How to Move Forward

Paige Towers

Paige Towers

My dog and I emerged from Back Bay train station into the crowd of Boston Marathon spectators. Police directed traffic. People pressed up against the metal barriers that lined Boylston Street so they could watch the runners go by. The dog strained against his leash, trying to sneak around legs and feet and into some grassy spot somewhere to relieve himself. We couldn’t get to a spot in time and he shit on the sidewalk. I directed people around us while I bent over to clean up with a plastic bag. I remember feeling frustrated with him for not having gone earlier. I remember thinking that the day was getting off to a bad start, because of dog shit.

I met up with friends soon after. One left to take a nap; the other joined my dog and me to watch the race near the finish line. But we didn’t last long. Maneuvering our way through bodies and closer towards the sidelines was an exercise in patience. Nearing the final weeks of a semester of graduate school, all we could think about was the stuff that both of us had brought to work on, and eventually we gave into it, discussing assignments and things we hadn’t written and things we wanted to write but didn’t have time to and so on. We turned away from the race; there were hundreds of runners flooding by; and walked in the direction of another student’s apartment five minutes away where we knew we could study and- although we didn’t know it at the time- where we would be safe when the bombs went off, about thirty minutes later.

Later that week and I was thinking about legs and feet a lot. I was thinking about all the bombing victims that now had amputated limbs, trying to imagine what that could possibly be like. I even looked up the word “leg” on Wikipedia, even though I didn’t know why I was doing it at the time. “A leg is a weight bearing and locomotive structure, usually having a columnar shape.” At 3 a.m. or whatever very late time it was when I looked this up, I thought for a moment that this description meant something, and that I might now have something important to write about in relation to the bombings. But I couldn’t figure out what, and finally realized I might just be tired.

What I do know is this: In those first days after the bombing, I was more aware of my extremities than ever. Not since I squeezed my feet into too-small ice skates as a child and then experienced the pain of thawing feet, not since my ex-boyfriend lost both of his legs below the hip in Afghanistan, not since I ran a marathon of my own a few years ago, have I thought so intently about all those muscles, bones, arteries, ligaments, tendons, nerves, skin- all that blood flowing in the lower half of my body.

A freshman student of mine named Alex apparently couldn’t stop thinking about legs either. In a draft for a writing project that was supposed to be about student loans she turned in a few days after the bombings, she wrote the following lines: “I am very aware of my own two legs right now. I imagine that when I fall asleep tonight that’s what I’ll dream about—legs. Running legs, dancing legs, crossed legs, shaky legs.”

I couldn’t stop thinking about what she’d written. I think I was almost jealous that she’d be able to express what I’d been aimlessly looking for on a Wikipedia page.

After returning from class that day, I sat down at my desk and stared at my laptop screen. Over the recent days, I had heard what I thought were surprising views from fellow graduate students. “We shouldn’t be writing about this right now because we don’t have enough distance from the subject yet,” one said. “Yeah, I’m not looking forward to reading everyone’s “Marathon” essay next semester,” another said. This wasn’t new; everyone seemed to have an opinion on how we should be coping with the bombings, or not coping. I couldn’t figure out if they were wrong or right or neither and so I started to write a guide, a guide on “how to keep moving forward”, as I saw it, and it wasn’t really for anyone but me.

It started like this:

Standing up helps. If you find yourself paralyzed by your state of grief, anger, confusion, or whatever else you may be feeling, try this: press your feet into the floor, tighten your leg muscles, grab onto something for support, and stand up. If the next thing you find yourself doing is dialing the number for the nearest pizza place, leaning over your laptop to write down a few thoughts, or opening your closet to grab your walking shoes and dog leash, then you’ve done something. You’re moving forward, and that’s enough for now.

Three weeks since Marathon Monday, even with the weather warming and the trees blossoming, even while finishing the semester watching my dog roll and stretch his stiff, skinny legs in the new grass, that’s still all I can do sometimes: stand up. And then suddenly, without thinking too much about it, I’m picking up the phone and calling friends, or my mother, and finishing grading, and writing, and reading, and baking cinnamon rolls, and running, and even dancing in a bar later, and then walking home, still thinking of legs, still getting choked up from time to time, still searching for meaning, but moving forward.


Paige Towers is completing her MFA in creative nonfiction writing at Emerson College. She is also an instructor in the First Year Writing Program at Emerson, an editorial assistant at Bibliomotion Publishing Company, an ESL teacher, and an avid runner and traveler. She and her dog, Gorby, live in Jamaica Plain, MA, where together they are crafting a series of essays into a book.


  1. You have strong words and strong legs! Thanks for providing this great example of how it’s possible to reflect and move on at the same time.

  2. Your words have legs. I will remember this piece for a very long time. Thank you.

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