There is something about knowing a place, a city — walking its streets, absorbing the sights, the sounds, finding the shortcuts, feeling the sun on the sidewalks, having a favorite shop — that gives us ownership, even if we haven’t been there in a long time. You keep a map in your head that comes up on your internal screen when something happens in one of these places. “I’ve been exactly there,” you say to yourself, “that is my place.”
Growing up in a small town in Rhode Island, Boston was the big city. I remember going to dinner at Durgin Park in Fanueil Hall — before it got cleaned up. My first Red Sox game was a double header against the Angels — before they were something called the Anaheim Angels of Los Angeles (It being 1967, the Sox won.)
I lived in the Back Bay after I graduated from college, just a few blocks from Monday’s tragedy, and celebrated many Patriots’ Days on Boylston, on Comm Avenue, on Beacon Street in Brookline. (My grandfather, who came from the Pale of Settlement as an infant, recited “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere” every Patriots’ Day when I was a child. We knew what the day was about.)
As a young college graduate with a paying job, but not a lot of responsibility, Boston was a lot of fun. I had a studio apartment straight out of the Mary Tyler Moore show. The Back Bay was pretty, historic, and safe. I walked to work, down Beacon Street to Commonwealth to Boylston, across the Common and into downtown. Boston was my town.
Monday, when I heard the news, my mind’s eye went straight to that internal map of Boston. And then radiated out — to family running in the marathon, to my brother and his family and employees, to my nephew who attends Emerson University, just a few blocks away. All okay, all safe, but so much harm to people whose names I don’t know but about whom I care so much.
And I was reminded of another time, another city that lives in my internal road map, Jerusalem on August 9, 2001. I woke up to the tragic news of the bombing at the Sbarro Pizza store — 19 killed, including 7 children and 130 wounded. And my very next thought — “Mom is in Jerusalem for the Hadassah Convention and I know she is shopping on Jaffa Road — or she could be walking back up to her hotel.”
A minute later and the phone rings. It’s my mom, who knew that I was already mentally walking the street map of Jerusalem. She had missed the bombing by a half hour or so, and all of my Hadassah ladies were safe, but so much harm to people whose names I didn’t know but about whom I care so much.
I actually have a much clearer mental map of downtown Boston or the Ben Yehuda area of Jerusalem than I ever did of the World Trade Center — it wasn’t a place I had been very often — not that I wasn’t horrified, terrified, forever changed by 9/11. But my mental compass, the sense of ownership of place was not as strong.
It is a vulnerable time in which to live, in which to explain things to our children, to ourselves. In all of the things I’ve read about in the last almost 12 years, as senseless tragedies unfold in places I love, something I saw on Monday is resonating with me. It is: there really should be an 11th commandment: Do not give in to despair.
We must continue to create mental maps, to engage in the worlds we visit and in which we live and love. Don’t give in to despair. Trust in each other and have hope.