Boston Marathon One Year Later: Stories of Creative Expression and Resilience
Jeremy Nobel, MD, MPH, Founder and President, Foundation for Art and Healing
It’s been a year. Despite four deaths, a few hundred injured, and a merciless attack on our city’s sense of safety and security, Boston is stronger now than it was before the bombs went off. The city is united in important ways, resolute and ready to run that race again – this time with the whole world looking on. Terrorism failed in Boston, and I think there are lessons to be learned from the last year of Boston’s recovery, about resilience in general.
A month following last year’s bombing, I posted something on The Huffington Post, sharing my perspective as a public health professional that resilience is fundamental to the public’s health, and suggesting a concerted effort be launched to better understand resilience, measure it, and produce it as a sturdy plank in our social platform. Sadly, there is no future scenario in which the threat of community and personal disruption from terrorism and other violent antisocial acts, or weather disasters like Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, or even economic disruptions like the 2008 recession, can be excluded, or even becomes less likely. Consequently, we need to be as prepared as possible to withstand these shocks, recover, and move on.
There are many factors that increase resilience: close relationships with family and friends, a sense of confidence in being able to adapt and respond to adversity, good problem solving and communication skills, and an ability to frame negative events within a context that allows the perception of at least a partial positive meaning. Since resilience is vital to survival, it is not surprising that social activities and rituals that support and grow these factors, at both the individual and community level, are all part of how we respond and cope.
Many are aware of the activities in and around Boston and elsewhere that brought people together and provided support by offering a sense of connectedness and meaning. Some of these activities were focused and tactical, like forming teams to run together in this year’s marathon, or to support others who will. In other cases, community groups formed to help individuals recover, raise funds for victims, or to honor them in various ways.
There are less well-known stories of how people turned toward the power of creative arts as a source of healing and hope, employing music, writing, visual arts and more as a means to reflect upon, and find a way to “make sense” of the events last April 15, and to move forward – and in doing so, gave the rest of us a lift too! Read some of these stories, below.
All of these creative-arts based activities shared something important – the ability to convert a torrent of difficult thoughts and feelings into something that, while rooted in memories of the horrific, could construct a bridge to a different set of emotions and perspectives. That creative bridge provides a way to move ahead past tragic events, propelled forward with the thought that we are “all in this together” and “no one gets left behind.”
I believe that this unique and vital ability for creative arts to allow us to withstand the shock of terrible experiences, and still find a path that has meaning and purpose – to convert our pain and challenges into stories that can be shared with others in a way that inspires, motivates, and connects – is what explains art’s importance and centrality through history. As a public health practitioner, I think that a serious exploration and promotion of creative expression as a way to better put us in touch with ourselves and others – increasing resilience even as it increases compassion and empathy – is timely and warranted… not just in Boston, but worldwide.
Amid Trauma, Student Songwriters Tune in to Healing
Berklee College of Music students Callie Benjamin and Ben Johnston saw the marathon from distinct perspectives: one first-hand, and the other, through the lens of a combat veteran. Both turned to their music, pouring their hearts into lyrics, melodies and harmonies to process the traumatic event that occurred just blocks from the school. We were fortunate to be able to speak to them about their extraordinary experiences, and how music played a role in the individual and communal healing process.
When your body tells you “run,” you run
But I stuck around to be the brave one
And even though the smoke has risen
There’s a danger I’ll always be in
– from “April ” by Callie Benjamin
Callie Benjamin was serving the Marathon crowds on the patio at Forum, the Boylston Street restaurant adjacent to where the second explosion occurred. Mere minutes before the bombs went off, the Billings, Montana native had run upstairs to bring dirty dishes to the kitchen. Moments later, there were explosions, the sound of shattering glass as the windows blew out, the screams of injured and terrified patrons, the sight of blood, and the looks of fear on her co-workers’ faces.
In spite of the possibility of another explosion, Callie launched into action, fueled by adrenaline and a deeply-instilled volunteer ethic. She ushered upstairs patrons through the kitchen and out the back of the building, made tourniquets for the severely injured downstairs, and stayed on site until police forced an evacuation.
“April 15th, 2013 still doesn’t feel real, which is odd because it still finds a way to creep into my head at least once a day,” she said.
It took Callie nearly five months of sorting out her feelings – she admits she is still “very much in that process” – before she even contemplated writing a song. “I was in a daze for a very long time,” she said, “but once I returned to Boston for school in the fall, things were a little more real.”
When she sat down at the piano, she struggled with where to begin, wondering, “Do I write the ‘feel good’ song, or should I write about what’s really going on?” It took just a moment of letting go for the process to begin.
“All of a sudden, my hand was guiding itself, and when I looked down at the page, I realized I was writing my most personal song,” she reflects. “Looking back now, I realize my heart didn’t want me to write a song about being better, because I wasn’t. I was called to write a song that victims of trauma could relate to – a song for the days where you feel like no one understands this phantom of post-traumatic stress.”
Ultimately, Callie penned “April,” a song she says “people can listen to, and know they are not alone.”
“I have a deep passion for working with people,” she said, “and I feel like that was shining through subconsciously as I was writing.”
Callie recently had the opportunity to hone her songwriting skills during a spring break trip to Nashville, and returned with more inspiration to keep expressing her truth through her music, including some wisdom from a Grammy-winning country artist.
“I had the privilege of witnessing Kathy Mattea in a songwriter’s clinic, and she said something that I find to be quite profound: ‘When you’re given a can full of gasoline, you can either use it to light the whole room on fire, or you can use it to propel forward.’ I sincerely believe everything happens for a reason. I am so very grateful that I have the opportunity to pursue my deepest passions, and I know with my entire being I was meant to attend Berklee, here in Boston.”
Callie reflects upon her experience, leading up to her graduation this spring, with a positive outlook and a strong desire to continue to help others through her work.
“My mother always says, ‘The universe will only give you what you can handle.’ Even though this experience has been one of my biggest trials, I believe I was placed in Forum Restaurant that day because I was meant to help others share their stories through song.”
“I long to give others hope,” she says, with optimism. “I plan to go on chasing my dreams, and for the rest of my days I will try, with every ounce of my being, to be a person anyone can look to while they chase theirs.”
I don’t have a song for that
When the words just disappear
And I don’t know what’s going on
No, it’s not that I don’t care
Sometimes in this crazy world,
There’s just no way to explain
When it goes wrong,
I don’t have a song to play for that.
– from “I Don’t Have a Song for That”
by Ben Johnston and Jordan Lucero
Ben Johnston was not present at the marathon on April 15, but the Iraq veteran and songwriter was quick to respond to his peers’ emotional pain after the bombing, just blocks away from the college. He and co-writer Jordan Lucero had been working on a song about love and loss that would soon help the Berklee community process the shock, fear, and confusion felt in the days after the bombing.
Johnston was in a unique position to help others through the recovery process. During the last several years, songwriting had helped him through his own traumas, including the deaths of close friends and fellow soldiers in combat, and a near miss with an IED in Iraq.
“On March 11, 2008, my vehicle was hit by an IED. Miraculously, no one was injured, but it definitely impacted me emotionally,” he reflected. “A week or so later, I wrote a very emotionally intense song as a way of getting my thoughts out,” said Ben. “The first time I played it for anyone was out at the smoke shack, and several soldiers were crying by the time I finished singing. I realized people connected with my lyrics.”
Fast forward to March 11, 2013, when Ben, now married, and a student at Berklee, learned that two of his close friends had died in Afghanistan – five years to the day his vehicle was hit.
“Both were West Point classmates of mine. Sarah was a Blackhawk pilot who died in a crash, and P.K. was a Special Forces Captain who was shot in a compound by an Afghani police officer… a traitor.” Both deaths were particularly difficult for Johnston. “They were personal…I still have their numbers in my phone,” he said.
A month later, explosions rocked Boylston Street, turning the Back Bay into a locked-down “war” zone. While the rest of the city was on edge and reeling from the loss, Johnston describes his reaction to the bombing as “muted,” his response shaped by grief over his own recent losses, and his experience in Iraq, where attacks like the IED attack on his vehicle were frequent and unpredictable.
“I watched the events of the bombing unfold just like I was back in Iraq getting updates on an attack or bombing of some sort – very emotionally detached and analytical,” said Johnston, who was tasked with cataloguing “sigacts,” or significant action reports, while deployed. Johnston was also in therapy for mild post-traumatic stress. “I knew the emotional numbing was symptomatic of a protective response to previous PTS,” he said.
As the college reopened, Ben noticed that many students were profoundly shaken by the tragedy that seemed so implausible in the vibrant neighborhood where they lived and studied. He recognized then that the song he and Lucero had been working on expressed the cloud of grief, anger, and uncertainty that was still settling in Berklee’s halls and Boston’s streets.
“’I Don’t Have a Song for That’ is about those times when life throws something at you so big, you just can’t find the words to express the emotion,” he said.
“A lot of people were really, really rocked by everything that had happened. They felt extremely violated in a personal way, and many of them were struggling very badly to deal with it. When [Jordan and I] got together after classes resumed, it was just so obvious we needed to frame the song around the bombing,” said Johnston. “We felt it had a very strong chorus, but needed significant rewriting of the verses. Having that chorus was a gift, and we felt obligated to use it.”
Ben and Jordan began to rework the song, and through the process, Johnston realized that his past experiences with similar trauma were a gift to the song, as well.
“What I found very informative is that I was detached enough emotionally to process what was happening, recognize what other people were dealing with, and draw on so many of those past experiences to lend truth to our lyrics.”
After presenting the song in class the following week, Ben turned from the piano to find the teacher in tears.
“That’s when I knew we had written something powerful and meaningful for others. It wasn’t my truth in that time or place, I wasn’t struggling for words…but when Jon, Tim, Sarah, P.K. and others that I knew died, I was…and that’s the truth that I brought to the writing of that song,” Ben reflected.
“Based on continued reactions to the song, I think that it rings true with others as well. I think that is one of the greatest joys and honors as a songwriter…to find a way to communicate truth in a way that listeners find hope, comfort, support, healing.”
Ben’s music is already receiving music industry attention, including the honor of having a song selected to be recorded by Grammy-winner Mattea during the Berklee Nashville trip he and a busload of songwriting students – including Callie – attended in March. He looks forward to making a career in music, and continuing to give, with hopes of teaching in a program that offers free music lessons to veterans.
“That would be very exciting for me, a vet teaching other vets, so we’ll see how that turns out,” he said.
Read the Berklee College of Music story about the song and above video, here.
Dan Blakeslee: Healing through “Hearts for Boston”
Dan Blakeslee was near the marathon finish line on Monday, April 15, 2013, just an hour before two bombs destroyed lives and limbs, and shook the city to its core. He later heard the explosions from his Somerville apartment.
Shaken by the event, and experiencing his first-ever panic attacks, he walked miles through the streets into the early hours of the morning, struggling to make sense of a senseless act, and of the intense emotion he was feeling.
Blakeslee returned to his apartment, and turned to his craft – drawing – as therapy. A visual artist and musician known for his album covers, woodcut-inspired black-and-white rock posters, and award-winning beer label designs, Blakeslee drew for hours, creating “Hearts for Boston,” featuring two hands forming a heart over the Zakim Bridge. He shared it with his social media circle.
Blakeslee’s image captured the heartfelt connectedness felt among Bostonians in the bombing’s aftermath. It soon went viral, emerging as a symbol of love and solidarity with the victims. Just a few days after the tragedy, “Hearts for Boston” also appeared as a backdrop for the Fleetwood Mac concert at TD Garden.
Blakeslee used the momentum to raise funds for bombing victims, through the sale of screen-printed t-shirts, posters, and pins, and downloads of his music. Over ten thousand dollars were raised for the victims, including the family of young Martin Richards, who was killed, and whose mother and sister sustained severe injuries; brothers, Paul and JP Norden, who each lost a leg, and Paul’s girlfriend Jacqui, who sustained serious injuries to her leg and hands.
“Creating art was a way to express my heartbreak, and my love for Boston,” said Blakeslee. “It was a part of my healing process, and ended up helping others heal, too.”
See Dan’s art, and hear his music, at danblakeslee.com.
Shared Story: First Responder Walter Dunbar
Returns to Painting for Release
I was working the 2013 Boston Marathon EMS detail during the bombings. In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks I returned to painting as my release and revival. As I worked on this painting, the painting worked on me. The final result is my experience recycled.
Working in the medical tent was a surreal experience that I reflect on every day. There is a verse in Black Elk Speaks that states “I saw more than I can tell and understood more then I saw; for I was seeing in a sacred manner.”
That verse describes it all without describing anything at all. Art became my flashlight to guide me through the darkness.
This is me, with my wife Paula, daughter Natalie, son Lucas on Sunday 4/21/13 at Fenway Park.
Two days earlier, the city was still being terrorized by shoot outs, locked down, and gripped with fear. Now, exactly one year after this photo was taken, I will be running the Boston Marathon on 4/21/14 — my first.
My experience not only inspired me to paint, but to live life to the fullest and start doing all the things I’ve always wanted to do.
– Walter Dunbar, Boston EMS, #1021