It has been said that the only legitimate and life-preserving fears that all human beings possess are those we possess at the time of birth: the fear loud noises and the fear of falling. There may be others as yet undetected, but those twin anxieties seem very plausible given the fact that the infant has just spent the last nine months in a sound-filtered, weightless environment.

The world is not a womb, a reality underscored in separate but complementary ways in two books just written by and for women who have been widowed or divorced in middle age. Without income, training, professional "entree," or -- most significantly -- self-confidence, reentry into the world they had forsaken for the husbands who aren't there anymore is extremely painful. For the "displaced homemaker," the fear of falling is very real indeed. And until recently, nobody was making any loud noises on her behalf. That is changing, as are the women themselves, largely through their own efforts, with a little significant help from their friends in state and federal places.

"New Lives for Former Wives" is a compilation of women's stories, interspersed with author Nancy Baker's observations, under headings such as: "One is A Lonely Number," "The Myth Of The Gay Divorcee" and "Money Is The Root." It is rather grim to see these realities laid out, end to end, like self-fulfilling prophecies.

But that is the bad news. The good news is that the women themselves who slip, slide, and usually find their feet within these pages are, collectively speaking, a delight. They are plain-speaking, funny, empathetic human beings. s

I am particularly fond of Helen, whose story would be grist for the Police Gazaette or the "Tammy Wynette Award For Disasters Survived." Fat, jobless, suicidal (she tried but failed) and reponsible for two children, she tells her story without any frills to disguise the chills. One or another of these stories will ring true no matter what your circumstances.

"In the final analysis," says Baker, "this is a book about women discovering themselves and their own self-sufficiency. It's about the journey from a husband's home to a home of one's own."

Not all of the women in "New Lives" wind up forging new lives. The casualties are noted, sympathized over and used as painful reminders of the need to outgrow displacement and claim one's own life. But the courage of the women who survive their fear of falling is sometimes breathtaking.

"Displaced Homemakers: Organizing for a New Life" is written by a widow, Laurie Shields, who rather reluctantly accepted the invitation of Tish Sommers (head of the Task Force For Older Women) to head up the Alliance for Displaced Homemakers. The year was 1974. Sheild's participation in politics, prior to being widowed, had been desultory. Her understanding of the issues confronting the older woman wasn't particularly clear at that time. But she accepted the task, and went on to discover both the issues and her own strength. Her book is an account of how the Displaced Homemakers Movement grew, the pitfalls it encountered, and the ways the movement took flesh in the growing (but still scant) numbers of Displaced Homemaker Centers around the country.

It is, perhaps, not quite the book for the "displaced homemaker" herself, whose urgent needs are referred to, but not spelled out in stories as they are in "New Lives." Sheilds clearly hopes that her book "will be useful to professionals serving this newly defined segment of the economically disadvantaged.'"

"Displaced Homemakers" provides more of a political overview. There are stories of running up against politicians, learning how to lobby, being quick in encounters with people in high places. The book strives to be a manual as well, giving specific information including where you can get help, if it's available, in your own state. Shields also details how displaced homemaker centers operate -- which is oftentimes without much more than grit. But she serves up this information in a highly digestible form. Vignettes of individual women dot the runway like lights that guide the plane home.

Both of these books have a freshness of experience derived from the recent wounds of the women within them.

I was struck by one quality that seems to sustain both books and the women within them -- compassion. Time and time again, two minuses find each other, embrace, and turn into a plus.