SOME days ago, I sat in my back garden in Belfast on a warm autumn evening and marvelled at the beauty of the last roses of summer.
It might seem odd to people outside Northern Ireland that I have sought out beauty in the midst of what, until now, has been a war zone.
Yet during the darkest days of the past quarter century of ``the Troubles,'' my back garden has almost always been a solace, an inspiration, and a haven. But not quite.
My haven of peace was shattered. The violence I had been reporting from Belfast exploded on my own doorstep.
Almost five months ago to the day, a gang of Protestant paramilitaries drove up to my neighbor's front window, sprayed a burst of automatic gunfire around the front room where Patrick and his son Peter (not their real names) were sitting, and left them both for dead.
The attackers claimed later, spuriously and obscenely, that my neighbors' home was a ``safe house'' for the outlawed paramilitary group, the Provisional Irish Republican Army. The real reason for the unprovoked attack was that my neighbors are Catholics living in one of the few mixed areas in North Belfast.
At that time, I felt numb. I remember bringing tea to the policemen on duty outside our house. They were dignified and helpful as they tried to reassure neighbors and looked for clues about the attackers.
ALL that night my wife and I slept badly. She had heard the shooting and had gone immediately next door with our younger son to try to help. Our older boy had come home late, to find our street blocked off by white tape. The policemen told him, ``There's been a shooting on this street.''
The next day we tried to rationalize with our sons the horrors of the previous night. This was their first experience of direct violence in Belfast.
Then there were the television crews, trying to pick up every morsel of news. My wife and I went on camera to refute the outrageous claims about our neighbors. Somehow we found the right words to condemn the attack and those who carried it out. People who met me afterwards said, ``That was brave.''
I replied, ``Bravery doesn't come into it. My neighbor Patrick would have done exactly the same for me.''
All our other neighbors, Protestants and Catholics, were devastated. As we waited for further news about our friends' serious injuries, their house stood deserted and the garden was silent. Our collective hurts and our neighbors' violation were like a cloud of despair hanging over the neighborhood.
Gradually, like a shaft of light entering a somber bleakness, the news improved. Patrick and Peter were not only surviving but also gaining strength; and after a period of convalescence, they returned home to a reception of quiet, deep joy.
The house had life and laughter again, and the garden blossomed with both spring and the wholeness of friends and family united again.
We brought them a bunch of flowers from the garden (and huge hugs), and Patrick and his wife, Maeze, (not her real name) made us tea. I marvelled that neither of them had a word of bitterness, only thankfulness for healing and for the love of family and friends.
During the summer, I listened more than once to the sounds of Patrick and Maeze in the garden with their children, including Peter, and their grandchildren. This was an ordinary occurrence by normal standards, but powerfully reassuring all the same.
One warm afternoon, I wandered across to pay my respects and ended up attending Patrick's little granddaughter, who fell asleep on my shoulder. I still remember the sense of peace as I held that tiny tot in a garden where things might have been so different. But I still felt guilty at not being able to tell the world about the attack on innocent people, and even more guilty at perhaps using my friends' suffering as a vehicle for my own writing.
It is only this evening, several months after the shooting, that I can bring myself to write about such things. For days afterward, I could not even lift a pen. To my surprise, there was a deep inner rage, not only at the merciless attack on an innocent family but also at other people in my daily round who went on living as if they did not care about such an outrage.
Of course they cared, but there were so many similar shootings and outrages at the time that they all seemed much the same.
I thought to myself how difficult it is to pass on experiences to others, and I realized that all of us on our street had to remain mentally alert and strong.
Gradually, my anger subsided, to be replaced by a worry that the attackers might return and an overwhelming awareness that others were being maimed or murdered daily.
It is very hard to watch funeral after funeral on television, particularly if you have been working and writing for peace for 25 years as I have, and especially if your peacemaking friend next door and his son are almost swept away in a senseless act of violence.
I felt mute and helpless, and I detected an inner hardening that threatened to crowd out my compassion for other victims of violence. It was almost as if a part of me was saying, ``What's the point of trying to make peace in a place where violence is the language of the day? You've written all you can, spoken all you can, prayed all you can. We are all trapped in this spiral of violence.''
I remember coming back from a holiday abroad and saying, ``Do I really want to live here anymore?'' @bodytextdrop =
Throughout the summer, my despair seemed unending as the funerals increased, and then the IRA declared a cease-fire, and something began to stir slowly beneath the pack ice of violence.
Of course there was the immediate euphoria of those in Catholic areas who thought the IRA had won, or maybe it was their sheer relief and joy at even the prospect of peace. There were also the doubts of Protestants who feared a British sell-out and could not figure out why the IRA had declared a cease-fire unless they had won.
Personally, I could identify with all those feelings, but mine started with caution and ripened to a qualified optimism. Like others, I began to dare think the unthinkable about peace, though the darkness lingered at the back of my mind.
As the days passed, the public reactions became more complex - with the media feeding on its own need to produce more and more headlines.
There was, too, an international sense of relief: Maybe this was another Berlin Wall crumbling, a kind of Middle East agreement a la Protestant and Catholic, a South African rapprochement Irish-style.
The publicity itself gorged on speculation and soared to the giddy heights of hype; someone even suggested a Nobel Peace Prize for an erstwhile IRA apologist for terrorism. @bodytextdrop =
Back in North Belfast, my feet remain firmly on the ground. I approach each new dawn, and each early morning news bulletin, gingerly, like a cat testing every inch of ground before edging forward.
And yet for me there are unexpected bonuses - such as watching young British soldiers on the way to work as they patrol the streets in their colorful regimental berets instead of steel helmets. Somehow the berets give them a softness and an identity as human beings, their unprotected skulls and their vulnerability for all to see.
They all look as young as my sons. I can see these soldiers back home in their jeans and denim shirts, worrying about nothing more important than soccer or pop music, and I hope that they can safely leave us to our collective peace sometime soon.
Tension has eased perceptibly as I drive through the streets, with few if any roadblocks or security forces' requests for identification. It is almost a relief to be locked in a normal traffic jam.
In the newspapers, too, I read letters of hope, as if people are beginning to believe that lasting peace may be possible.
I also hear the heartening phrases creeping into everyday conversation: ``If this cease-fire holds ... there'll be a lot more tourists, and investment, and maybe we can show the world the real beauty of this place''
I half-believe them and I think, ``Is this going to last or are we all fooling ourselves?'' Despite myself, I think that I now breathe a little easier.
Beneath the headlines and the hype, those of us who have lived through the bitterness and the bombs know only too well that the journey to lasting peace will be arduous and long.
I am aware that the skill and understanding required of the politicians is awesome in a world short of statesmen.
But the longest trek of all will be my interior journey into the personal heart of hope, keeping my trust alive and learning to live with the rigorous and disturbing challenge of change.
Like everyone else, I am only beginning to let go of my grip on the armor of inner protection, afraid to leave it aside totally in case the war machine snaps into action again. But trust I must.