Safe(ty) is an Inside Job

About a year ago a woman asked me to close my eyes and picture a time that I felt safe. I breathed in and out and thought, but came up blank. This isn’t true, of course—I’ve had many safe times in my life—but I was so caught up in the tumult of the moment that I couldn’t come up with one person, place or thing that made me feel 100% safe.

The woman told me to take my time, and finally I came up with a fixture that has always been a part of my life and in which I feel safe: the bathtub. “I feel safe in the bathtub,” I told her, “I love water. I can go under water to drown out noise from outside. I can drink tea, light candles, read magazines. I can be alone.”


In fact, there’s a whole chapter in the book I’ve been busting a nut over writing that is about various bathtubs in my life and how they’ve come to represent both safety and freedom. Safety and freedom, like most of what human beings require and desire, are two of the things we need to give ourselves. Options, Acceptance and Love are some others…

I picture brows furrowing and noses wrinkling and bullshit meters flying above the high-water mark. And trust me: I’m hearing you.

We can be given freedom, but if we don’t take it then what’s the use? People can give-give-give, but the action aspect is up to the recipient. We can be protected by circumstances that are intended to keep us safe, but nobody can force safety on another person, so if we don’t feel safe then we don’t feel safe. And it’s the same thing with options, the same thing with freedom, acceptance and love.

“You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink” is reported to be of the oldest proverbs still in use today. It’s 11th century old, and so ingrained in our DNA that it’s almost impossible to conceive of breeding it out of us. And why would we want to? A leopard can’t change his spots, you know.

Right? So let’s talk about safe. It’s everywhere and nowhere. It’s having an ear to listen to your story or a hand to hold. It’s access to food, shelter and water. It’s knowing what you want and more importantly what you don’t.

Safe isn’t a place you can go to or depart from. It isn’t something you can touch.

We can think we’re safe and then be caught, arrested or harmed. The crowd can cheer because you’re safe or not, then one man in a uniform can say the majority was wrong. It makes me think that we learn more on childhood softball and baseball diamonds than we realize at time. More than hand-eye coordination, good sportsmanship, and how to identify poison ivy when chasing after foul balls.

Safe is a friend you’ve known 90% of your life who ends every conversation and email with a single word: LOVE. The one-word statement doesn’t require an “I” or a “you.” The door swings freely in both directions with that kind of really safe love.

Loving isn’t always safe. It can be an express train to loss and grief. It can lead to sleepless nights (weeks and months) and to questioning the unanswerable. You can retroactively wish your train had made a few local stops. That it wasn’t so fast, so possibly reckless, so potentially unsafe. But sometimes we don’t know the hazards of a thing until we’re in the midst of it.

When I bought my house in Honduras I wanted to get a safe. It just seemed to make sense, except when I was told why it didn’t. First of all, word would spread that I had a safe but no bars on my windows and no watchy; people would think I had something valuable in the safe and they’d want at it.

Truth be told, I only wanted a safe for a couple of items: the deed to my house, the diamond earrings from my grandparents, and the Tiffany watch my dad got me for my college graduation that has engraved on the back: Jaime, KEEP ON BELIEVING. Love, Dad. But in the end what I cared about more than any of that was my US Passport, which says a little bit about how safe I felt on that island.

“Don’t get a safe,” I was told. “They won’t think about what you have or don’t have in there; they’ll just yank it right out of the house and will take half the house with it if they need to. “Apparently “they” will saw through wood or jackhammer concrete to remove a safe.

I’ve learned something about myself in the past year: I feel safe when I trust my intuition. I feel safe when I listen to my heart. I feel safe when I’m being authentically me and not worried about judgment, ridicule or unintended consequences.

But trust me: I don’t always feel safe.

Safety might be an inside job, but humans have a tendency to worry about others despite the fact that worry doesn’t solve anything, and right now my mother and I are worried about how to keep my grandmother safe and in the thick of it I’m also trying to keep myself safe, honest, and authentic.

My mother is more hard-wired to worry than I am, but I worry too, and together we worry about my Mimi’s memory. For two days she told me she liked my dress so often it seemed that every time she blinked her eyes she was seeing me for the first time. Yesterday I found a ring that I liked and knew I could have because she always says, referring to her home, “You can have anything you want, babydoll.” Today she saw it on my finger and said, “I used to have a ring like that, but yours is nicer.”


We sat on the patio tonight after dinner and I was working on this blog post and she asked me when my homework was due then complimented me on always being a good student. She asks when I’m going home and when I’m coming back and all day I told her the same thing. Tomorrow to the first question, three weeks to the second. I’ve told her twenty times that her baby brother is coming to see her next week, but I have a feeling she’ll just have to believe it when she sees it.

Yesterday I told Mimi we needed to have our garage door replaced, and she said we can’t make any decisions like that without consulting with Poppy. My mother and I drew in deep breaths then I just came out with it, “Poppy is dead, Mimi. He’s been dead almost two years.”

She wasn’t really buying it. “Who’s in charge?” she asked, and the three of us froze-up then I pointed to my mother. “Ok,” she said, ”Ok.” I called immediately to set up an appointment with the door company and within twelve hours I’d taken a full garage and made a Jenga-like structure In one corner.

Action makes me feel safe, though the process was iffy. I lifted heavy things over my head as I balanced on wobbly chairs. Dust and debris slid off bags and boxes onto my head and I wondered about asbestos and mold and lead paint. I used my knees like levers and slung huge pieces of furniture around as if they were bags of crumpled newspaper. I thought, “This isn’t safe” but stronger than that was the other voice that said, “This needs to get done.”

My mother worries a lot more than I do about the outrageous amounts of stuff that my grandmother has accumulated, but I’m more fascinated the way an archeologist would be. Her apartment looks like a graveyard for VHS tapes, shadeless lamps, broken picture frames, dustbusters, empty jars, knee-high stockings and thirty-nine years of pictures of me.

The bedroom door opens about 25%, just barely enough for a body to slide in or out. The glass in the breakfront is opaque due to photos, mass cards, lottery tickets and newspaper clippings and only God knows what’s on the other side. There is a pathway from one end of the apartment to the other, but it’s tight in places and I have a strong suspicion that the fire department would deem it unsafe.

In addition to all of the papers, I sometimes run across things that look like they could combust. There are solvents and aerosols and liniments that are decades old. It has to be an unsafe place, but to someone who hoards it is safer than being without these things. She calls them her treasures. These “treasures” provide her with perceived comfort, security and safety, though in reality they’re achieving the converse effect. It’s hectic in there, for me, but I’m not sure it’s my job to judge.

Aside from hostages situations we can’t actually “keep” other human beings, and when keeping another safe all we can do is our best. Safe(ty) is an inside job for everyone except the very young and the very old, and my mother and I are doing our best to keep an old woman safe.

Being in control might make one person feel safe. A lack of space might make another person feel unsafe. We can say to each other that’s too high, that’s too hot, there may be sharks, where’s your helmet, can’t you slow down, didn’t you learn the first time? We can say all these things, but we can’t tell another person what makes him or her feel safe. Maybe we learn that another’s recklessness makes us feel unsafe, and that’s okay too.

Because we’re human we will fall short more often than we’d like to, or we’ll offer help that isn’t wanted, or we’ll confuse our barometer for safety with someone else’s, forgetting that safe(ty), in the end, is an inside job.

INTRO for the non-Facebook readers:

This is the third installment of the Striped Shirt Review, where Emily Walter and I blog on the same topic and post it the same day. We’ve done it twice so far, but got a little off track with summer traveling (me) and home buying (Em). But here’s the thing: we’re not so much on a track anyway. It might be “better” to have a schedule, but as it is the Striped Shirt Review evolves organically and semi-spontaneously.

One of us will have an idea and will throw it out there, say, toward the end of a ninety-minute marathon phone conversation. Then we’ll ping-pong it back and forth until there’s a teensy pause in conversation and then we hush….”Yep…that’s it.” This week’s topic is SAFE.

I pulled my anchor last January in Missoula, the same city where Emily just purchased a home, so you’d guess that safe might mean very different things to us….or not. Our lives tend to run parallel even when they seem to be going in opposite directions. Let’s find out. Find Emily’s blog HERE.

Song and Dance

I’m pondering the end of summer. It’s a transition that can be hard on many of us, and I’ll write more about it in the next day or two, but in the meantime I wanted to post a few family pictures from summers in the 1930’s and 1940’s.

My grandmother is eighty-eight, and if you ask her she’ll tell you she’s doing great. She might even give a shimmy and a shake and ask if you think she’s still sexy though the question is rhetorical and there’s only one right answer. At eighty-eight you’re never what you used to be—not of body, mind, or spirit—but she still has a special sparkle, which I attribute to her stellar attitude. She’s always told me to “be my own boss” and “don’t let other people’s troubles get you down.” Her health advice is to eat a full size Hershey bar as often as possible (daily, for best results), get a good night sleep, and don’t worry too much. “Let that stuff roll right off your back,” she’s always said to me.

Maybe she has such a positive perspective on life not because her life has always been easy, but rather because it hasn’t. She dropped out of school in the eighth grade so she could look after her younger siblings while her mother went to work. Her father regularly disappeared on drinking and gambling binges and it wasn’t unusual for him to leave his family of six with no food or money. In more recent years she lost her three sisters and her husband in a four year span, and it would be unfair and untrue to say that the cumulative loss didn’t take a toll on her. These are not extraordinarily troubles or losses; they’re a part of life. And she knows that.

When I think of my Mimi I think of her singing, and I think of two songs in particular. The first one is, I think, her own creation. It has a lively tune and a coordinating dance and goes, “We’re gonna have a good time, we’re gonna celebrate!” (I think this song originates with my grandmother—perhaps at one point it started as a mantra—so if I’m wrong and you know the origin please let me know.) The other song is more melancholy, but the message is sweet. It’s a Nat King Cole song that starts out, “Smile though your heart is aching. Smile even though it’s breaking.” When she sings that song she likes to dance, and she’ll grab me and we’ll faux-waltz around the room; neither of us lead, we just look into each other’s eyes adoringly.

Sometimes life is a song and dance that comes naturally, and sometimes it takes more thought, effort, and coordination. Sometimes more than we have. But now onto the photos that remind me that even in hard times there are always some good times.


I love everything about this. The light. Her pose. The outfit!


Same outfit, different pose. Mimi on the porch of her mother’s bungalow in Rockaway, Queens.


My mother mimicking her mother’s pose.


My mother on her grandmother’s shoulders in Rockaway. Nanny was a tough bird and a true gem of a woman.


My grandparents at a lake. There’s something about the blur that I love.


Lounging in a Hammock and reading the newspaper on a bench. There’s nothing about these pictures that isn’t pure bliss. I love that contented smile on her, that “I’m reading” look on him.


Rockaway was their beach, and I love this sassy pose.


They didn’t always go to the beach, and sometimes stayed in the city. I found this picture in June when I was visiting and I asked my grandmother about it. “It’s Central Park,” she said, and when I asked for more detail she looked at it for awhile then said, “It’s nuns in the park.” I did not need to press her for more information; her memory is fuzzy on some of the past these days and as much as I wanted to know more I settled for “Nuns in the park.” What else is there to know, really? They were having a good time, they were celebrating.

Last Sunday my mother and her cousin took Mimi out to Rockaway for the afternoon. Here she is on the boardwalk:


I think she’s still pretty damn cute.