New York's new covenant

The morning of Sept. 11, before we had heard about the tragedy, my ninth-grade English students and I were discussing Franz Kafka's story "A Hunger Artist," about a man trying to perfect the art of fasting.

The man is unable to convey, until the end of the story, how dissatisfied he is, how misunderstood he feels, playing to a public that prefers to watch a panther pace in his cage than take from the hunger artist an example of quiet, wise resistance to the norm.

After we established that the story was an allegory, one student said, "It's about thinking on your own, not just accepting the way everyone else thinks."

At that point, the class was interrupted by a "runner," who did not explain what had happened, but came to take students to the lobby to meet their parents, who were arriving to pick them up early after the attacks on the World Trade Center. Our school is uptown, a good distance from the site, but panic was a fact by now.

I called my own children's school. Unable to get through, I called a neighbor in our building in the Bronx. "Look what they did to our city," she said in tears.

The words still echo in my head: "our city." They make me think about the "we" of New York, those of us born and bred here and those more recently arrived. Those of us who have enlisted to live here, work here, raise our children here. We are here for the long haul.

In the Bible, God makes a covenant with Abraham, that He will give him and his descendants a place to live, "the land wherein thou art a stranger." He says that Abraham will be "a father of nations," assuring him a place for the nations, yet the place remains vague. The emphasis is on the inhabitants.

New Yorkers now have a better understanding of the covenant they have entered into, because we have been reminded, however cruelly, of the decision we have made to live here. As people with a reputation for being unhelpful, self-involved, and short-fused, we are surprisingly concerned about one another. We understand that one man's ceiling is another man's floor.

My neighbor and I have been in constant, helpful contact in these tough weeks that have followed the Sept. 11 attack. Our daughters insist more forcefully on time together, and I understand their insistence.

We all participate more fully in our parts as neighbors, friends, parents, and citizens, as New Yorkers, now that our quirky New York sense of peace has been challenged and we fight the hunger for "late-breaking news" that will put us over the line of industrial-strength alert into plain paranoia.

Certainly we should know about the anthrax scare, so we can be vigilant while opening the mail. But there is no need to hear threats repeated, allowing the kind of negative mental infiltration we are fighting as a nation.

New Yorkers are staunch citizens. We do not live in an easy place. Still, we take our children to school, go to work, and share our worries constructively by talking to colleagues, friends, and co-commuters.

Media junkies we may have become, in varying degrees, but in my conversations with people at work and on the bus, with neighbors and family members, I note a frustration with the saturating effect of the terrorism news. We're reading our newspapers and listening to our radios and watching our TVs, but these do not give us the news that is most important.

The news is that we're getting on despite the news. That in the most challenging time of our local and national life, we are living our lives, nerves and all. There is tremendous hope in this. We are keeping up our end of the bargain with one another, for one another. It may not send tongues wagging or heads spinning or cause crowding at the gas-mask emporium, but it is news. Good news. Gospel.

The new vigilance requires us to be on the lookout for good, which surrounds us and our goals, while we pay appropriate heed to warnings from the proper sources. There is other late-breaking news, however, in the vigilance department: We have to be vigilant about our duty as citizens to hope, to be at the ready to replenish hope when we lose sight of it.

In his address on Oct. 11, President Bush expressed this type of vigilance: He said his first response to the attacks was amazement. He could not believe that our country was perceived in any way other than good. The new vigilance requires such a tenacity. Good prevails. When we no longer feel party to a covenant of good works, good thoughts, good people - that is when we should start to feel nervous.

We can make a choice not to join the fearful throngs and stick to the original mission, panthers notwithstanding.

Elizabeth Richards is a high school English teacher and novelist. Her latest book is 'Rescue' (Simon and Schuster, 1999).

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