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Safety Zone

There's a place for us

by Stephanie Piper

Where could a person go to be safe? New York still smolders. Washington is masked and gloved, alert for the next toxic mail delivery. In the heartland, they're scanning the skies for crop dusters. Here, we wait.

I've been thinking about an island off the coast of Maine, accessible only by a weekly ferry. Sea gulls. Rocky cliffs. No TV. Me and everyone I love, gathered into a few weathered cottages. Me and my old Smith-Corona manual typewriter, proof against power outages and cyberterrorism.

Me and my illusions.

The plan is full of holes. The people I want to sequester have jobs, apartments, lives. Three of them survived September 11 in Manhattan. They may be jumpy, but they aren't ready for my coastal bunker.

There are safer places.

A person could be safe in the fortress called duty, my oldest son reminds me. He works near the smoking wreckage in lower Manhattan. I ask him how he's doing.

I get up and get on the subway and go to work, he says. At noon, I buy a sandwich from a deli that's about to go out of business. People want to do something dramatic: enlist in the army, sift through the rubble, join the firemen. But what they need to do is what they're supposed to do. What they need to do is go on.

A person could be safe in the territory of kindness. It's the land of the unexpected smile, the split second of self-denial when someone else's comfort takes precedence over one's own. It's the patient endurance of the stalled car, or the unbearably slow cashier, or the woman with 16 items in the express line. It's a couple of dollars to the ragged man talking to himself on the Strip. It's the rising tide of compassion that lifts all our battered boats.

A person could be safe in the harbor of the moment. We learned on a luminous September morning that we know not the day nor the hour. But we know this day, this hour. We know this burst of Mozart on the car radio, this glimpse of mist rising off the river, this embrace. We know, if we will permit ourselves to know, that it is enough.

A person could be safe in the shelter of hope. There, waiting to be coaxed into brilliance, is a small, insistent light. We see it when we kneel in the chilly garden and plant a dozen daffodils and think of the March day when they will cheer us. We see it as we choose a bonnet for a friend's new baby, and plan an engagement party for our son and soon-to-be daughter. We see it when we face down the darkness.

"If fear is part of a person's baggage, it doesn't make much difference where he dwells; he will carry his bomb with him," E.B. White observed in an essay called "Bomb Shadow," written shortly after World War II. The world is no stranger to violence, and its inhabitants are no strangers to the terror by night or the arrow that flies by day.

But neither are we strangers to the safe havens of duty, compassion, mindfulness, and hope. We have found them before.

We will find them again.

November 1, 2001 * Vol. 11, No. 44
© 2001 Metro Pulse