Peace of mind is a social contract

  When it came time for me to buy a house, I purposely chose the Old Town neighborhood in Pocatello, Idaho, where I live and work. The neighborhood can be described as low-to-moderate income housing with many homes built as long as a century ago. I love the eclectic atmosphere of lived-in houses, each one individually designed and redesigned, no two alike, and I love trees. Pocatello's west side has some of the most beautiful maples, elms, poplars, locusts, hawthorns, black walnuts and box elders in town.

I have grass in my yard; I can't call my grass a lawn, but I manage to keep it mowed, pushing the jungle back to make room for my table and chairs, a green bower for me and my guests when a good glass of wine and conversation far past twilight is called for. These past four years, I've felt safe in my nest, but not long ago an incident rocked my confidence.

At 5 a.m. on a Saturday ,I was awakened by noise on my front porch, someone rattling the doorknob, obviously trying to get in. At first I thought it was my son, Edward, stopping by on his way to work, until I looked at the clock. Then came a tinkling crash, and the window in the door was shattered.

I got up to see a young man reaching through the broken window to unlock the door. I called 911 immediately for help and yelled at the intruder. "Who are you?" To my surprise, he answered, "Josh. I've come to hang out with you." The tall, rather good-looking young man with dark-rimmed glasses and long brown ponytail had no idea where he was, and he wasn't anybody I knew. He appeared, as they say, "stoned out of his mind."

He'd cut his hand on the glass and stood still, examining the blood closely; he then said, "Wow," in a long slow drawl reminiscent of a '60s hippie discovering the universe on acid. I ordered him to stay on the porch and wait for his "ride," and he did.

The police arrived and took him away while I filled out reports and swept up the glass. The bill for replacement, including molding and labor, came to $89, not a small assault on my budget, not to mention the hassle of the ruined peace of a precious Saturday morning.

The incident reminded me of just how vulnerable we all are. In so many ways, our houses are merely psychological barriers to those who might wish us harm.

I'm reminded of the years I helped raise cattle; how easily a several hundred-pound animal that is upset can break loose through a wooden or barbed wire fence, how cows really keep themselves fenced in, choosing to play by their human masters' rules as long as they are fed well, have fresh water to drink and are allowed to mate and raise their young in peace.

We are deluded if we believe our houses keep us safe; it's the unspoken social agreement we make with each other to respect certain boundaries that does the job. If someone wants to come after us, he or she will find a way no matter what fortress we erect.

Perhaps President Bush and Vice President Cheney and Attorney General John Ashcroft should consider this reality and work to develop different relationships with our "enemies," instead of agitating them further by calling them "evil doers" and "terrorists."

But then, perhaps, it's not really peace our leaders want; it's oil, and the construction of a pipeline through a far-off desert that will make a handful of corporate monkeys rich while the people living on the sidelines continue to spend part of every year in near starvation.

Still, I'll return to the privilege of sitting in my garden, where I can pull a segment of long grass to chew on, enjoy the peace its greenery gives me as well as savor my neighbors' respect for my house on my plot of land. The social contract we harbor internally also keeps passersby from destroying my little island of green - the contract "Josh" breached when he unwittingly crashed my peace of mind.

Penelope Reedy is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). She lives and writes in Pocatello, Idaho.