Refuge

They searched while I watched. ''Where is she?'' my mom's voice drifted across the pond. I was ten, hiding in the shadows. I'd built a secret fort of old branches and vines out past my grandparents' Connecticut barn.

It was a real find: one bedroom, finely raked dirt floors, an infinite variety in size and shape of exits, a huge skylight and waterfront view.

In it I was safe from the controlling influence of demanding adults. And from it I directed my affairs like a queen, with no interference.

It was the beginning of a concept.

I'd row out on the pond, catch a couple of turtles, sun, swim, float, follow water bugs, or stir up fish nests. Then back to my dock. Two quick squishing steps and I was in the living room.

Hidden. Independence meant being impenetrable. It was building a castle where you could fight off world pressures (like dinner calls) by sheer inaccessibility.

In Miami, my sister and I shared our independence. We made ''offices'' out of two closets in another grandfather's home-based advertising firm. While he was laying out ads, we worked in our closets as secretaries. Dressed up in my grandmother's clothes -- jewelry, shoes, purse and all -- we coyly turned down invisible dates and called each other up on cardboard phones.

Our conceptual exercises enabled us to act out life styles we had never experienced, safely, within an imaginary world. We regulated the flow of people and events in these lives. No need went unsatisfied. And no unsettling surprises from outside quarters affected our rule.

Much later, fresh out of college, I found myself living in Boston much like a sailor in a ship. Tucked between two Beacon Hill town houses, my porthole let in the sun that warmed a bunkbed built into one wall. The 6-by-12-foot room was lined with built-in cabinets and a triangular shower. Birds chattered and a fake pagoda glowed from the small Chinese garden across the street.

It was independence, of a sort. I went up the hill for spaghetti alla carbonara with friends -- my hotplate just couldn't do that -- or to work on a quilt project, to lay out my graphic design on a big table, or to soak in a bathtub.

And although it was winter, when a friend visited me, we kept the front door open. Otherwise it was like standing in the shower together.

Small or not, the sailor controlled her ship. If independence was having a place to retreat to, an imaginary world to control, some friends to help in a crunch (and some money in the bank), I was all set. Something felt wrong, however.

Part of me expected disaster. Another biblical flood could sweep me away if I wasn't alert. My landlord could push the rent past my limit. I could lose touch with day-to-day events. I could be fired. My friends could move to Italy.

How could I be independent when I couldn't depend on anything?

I thought about old Noah. Noah built an ark. We all know that. But what didn't he do?

He didn't build a great walled fortress to hold back the flood (for a while).

He didn't imagine how nice it would be if the flood didn't come, or if he could control it.

He didn't ask his friends what they thought about the flood (''Isn't this flood business terrible?''), or depend upon them to come up with the concept of the ark.

He didn't think, ''What's the use? Even if I survive the flood, the land will be barren. We could starve to death.''

Noah didn't stop the flood. He simply, quite literally, rose above it. His independence and safety were not contingent on the presence or absence of disaster, I realized. Call it what you will -- genius or revelation -- his ability to conceive of and build an unprecedented form, the ark, saved him.

Puddles, ponds, or floods, there would always be something to step over or rise above. Independence was how you did this.

Across the street a friendly Oriental light beckoned. I took my first step and moved into the garden apartment behind it, bringing my refuge with me. And now when friends visit my home -- the front door is closed to the winter.

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