'What can I do?'

How people are making a difference since Sept. 11.

Braiding and quilting

Medford, N.J.

My mother waited days for her chance to share, by donating blood. Then she learned that much of the blood given would likely be of little use.

Many people would have said, "I've given enough." Not Mom. Not the woman who taught me that it isn't really giving if you're just doing it to make yourself feel good. She didn't have a million dollars to give and couldn't go out and haul away rubble in New York. So instead, she started performing random acts of kindness. She filled all the little gaps she saw.

When she heard that schoolchildren in my area and folks at her church were disappointed that stores had run out of red, white, and blue ribbon to wear, she got strands of each color and braided them into piles of little bracelets that she mailed to the school and handed out at church.

When she heard that hospitals needed baby blankets, a task dropped in the haste of seeing to the 9/11 woes, she sat and quilted.

When she was told that a local school was short on volunteers to read in the classrooms, she filled in.

My mom has never thought twice about what she'd get in return. She has not questioned what people would do with the blood she gave, ribbons she braided, or blankets she sewed. She never says, "I've given enough."

Lisa Suhay is the author of a collection of life-lesson fables, 'Tell Me Another Story,' (Paraclete Press) and 'Dream Catchers.'

Embracing conversation

Essex Junction, Vt.

After Sept. 11, we were asked to support our country by going shopping. This seemed woefully lacking in imagination, and I began to wonder about our greater responsibilities as citizens of a democracy.

Would our community be able to speak about our different views and opinions? Would we be able to balance civil liberties with security? Would we know how our community should act during these uncertain times?

I picked up the phone and called the village manager, the high school principal, a minister, a police officer, the newspaper editor, a student, a parent, and others.

"What about providing opportunities for people to talk about all this stuff?" I asked.

They embraced my question.

I met recently with some of them for a pilot conversation, using a discussion guide from the Study Circle Resource Center, a nonprofit group that helps people work for community change.

The conversation was a refreshing oasis in a desert of uncertainty. My new friends demonstrated that it is possible during these uncertain times to disagree respectfully, to understand other viewpoints, to make wise recommendations about how to move forward.

This small group has good ideas about creating more opportunities for dialogue, such as asking neighborhood watch captains to organize discussion groups. Future workshops could bring in people from the local Muslim population or address emergency preparedness in the schools and in the community in general.

Our conversation wasn't as dramatic as rescuing someone from a collapsing building or sending a truckload of food to relief workers. In fact, I'm sure that on the day of our meeting, people all across the country came together to speak about issues of public concern.

Today, I'm struck by the fact that these kinds of conversations are still not possible in many parts of the world. So in that sense, the conversation that took place in my little town was far from ordinary.

Susan McCormack is a communications consultant.

Revisiting history

Washington

September's events made me crave reading - but not books about terrorism, Arabs, and Islam. Instead, death and destruction drove me further into my current passion: the Founding Fathers. While reading their biographies one by one - Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, Hamilton, Madison - I am reminded that the tension between "what is" and "what can be" is a constant in every era.

I am also reading "The Gift of the Jews," by Thomas Cahill. He argues that the Jews were the first ancient people not to see time cyclically. Jews were the first to live in the present and believe that their behavior could affect the future. Jews, says Cahill, made the idea of a changed future possible.

I have no doubt that cultures can change for the better and that we can work together to make the world better. In fact, this is what that 225-year-old experiment of the United States stands for! This is what most of the Founding Fathers had in mind.

In recognition, I've created a nonprofit organization called the Center for Creative Change (CCC). With it, I reaffirm my goal to fight for constructive change on every front - personal, public, professional.

The CCC is starting where it can reach: If parents and children - people of all economic levels included - can learn basic skills such as constructive communication, compassionate listening, creative play, age-appropriate positive discipline, and conflict resolution, the next generations have a larger chance of creating a world that continues to change for the better.

Nadine Epstein is a freelance writer and artist.

The myth of Cadmus

New York

A week after Sept. 11, I found myself struggling with a seemingly trivial decision: which Greek myth to read with my ninth graders. I'd planned to give them Cadmus, the story of a young man whose comrades are killed by a dragon. Cadmus kills the dragon, and its teeth become a murderous army.

I'd thought my students would enjoy the mayhem, but suddenly I wasn't sure. For days we had focused on the disaster - talking, reading the newspaper together, writing letters to the fire department and the mayor. One student even wrote to Osama bin Laden, promising revenge. Now, I thought it was time to reclaim some normalcy. So we read about Apollo and Daphne instead.

But if I thought I could insulate my students from violence, I was wrong. Day after day, the drumbeat resounded: anthrax around the corner, war around the globe. My students wrote stories modeled on the Greek myths. In one, black ants battled red ants, each tribe armed with poison gas.

In the myth of Cadmus, the dragon's-tooth soldiers go to war against each other. When only a handful are left, one calls to his brothers for peace. Then, together with Cadmus, they build a city. A week ago, I asked my students to read this story. As we discussed it, an idea surfaced: We must put an end to violence.

My students are fortunate. None is an orphan or a refugee. Still, violence has entered their lives. I can't shield them from it, but perhaps it is best not to try.

Perhaps the best I can do for them is give them stories, like Cadmus, in which we may recognize ourselves.

Jamie Dycus teaches high school in Manhattan.

A shadow in mosaic

Washington

In the story of the Corinthian maid, a woman traces the shadow of her lover in the sand as he leaves for the sea, so she has an image of him in her memory.

We can do the same for the people in the World Trade Center twin towers. Using satellite imagery, we can determine the shadow cast by the WTC at 8:30 a.m. on Sept. 11, and then fix the outline of the shadow on the streets and sidewalks on which it was cast.

The outline could be done with paint, mosaic, inlaid with steel recast from the building itself - any such media. The shadow of the structure would be there in the absence of the buildings and would physically embed in our hearts and minds the memories of the thousands of lost loved ones, as well as the monumental greatness of the human and physical structure.

John F. Ptak is proprietor of J.F. Ptak Science Books.

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