The Safe Side: Leaving Nothing to Chance

There's a lot to be said for the safe side, and I should know. I've been saying it for most of my life. On the safe side, there is a noticeable absence of adrenalin. Heart rates are normal. Flashing blue lights are rarely seen in the rear-view mirror. Sirens are not often heard. It's quiet and orderly.

I once heard my father describe a business associate whose overabundant caution had made him an office legend. "He's the kind of guy who wears a belt and suspenders," he said. I can relate. I understand back-up plans, alternate routes, and emergency exits. As for agreements, I want them in writing, and in triplicate. Here on the safe side, we leave nothing to chance.

But as I scan the first draft of my life review, I begin to wonder. What have I been missing? The safe side seems an unlikely address for a writer. The big names thrived on risk: Hemingway tearing around war zones, Fitzgerald floating through the Jazz Age on a tide of bootleg champagne. Edna St. Vincent Millay, burning the candle at both ends.

Then again, there's Jane Austen. She insisted that "three or four families in a country village is the only thing to work on," and certainly, her writing did not suffer from a dearth of high adventure or the early 19th century version of risky business. She stayed close to home and kept her eyes and ears open and did just fine. So, for that matter, did Eudora Welty and Flannery O'Connor.

So maybe the safe side isn't as beige as it appears. Or maybe it depends on what you consider high adventure. The landscape of human relationships is as fraught with peril as any battlefield. There's enough murder, lust, and avarice in the local news to script several operas. Sometimes I think I could produce a novel based entirely on scraps of conversation overheard in the supermarket checkout line. Favorite quote: "We need cat food. And vermouth." Runner up: "He's not in prison. He's in jail. There's a difference."

It's not as though I've never visited the wild side. I have talked to strangers. I have crossed against the light. As a carefree undergraduate, I drank grain alcohol punch (overrated) and danced to the Rolling Stones on the flat roof of a farmhouse. When we lived in New York City, I drove our battered Volvo around midtown like I owned the place and thought nothing of taking the subway home late and alone. In Tennessee, I have learned to shoot a 12 gauge shotgun (at cans) and run the rapids of the Ocoee twice and drive through a tornado and live to tell the tale.

Despite these occasional detours, I am drawn back to the safe side as though by some magnetic force. The small stage, the miniature canvas, the quiet, repetitive chords of daily life sustain me. The sacred ordinary presents itself in a random series of vignettes to catalog and save for later inspiration: the spring light coming on now, each morning a slightly deeper blue. The green haze of the trees, waiting for some silent signal to unfurl into leaves. My 4-year-old granddaughter, determined to stop sucking her thumb, sits next to me in church. Lulled by the music, she raises her hand to her mouth, stops. She examines her fingers, then returns the hand carefully to her lap. The tiny triumph of self-control fills me with admiration and an edge of sadness. Something is ending. Something is beginning. It's an image that will stay with me longer than any photo of her in a pastel Sunday dress on an April morning. I've stored it in my mental archive.

Just to be on the safe side.