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On Boston, Music, and the Human Desire to Persevere

An entirely non-football reaction to the tragedy this week in Boston.

Jim Rogash

I wrote this earlier in the week on my Tumblr, but decided I'd like to post it here as well. Apologies for being entirely non-football.

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And am I born to die? To lay this body down!

At 3:55 Eastern time on Monday, I received a text message from my mother. "R u at school or home?" Now, my mother was at work and wouldn't normally bug me with a vague question like that unless something had happened. She knows I've only got one phone, so it wasn't a matter of "where should I call you?" So my mind pretty quickly jumped to, "well, after nine years, something cataclysmic has finally happened in DC while I was here." I had a brief moment of panic, but after telling her I was just leaving school she let me know that there had been a bombing in Boston.

I walked back in and quickly read the news, caught myself up as much as I could and then headed out to go home. I wondered if there would be much extra security on metro, and I kept my headphones out of my ears just to keep them open in case there was anything to hear. Mind you, I wasn't worried about my own safety. If you live in DC for any length of time, you quickly realize that being paranoid will only drive you insane. Instead, I was just curious to see if there would be any changes. I didn't notice any, and the ride home was as normal as could be. Nothing had really settled in yet, and at this point Boston was just another news story; though undoubtedly a more troubling one than normal.

And must my trembling spirit fly into a world unknown?

When I got home, though, I turned on the news and started making dinner. I heard President Obama's initial address and was sitting down on the couch to eat as NBC continued to re-tell what little they knew. Mentally, I'd gone from feeling an analytical calm (hey, a news event happened), to feeling a quiet, seething anger. "Why would anyone do anything like this?" I wondered. And the fact that I wasn't alone in wondering such a thought offered no comfort. There is no answer that anyone could ever give that would offer any comfort. The images floating across my TV screen were those of senseless violence.

At some point though, still eating, I realized I wasn't angry anymore. I mean, I was. That's not going to disappear. But it wasn't the prevailing emotion. Instead, I sat on my couch doing everything I could to not cry. I didn't even notice the shift, and I was almost startled by the tears forming in my eyes. I'd gone from angry to impossibly sad in a matter of minutes.

Soon as from earth I go, what will become of me?

The emotions are strange to me. I vividly remember the morning of 9/11, and not really feeling all that much. I was an entire continent away, and it just seemed like an insanely important news event. And while I am a fairly empathetic person, events of this nature generally don't resonate with me. I'm not really sure why. But this time something was different. Maybe it was just the build-up of a world seemingly going to hell. One of my friends from college was in the theatre in Aurora. Newtown shook me to my core. And now I was watching the tweets of another college friend trying to get her oxygen-tank-needing grandmother home in a panicked Boston. Good news has been hard to come by lately, and I think it finally all just hit me.

But, as always happens with a shocking event of this nature, we began to quickly hear stories of the people who are out there to prove that the evil in humanity is distinctly in the minority. Stories of runners who had finished the race running further to donate blood. Stories of people running not from the blasts but towards them to help those in need. Stories of family members doing whatever they could to get their loved ones home.

Eternal happiness or woe must then my portion be?

Tuesday night I met two of my friends and two of my students at a church on Capitol Hill in DC for a shape-note sing. It's a style of early American four-part singing that one of those friends had introduced me to a while ago. Sung mainly by amateurs in a full-throated roar, it is, quite simply, amazing. There is no other type of music about which I speak like this, but singing shape-note music is cleansing for the soul. Classical music is amazing, pop music helps get your mind off of the world. But neither of them - or any other music I know of - have the same impact as this absurdly simple four=part music. Those times when I have gotten to sit on one side of the square and just sing for all I am worth have left me refreshed in a way that nothing else ever has.

You've surely noticed the random poetic lines sprinkled throughout this post. They're from one of the very first tunes we sang on Tuesday night. It's called "Psalm 30" and it's in a new tunebook called The Shenandoah Harmony. Here, have a listen. Play it as loudly as your ears will handle, that's the only way to listen to this music:

Look at that text. It's the thoughts of someone who has no idea why we are here on Earth, or what will happen to us when we leave. It's a dark text. In another tune that uses the same text, the fourth verse talks of rising from the grave and seeing the fiery skies. Make no mistakes, these are dark words, appropriate for dark times.

Listen again, though. Tell me there isn't a large measure of hope in that music. Tell me that there isn't something amazingly uplifting about a bunch of people getting together to lift their voices in harmony and say, essentially, "Things look bleak, but hey, we're all in this together." There's a solidarity of the human spirit in this music.

But remember, music can't express something that doesn't exist. The solidarity of the human spirit isn't just in this one tune. It exists in the human spirit. Things do look bleak lately. Aurora. Newtown. Boston. West, Texas. I'm really not certain if we'll see that change anytime soon. But for all of the evil, horrible, gut-wrenching things out there, we all still have each other.

On Monday, I sent a friend a text message that said "The world is fucking terrible sometimes." By Tuesday night, I realized that was unquestionably true, but it left out a big part. The world is fucking terrible sometimes, but it's amazingly wonderful most of the time.

I talked to my step-mom later in the week. We talked about what an unbelievably terrible week it had been. I told her that it was hitting me harder than I ever would have anticipated. And then she said something really simple, something that - like "Psalm 30" up there - has been going through my head on a loop since then. And yesterday, I ended class by having a talk with my students and telling them the same thing. So I'd like to pass it on to you as well: next week will be better. And if it's not, the week after that will be. Or one of these weeks will be.

In the meantime, we will all get through this together, on the whole, there's just nothing else that we humans do better. And no matter what happens, we will be able to persevere.