City Upon a Hill

This time of year, the magnolias are starting to blossom on Commonwealth Avenue. Usually the pink and white cherry blossoms in the Public Garden are in bloom by now, but we had a long winter this year, so even the daffodils are still introducing themselves. But bright swaths of green are starting to cover the Common, and the iceskating rink at the Duck Pond is gone, replaced by water; soon kids from all over the city will be playing in its fountains.

It’s okay that some of our trees are still stark; the city is beautiful anyway with her shining gold dome, her growing skyline, her rugged brick spine, her slouching triple deckers. Spring is just getting warmed up.

Park Street Church

One spring, centuries ago, that over-quoted Puritan John Winthrop was leaving England on a journey with his fellow soon-to-be-residents of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Winthrop preached that they were destined to build a “city upon a hill.” A chosen place of God. An example for the world.

That proved true yesterday.

Marathon Monday, aka Patriots Day, is always fun here. When I used to live in the Brighton section of Boston, which is a few miles from downtown, I would sometimes walk home from my Financial District office on Marathon Monday so I could follow a good part of the race course. There are parties and onlookers every inch of the way. And there are still runners, even at 4 or 5pm. At 5pm you see the stragglers, and the stragglers are my favorite. They are so damn determined. Some of them are practically shuffling toward Copley, and many of them are dressed in wacky costumes, but by God, they’re going to finish the race.

Boston’s youth is always in display on this annual day of celebration. It’s also school vacation week, and a holiday for many, so families are out and about. In Lexington, early in the morning, locals dress up as Capt. John Parker and his crew (and as the dreaded Lobsterbacks) and reenact The Shot Heard Round the World. There are always local kids staring in wonder at the costumes and the muskets, just like kids from Hopkinton to Copley Square stare in wonder at the waves of runners, some of them parents, relatives, and teachers, as they push their way to 26.2.

There’s always a game at Fenway, and the Red Sox always play early, so fans usually make their way from the park to the race route just a few blocks away. The Red Sox won yesterday.

Marathon Monday is one of those unique things I love about Boston. It’s our way of remembering what happened hundreds of years ago and how instrumental this area was in our country’s first difficult years. And somehow we also turned that day into an internationally famous celebration of cordial competition, a day when hundreds of thousands of people from around the world, the country, and the state come to either participate in the race or cheer on the runners. It is also a day of charity. Countless Boston and Massachusetts charities run teams in the marathon every year, raising thousands of dollars for the Jimmy Fund, or the Animal Rescue League, or the Pine Street Inn, and hundreds of other causes.

Yesterday the lovely, fun, quirky tradition of Marathon Monday was attacked, and so was everything it has meant for generations of Boston and Massachusetts families and the visitors we so proudly host.

I heard the bombs from my apartment in Beacon Hill. I thought it was two peals of thunder – that’s how loud they were. How strange, I thought. There are so few clouds in the sky. Soon the news parted me from my naivete. My first reaction, of course, was fear; for the next hour my focus was determining that everyone I know and love in this city is okay. I’m lucky; everyone I know who was near or in the race is fine. My second reaction was sadness, watching the images emerge on TV, I cried, horrified that this was happening in my town, just down the street.

On Sunday, my husband and I and two of our friends had gone to Old South Church for a unique service that included a blessing of the athletes. The congregation and all the visitors put our arms up, hands extended in the ancient sign of blessing, and we prayed for the runners, their families, and the volunteers. And then we headed to brunch, walking down Boylston, down a stretch of street that was covered in blood the next day.

Looking at that blood yesterday, my sadness turned to anger. An anger that surprised me in its strength. How dare someone come here and do this in my town.

There have been many moments when Boston and Massachusetts, like any other places on earth, have not not lived up to that city-upon-a-hill promise that Winthrop preached about. Just ask the Native American tribes who taught the newcomers in Plymouth how to survive. Just ask African Americans in the busing crisis, or the Irish of the 19th Century, or the socially ostracized in 1690s Salem.

Oh, but what Boston and Massachusetts have done right. So many American firsts. From America’s first (and still beautiful) public park, to the first free public secondary school, university, printing press, telegraph, telephone, subway, canal, post office, police force. We were home to the first church for free African Americans,  the first abolitionist newspaper, the first public library (our beautiful BPL is closed today, part of the crime scene), to the first State Constitution (thank you John Adams) and  the first women’s rights convention. We had a lot of firsts in recent years too. The first state to recognize gay marriage. The first state to create a universal healthcare coverage system.

And, of course, there was the first battle of the Revolution.

Boston and Massachusetts have been exceptional, and the people who make up our community have led the way, so many times. Yesterday was no different. From the police and volunteers and firemen and EMS workers who rushed toward the explosions, to the runners who turned around to help, to the bystanders who rushed to try to stem the bleeding of their fellow celebrants, to this city’s first-class healthcare professionals who saved lives, to the thousands of Bostonians who offered their homes, the coats off their backs and their cellphones to stranded runners — I am overwhelmed with pride.

It is calm in Boston today, but it’s not normal. Like last night, I have seen some people in tears, and still in shock; the helicopters sit in watch above us, their rotors a constant droning buzz over the city. Sirens screech by at an all-too-frequent pace. Part of the Common is roped off as a staging area for the FBI and National Guard. But there were also people sitting and eating their lunches, tourists taking pictures of many of our beautiful landmarks, people going to work with a renewed appreciation for their ability to go back to their daily lives when others cannot.

There were more trees blooming today, and more green buds appearing. We will be okay. And for that I thank the exceptional people of this exceptional city that I love so much.


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