Waiting tables, dyeing textiles, separating goats in heat
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I’ve gone to Girl Scout camp every summer for as long as I can remember. After dark my fellow scouts and I take turns standing guard over the camp. I’ve had a few incidents during my shifts: a raccoon, a stray dog, even a strange man trying to enter the camp. I’ve never considered myself a brave person, but when I’m on night watch at three in the morning, the only sound that of crickets, the only light from the moon and stars, I feel as if I can face any threat that comes my way. I am not an intimidating or muscular person. I have no weapon or walkie-talkie to call for backup. But I’m the one protecting the camp and everybody in it. Something about that makes me feel safe.
Rochester, New York
Fifty years ago when I was a girl, security meant choosing a husband who would be a good provider. All a woman had to do was be a devoted wife, maintain a well-kept home, and raise polite, religious children. The rest would take care of itself. Or so I was led to believe.
When I expressed doubts about marrying my fiancé, I was told I had “pre-wedding jitters.”
There were, however, a few voices of reason amid that sea of satin and tulle, that mountain of wedding gifts and cash that my young husband was cataloging so carefully. (He would handle our finances.)
My aunt advised me to get my education and be prepared to support myself and my children, no matter what happened. She was the exhausted mother of eight.
My mother told me to keep a secret bank account — along with an even more secret diaphragm. I was thunderstruck by this last piece of advice. I’d been raised a strict Catholic, and artificial birth control was high on the forbidden list.
I had a lot to learn.
The day did come when I had to raise three children on my own, but, thanks to my mother and my aunt, I was ready and fully employable. As a social worker I would help others find their way.
At my most recent birthday party, my twenty-one-year-old granddaughter sat next to me. We discussed the pitfalls of getting married too young, the importance of continuing your education, and the dangers of rushing into major decisions or looking for security in anyone other than yourself. She has a patient boyfriend who knows he’s in for a long wait. Things have really changed for women. All it took was fifty years.
Santa Rosa, California
I spent five years of my life in penitentiaries. When I first went in, I felt like a cat thrown in the water, but eventually I settled into the prison routine. With routine came familiarity, and with familiarity came a sense of security. I knew that nothing unexpected would happen. Breakfast would be served before sunrise, lunch at 11 AM, and dinner at 5 PM. The menu would repeat every five weeks. Recreation was at the same time every day, and I would see the same people talking about the same subjects and doing the same exercises.
Then the day of my release arrived. I’d thought I would be happy, but instead I was anxious. In prison I’d had only one problem: getting out. Now I would be faced with myriad problems that I’d have to solve on my own.
My security was gone.
Sugar Grove, Illinois
Since the age of sixteen I have worked, and sometimes struggled mightily, to keep a roof over my head. Over the years I held an astounding variety of jobs, from ditch digging to writing a syndicated home-repair column to running a multi-million-dollar nonprofit with offices in three states. The one thing my various endeavors had in common was that the pay was lousy. I had to be creative to maintain a decent home, be able to help out friends in need, and not become the friend in need myself.
For thirty-two years I lived in a spacious apartment in San Francisco. I had worked out an agreement with the owner: I acted as the six-unit building’s manager and handyman, and he kept my rent ridiculously low. I was the one person in my circle of friends who always had the same phone number and address.
In 2006 a series of falls and injuries wrecked my back, limiting the amount of physical work I could do. Then the owner of the building announced that he planned to sell it. My home of more than three decades became merely an apartment I was renting. And the new owner would be legally allowed to quadruple my rent. I had to move in a hurry.
I arranged to combine households with a close friend, H., who owned her large Victorian house outright, her parents having bought it in 1941 for one dollar down on a handshake. I downsized from a three-bedroom apartment to a spare room in her home, giving away 90 percent of my belongings in the process. Not long after that, my syndicated column was inexplicably canceled.
I now live mostly on a paltry Social Security check, but I have enough money to cover my share of household expenses and groceries and to keep my cats fed. I also do most of the cooking and handyman projects. So I feel (and H. does, too) that I am not simply mooching. She lived alone for years after her mother died, and I provide her companionship: we go for walks in the park, share meals, and laugh about the antics of our cats. After nearly seven years I feel as if I belong here.
H. is sixty-six and still works part time. I am sixty-three. We both know that our lives could change in an instant. One of us could develop serious health issues or take a fall (lots of steps in this old house). We could have a major earthquake or a fire or see the complete breakdown of Western civilization. But this living arrangement is as secure as any I have ever had, and I am still just smart and clear-headed enough to appreciate it.
Mark A. Hetts
San Francisco, California
I work on the locked ward of a mental hospital. The staff here provides excellent patient care. That’s why we took these jobs: to be of service to patients who need support, encouragement, understanding, and love. We pull together at holidays to give the patients special treats and entertainments that they otherwise wouldn’t get. Most of the men here have been abandoned by their families and don’t have any friends on the outside.
Three years ago one of our staff members was killed by a patient — strangled to death behind a building. Afterward there were speeches, letter-writing campaigns, meetings with unions and management. Rallies were held in the state capitol and in front of the hospital. Newspaper reporters requested to talk with anyone who had information. Many of us spoke out about the lack of security at the hospital and caught backlash from our supervisors.
Our colleague’s family settled a lawsuit with the state. Millions were spent on new alarms to be used in case of an attack or some other emergency. Almost nothing has been done about prevention. There’s little doctor-patient interaction. Physicians, social workers, and psychologists come and go. The hospital administration preaches “continuity of care,” but we don’t see it.
Every staff member has been assaulted at least once, including me. Last week there were two assaults on nurses. One had other staff in the room with her. That didn’t stop the attack. The other was unlocking the door to the nurses’ station when she was punched in the head.
I feel no security until I walk out the door to go home. Later I’ll cry into my pillow in anticipation of the next incident.
We have one patient who rarely comes out of his room. He’s six foot two and looks younger than his forty-six years. As a boy he witnessed his father’s suicide. In his teens he watched his brother kill himself. He’s been assaulted several times by other patients. When asked why he’s staying in his room all day, he’ll say, “I like it here.” He comes out only to use the toilet, shower, take his meds, and eat. The doctors say this is a sign of paranoia. I say it’s fear.
“Are you OK?” Dena asks.
I hold the phone to my ear, frozen. After three years of being her best friend, I can’t find the words to tell Dena why I’m calling.
To me, at the age of fourteen, Dena seems to have the perfect family life. It isn’t the fact that she lives in a big house with a pool in a much nicer neighborhood than mine. It is the simple everyday life of her family: her mother’s fluffy Belgian waffles on a Tuesday morning, her father reaching across the table to squirt more chocolate syrup into my milk, the way everyone says, “I love you,” whenever they say goodbye, father to daughter, daughter to mother, sister to sister, before leaving for a weekend trip or just to go to school or work.
I sleep over at Dena’s house every chance I get because of how safe I feel there. In my own house I’m always on alert, heart racing, nervous like a cat.
Tonight my father fell and hit his head on our cement steps as he was coming home from drowning his grief and frustration in a bottle. My sister and I found him with an angry, bloody gash across his forehead and the beginning of a black eye. We worried he might need stitches, but we didn’t contact a neighbor or one of our aunts. It was already embarrassing enough being the girls whose mother had died of cancer. (Cue the long, sympathetic faces and whispers.) We didn’t want people knowing that we were also the girls whose father drank too much. So we called the only person who wouldn’t report our embarrassing reality to the rest of the town: our father’s girlfriend. She arrived drunk and hysterical.
My oldest sister, who’s seventeen, has now gotten home from work. From where I sit in the bedroom, I can hear her trying to coax the girlfriend out of house, telling her that we can handle it and we’ll be fine. My father is ranting about his ungrateful daughters and yelling about the pain he is in.
I’ve called Dena because what I want more than anything else is for one of her parents to drive over and get me and bring me to their house, where her mother will be making lunches for tomorrow and her father will be good-naturedly teasing his three daughters before kissing them good night. I want to be in a house where I can fall soundly asleep and not lie in bed racked with anxiety. I want to leave for school in the morning wearing one of Dena’s fresh-smelling sweat shirts and carrying a brown bag that holds a cheese-and-mayo sandwich on fresh Italian bread. I’m pretty sure that if I told Dena the truth, her parents would be on their way over within minutes. They would probably be kind enough to pretend it was just a normal sleepover. But to ask for what I want would mean shattering the facade my sisters and I have carefully built with our smiles and good grades and appropriate participation in school activities.
Dena’s voice interrupts my thoughts. “Are you there?” she asks.
“I’m fine,” I answer. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
I was working the swing shift at an insurance company. I loathed the job, but it paid well, offered great benefits, and allowed me to go to college during the day.
From 5 PM to 1 AM ten co-workers and I — all of us students — pulled staples out of documents so they could be copied. We weren’t allowed to talk, but we could listen to the radio. We listened to news stories about Roe v. Wade, the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam, and the kidnapping of Patty Hearst. We learned about Watergate and heard Richard Nixon give his resignation speech. We also listened to Bob Dylan, Pink Floyd, Paul Simon, and Elton John while we yanked those staples, glad to have job security.
At 9 PM we were given a half-hour “lunch,” which we usually spent at a mediocre Italian restaurant down the street that served cocktails for a buck. We ordered greyhounds because the smell of vodka was harder to detect. If we were lucky, one of us might have a joint, which made going back to work more bearable.
After a year of pulling staples, I drove with my boyfriend up to the Sierras for a three-day weekend. It was springtime, and we stayed at a cabin that belonged to a friend of his. The pine trees in the snow and the blue sky above and the sun over the raging river seemed to jolt me awake. Feeling as if I had finally found my home, I decided to move to the mountains. Upon returning to the city, I gave notice to my landlord and my supervisor at work. My boyfriend asked if he could come with me, and I said yes. As we headed for higher elevations, both unemployed and with no place to live and very little money, I felt more secure than I ever had.
Santa Cruz, California
I am seventeen, and I’ve been hospitalized in a psychiatric-care clinic. My roommate, A., is only a few inches taller than I am but almost a hundred pounds heavier. She wears scrub pants and the same jean jacket every day. The other girls call our end of the hallway the “ghetto.” On my first day A. and another patient teased a girl so mercilessly that she was transferred to a different wing. A. is only thirteen.
The nurses hole up in their station behind reinforced glass and metal shutters, but the techs slip us extra food and watch made-for-TV movies with us in the common room. One sneaks us colored pencils. Another does our nails. A pregnant tech lets us press our hands to her belly to feel her daughter kick. But all of them frequently give A. “room time”: for yelling, for cursing, for taking two meals, for talking back, for arguing over being given room time. The solitude is torture for A. Meanwhile I poke at my dinner and wish I could trade places with her.
A. is surprisingly polite to me, if a bit cool. But after the fifth night of listening to her not-so-hushed conversations with the girls across the hall, I am exhausted. It is past midnight. Vitals are checked at 6 AM. I roll over and reach into the paper bag of belongings next to my bed.
We are not allowed shoelaces or drawstrings. There are no clocks, pens, erasers, stuffed animals, metal forks, plastic knives, plants, or spiral-bound notebooks. Packages brought to us by visitors are inspected, thumbed through, turned upside down and shaken, and more often than not put into storage. But they have let me keep a stack of old children’s books from my mother. I grab one from the top of the pile: Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, about a donkey who gets turned into a rock.
“Do you want to hear a story?” I ask A., expecting to be ignored at best. She squints across the room at the cover and says yes.
I show her the illustrations, and she laughs at the one of the police as pigs. When, in the dead of winter, the wolf crouches on the rock that is really Sylvester and howls out of loneliness, A. sits up.
“Yo, that’s like depression,” she says. “That’s how it feels.”
When I finish, she is silent. Then she lies down and closes her eyes. I reach up to turn out the light. From the darkness on the other side of the room, she says, “Thank you.”
It was April 11, 1945, and I was two months shy of my fifth birthday when U.S. soldiers arrived in our town in Germany. My eighty-five-year-old grandfather, my fourteen-year-old brother, and I climbed into the attic carrying a big white bedsheet. We sat by the window and waited for the Americans to come around the bend. When we spotted the first tank, my brother opened the window, and my grandfather unfolded the bedsheet and draped it out. Then my brother ran downstairs to tell the others. There were thirty people living with us at the time, all relatives or friends of my parents who’d been displaced by the war.
Scared of what the soldiers might do to us, I fled to the basement, where we kept our food supplies. In the middle of the room was a huge wooden bin that held the potatoes from the fall harvest. I opened the lid and dug myself in as deep as I could. Many of the potatoes were rotten and smelled bad. Then I closed the lid.
Soon I heard the basement door open and people talking in a language I didn’t understand. Then came the sound of glass breaking all around me. In addition to the potato bin, the basement held shelves of preserves, canned vegetables, and bottles of apple, cherry, and plum juice. Apparently the young soldiers had thought the bottles contained alcohol, and when they’d realized the truth, they’d become angry and started smashing them. I tried to breathe as little as possible. Finally I heard the door open again and the voice of someone with authority yelling at the soldiers. Then all was quiet.
The next time the door opened, it was my brother coming to find me. (He always knew where I was hiding.) He lifted me out of the putrid potatoes and carried me outside and down to the creek, where he dunked me in the cold water.
Later, after I’d changed my clothes, I was ordered to go outside. My twelve-year-old sister was playing games and singing with the other children to show the Americans that we were not afraid. I was terrified.
Years later I came to the U.S. with my husband and infant son. But part of me has never really left that smelly potato bin, where I felt both imprisoned and safe.
When my siblings and I were young, geography lessons were a mainstay of our father’s dinnertime conversations with us. He would name a country, and my sisters and I would compete to yell the capital city’s name first.
“Iceland,” he might say.
His favorite was Burkina Faso — mostly because he enjoyed watching our little lips curling around the many vowels of Ouagadougou. But besides the geography lessons, I didn’t have much connection with my father.
For many years I felt stuck in a body that I desperately wanted to escape. I daydreamed about boys, but the possibility of being gay was never discussed at the dinner table.
In high school I began having relationships with older men, mostly college guys who liked closeted young boys. I would trace a finger along each man’s body as if it were an atlas — the clavicle, a lake; the hair, a thick forest; the spine, a mountain range. These relationships never lasted long or meant much to me. Even before I graduated from high school, I began plotting my escape. I wanted to explore the world on my own. I planned a six-month voyage to Southeast Asia. Before I left, I wrote a letter to my parents, filling it with all my secrets. I placed the letter on the floor of my room, shouldered my backpack, and walked to the car.
Six months later my parents picked me up from the airport. I had a bushy beard and many stories to tell. There was no mention of the note I’d left in my bedroom.
One night at dinner my mother said they wanted to talk about the letter. I chewed a spoonful of food and waited. They loved me no matter what, she said, and would support me in anything I did. She and I both looked at my father to gauge his reaction, perhaps hoping he would pull us out of this awkward moment.
“So you were in Indonesia, right?” he said.
When I said yes, he asked how many provinces Indonesia had.
I told him thirty-four.
He stood, walked over to the bookshelf, and took down a dusty atlas. He opened it to a map of Indonesia and counted to himself. “I count only twenty-six.”
His atlas was outdated, I explained. Eight provinces had been added since 1999.
“Oh?” he said. “Where are they?” I scooted my chair over beside his to show him. Our fingers slid across the page as we pointed out geographical features and pronounced foreign place names.
That night, after the table had been cleared and the dishes done, I said good night to my parents and headed up the stairs to my room. Before I’d reached the second step, my father called out, “Good night, Louis.” Then he said three words I had never heard him say: “I love you.”
Vancouver, British Columbia
After a chaotic and fearful childhood, I wanted to create a safe and secure adulthood for myself. So I became a nurse and married a doctor. I had three children — enough to ensure that I will always have at least one of them home for Thanksgiving and someone to hold my hand as I am dying.
From the outside my life appears good. I live in a cozy house surrounded by trees. My husband of twenty-five years is gentle and gainfully employed. My three children are nearly grown, and it looks (this week) as if they will all end up as functioning adults. I eat right, I never drive over the speed limit, and my worst criminal offense is reading a library book in the bathtub.
But at 3 AM I do not feel good. My heart pounds as though the weeping and slamming doors were in the next room and not just in my head. My children’s challenges and the minor dents in my marriage loom huge and terrifying. Scenarios involving mental illness, drug addiction, and loneliness play out in my mind, suddenly more real to me than the peaceful breathing of my husband beside me and the dog’s sweet sighing at my feet. I lie awake and wonder what it would take to make this life feel safe.
Immediately upon my husband’s confirmation as a federal judge by the United States Senate, we were contacted by the U.S. Marshals to have a security system installed in our home. Apparently Congress had passed a law providing home monitoring for all federal judges due to the inherent risks of the job. At work my husband was surrounded by armed officers, but here at home there was little but wood and glass protecting him — and me — from harm. Suddenly this wonderful job that my husband had worked so hard to get wasn’t looking so great.
While the alarm system was being installed, a U.S. Marshal sat at our dining-room table. He asked if I would mind him taking off his jacket; I didn’t realize until he’d removed it why he’d asked. Every time I walked by him, my eyes went right to his exposed gun. I had never seen one in my home before.
My son is twenty-two, chatty, and charming. He also has autism. His condition prevents him from driving, maintaining an active social life, or fully understanding how the world works. No matter how much I love him and care for him, and no matter how much money I save for his future, I will never feel sure that he will be safe or happy after I am gone.
I see him at fifty, paunchy and balding, sitting alone in a room in some last-chance Medicaid facility after his trust fund has run out. He is confused and sad, both his parents having gone to a place he can’t understand. His step-siblings and cousins rarely visit. His life consists of watching the same movies and TV shows he’s loved since he was a boy. He struggles with numerous physical ailments but can’t express his needs to his overworked caregivers.
To avoid this possibility, I can work to build a network of support for him and hope it holds together. There is currently little to no help for adults with special needs in my state, and many neighborhoods still hold a “not in my backyard” attitude toward housing for the mentally disabled, despite evidence that people like my son pose no threat to others.
No parents feel totally certain about their children’s futures, but for those of us whose adult sons and daughters are incapable of solving problems or advocating for themselves, the uncertainty can be overwhelming.
“So, why are you retiring?” one of my sixth-graders asks.
I don’t have a good answer. I can’t tell her that I’m worn out from implementing a rigid Common Core curriculum or that I don’t trust our new teacher-evaluation system, which seems to target the very people it purports to help. I also hesitate to reveal that a part of me wants to stay, even though I’ve reached that magic combination of age plus years of service and can now collect my pension. I’m frightened to leave the security and structure of the classroom, where I’ve spent the majority of my days for the past fifty-plus years, ever since I walked through the doors of kindergarten. And I’ve already figured out that my pension won’t cut it; I’ll need another job to support my family. But who’s going to hire a man my age? What will I do in September once the new school year starts?
“Don’t you like teaching?” my student asks.
“Of course I do,” I say. And it’s the truth. I’ve always loved the kids, even the ones who have a knack for putting me on the spot. “It’s just that . . . well, I guess it’s time. That’s all.”
She knows I’m hedging. Fortunately the bell rings for recess.
My ex-husband was kind, generous, loving, a hard worker, and never unfaithful. He would have stayed with me forever, but I chose to leave him because he felt to me like my third child.
I now find myself living with a man who seems incapable of kindness or affection. He has given me not one kiss in ten years; no sex in nine; zero words of appreciation or pride in my accomplishments; no curiosity about my activities or relationships; no details of his personal or professional life unless I pry with my “annoying” questions.
I am a self-assured, competent, financially independent woman. Yet I stay with this man because he gives me security — not financial security but the security of having a man in my life so that others will see me as a desired woman. I choose to remain in this relationship because without the illusion of partnership I would feel like a failure as a woman. I know this is an outdated view. My head tells me that dining alone in a restaurant or vacationing with women friends is a sign of strength and can be fulfilling. I did it for years. But my gut tells me that others pitied me the whole time.
At the age of twelve I sat on the double bed I shared with my older sister, my head in my hands. It was well after midnight, and the room was dark except for the streetlights shining through the windows. The raised, angry voices from the kitchen had awakened me again. I tried to understand what my parents were saying, but their speech was slurred. These arguments confused me, since in the daytime my mother and father appeared to love and care for each other. As I sat and wondered how I would help them, I began to make a plan, the seed of which had been planted during my Catholic-school days. Life had been more predictable then with the nuns and priests. I felt a sense of relief flow over me as I decided to become a nun.
Most Catholic orders require a candidate to have completed high school, but I found one that would accept me at fifteen. I would be offering my life as a bargaining chip to the all-powerful God I’d learned about in school. If I became a nun, surely he would resolve my family’s dysfunction.
Soon after my fifteenth birthday I entered the convent. The community offered stability and a sense of belonging. I got my high-school diploma and started nursing school. I kept my commitment to the order for five years, believing it would change the situation at home. But finally I realized that things had only gotten worse as my parents’ alcoholism had escalated. At twenty-one I returned home.
For years I felt guilty for having abandoned first my siblings and then the religious order. But now I see I was just a frightened, confused teenager who sought security in one of the few ways she could.
Lady’s Island, South Carolina
When I worked as a security officer in the emergency room of a large medical center, I found myself in some tense situations. One day, at the start of my shift, I was asked to monitor the behavior of a patient who’d been locked down in the ER’s “safe room” until the local police arrived to take him away. The man I’ll call Charlie had arrived in the early-morning hours intoxicated, combative, and bleeding from a wound on his head. When the staff had tried to treat him, he’d slugged one of the nurses. That’s how he’d ended up in the safe room.
I could see Charlie on a video monitor. Every few minutes he would scream at the camera and shove his middle finger in front of the lens. He grew tired and began drifting in and out of sleep, his head drooping to his chest, then jerking upright. On the black-and-white monitor the dried blood on his unshaven face resembled molasses. A ball cap covered his wound.
When Charlie hadn’t moved for about ten minutes, I decided to check on him through the one-way window on the safe-room door. That’s when I noticed the blue letters on his filthy cap: NAVY.
I unlocked the door and entered the room, which reeked of body odor, alcohol, and urine. Charlie had pissed his pants. He unleashed a profanity-laced tirade at me until I sat down next to him and interrupted to ask what ship he’d been on.
“What?” he said.
I’d been in the Navy, too, I told him, and we seemed to be about the same age. I was curious to know if our paths had ever crossed.
As if I had flipped a switch, Charlie calmed down and proceeded to tell me his Navy history. It turned out we hadn’t served at the same time or on the same ship, but I listened intently.
When he’d wearied of telling sailor stories, Charlie asked if he could smoke a cigarette. I said sure, but we would have to step outside. Could I trust him to behave himself? He said yes.
I removed the handcuffs, and we walked out into a sunny, crisp fall morning. Charlie pulled a lighter and a nearly flattened pack of cigarettes from his jeans pocket. I bummed one, even though I had quit smoking, and we stood in the sun puffing like a couple of old pals who’d just bumped into each other. He even agreed to let a nurse clean him up and look at his head, as long as he could leave right after.
While the nurse was tending to Charlie, the police showed up, and I explained what had happened and told the officers I thought it was safe to let Charlie go. So they did.
While Charlie was being treated, I found a razor and some soap in a storeroom, and Charlie cleaned himself up before heading out.
As I escorted a cleanshaven Charlie outside, I asked where he lived. He thought for a moment, then shook his head and said, “This ain’t living.” He walked about ten feet, turned around, shot his fist into the air, grinning, and hollered, “Go, Navy!”
When I was born, my grandpa’s dental receptionist gave my parents a white, hand-crocheted baby blanket. I slept with “Blankie” every night for thirty-two years, except for the forty days that I gave it up for Lent when I was eight.
Whenever I buried my fingers in Blankie’s furrows, I felt comforted and soothed. We moved a lot when I was young, and Blankie was my reliable traveling companion. Each time I was the new girl at school, Blankie would be waiting for me at the end of the day. I’d cry into its folds as I drifted off to sleep. As I grew older, I shamelessly took Blankie with me to summer camp, introduced my boyfriends to it, and even brought it along on my six-week backpacking tour of Europe, where it took up significant space in my pack.
When my daughter was two, I decided it was time to put Blankie away. It was also time to leave my marriage, which felt hollow and insincere. By then Blankie had become a tattered mass of yarn that shed bits of grayish lint on the sheets. I zipped it up in a clear plastic bag and put it on a shelf.
Seven years later it’s still there. I reunited with my ex-husband four years ago. We’ve been through therapy and have read copious books and articles in our effort to stay together. For my part I’ve learned the importance of being able to take care of myself emotionally. It’s all right to lean on others for help sometimes, but relying solely on someone else to take away your pain results in feelings of resentment. I’d expected my husband to comfort me in the same unconditional way that Blankie had. Then it dawned on me that all those years I’d thought Blankie was soothing me, I’d actually been soothing myself.
I was returning home to the U.S. after two weeks spent crossing borders, both real and figurative, in Israel and the Occupied Territories. I’d witnessed the horrific impact of the occupation — how Palestinians waited for hours at checkpoints between the West Bank and Jerusalem; how Israelis thought about which seat on a bus would be safest if somebody tried to blow it up. But I also remembered the long, winding roads of Jerusalem and the ancient stone aqueducts of Caesarea, and I knew that I would go back someday.
Ten hours after having boarded a plane in Tel Aviv, I was standing at the airport in Philadelphia. It was early morning, and only a few immigration booths were staffed, so everyone had to wait in long lines. I observed the sleepy immigration officers scrutinizing the Israeli and Palestinian travelers’ passports. Most of them got through, but occasionally a bewildered family would be taken to another room to be checked and interrogated as possible security threats.
It bothered me to see how immigration control suspected foreigners from the Middle East. I thought of the Palestinian people who’d welcomed me into their homes. They were not a security threat to this country. The Holy Land had not been all gunfire and bombs. I’d felt safer walking around Bethlehem at night than I sometimes did in Manhattan. My trip had taught me that security measures designed to protect people also push them apart.
United Arab Emirates
In the name of security I am being removed from the general prison population and transferred in handcuffs to the Administrative Segregation Unit, also known as solitary confinement. The thick brown door looks like the entrance to a bomb shelter. Inside I am issued an ill-fitting khaki jumpsuit with long drawstrings. (No metal buttons or clasps!) I am confined to a six-by-eight-foot cell. My toothpaste and shampoo come in clear plastic bags. (No plastic containers!) The bags leak, and much ends up wasted.
On yard day I am handcuffed and escorted outside in boxers and a T-shirt in the middle of winter. (No obstructive clothing!) The yard is enclosed by a fence and holds two rows of ten-by-ten-foot cages resembling dog kennels. (No direct contact with others!) I step into one of the cages, my handcuffs are removed, and the door is locked behind me. I shake my arms out and then fold them across my chest. My body shivers, but the cool air also awakens my senses. It occurs to me that I am standing in a cage within a cage, inside a prison within a prison.
I gaze up through crisscrossing patterns of metal to a bright expanse above, and I smile. An Oscar Wilde quote comes to mind: “I never saw a man who looked / With such a wistful eye / Upon that little tent of blue / Which prisoners call the sky.”
In the late 1960s I became the first of my brothers and sisters to go to college. My mother and stepfather drove me to a small private school in the Midwest. Along with my bedding, clothing, and typewriter, Mom left me with some advice: “It doesn’t matter what you major in. You’ll get married, and a man will take care of you.”
I did date someone in college, but I broke up with him because he was also seeing other women. After graduation I held a series of odd jobs, then went to graduate school near my hometown. The experience proved lonely and confusing. I was simply passing time.
One weekend my former college sweetheart called and asked if he could come to visit. After a few months we were a couple again. He proposed to me on the shore of a lake on a lush autumn day. I still wasn’t sure I trusted him, but marriage seemed like a secure and stable choice. I said yes and soon found myself caught up in wedding preparations.
As the date approached, however, my doubts grew. On the night before the ceremony I broke down while talking with my brothers. I felt trapped, I told them. I feared I was making a mistake and wasn’t ready for this. My brothers advised me to call off the wedding, but everyone had traveled so far to be there, and I adored my fiancé’s family. The next afternoon, walking down the aisle, I felt only anxiety and dread.
After a disastrous year of turmoil and deceit, I pulled out of our driveway while my husband hollered, “You’ll never leave me!” The divorce was painful, but it was worth it to have myself back.
Cle Elum, Washington
The last time I felt truly safe was on the morning of May 1, 1934. By ten o’clock that day fear had become my new norm. I was eight years old. As was happening all over Germany, the Nazis in our small village were having a parade, their boots drumming the asphalt as they filed down the main street past my family’s weaving mill. High-stepping young men in brown shirts carrying swastika flags shouted in unison, “Heil Hitler! Kill the Jews!”
Motorcycles roared past, driven by helmeted SS members. There was no music, only citizens leaning out their windows cheering. My father, my mother, my two sisters, and I gathered in my father’s office, which overlooked the route of the parade. Through a slit in the curtain, we watched the disciplined youths go by. We were petrified, not comprehending how being Jewish had become a crime.
“There is Hans,” we whispered, “and Fritz also!”
The sons of my father’s longtime employees, and even some of the loyal weavers themselves, were marching. My father shook his head and wiped a tear from my mother’s cheek with his handkerchief. The sight made tears come to my eyes. I trembled and wanted to hide. We retreated from the window long before the parade ended.
My parents surrounded my siblings and me in a tight embrace to make us feel safe. Until that hour we had always believed they could protect us. That faith vanished as we watched the Nazis condemning us to death.
Fort Collins, Colorado
I grew up in one of New York city’s outer boroughs, in an apartment with four locks on the door and a peephole that let us identify visitors. Before I ventured into Manhattan by myself for the first time at the age of fourteen, my parents told me not to talk to anyone on the subway or to make eye contact, to hide my jewelry and zip my pocketbook and hold it close. I obliged on all counts.
At my university I religiously locked my dorm room. One Christmas vacation, while staying with a friend at a remote house in New Hampshire, I discovered a broken deadbolt and insisted we sleep with the only weapons I could find: fencing foils that were used as wall decorations.
A decade later, when my husband and I had a custom home built, we put in an expensive security system. He traveled a lot, and I was scared to be alone with a toddler and an infant in a big house full of new and often unidentifiable noises.
After my divorce I moved to a more modest house, where I splurged on another alarm system. My children had only me to protect them now, and all our bedrooms were on the ground floor. Even though our town repeatedly ranked among the nation’s top ten safest places to live (it was twice rated number one), I wanted that extra measure of security.
Eighteen years and thousands of dollars in alarm maintenance fees later, I wonder whether I still need my security system. My children are grown and on their own, and my boyfriend shares the house with me. But every night before we go to bed, I ask, “Is the alarm on?”
“Yes, dear,” he says, punching in the five-digit code. He thinks the whole thing is a waste of money, but when the little green light on our bedroom keypad turns red, meaning the system is armed, I feel secure.
My boyfriend spent thirty years in a rural area where he never locked his doors. If I’m home alone, in my friendly neighborhood in one of this country’s lowest-crime communities, I lock mine. The older I get, however, the more I realize that locks, bolts, alarms, and sensors don’t guarantee us protection from harm. Real security comes from inside.
Loudonville, New York
My heart goes out to K.H. from Palatine, Illinois, who writes in the June 2014 Readers Write section on “Security” about her autistic twenty-two-year-old son. It’s a relief to know that I’m not the only mother who worries about who will take care of her adult child when she’s gone.
My own thirty-two-year-old son is a diagnosed schizophrenic. He is not dangerous or violent; he is actually downright sweet. But he can hardly tie his shoes and has a tough time functioning in the world. He takes medications for anxiety, depression, and panic attacks. He often gets frustrated and cries, saying that no woman will ever want him and he will always be alone. Knowing the challenges he will continue to face, particularly after I’ve died, leaves me heartsick. I can only hope that there will be more support for the nonviolent mentally ill in the future.