In late summer of 2001, I went on a five-day solo backpacking trip through the woods of northern Maine. The first two days I followed a well-traveled path along a river and slept in rustic bunkhouses with several other hikers. The next day, however, I was to climb the imposing Mount Katahdin by myself and spend the night in a lean-to near the summit. On the fourth day, I would reach the top, traverse the tablelands, and descend the other side, arriving at civilization in the form of Chimney Pond Campground.
The trail to the lean-to was beautiful, rocky, and remote. If I were injured in a fall, it could have been several days before anyone happened by, so I was very attentive to my footing, and grateful for the opportunity to experience this sense of danger, which made me feel more alive. I spent the night in the lean-to, feeling both the vulnerability and the sacredness of my solitude.
The next morning I continued my climb, remaining acutely aware that any accident could be disastrous. To calm my fears, I told myself that there would be other hikers at the top, and I would be safe there again. When I reached the summit, however, I remained totally alone.
Though the view was magnificent, my vague fear became an uncomfortable sense of fragility. I was so small and weak next to the power of the wild and unsentimental mountain. A common summer lightning strike could have put an end to my frail existence. For days no one would have known that I was dead.
Uneasy yet exhilarated, I spent most of the day exploring the vast, lonely tablelands. Finally, it was time to head down. Once again, the trail was long, steep, and treacherous. Exhaustion from four days of hiking increased the chances of a misstep. On my descent, I thought to myself: When I reach that ridge, I will be safe. . . . When I make that turn, I will be safe. . . . Another half mile, and I will be safe.
In this manner, I eventually reached Chimney Pond Campground. Although I’d made it off the mountain, I realized that I was in no way perfectly safe. I could still get a brain tumor or die in a plane crash. We are never really safe from the possibility of misfortune or tragedy.
And yet the thought came, too, that we are always safe. We are all part of the Oneness that can neither be created nor destroyed. We are never safe, and we are always safe.
The week after I returned from my mountain sojourn, a well-loved doctor in our town lost his two teenage daughters in a car accident.
Several weeks later, nearly three thousand people were murdered in New York City as they began their workday on a brilliant, sunny Tuesday morning.
I remember the first time I flew in an airplane and looked out the window at the desert below. The dark lines of the waterways reminded me of the veins on the backs of my mother’s hands while she cooked dinner or eased the ache of growing pains in my legs.
Years later, when my mother was slowly dying, I fled to those desert streams for succor. With three other women, I backpacked into a canyon. The broad, shallow creek at the bottom was clear and warm. While my friends talked and laughed and played in the water, I retreated to a tiny cave formed by broken slabs of rock that centuries ago had slid down the mountain and landed just so by a ledge.
I was a young single mother raising a child, working, and going to school all at once, so I hadn’t had time to grieve my mother’s illness. There in the cave, I clung to myself and to the rocks as I went from rage to grief to breathless fear. Watching cancer inexorably destroy my mother’s body had triggered in me an acute awareness of my own vulnerability. Suddenly it wasn’t safe to be in the sun for fear of melanoma. It wasn’t safe to play in the stream for fear of wicked shards of glass that might lie hidden among the rocks. It wasn’t safe to be in my own body.
Eventually, I had to crawl out of my cave. I forced myself to step into the stream despite the possibility of broken glass. I lay back and let the gentle water carry me for a little while, until I could breathe again. Then I stood and returned to the ledge. A flash of light caught my eye. Where just moments ago there had been nothing but bare rock, there lay a large, shiny safety pin. Very funny, I thought.
After the funeral, my sister and I went back to our mother’s house to go through her belongings. Months before she’d died, we had decided who would have what, but now that she was gone I wanted it all: everything she had ever touched, worn, or breathed on. I wanted to gather it all up into my arms and hold it to me like a shield, to keep me safe.
The last task was to divide her jewelry. My sister and I took turns claiming what we had already chosen until the box was almost empty. Then we discovered something in it that neither of us had ever seen before — a huge silver safety pin.
That pin, like the one from the canyon, came home with me.
My plan to move to Los Angeles and become a professional actor started over lunch at a friend’s house in Lansing, Michigan. Jane and I were complaining about minor annoyances and major dissatisfactions in our lives when she made the off-hand comment “Oh, you and me, we’re always going to complain about our lives and never do anything about it.”
My life up to that point had been a series of false starts and missteps: A couple of years at community college. A couple of relationships that lasted till the demands of adulthood made them too stressful. A couple of years acting in summer stock. A tour with a cheesy male singing group. A brief flirtation with dinner theater. But my tentative stabs at an acting career always ended with a return to the comfort and security of my Lansing community-theater womb. I had pretty successfully avoided anything in life that would challenge me beyond my rather limited comfort level. I was probably as safe as it’s possible to be.
And I wasn’t happy.
We’re always going to complain about our lives and never do anything about it.
I didn’t want that to be true. I desperately needed for it not to be true. I didn’t want to be one of those people who meander through life putting more value on the illusion of safety than on being truly alive.
I’ve lived in Los Angeles for a little over a year now. I’m the lead in a bad one-act play, set to open next week at a theater on Santa Monica Boulevard. I also work at a bookstore, making barely more than minimum wage. My savings are gone. I got rid of my car after one too many repair bills and haven’t yet figured out how I’ll get another one. I wrestle with a sometimes overwhelming desire to have my slightly dull, unchallenging, safe life back again.
For the time being, though, I’m staying in LA. It will be interesting to see what happens next.
Los Angeles, California
I work, reluctantly, as safety manager for a division of the world’s largest environmental service corporation. I accepted the position for what I was told would be only a few months in exchange for a one-time fifty-dollar bonus. I didn’t know that once you accept a responsibility in this place, it won’t go away until you do.
I tried to make a difference at first, until I realized that the various department managers did not have the time for safety meetings. None of them really cared. The meetings were just one more task on a long list of tasks they weren’t paid enough to perform.
So now I simply change the date at the top of last year’s meeting notes and fax them to corporate headquarters every month. No one has said anything to me in three years. I realize this probably isn’t the safest thing to do.
I knew, when I entered Baker Correctional Institution, that I wasn’t tough by a long shot. I didn’t know how to fight and was afraid to carry a shank, let alone use one. For the first year I fended off the advances of muscled old cons who wanted to play house. But in time, I discovered that if I didn’t gamble, didn’t steal, didn’t borrow, and didn’t mess with punks, I was more or less safe.
Hardee Correctional Institution, to the south of Baker, was where other prisons sent their troublemakers: the young ones who thought they were immortal, the older ones who just didn’t give a shit anymore. We picked up snippets of news about Hardee from transfers: They’d just had their second riot this year. The thieves there traveled in packs, and the guards looked the other way to avoid a trip to the hospital and early retirement. Hardee, we were told, was full of gangbangers and butt-fuckers with an endless supply of shanks and pipes buried all over the compound.
Then one day, without warning, I was transferred to Hardee.
On the way there in the prison bus, my knees were shaking. I was heading into the war zone. I practiced appearing aloof, enraged, dangerous. But you could only fake so much before you had to show what you got. And I didn’t have much.
The bus pulled into the gate. After checking in at the property room, I carried my belongings to my assigned dorm. Now I was on the compound itself. The other inmates appeared relaxed and laid back. The calm before the storm, no doubt.
I found my rack and began unpacking. A large black inmate stepped up behind me. Here it comes, I thought, and I turned around.
“Just so you know,” the man said, “we don’t tolerate thieves in this dorm. If you’re a thief, you’d best move out. If you’re straight up, you’re welcome to live here.” He held out his hand. “My name’s Mark.”
“David,” I said, shaking his hand. Was this a trick? Was he testing me in some way? I began to relax in spite of myself. “I’m not worried about robberies,” I said. “It’s the stabbings and riots that get my attention.”
Mark smiled. “Last riot was six months ago. All the troublemakers who weren’t shipped out are doing three to five years in the box. Administration got tired of all the shit. Now they only ship mellow dudes like you and me here, to make it peaceful. So don’t worry. We’re safe.”
Bowling Green, Florida
When I stepped out of my apartment, I noticed a group of boys walking down the street. There were about seven or eight of them, all in their early teens. As they approached my parked car, one pointed to the rainbow-flag sticker on the bumper and yelled, “Fag!”
By the time I got to the sidewalk, almost all of them were pointing at the car, laughing, and yelling, “Fag!” or, “Dyke!” I crossed the sidewalk and stepped into the street.
“What up?” one of the boys said to me.
I nodded back and said, “Hey.”
When I got near my car, another boy asked, “Hey, that yours?” I continued past him, quickly unlocked my door, and got inside. I looked up through a windshield covered in gobs of spit. As I drove away, they threw rocks and chunks of ice at my car.
Now, four years later, I work in a middle school in a rough part of Boston. I hear the word fag on an almost daily basis, though never directed at me. The students don’t know I’m a lesbian yet. (I don’t have a rainbow-flag sticker on my forehead.) But if a student asks me, I know that I will tell him or her the truth.
If I become known throughout the school as a lesbian, I risk harm to my property and myself. At the very least, I expect I would hear some epithets. I’m afraid — at times, very afraid. Yet I’m more afraid of the students not knowing the real me, of hiding behind lies to protect myself, of not giving them the opportunity to react differently than those boys did.
Laura L. Noah
I picked up Farid, Sureih, and Abdullah in front of their run-down apartment on Chicago’s North Side. In their homeland of Somalia, the three belonged to a minority ethnic group and had been part of their country’s middle class of merchants and civil servants. Now they were refugees piled into my gray Volvo so I could give them a ride to a social-service office to apply for welfare benefits. My Episcopal church was helping them get settled in the U.S.
Right away I noticed Farid’s eye patch — the result, I would learn, of a hand grenade thrown into his family’s courtyard by one of Somalia’s many warring factions. Abdullah was the only one who spoke English. He had bright, inquiring eyes that made him look as though he was meant for greater things. Sureih, with her sharp Somalian cheekbones and round white eyes, was Abdullah’s older sister and Farid’s wife.
At twenty-four, I had just returned from six months in Latin America and was in the throes of an existential crisis. For the first time in my life, I saw no prescribed path laid out in front of me. I was scared to make a move toward the future, as any step I might have taken became a life sentence in my head. A return to Washington, D.C., to work on Capitol Hill meant decades of toiling to serve the corporate elite. Back to Guatemala to save the rain forest meant my barefoot children begging their grandparents for money to go to college.
The mood was generally solemn in the car. I assumed that my passengers were anxious about the trip, their third to the welfare office. I’d heard that they had been treated poorly on previous visits and were ashamed at having to ask for help in the first place. I didn’t bring much joy to the group myself, mired as I was in self-pity and fear of the future. Mostly we brooded in silence.
As I pulled onto the Dan Ryan Expressway, I decided to break the silence by turning on the radio. After a few minutes, Abdullah sat upright in his seat and said excitedly, “Volume up, please!” I turned it up just as Marvin Gaye crooned the opening lines to “Sexual Healing.”
My passengers had heard the song many times in a refugee camp in Kenya while waiting to come to the U.S. They began swaying their heads to the rhythm, and soon we were all singing along: “Sex-u-al heeea-ling . . . ”
We sang together, and the sun, which had been peeking out from behind the buildings for a while now, warmed the inside of the car. After the song was over, we sat in silence again for a few moments. But it was a different silence now: warm and safe.
Kevin Y. Riley
I grew up in El Paso, Texas, during the Cold War, very close to White Sands Missile Range and two military bases. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, my school practiced red alerts (duck and cover under your desk and wait thirty minutes for an airstrike) and yellow alerts (run home so that you can die with your family). No one ever suggested that we would make it out alive. Evacuation of the city was not even discussed.
I often overheard heated arguments between my parents about whether to build a fallout shelter. My mother begged and cried, desperately believing it would save our lives. My father yelled, loud enough for the neighbors to hear, that we couldn’t afford to build one, that it would just bake us like a giant oven, anyway, and what about the neighbors who didn’t have one? I imagined the neighbors as zombies clawing their way through the steaming, radioactive soil, moaning to be let into the shelter while, safe inside, we ate oranges to keep up our vitamin C.
We never built a shelter. My parents compromised by keeping five-gallon bottles of water around the house.
Those days and nights of extreme paranoia led to pervasive thoughts about safety. I wondered where in the world one could be safe.
Years later my university-professor husband, Jim, and I became bored with our lives in Texas and began looking for a new place to live. I remembered something I’d read in college about a weather phenomenon called an “anticyclone” — a huge atmospheric center where hot and cold air meet to create an outward spiral of fresh wind. One such anticyclone lay over the South Island of New Zealand. We were tired of the heat and storms in Texas. We wrote letters to every university in New Zealand, inquiring about positions. The University of Canterbury, in the South Island, responded.
We lived in New Zealand for twelve years, in a large house on a six-acre farm thirty minutes from the university. The country was incredibly beautiful. A clear, deep stream ran through our land, and the white-capped Southern Alps guarded the far perimeter. Our emerald green fields were home to Hereford cows and flocks of white birds that shot up when disturbed. Double and even triple rainbows graced the horizon. In the evenings, great walls of mist rolled across the fields, enclosing the farm in their ghostly embrace.
When the concept of nuclear winter came to light in the 1980s, a study by the New Zealand government revealed that the whole Northern Hemisphere could burn up and the only consequence for New Zealand would be a three-degree drop in temperature. This was real safety.
But New Zealand was seven thousand miles from our friends and family. It cost ten thousand dollars for our now six-member family to visit relatives in the U.S. Our home was starting to feel like a beautiful prison.
After twelve years, we left for the first job that Jim could find back in the States. It happened to be in Las Vegas. I guess that, in our hearts, we decided it was better to live — and perhaps die — with one’s friends and relatives than to be by ourselves in paradise.
Boca Raton, Florida
I am sixteen, and my father and I are driving home when a dented gray car in front of us comes to an abrupt stop. I wonder whether they’re having engine trouble. Then a man throws a woman out of the car, pushes her down in the street, and begins beating her head against the curb. Her eyes are expressionless, as if her spirit has left her body rather than feel this pain.
Three small children in the back window of the car look at us with terrified faces. The oldest boy yells, “Stop it!” at his father. I want to gather them into the safety of our truck.
My father’s handgun is locked in the glove compartment. He wears it for self-defense while crossing the railroad yard late at night. My brother and I are not allowed to touch the gun, even when it is unloaded.
“We have to help them,” I plead.
I can tell my father is torn between my safety and the desire to help those children. He removes his seat belt.
“No matter what happens,” he tells me, “do not get out of the truck. If I’m hurt, drive to the police station and get help.”
The police station is more than three blocks away. I would never make it there in time to help my father. But I nod to indicate that I understand. He takes a fleeting look at the glove compartment, locks his door, and leaves.
When the man sees my father, he releases the woman, who immediately frees the children from the car. My father talks to the man in a calm, level voice and offers to help with his car, explaining that he does not want trouble. The man’s hand gestures become less animated. My father was a professional boxer in his younger years, but he is vanquishing this man with only his confidence and the sound of his voice.
My father continues to talk, allowing the mother and children time to enter the nearest restaurant. I can see her using the pay phone to call for help.
Eventually the man gets into his oil-burning car and drives away. My father returns to the truck, and we look at one another but say nothing. On our way home, we stop at the police station. My father goes in alone, because he does not want to involve me. Waiting in the truck, I gaze at the cold winter stars, naming the constellations in an effort to stop myself from shaking. I wonder whether I could have done as my father asked and left him there while I went for help. I am thankful that I was not put to the test.
Eventually my father returns, and we sit in silence for a time, the space between us thick with emotion. “I didn’t take the gun,” my father begins, “because bringing more violence into their lives would not have helped them. If he had a gun, too, we could have all been killed.”
For the second time that day, I nod that I understand, and this time I truly do.
One afternoon when I was ten, I walked into the kitchen and found my father sitting at the table in his underwear, weeping. Sunlight was streaming in the window, bathing him in its glow. I didn’t know why he was crying, but I suspected that it had something to do with his quitting drinking and attending AA meetings.
As I approached the table, my father drew me to him and held me close. His body shook, and my T-shirt became wet with his tears. I didn’t know what to do, but I knew he needed me, so I stayed with him. (This was the same man who, six months later, would grab my sister from her bed and throw her against the wall because she had gone to bed and left the lights on.)
After a while he asked me to get him a glass of milk. There wasn’t any in the fridge, so I grabbed my money, jumped on my bike, and rode a mile to the nearest grocery store. On the way back, my bike hit a bump, and the milk bottle flew out of the basket and broke. I felt as if I had failed my father. With tears running down my cheeks, I returned to the store and bought another bottle, using the last of my money. This time I tucked the milk into my pants so that it couldn’t fall out. When I got home, Dad didn’t even drink the milk.
Two years later, my dad came to me as I slept on my upper bunk. He pulled down the sheet, gently spread my legs apart, lifted my nightgown, and licked my genitals. He was tender, even loving. I could see the top of his head against my belly. It took me a few minutes to realize what he was doing. It felt good, but I was terrified. I didn’t want him to hurt me. I pretended to turn over in my sleep. It worked. He went back to his own bedroom.
When I was fifteen, Dad was hospitalized for a diabetic coma brought on by his drinking. Mom and I returned from the hospital to find my older sister piling all our belongings into the car. My sister told Mom that, unless we left while Dad was gone, we would never get away.
Mom still had no idea what Dad was doing to his four children while she was out waitressing at night to pay the bills, but there was something so decisive in her sixteen-year-old daughter’s voice that she went along with the plan. Perhaps Mom had her own reasons for leaving. Perhaps we all had our private reasons.
Mom left all her money with Dad except fifty dollars for the trip. We climbed into the car and headed for Florida, land of palm trees, sandy beaches, and warmth.
For as long as I could remember, I had felt certain that people would read about my family in the newspaper someday: “Father of 4 kills children and wife, then himself.” But as we left New York State, that belief drifted away, replaced by the knowledge that I was going to live.
In Germany our garden stretched over several acres and was fenced all around, making it a safe place for us to play hide-and-seek with our friends. A red gravel path lined with flower beds crept up to the veranda. At the back of the large lawn were swings and a sandbox shaded by plum trees. In the fall of every year, the trees’ fruit became the main ingredient of my birthday cake.
In back of the vegetable garden was an old beekeeper’s shack that my parents transformed into a playhouse for us. They painted the outside green and helped us sew red-checked curtains for the windows and doors. We spent hours there, playing store using the old scale my mother had found in the basement. Sometimes we were allowed to take our dolls for a sleepover in the playhouse, and during the Jewish harvest festival we decorated it with nuts and wheat.
My family did not mow the area surrounding the little house, and bachelor buttons, yarrow, poppies, and yellow mustard grew in the tall grass. My sisters and I picked the flowers and pretended to sell them to each other or used them to decorate our store. We would also hide in this miniature meadow and study the sky, feeling the wind and the sun.
As we grew a little older, fewer friends came to our birthday parties. We were crestfallen when no one showed up to celebrate and play blindman’s buff with us on the lawn. The rejection was especially painful because we could not understand why it had happened. Were we at fault? If so, what had we done? And could we make amends?
Then came the day my parents forbade us to visit, or even speak to, Mr. Braun, the neighbor with whom we shared the north section of the garden fence. We were told that this friendly man, who’d always given us his first sweet strawberries, no longer liked Jews. “Why not?” we asked. My parents could not think of a satisfactory answer. Somehow we intuited that Mr. Braun’s dislike of Jews was related to our friends’ absence.
Not long after that, graffiti was painted on our fence. When we asked what it said, my father patiently explained the meaning of the swastika and the unfamiliar, humiliating words used by the Nazis. None of it made sense to us. Then the trash came flying over the garden fence, faster than we could pick it up. When stones were thrown along with the garbage, we no longer dared play outside. The beautiful garden became a wasteland.
Even today, it is hard for me to understand why our garden was destroyed, why our friends deserted us, why a place that had been so safe suddenly became so dangerous.
Renate G. Justin
Fort Collins, Colorado
I once worked as a neonatal intensive-care nurse in an upstate New York hospital. One sunny morning we admitted Sam, a handsome full-term baby who was having a rough time “transitioning” to newborn life. Sam weighed eight pounds and had fuzzy brown hair and ten fingers and toes, but his skin was pale as fresh snow, his temperature was low, and he lacked interest in his surroundings.
Sam arrived at one of those rare moments when our unit wasn’t busy. All he needed was some oxygen, warmth, and an intravenous glucose line, but he got a neonatologist, two pediatric residents, a respiratory therapist, three nurses, and a medical student, all of whom hovered by his bedside. We were lucky not to trip over one another.
At one point I looked up and saw Sam’s anxious father, a long-haired man in bluejeans, on the other side of the nursery window. He motioned for me to come out.
“I know what’s wrong with Sam,” he said in the hallway. “He doesn’t feel safe. He just needs someone to touch him and tell him that he’s welcome here.”
I explained the medical concept of transitioning and told him how we’d watch Sam and provide him with a little oxygen, heat, and sugar water.
“That’s all fine,” the dad said, “but you have to touch him, too.”
Back at Sam’s bedside, I said to the medical professionals around me, “You may think I’m nuts, but the dad says someone has to touch his baby. So I’m going to.”
Ten minutes later, Sam was breathing easily, and we removed his oxygen. His temperature was up, the glucose had elevated his blood sugar, and the once pallid Sam was pink, testing out his arms and legs, and gazing about with interest. His father, now beside him, was relieved to see Sam looking so healthy. We couldn’t convince Dad, however, that medical intervention had made the difference.
“All Sam needed was to know that he was safe and welcomed,” he said. “Now that he does, he’s fine.”
We thought this ponytailed father was out of his head, and a few of us made snide comments when he couldn’t hear.
It took Sam’s dad only a few hours to win us over, though. We watched as he rocked his swaddled son, read aloud from picture books, and sang lullabies.
“Until my wife can come,” he told us, “I’m staying right here. Sam is safe with me.”
While hitchhiking from Atlanta to Washington, D.C., I feared some redneck would pick me up, discover I was a queer radical from up north, and do me harm. Nevertheless, I accepted a ride from a huge, horselike man in an old mustard-colored Chevy. Before I realized just how strange the horse-man was, we were on the road.
The Jesus sticker on the ripped dashboard was the first bad sign. When the horse-man offered me a beer — he’d apparently had quite a few himself — I politely turned him down, and he got a mean look on his face. “Fuck, I don’t care if you take my beer or not,” he said. He drove fast, tailgated, and passed cars on the right, muttering angry comments under his breath.
After maybe half an hour — though it seemed much longer — we passed a stranded car with a woman standing beside it. The horse-man slammed on the brakes, pulled into the emergency lane, and drove about thirty miles an hour — in reverse — back toward the woman, swerving as he went.
When he reached the car, it turned out there was a whole family inside. (I could tell he was hoping to find the woman by herself.) While he helped fix the engine, I asked the woman if I could ride with them, because I didn’t feel safe with my companion. Since “we” were fixing her car, she could hardly refuse.
When I told the horse-man I was getting a ride with the family, he said, “I don’t care what the fuck you do.” Though I was glad to be rid of him, I felt guilty for leaving all the same.
The woman offered the horse-man money, and he took it. Once he’d gone, the husband said to his wife, “Why’d you give him that money? We can’t afford that.” The wife said she thought it was the right thing to do.
While they argued, I sat quietly in the back with the two children. Though seven or eight years old, the boy could not count past ten on my watch and stared at my braces in amazement, as if he’d never seen anything like them before. I began to worry for him and his sister, who would have to go through their childhoods listening to fights like this.
Eventually, the couple fell silent. The woman, who was in the driver’s seat, waited for a break in traffic to get back on the highway.
After a few minutes, her husband asked angrily, “Why aren’t you going?”
“I’m waiting till it’s safe,” she said. “I don’t want to get us killed.”
“I don’t care if we die,” he said. “Let’s just go.”
She sped directly into traffic. Somehow we didn’t get hit.
I am snorkeling peacefully in Hawaii’s Huanama Bay State Park, fascinated by the giant neons and hungry for more and different sights. Then, suddenly, I am at the narrow mouth of the bay, feeling the current quickly drag me toward the open sea.
An unathletic swimmer, I am emphatically out of my league and can only kick frantically, windmill my arms, and gasp for breath as I think of my children and my own life wasted — until my puckered fingers grip a rock, and I begin to breathe again. Out of the water, I navigate along the shore of the bay, back to the beach, wondering how I could have thought this ocean was safe.
William, one of my twin boys, had meningitis at six months. For years, we took nothing about him for granted, sometimes stealing into his messy room to watch him breathe while he was asleep. By his teens, William seemed safe — only the usual sports injuries and dents to his car and pride.
Then, while William was in college, we got the call that begins, “Your son is all right. . . . ”
And he was. But, during spring break, he had jumped off a 150-foot cliff into shallow water. A half inch either way, and he would have been dead or paralyzed.
I am beginning to think that safety is merely a state of grace. If not, then what am I to make of myself in 1964, a Peace Corps volunteer in Nigeria, driving the two-lane highway from Lagos to Ibadan and following (too closely) a truck filled with rubber tires? The tires are crammed in this way and that, uncovered, untied. I watch the truck bounce over potholes until it hits an especially large hole and spews tires onto the road in giant, swooping arcs. Even as I realize I may be killed, I watch the spectacle, simultaneously fascinated and aware that nothing I can do will prevent whatever outcome fate and the laws of physics have in store. I lift my foot from the accelerator and gently tap the brakes, watching the tires bounce in front of, across, and around — but not into — the car.
New York, New York
At 4 A.M. on the anniversary of my honeymoon, I am awakened by a nightmare. On this day, at this hour, Rob and I were on a cruise in the Galapagos Islands when our boat hit a reef. I lie in bed, remembering:
The ship shudders to a stop and water pours over me, waking me from my sleep. I jump off the top bunk and shake Rob awake. Together we slosh to the cabin door, wrench it open, and clamber up a ladder. In a daze, we don life jackets and stumble through a heaving middle cabin.
For a few seconds I feel a quiet clarity about the situation. The water is coming in, and we will soon be dead, but there is nothing personal about it. The ship heaves again, and a person flies in front of me and hits a wall. I tell Rob that I love him and will hold on to him as long as I can. He shouts for me to keep moving. Someone kicks out a glass door, and I leap off the deck, naked, into churning, inky water.
I land on a sea-urchin bed, wrenching my hip, breaking toes, and spearing my left foot on the urchins’ spines. I don’t feel any of this. We crawl along the reef, sharp lava rocks shredding our hands and feet, and come to rest on a deserted, rocky island. Black bumblebees the size of Brussels sprouts greet us, making maddening, curious forays into our mouths, eyes, and ears. We hear the sound of splintering wood as each new wave throws the ship farther onto the shore.
Everyone has survived, which seems a small miracle, given that some were hurled from the boat when it hit. At first light, we sort through the useless, diesel-soaked belongings that wash up, trying to feel purposeful and not to think about the fate we’ve narrowly avoided.
After nine hours, we are rescued. But that is not the end. The nightmares come next. Every night for ten weeks, one of us bolts upright in bed, waking the other. We turn on all the lights in the house, brew tea, and sit in the living room, sipping and murmuring.
Each year on the anniversary of the accident, and sometimes in the months between, the dreams return, imbuing harmless things with evil portent: the birds sing with malice; our heater hums ominously. I am not safe, I think, lying in bed. Those I love are never safe.
Eventually, I get up, dust myself off, and vow to live a better life, still amazed that I’ve yet another day to live.
Safety is my little half-adobe house in Cerro, New Mexico. There are no straight lines in the entire place. The plumbing is sketchy at best: an idea of plumbing. The owner, Julie, whose mom grew up in this house, crawls around underneath it with the black-widow spiders to fix leaks in the rusty pipes. Her attitude is: Kill me if you have to, spiders, but I’m coming in. Fearlessness is the ultimate safety.
I am painting each room of this once abandoned house a different color. The kitchen is blue; the front room is light yellow; the hallway is chili-pepper red; my room, whose window looks out on the blue mountains behind the house, is sunflower yellow. I will paint my study light purple and bring in lilacs from the bush at the corner of my trashed yard. The colors give me a kind of safety: the safety of beauty, a promise that I will stay here and do what I must in order to survive.
Before I moved in, I heaved all the trash out of the house, room by room, in exchange for my first month’s rent. The junk filled a trailer. I shivered that first night, huddled beneath my homemade quilts on the feather-bed mattress I’d laid atop a frame of plywood and milk crates. Everything in the house froze, including the geraniums I’d “stolen” from my abusive boyfriend when I moved out (he was in Houston for a weekend) and the water that I’d hauled in for my morning tea and bath.
The locals say, “That place is not worth fixing.” They say, “That is a cold house.”
But it is my house. I will make it safe.
Cerro, New Mexico
Sitting at the playground on a blindingly hot summer day, I watch my four-year-old daughter prepare to disappear down the tube slide. As she waves and smiles at me, I ponder the possibilities for disaster before she reaches the bottom: Will she scrape her legs on the sides? Will she bump her head at the top, or crack her tailbone at the bottom?
For a moment I look away, and when I look back, my daughter has dissolved into the mass of children. I can’t pick her out. Minutes pass. My stomach hurts. I begin to panic. I run over and begin interrogating random children: “Have you seen a little girl with a pink dress and purple tennis shoes?” I call her name, trying not to sound desperate, scanning the horizon for predators. I feel as though I may cry or faint. Then I hear her voice: “Mommy, are you OK?”
“God, where were you?” I say. “I need to be able to see you!”
My daughter is now nineteen. Last summer, she prepared to go away to college in New York City, and I orchestrated the move in every manner imaginable. I made color-coded diagrams of mailing boxes and luggage (all fifteen pieces) and listed the contents of each. I tagged, I planned, I obsessed. This time, when she disappeared, I would be ready.
And I was. As we stood in Washington Square, just across the street from her dorm, I joked with my daughter: “My best advice is get some sleep, make lots of friends, and date only well-dressed, well-mannered young men.” We all laughed, and her dad and I turned to leave. I didn’t cry; but I did look back and feel dizzy. Would she be safe?
Two weeks later, while driving to work, I heard on the radio that something was wrong at the World Trade Center. On my office phone, there was a message from my daughter telling me that it was really happening, but she was OK, and not to worry. I tried over and over to call her back. At first, the line was busy; then it was just dead.
I stood with the others around a TV at work and watched the buildings fall. After seeing lower Manhattan engulfed in smoke and dust, I returned to my office, looked at a map, and counted the blocks from her dorm to the towers: twenty. I called her again. Nothing. I felt sick. I went home that morning, watched endless TV, and cried. I need to see you!
Later that day, I reached my daughter through instant messaging. I was relieved, but I still wouldn’t go to sleep. I irrationally believed that as long as I stayed awake, she’d be OK.
Never content to be merely OK, my daughter went back to class; she studied; she volunteered; she worked; she moved on.
In the fall, I won’t be flying with my daughter to New York to help her move into her new dorm. This time, there will be no diagrams or lists. I won’t be turning around to watch her as she walks away. I won’t need to be able to see her, because I believe she knows exactly where she’s going.
As a mountain-climbing guide, I think about safety every day. I obsess about it. It consumes my thoughts for months on end. I must keep myself and my clients alive. There are ice- and rockfalls, hypothermia, hyperthermia, crevasses, altitude sickness, and the chance that someone might spike themselves with a crampon. I have to get these folks home and myself back to my wife and dogs. Everyone asks me how I can live with so many dangers.
Every day families lose their homes. Children discover methamphetamines. People find out that they have cancer. Cars crash. Houses burn to the ground. A lonely bachelor sits in front of a computer for ten hours, eating cupcakes. A wife of ten years cheats on her husband.
Safety is an illusion. Could danger find me on a mountain? You bet. But I will be where I want to be, I will be happy, and I will have lived.