On February 14, 1974, when I was exactly one-month old, a Great-Uncle sent me a telegram. Today I have it framed in my office:
Dear Jennifer, or may I call you Jenny? Welcome to a mixed-up world. No matter – I know you will be happy together. Love, Uncle Sam
One of the writing prompts for my class this week had to do with safety. I’ve found myself considering those strange, but somehow lovely words of welcome Great-Uncle Sam offered me thirty-three years ago tomorrow.
Safety is an illusion. And it isn’t. A seatbelt likely saved my mother’s life. Two years ago this April, driving alone from Burlington to Amherst after helping us move, early Saturday morning, absolutely clear gorgeous day, not another car in sight. She had a hot flash and decided to take off her coat – but not her seat belt. She lost control of the car and crashed into the guard rail. Did the seatbelt save her? Did the guard rail save her? A woman who “happened” to also be a nurse, who also “happened” to be Nancy (the name of my mother’s older sister who died in a plane crash in 1998) was the first person to pull over to help. She held a towel to my mother’s head, applying more pressure than my mother had ever experienced. My mother would end up with 24 stitches around her scalp. She was very badly bruised, more from the airbag than anything, but she did not sustain any life-altering injuries, only a small triangle-shaped bald spot that stays hidden by hair. Did the seatbelt keep her safe? Did the nurse’s swift and competent action save her? Did her dead sister save her? Or was it simply not time yet?
Contrast with my car accident, sixteen years ago. Los Angeles County, freshmen in college, my father’s car, on my way from Claremont to Santa Barbara to visit my oldest sister. I was an inexperienced driver. I had not even consulted a map before setting off on this inaugural road trip. I became confused by my directions, by the multitude of Southern California signs. I stopped twice to ask for help. Just as I finally determined where I needed to go, I second-guessed myself, turned the wheel too hard to the right, and flipped the car onto the strip of pavement that separated an exit lane from eight lanes of 80-mile-per-hour traffic. What of my complete lack of injury? U2’s “War” album still blasting from the speakers, sunroof open, I crawled out into the morning, lit a cigarette, and stood there, stunned, watching the rubberneckers as they sped by me, waiting for someone to stop. No seat belt for me that day. Just a tow-truck driver from Van Nuys who let me use his phone and looked a little too closely at my slight seventeen-year-old frame. What of safety, then?
Safety as illusion. This morning’s news, more of the same: 67 dead at a Baghdad market, men and women and children trying to earn some money or buy food for their families. Next week, we go on vacation, but are prohibited from carrying a container of sunblock larger than three ounces onto the plane, a positively inane “safety” measure that offends the memory of all the lives lost in this stupid war.
There’s safety in my words, in writing. The distance between my voice on the page and your eyes reading these words or your ears hearing them. What is it to be seen? What is it to be safe? Why is it so scary for us to be our “real” selves? Katherine Hepburn said, “If you follow all the rules, you miss all the fun.” What’s the difference between taking recommended precautions – putting your kids in carseats, for example – and straitjacketing your ability to feel joy? This may seem like a big leap, but I mean it. Are we any less safe when we let down our guard, unbuckle our seatbelt and walk freely about the cabin than when we are strapped in, obedient to the disembodied pilot voice at the front of the aircraft?
What will “people” think if you are really yourself? What is your “real” self? Whose opinions matter? How will you be received if you speak your truth? What is the elephant in the room?
Safety means vulnerability. Safety first, at what expense? My question is: Can we choose smart and responsible without sacrificing all the fun? I don’t want to let someone else define safety for me. Like a child, perhaps stubborn, or maybe simply still unrestrained by what line the world will tell her to tow, I want to do it myself. I want my children to be safe – without shielding them from what’s real, what’s messy, and potentially also what’s gorgeous in themselves, in others, in this mixed-up world.