Making it home

My neighborhood, on lockdown

My Coolidge Corner neighborhood, on lockdown

On Monday, the bombs exploded. On Friday, the city was put on lockdown, and on Sunday I boarded a plane to fly across the country to a place I’d never been.

It was a trip I’d planned for a long time to a place – Portland, Oregon – that I’d long wanted to visit. At the same time, as I finished up my packing and managed a last few errands, I found myself wishing that I wasn’t going anywhere at all. What I wanted was normality – a return to the usual routines of writing, work, and friends.  It was then that I realized, with some surprise, that this place I’ve been living since September has come to feel like home.

For my friend Jan, the Boston/Cambridge area has felt, from the very beginning, like where she was meant to be. “Cambridge is the first and only place I’ve felt like I belong and where I’m entirely comfortable in my own skin,” she wrote last week, in the dizzying days after law enforcement staked out the Cambridge residence of the alleged marathon bombers.

My own relationship with the area has been both slightly longer and far more fraught. It began back in 1978, when I arrived on the Harvard campus at the age of 18, a serious, shy Midwesterner abruptly catapulted into a foreign land. In the 20th-century intellectual history class I took freshman year, our professor lectured on the 1897 novel Les Déracinés, about seven young provincials who lose their way after arriving in Paris, the price of having been torn away from their native traditions. That word stayed with me— déraciné, unrooted. I certainly wasn’t living in France at the turn of the century.  Still, I knew what it felt like to be alone and unmoored.

I did not cope especially well. I went to a lot of parties, and I began a drinking career that would last through my mid-30s. I recall a couple of half-hearted visits to Harvard University health services with no notable results. Some two decades later, Melanie Thernstrom’s Halfway Heaven would chronicle a murder-suicide in one of Harvard’s undergraduate houses. An Ethiopian student, lonely and unstable, stabbed her Vietnamese-born roommate to death then hung herself. Reading Thernstrom’s account of the systemic failings of Harvard’s psychological services, I would nod my head thinking, yes, this is what it was like.

Being young, confused, and far from home, bereft of support structures—it’s never been a recipe for happiness. Yet why do some triumph against all odds, while others self-destruct, while still others lash out violently with tragically horrific results?

By all accounts, the ethnic Chechen Tsarnaev brothers were considered friendly and well-liked. What series of events led to them to mutate from seemingly assimilated immigrants to murderous bombers? While the answers may never be fully known, a history of uncertainty and dislocation is unlikely to have helped.

Wherever you go there you are. The more I reflect on that neat aphorism, the less true it seems. For many of us, and for many different reasons, home is not a place to which we return, it is something we create, and that act of creation takes energy, resources, and support, along with that undefinable and elusive thing called luck. When I moved back to Boston this last time, I had all of these. I know what it’s like not to: It’s really, really hard.

Perhaps the most iconic photo to emerge from the marathon bombings is the image of a man in a cowboy hat leaping to the aid of a critically injured victim, having beaten down flames and tied a tourniquet to one of his partially severed legs. We now know that the rescuer is Carlos Arredondo, a 52-year-old peace activist who’d already faced more than his share of personal tragedy. Nine years ago, on learning that his 20-year-old son had been killed by Iraqi snipers, he doused himself with gasoline and set himself on fire. Two years, ago a second son committed suicide, having never recovered from his brother’s death and father’s resulting meltdown.

How do we account for this sort of gorgeous alchemy? If Arredondo had become a terrorist, we would have no shortage of ready explanations. But instead his anguish fueled a passion to save and rescue. “Cities are not resilient, people are. And, sometimes, they are not,” wrote Boston journalist Elaine McNamara. The journey from despair and loss is both profoundly personal and unpredictable. Wrong turns happen. Not everyone makes it back.