunite or refugees that nearly made it onto what were once safe shores has hit me so hard. My Irish in-laws keep asking me what is going on in my country and I am terrified by all the answers that keep coming out of my mouth.
It is very tempting to go hide in fiction for the next four years. That is, actually, part of what I’ve been doing to restore myself. Each night, after we talk at dinner of all the terrible things that have happened each day, I hide on the couch and cover myself in blankets and let myself luxuriate in story telling. If I close my eyes, will it just go away?
Unfortunately not, not if I want the world to be a place for Baba, with her double passports and international family. Not if I want to lift my head and look back at these days and respect myself for not standing by the side and letting others speak out against deep injustice.
And so. There is work to do, even if it feels like my efforts accomplish very little. I saw a tweet recently quoted somewhere that said that if you always wondered how you would have behaved as you read about history, then you’re getting a good chance to know, because whatever it is that you’re doing now is what you would have done then.
That’s stuck with me – as both a calling and a command.
Perhaps it is the events of 2016 that have thrown me into a desire to see the past brought to life, in only the way that historical fiction can. But, looking at the list, I can see that it’s more that some favorite authors put out books this year. Tracy Chevalier, author of The Girl with the Pearl Earring, wrote a beautiful novel about a terrible family dysfunction that was haunting and terrible, in the most meaningful sense of the word. Louise Erdich’s The Master Butcher’s Singing Club puts together the story of a town between World Wars, where the daughter of the town’s drunk returns home and finds an unlikely life among German immigrants. Isabel Allende, who I loved for her novel The House of Spirits, took on the fortunes of two very different families affected by the Japanese internment camps during World War II. These were all memorable novels, written by authors that are masters of their craft and genre and they move the reader by reminding us of some of the best parts of being human, even when confronted with the worst of history.
In speculative fiction, I spent a year thinking about The Gate to Women’s Country, which is a novel unlike any that I’ve ever read before. It came to me as a recommendation that I might enjoy and it’s true; it haunted me all year and gave me a lot of food for thought, which is exactly what good speculative fiction should do. This year also had retreads of Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane and Johnson’s In Another Life. Both were worth it.
Tana French continues to be a favorite writer in crime. It’s not a genre that I’ve read much of since the days when I shelved books in a mystery section as a volunteer high school student, but I’ve always loved French’s police procedurals for their deep dives into human psychology. Her newest novel, The Trespasser, came out this year, which I am really looking forward to reading in 2017.
The Taming of Roses with Thorns, Margaret Dilloway
In contemporary fiction, A Visit from the Goon Squad took the cake, even though I wouldn’t have picked it up without a nudge from a book club. Egan took on the rock n roll industry, writing a novel of interrelated short stories about the people surrounding an aging record executive. The experimental nature of the book adds some fun to the story as well, with an entire story told via a Powerpoint slide. It does actually work. The Burgess Boys was another favorite, though much of that came from how well Strout managed to peg the New York import’s feelings about New York. As an aging import myself, I found myself nodding and laughing along with some great passages.
Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
Little Women, Louisa May Alcott
I always know that the world is unsettling when I feel a need to reread Pride and Prejudice, which happens at least once every few years. I’ve spent hours wondering what it is about this particular novel that is so delightful and could probably spend at least a few coffee dates speculating. I love Austen’s work very much, but Pride and Prejudice is definitely the literary equivalent of your mom’s mac n cheese. Little Women was a new read for me, though – a novel I’d always meant to get around to and somehow missed. Although some aspects of the story have aged over the century and a half since it was published, I really understand how it has such a following. The sequels are on my reading list for the future.
I’ve ended this year with the same regret as last year; I simply wish that I had read more. I still can’t read with Baba around, because if she sees me reading a book without pictures, she pushes it out of my hands and brings me one of my books to read to her. And so, if we’re counting board books, my number would triple. I’ve read five books just today, in fact! And there is much to admire in such simple story telling. Some of the books that we read are just beautiful, between the artwork and the storytelling. They may not be designed for adults, but this adult has really come to love books made for very small children.
As it is, this is the time for New Year’s Resolutions and, also, a new Goodreads reading challenge. I have some books that I’ve really been looking forward to on my next-to-read list, like Daisy Goodwin’s Victoria and Elizabeth Strout’s much-talked-about Olive Kitteridge. I’m halfway through Annie Proulx’s Barkskins and have just begun a biography of the Mozart family by Ruth Halliwell. I’d love some recommendations — what have you read this year that blew your mind?
I mean that literally and figuratively; the winter solstice is, after all, upon us. I am headed towards Manhattan in a grey and bleak morning that has barely lifted into day. It’s raining, just enough to make me seem strange without an umbrella, but not enough to inspire me to take it out. I am alone in this, one bare head in an army of black umbrellas.
Like most of the world, I’ve also been reeling from the U.S. Presidential election for the last month. I’m sure it’s not hard for regular readers to guess which way I voted, so I’ll spare everyone all of that. Watching the post-mortem has been painful, as the pundits looking for ratings try to blame someone or explain away a result that very few people predicted. I, for one, am tired of trying to dissect American psychology, like we are all one big mass. I’m even tired of reading explanations about the white working class or white middle-aged women or Latinos for Trump!, because it all simplifies the picture and does not lead to much listening. It doesn’t even ring true. I have a white working class husband who would never vote for the anti-union candidate. I am a white woman who has been walking through the world with a new level of fear and anxiety. For the first week, my stomach literally ached. As the high level administration appointments have been coming in, starting with a literal neo-Nazi, I’ve had a hard time thinking about much else. This is not who we are, except that it is apparently exactly who we are. It is not who I want us to be. Maybe I am just naive, but I’d thought we could all at least agree on the Nazis.
This anxiety is not sustainable.
I want to reach across the aisle and listen – and to reach across the aisle and be heard – but how do you do that with so many people shouting? How do you do that when our elected officials are looking at the Japanese internment camps of World War II as a legal precedent? How do you shut your eyes and ears when a man who ran a “news” site that runs articles like “How to Make Women Happy: Uninvent the Washing Machine and the Pill” is now one of the chief advisors of one of the most influential and powerful people in the world? Just yesterday I read an article about a man with a gun showing up on a street that I know well because he chose to believe the vilest of Internet rumors. A childhood friend’s family church was vandalized with white supremacist graffiti within days of the election. Another friend’s cousin, living on the other side of the country, had a swastika painted on her garage. Closer to home, the NYPD is dealing with such a large spike in hate crimes that they are creating a special division just to deal with them.
I am afraid to shut my eyes. I’m afraid that if I don’t shut my eyes, I will never live a normal life again. How do you strike the balance?
I haven’t a clue. I put big pink safety pins on all my jackets and purses. In those first few days after the election, I was terrified to wear them, but I swallowed the fear and thought about how much braver it is to wear a hijab right now. It is a little enough thing to put a pin on my clothes – a pin that can easily be removed to let me blend into the crowd where my pale skin and blue eyes will protect me. The KKK has been dropping flyers on my train. Yesterday, another woman on the subway was attacked for wearing a hijab. When I tell myself that adding a safety pin to my clothing is the least that I can do, it really is the absolute least that I can do. I have decided to be accountable to my pin, that I will not blend into the background when I see that someone is afraid, but I also despair that I won’t live up to it.
So here we are in the literal darkest days of the year, trying to find a way to creep back towards the light of summer. On Sunday, we put up a Christmas tree in our new home, right in the giant bay window that I have fallen in love with. When I turn the corner at night, I see it shining its manufactured light out into a world of darkness. In a normal year, it would give me hope. This year, I am trying hard to open myself up to be able to see its light.
There’s a new coffee shop by the train station that opened over the summer. In a world of Starbucks and Walmarts, it is a welcome relief to the monotony of grande cups and jazzy backgrounds. It is in a tiny space, which previously belonged to a failed news stand and, before that, a coffee stand that only served cold bagels.
Sometimes I think that I have been in this town too long, now that I can remember the history of spaces.
But I like this shop. It’s taken the craft approach, offering everything that you’d find at Starbucks at higher quality. The pumpkin latte leaves a smudge of actual squash in the bottom of your cup. The baked goods are kosher yogurt muffins where you can sink your teeth into the actual fruit. I’ve been determined to help it thrive, which is helped by the fact that I’ve been horrible at getting out of bed lately, and often arrive at the train station needing breakfast.
The baristas take their jobs as coffee artists so seriously that I imagine that they’re all part owners. It might be so. Every morning that I forget my breakfast, I go and choose between the big muffin and the small muffin, and I make such a stink out of it that the big blonde fellow grins every time I go for the big one.
One morning, a new customer came in behind me. Most of America would know the type. He was dressed for work, in an outfit that tells you that this is a man who worked with his hands. Perhaps a mechanic, perhaps in the trades. His jacket was the tough rough leather of a welder’s jacket and he wore jeans made for work. When he ordered, he asked for a small coffee with sugar and a corn muffin. He pointed at the glass display.
“I’m sorry, sir, but that’s a lime coconut yogurt muffin,” my favorite Viking told him.
“What?” He looked closer at the muffins, where a sign declared the new world order in a bubbly script. “Don’t you have corn muffins?”
“No, sir. Just what’s there, sir.”
The man looked over the selection, then shook his head. “Forget it. Just the coffee.”
When he left, he was shaking his head. And, because I am in Trump country, I thought, Is he a Trump voter? Is this the demographic? The man just wanted a corn muffin and a coffee, like he’s probably been ordering at his favorite deli for 30 years, but now he can’t have it. He could have lime coconut or apple yogurt or pumpkin spice loaf, but the classics have disappeared from our offerings.
I watched him walk away without his breakfast, embarrassed for the coffee shop, although it is just a symbol of its time. Why should they carry a product that isn’t exciting and new? They have to compete with the green mermaid machine, like everyone else.
Before Hurricane Sandy, there was a real New York deli right there that would have blown this coffee shop out of business in a matter of weeks. But their store was destroyed by the storm, so they packed up and found a new location two towns away, much too far for the commuters at my station. We have had to shift without our classic bagels and eggs and plain coffees with milk and sugar. And the world that rebuilt never filled those needs again. My new little coffee shop is the closest, but it doesn’t suit everyone.
And watching this man, I understood a little better about all the people who have been left behind by our shifting economics.
The man just wanted a corn muffin. What’s so bad about that?
Living through this Presidential election season has been hard for me. I have been joking-not-joking that 2016 is the year that White America discovered that racism is still a thing, as Trump’s candidacy grew ever more blunt about its willingness to incite anti-immigrant fervor. As the wife of an immigrant and the mother of a child with dual citizenship, this has been terrifying. Even though I know that no one is thinking of the big Irish guy when they’re spouting off about “the Mexicans” or “the terrorists,” it’s hard to watch the violence and the ugliness of the rhetoric. And it has been surprising to me, even though I live in a neighborhood that is deeply religious, to find out how many people have been willing to give a pass to the nastier things that he’s been saying because of how much they hate Hilary Clinton.
As the election progressed, Trump signs sprouted like daffodils on the lawns of my neighbors. Every time I passed one, it felt like a slap in the face, as people that I’d liked shouted their support. And I am trying to be better than this, but it’s difficult for me to look past a willingness to ignore such dangerous rhetoric.
Except there is a part of me that must be honest enough to myself to admit that there have been times where I have reacted to the injustices suffered by Black Americans with gratitude that that sort of thing was not my problem. Until not so long ago, it happened every time an unarmed Black man was shot by the police under suspicious circumstances. It happened when Rodney King was beaten in the early 90s. I would shake my head and be enraged by the injustice of it, by how unstoppable the system seemed. And then I would think, “Thank God that won’t happen to me,” and go on with my day.
I don’t feel that way any more.
Thanks to Trump, I have discovered just how many of the people in my life are okay with the way things are. That is white privilege in a nutshell. The Trump supporters that I know are not evil people. But they are people who have made peace with a man who says vile things, who are content to let the problems of other people be their problems. And they have made me feel afraid, in a way that has opened my eyes to the feelings of many dark skinned Americans.
And that was before his tape with Billy Bush leaked.
It is good that we are having big national conversations about sexual assault. One of the best parts of the way that our culture is changing is that we’re starting to talk about rape culture, which was a phrase I’d never even heard until I was in my 20s. I remember the epiphany, as a young woman, that we should be asking men to talk to men about rape, rather than spending our lives trying to protect ourselves from it. It was a radical notion, this thought that men could be responsible for fixing this problem that predominantly affects women.
Sometimes it is easy to forget how far we have come, in a relatively short period of time. It was only a hundred years ago that we even gained the vote, much less the right to sue for sexual harassment or spousal rape.
Since the tape leaked, I have been thinking of the times when a man has forced a kiss on me, in the way that Trump described. I spent about a week vividely reliving those moments — the fear and the anger that came with it. When a coworker made a joke about locker room talk, I know I was supposed to laugh, but I could only shudder. I’ve been fortunate in my life and have only suffered the garden variety level of sexual harassment. I don’t consider myself traumatized in any way by these experiences, though I am nervous when I encounter strange men. The events that I’ve been thinking about were both strangers, who pushed themselves onto me in public places. In the first, I was a sixteen year old girl sitting at a bus stop. The man had been bothering me for several days, so I asked him to just leave me alone and to go away. There were others there, and I remember their faces distinctly because after he kissed me, I jumped up and screamed at him while they stared at me like I was the problem.
And not one of them got up to help me, because it was not their problem. It was not happening to them.
The second incident happened one night on the subway here in New York. It was about ten o’clock at night on a week night and I was coming home from a dinner out with friends. Sitting in a nearly empty train car, I was studying for work. The man approached me and asked for money, over and over again. He wouldn’t go away, so I finally gave him some change to make him leave me alone. When I did, he decided to kiss me. Years later, I can still feel the wet imprint of his lips on my forearm, which I threw up above my head to deflect him and defend myself. I remember the faces of the two women who got on the train at the next stop, who I asked to switch cars for their own safety.
Garden variety harassment, as I mentioned. I do not know a single woman who has not had multiple experiences like these.
No real harm done, except…except that I have a certain distrust of men that I do not know, because of all the times that men have behaved this way around me. When I first heard “The Story,” a song by The Great Ani, I thought, “Oh. Oh yes, this. This is exactly it.” The lyrics are a bit of poetry:
I would have returned your greeting if it weren’t for the way you were looking at me this street is not a market and I am not a commodity don’t you find it sad that we can’t even say hello ’cause you’re a man and I’m a woman and the sun is getting low there are some places that I can’t go as a woman I can’t go there and as a person I don’t care I don’t go for the hey baby what’s your name and I’d alone thank you just the same
Since the tape leaked, the Trump signs in my neighborhood have come down. I am filled with gratitude for that, as it lets me stop thinking of the men that have objectified and attacked me and all the people that look like me.
Maybe that is a start. Maybe it’s a move towards the empathy that we need to create a kinder world where your problems are my problems. I can only hope that at the end of all this ugliness, we’ll all have learned something about ourselves and the country and culture we want to create.
As the Great Ani sings:
we’re all citizens of the womb before we subdivide into sexes and shades this side that side and I don’t need to tell you what this is about
Undressing for the fan Like it was a man Wondering about all the things That I’ll never understand there are some things that you can’t know unless you’ve been there but oh how far we could go if we started to share I don’t need to tell you what it is about you just start on the inside you just start on the inside and work your way out
It is October and I have been writing short stories for most of the past year, among other things. More on that later. But I was reminded the other day of my favorite Hallowe’en story, read by one of my favorite authors, so I thought I would share it with you.
The world might be dark and scary outside, but I just wanted to remind you that literature can make it even scarier.
The children are a mix of ages, from four to seven, but their thin limbs sprawl equally across the newly painted merry-go-round. Merry-go-rounds are now an artifact of time, an icon of the American landscape that has been sacrificed to this new world of safety and caution, and Baba has never seen one before. Despite all of my efforts to distract her to slides and swings in the toddler-sized playground, she goes running towards it, arms outstretched like a tiny fun-loving zombie.
When they see her, the children on the merry-go-round drag their feet in the dirt to bring it to a screechy halt. “Wait,” says a little girl with brown hair that is desperately escaping from her fat braid. “There’s a baby.” She pulls on the metal bars, dangling her tiny bottom over the edge, her hips moving back and forth with all the energy of someone who hasn’t yet figured out how to sit still.
“Baba, no-no,” I say desperately trying to distract Baba. “No-no, Baba!” There are no harnesses on the merry-go-round and she’s certainly not stable enough to cling to the bars. Everything in the New Parent Handbook says that this is a very, very bad idea.
“No-no!” Baba says, cheerily.
“It’s okay,” a young boy says, his words slurred by his missing lower front tooth. “We can push her.”
“We’ll go slow,” the girl promises. “Since she’s a baby.”
“Alright,” I say, then help Baba scramble up onto the merry-go-round. The other children part, making room for her tiny body in that amorphous way that groups of children move when they are en masse. Baba stands in the middle, smiling and babbling in her joy of being part of the group. “Sit down!” I tell her, thinking that at least if she sits, she shouldn’t smack too many body parts when the merry-go-round begins to move. I climb on with her and sit cross-legged on the cold metal, secretly pleased at my flexibility.
And let’s be honest, it’s not just pleased. I’m delighted to have an excuse to sit on a merry-go-round again. It was my favorite playground equipment and Baba has given a fabulous excuse to pretend I’m a child.
“Is she ready?” the brown-haired girl asks. “Because my dad has taught us the right speeds.”
“That’s right,” the boy says. “For babies, you have to go really slow.” He hops down and begins gently pushing us around, at a speed that would make the teacup ride at Disneyland yawn in boredom. “And for older babies, you can go less slow. And for a little older than that, you can go walk speed. And then, when it’s only older kids, you can go fast. And then, when you’re five, you can go super fast.”
“And when you’re six,” the girl interrupts, “you can go super-mega-awesome-fast.”
The flights to America leave from Terminal 2 in Dublin. There was a time when arriving at the airport was a relaxing part of the trip. It was a last chance to sit at O’Brien’s and have one last authentic fry-up, one last cup of well-brewed Barry’s tea before stuffing a real scone in my bag and heading back to the land of hot dogs and coffee.
Time has changed things. O’Brien’s is not what it was. The tea is a weak European blend that we don’t recognize. The fruit is green and the sausages are no longer spiced in the Irish style. The staff are eastern European, serving up a cheaper version of the Irish experience that has lost everything in translation without gaining any international flavor. The beans are insipid at best.
But this barely matters, because we no longer have time to stop there for breakfast before our flight. New American security concerns mean that we must go through two sets of security screenings, as well as customs, before we even get to the gate. Well over an hour later, when we’ve gone past all of that, we queue up for half an hour at the one restaurant in the American section of the airport, where I pick out a muffin that I don’t want because we no longer have time for the staff to heat up a panini. The plane is already boarding, even though we’ve been at the airport for two and a half hours. I swallow half of my cappuccino before throwing out the rest so that this time, thank God, we don’t end up running for the gate. I burn my tongue.
It has been an exhausting trip, this trip back to Ireland to bury my brother-in-law. I’ve cried a great deal more than I expected, while remembering more names than I anticipated. My in-laws are a veritable tribe, a tribe that shows up en masse to major life events. There are cousins and friends and adult children with children of their own, all of whom seem to remember my name. When I ask my Beloved to clarify which cousin Mary that he had just referred to, he gives me a blank look at my dense incomprehension, then rattles off a string of names and relationships that I lose hope of being able to follow by the second sentence. My family has been declining in numbers for a generation; I am simply not equipped with the skills to remember everyone, even after four years of marriage. But I am getting better.
My sister-in-law brought pictures of my Beloved and his three siblings to the wake, one from shortly after the birth of the youngest and another from right before my Beloved left Ireland for good in the late 80s. They are children in the first picture and barely more than that in the second. The second photo hung in the family home for decades, becoming such an icon that my Beloved and his siblings retook it a few years ago. I am so glad that they did now, though I remember being in a rush at the time, because there will never be another one with all four of them together. That time in their lives has finished, long before we ever expected that it would. So we passed around the pictures and told old stories to the new generation, while marveling at the changes in the family between then and now. Baba wandered at our feet, pulling at the photographs and trying to find out what happens when you bend them.
My brother-in-law was buried on Saturday, so we took Baba and her cousins to St. Anne’s park on Sunday for some much needed downtime. There is a playground there that is a Dublin institution. The carved horses and cows had fresh paint once, but it has been worn off by generations of small hands climbing all over them. Baba climbed up onto the Viking ship, which is far too tall for her, and her eldest cousin, who is a man himself now, reached up to keep her from falling. We posed her with her two cousins, and tried to keep her still enough to get a good shot. She doesn’t understand why we would want to sit still in a playground, where there are so many things to climb and explore.
Perhaps there will be a day, years down the road, where we’ll make another photo like yesterday’s, when Baba is old enough to understand, and marvel again at the impossibility of capturing time.
I know that I am grieving, because poetry keeps running through my head. A fragment here, a stanza there. It is a dark season, made darker this week by the passing of my brother-in-law, who was a fine, big man that I’d been planning on having in my life for another 20 to 30 years, at a minimum.
Tonight, we will get on a plane, a red eye flight that will take us over the dark waters of the Atlantic. We’re travelling with Baba and have taken enough red eye flights with her now that I do not think that I will be sleeping for the better part of 24 hours, because toddlers do not understand things like ignoring all of the distractions on the plane for some much needed rest.
There are, indeed, many miles to go before I sleep. Many of them will be spent walking my 30-pound toddler in my arms up and down the narrow aisle of the plane, begging her to just, please God, please just close her eyes.
And I am reluctant to go and see my brother-in-law. In April, my brother-in-law was a healthy man. I saw him this summer, after the brain tumor had started to destroy his body function, but when he was still talking. A seriously ill man, but an alive one, who was asking about the madness that has infected American politics this year, who had opinions about movies and wanted to tell you what you needed to watch next on TV.
As far away as we are, it doesn’t yet feel possible that he won’t be in Dublin, waiting to greet us when we get there. I have no experience of Dublin that does not include dinners at his house, his hugs and kisses, the feeling that he always gave me that I was truly a part of the family, that the in-law part of our names for each other was just a stupid formality that only mattered to other people. He was the first of my in-laws to call me his sister. I will never forget the happiness in his face as he did it, because it must have reflected mine.
Once I see him, then I know that it will be real that he won’t be there anymore. Not this time, nor the next.
And I do not want that. I desperately do not want to talk about him in past tense. I want to keep him in the realm of “is” and not “was.” It’s impossible. It’s just impossible that such an alive person could no longer be with us. It’s impossible that there will be no more beers in seaside pubs and stories of his motorcycle cop days and eating takeaway fish and chips at his dining room table, listening to the fire crackle and pop.
Cliché, cliché, cliché. But things become clichés because they are true.
And that’s where poetry comes to save us, to say things for us in beautiful ways, to express our grief in words that seem worthy of it.
And so, Joe, let me share with you the stanzas that I’ve had stuck in my head since I heard the news of your death. The poem reminds me of you, you who spent your weekends sailing yachts, because it was what you just loved to do. You, who took scuba trips to Caribbean islands, who worked in Croatia for a year, who finally found the adventure you were always looking for in the love of your life. You were never too modest to share how happy you were about the fine adventures you had! — and that gratitude, that spirit is something that we should all learn from you. And so I think of Robin Williams in The Dead Poet’s Society, again, telling a classroom of young boys about the preciousness of each day, because you, Joe, you were the essence of carpe diem. And so I say, to all of you…
Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying:
And this same flower that smiles to-day
To-morrow will be dying.
The glorious lamp of heaven, the sun,
The higher he’s a-getting,
The sooner will his race be run,
And nearer he’s to setting.
It is Monday morning, on the sort of fall morning where rain comes by in unsuspecting gusts, drenching any commuter that was brave enough to put their umbrella away during the brief periods of dryness. On the train, freed from the drama of the rain, we are hurtling towards Penn Station, racing past the sleepy yellow houses of Queens that quietly witness the thousands of people that travel past them each day.
Then the phones begin to buzz, first a single alert, then an unignorable clatter of sounds, as Verizon and AT&T and TMobile send out a law enforcement alert. Without glancing at my phone, I know that they must have found the person behind the bombings of the last 24 hours, the set of trash can and pressure cooker bombs in Manhattan and northern New Jersey that have scathed passer-bys, but not yet killed anyone. They’ve gone off in empty neighborhoods, late at night and early in the morning, just a reminder of how vulnerable we are and how dangerous it is to dare to be in a crowd.
How much worse they could have been.
My kid brother came over last night for dinner, as is his habit on Sunday nights. “Did you hear about the bombings?” he asked, worried that people are once again attacking our city. He is young – 21 – the same age that I was on September 11th, 2001. He was six at the time and living in England, so I know that the stories about it sound like people landing on the moon or the assassination of JFK did to me.
“It’s scary,” he says.
“Yes, but,” I say, “if you lived in Baghdad, this would be something that happened every week.”
“That’s true,” he says.
“It is scary,” I add, belatedly. “And New York will always be a target. That’s just something you have to deal with, living here. And oh God, tomorrow’s commute. It’s going to be awful.”
“Ugh,” he says, sympathetically. I know that he is glad that he works nearby.
I am not, you may note, the most reassuring person in a crisis.
And so here we are again, with another frightening drama unfolding on streets so familiar that they feel like home. The mayor and the media were quick to respond, to reassure us that the first two bombs were “intentional but not terrorism.” I laugh a bit at the language, because the way the media restructures words. Of course it is terrorism. Anyone planting bombs in public spaces is trying to terrorize the public at large. And, hardy as we are by now, it’s working. The kids are scared.
And so I wonder about this name that has just shown up on all of our phones, as we go about our lives and continue on to offices with bosses that would not understand if we “let the terrorists win” (whatever that means) by staying home. We’ve seen this play out before, in Boston, and we know that he will be found. There is not a scenario where you draw this kind of police attention and walk away free. And, is that the point? Is this kid — only a handful of years older than my brother — testing himself? Is this a question of wits, inspired by a thousand and one blockbuster action films? And is he alone? Will we be safe, as he runs for his freedom?
In the seats in front of me, a woman wearing far too much perfume is peacefully playing Candy Crush Saga, whiling away her commute as though today were just an ordinary day. At the other end of my subway ride, I will come out of the World Trade Center subway stop, thinking as I queue up for the exit of how vulnerable we are, standing trapped underneath such a world-famous target. I feel the echoes of the dead around me, as I emerge into the sunlight and pass St. Paul’s, the three and a half century old church across from Ground Zero, where some of the first European inhabitants of Manhattan are buried. The grass grows long and wild at the edge of the graveyard, where it curves down to the meet the street. I wonder about the groundsmen whose job it must be to worry about this small detail.