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When Written Words Are Not Enough

My husband, Jim, and I were a block away from the undetonated bomb in Chelsea last Saturday night. We didn’t hear the blast on 23rd Street because were in a sound-proofed concert hall at the National Opera Center on 28th and Seventh Avenue listening to life-affirming music. Afterwards we went with our musician friends to a very loud pub downstairs to celebrate, still oblivious to what had happened. Sirens and emergency vehicle lights in New York are a constant; we didn’t pay attention. So it was only when we were ready to leave and began to check our travel apps that we knew something had happened: there was no 1 train. This meant walking to the A train which was several blocks away. By then we knew there had been a blast. NYU alerts told the rest of the story. Protocol is: stay alert, keep away from hubs, move out of the area as quickly as possible.

Before we even begin to think about the causes and consequences of such violent acts, we are into survival mode. New Yorkers, city dwellers around the world, and travellers, are now good at that. And we probably will have to be for the forseeable future.

Then comes the aftermath, the thoughts about what might have happened, how we have been spared, the lists of those who have been injured and, for me, flashbacks to 9/11, and nightmares. The next morning I may still feel unsteady but I force myself to write in my journal—actually that is a relief—and to post on Facebook. Those posts are important for friends and family who live far away. They want to know if we are okay and we want them to know we are okay. But once the post is up, the “likes,” are not enough: I wish people would call. Electronic voices may be rich in feeling if the FB friend takes the time to write more than one sentence; mostly they are fast and shallow.

I think we forget sometimes how we have communicated with our loved ones: was that a text, a phone call, an email, an IM? And we forget the importance and solace of the human voice. True, I hear people “talking” to me electronically, but it is not the same. There are situations—and last Saturday night was one of them—when written words are not enough.

Recently, a friend who lost her father told me how hard it was to read condolences on Facebook. “I’m sorry for your loss,” was the favorite shorthand cliché when people were at a loss for what to say. It works and then it doesn’t. What we need in such moments is some originality, a willingness to interrupt routines and pleasures to show some real-time warmth, even if it’s a long distance hug on the phone and an empathetic ear.

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