Letting Go by Joyce Zonana

temp_0218_Zonana_JoyceDuring the summer of 2005, I was living alone on Venus Street, in New Orleans’ Gentilly Terrace neighborhood, in a small Craftsman cottage I’d purchased two years earlier after breaking up with my longtime partner. I loved the house: modest yet gracious, it had a dining room with French doors that opened onto a screened porch, gleaming wood floors, cove ceilings, numerous multi-paned windows, a large bedroom, and a comfortable study looking out on royal palm trees where a flock of green parrots nested. I liked to think it resembled the home my parents had left behind in Cairo, Egypt when they emigrated to the U.S. in 1951.

For the first time ever, I’d carefully chosen and purchased furniture specially for the new space: a wide, heavy, round wooden dining table; a velvet camelback sofa; a coffee table, lamps, curtains, and a hooked rug. This was my “dream home,” the room of my own I’d always longed for, and I dwelt there in deep contentment–gardening, reading, writing, entertaining.

When news of Hurricane Katrina’s approach filtered through to me at the end of August, the semester was just beginning and I didn’t want to go anywhere. I felt settled, happy with my teaching position, happy with my life.  I’d been living in New Orleans and working at that university for fifteen years, and it had taken that long to finally feel truly at home, at peace. I’d dutifully, frantically, evacuated for storms during previous summers, and each time it had been a false alarm. This time, I didn’t want to leave. But when I saw the National Weather Service projections and images of the storm’s size and path, it became clear that I’d be wise to evacuate. Thirty-six hours before landfall, I left with a friend, taking my two cats, my passport, some jewelry, an unfinished manuscript and my laptop computer. After more than two weeks on the road, I found my way back to Brooklyn, NY, where I’d grown up.

HURRICANE KATRINA IN NEW ORLEANSGentilly Terrace flooded and remained underwater for nearly a month. My lovely little house, astonishingly, was spared. But I felt I could not go back. My job was at risk and my mother, who’d also been living in New Orleans, was now in Brooklyn with me. I didn’t think either of us should return to such a vulnerable place. I was lucky enough to find another teaching position and I began my search for a new home—longing, against hope, to reproduce the life I’d left behind. The only thing I could afford was a tiny studio apartment—no outdoor space and no room at all for my furniture. I gave much of it away to friends and neighbors, but kept the dining room table and the sofa: the table was lent to a friend’s recently divorced sister, and the sofa helped to furnish my mother’s assisted living apartment. I bought a sturdy sofa-bed that became the centerpiece of my new home—filling it almost completely when opened.

In 2011, I moved to a bigger apartment, chosen largely because it reminded me of my beloved house on Venus Street. I now had room for the dining table and the velvet sofa, as well as the oh-so-practical sofa-bed. I found curtains similar to the ones I’d hung in Gentilly. Here I was, in my very own New Orleans in Brooklyn. But about a year ago I began to grow uneasy, finding the sofa-bed ugly and the sofa uncomfortable, the table overpowering and out of place. Could I let them go?

I was raised in an atmosphere of fear and privation. My immigrant parents possessed very little and counted every penny; we all wore hand-me-downs and our furniture was given to us by relatives. I was taught never to throw anything away, always to save and to worry about the future. If something was serviceable, whether you liked it or not, you had to keep it and use it. There’s much to be said for such a policy, a sensible antidote to our contemporary consumer culture. But it can also be paralyzing.

It took a year. But one day last month, no doubt responding to the “Winter Woman” feelings of discernment and discrimination Molly Remer so eloquently described here recently, I’d suddenly had enough. I spoke to my building’s super and arranged for him to take out, first the sofa-bed I’d come to hate since it reminded me of the confinement of the studio apartment, and then the sofa I’d once loved but which was now faded and sagging. The coffee table and curtains went next. I’m still writing at the big dining table, but I plan to let it go as soon as I find someone who can use it.

With the jettisoning of these old, cumbersome, once loved or needed objects, I suddenly feel freer and more alive, in the present. I speak my mind more easily, laugh more readily, make decisions more spontaneously. My apartment is a blank page, awaiting whatever I choose to write upon it. I now realize that, despite my apparent adaptation to life in New York, I’d been clinging for all these years to what I’d lost in New Orleans, still unconsciously mourning, still unresolved.

How many objects have I clung to, how many pasts have I tried to preserve–beginning, of course, with that first loss of Egypt, where I’d been born and where my family had flourished for so long? How many outworn habits, feelings, fears, and beliefs continue to constrain me? The new year approaches, and my resolution today is simple: to let go. Again and again and again. As often as it takes.

She changes everything she touches, and everything She touches changes . . .

Joyce Zonana is the author of a memoir, Dream Homes: From Cairo to Katrina, an Exile’s Journey (Feminist Press 2008). She served for a time as co-Director of the Ariadne Institute for the Study of Myth and Ritual. She is the recipient of a 2017 PEN/Heim Translation Fund Award for her work on Ce pays qui te ressemble by Tobie Nathan. Her translation of Henri Bosco’s Malicroix is forthcoming from New York Review Books.


Categories: General, Grief, Healing, Loss, Poverty, Seasons, trauma, Winter Solstice

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21 replies

  1. Joyce, loved your home in Brooklyn and visiting you there last year–can’t wait to see its new incarnation and yours!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. What a touching story. I’ve never had to evacuate from fire or flood, but I was homeless for a month a couple decades ago. Everything I owned except some of my clothes was in storage, and my two cats and I lived for a week with a friend of my son’s, then in a tiny hotel. I’m a double Cancer and I want all my stuff around me…….but for that month I felt amazingly free. I let go for a little while. A good lesson.


  3. A friend once said to me that I make myself “at home” where ever I am. Sometimes I think it would be nice to create a place, like your beautiful New Orleans house, that expressed that sense of “home”. But it’s not “enough” for me. And I’m a Cancer too. (Don’t understand the “double” or “triple” Cancer) My name, Barbara, “a stranger or pilgrim in the land” seems to have invaded my being, hopefully not as the stronger word “barbarian” would indicate!

    I hope you will keep us up to date as you re-design your living space. It seems to me the artistic expression of inner beauty.


  4. Oh, I love this essay…I too had been forced to release old furniture and feelings when my marriage collapsed many years ago. My present log cabin has only a few pieces of family furniture left and now that I am not living in Maine year round, I am facing the possibility of letting go of a house I built on land that I dearly love…Here in the high desert I have been more at peace with my dearest companions, two dogs, a bird, and a few plants – than I have been living in family (familiar?) isolation… and yet anywhere I go I create a “home” space even if it is only one room… home is more about beloved companions than objects except for stones and reeds and bones that I collect while walking…

    One thing I am finally getting on a visceral level is that letting go is an ongoing reality for me – both inside and out. Because I live a Nature based religion of sorts and follow the eight spokes of the wheel I am never far away from the next ritual which always includes a letting go and then there are the thirteen moons…

    For me, letting go will remain my ongoing life challenge so I am particularly grateful for ritual practice and the passing of the seasons which keeps in touch with the truth that change is the only constant…


  5. Thanks Joyce, we can all identify probably with your situation. But essentially also for all of us, I believe it’s true that old saying — “Home is where the heart is.”


  6. Beautiful! Thank you for sharing.


  7. I really enjoyed such an intimate article, so expressive in emotions. Wish you well in your live


  8. Joyce, I truly enjoyed reading your article. In fact, it’s something I identify with: to let go of things we consciously or unconsciously cling to! It was a great feeling when I gave my old furniture that I loved for a long time to the movers when I moved to my new place in 2011 and now I have been getting rid of other things for the last few days. Not only I feel lighter but it also gives me a feeling of elevation that is hard to explain. I hope to see you more often in 2018.


    • Thank you Maryam. I think part of our elation/elevation has to do with the feeling of choice: we’re no longer bound by the past, whether it was good or bad. And, yes, let’s plan to spend more time together in the new year !


      • So true. I have been thinking about that a lot since memory is the only thing that we become attached to and specially for those of us who are immigrants. My only remaining auntie died last Saturday in Iran and that’s just the proof.


  9. Hi Joyce, I am so sorry for the loss of your lovely home in New Orleans, but I’m glad you’re moving on and letting go. Your post really resonates with me because I’m trying to clean out my attic, which is stuffed with things I’ve kept for sentimental reasons, or no reason. My husband died a decade ago and I find it painful to go through our old things, but it is also freeing. One of my goals for the coming year is to get my attic in order. Wish me luck! :)


    • I wish you luck! And joy and freedom and peace … we can keep good memories alive in our hearts and make room for new experiences as we clear our spaces … but it’s also always a matter of being ready.

      Thanks for sharing your experience.


  10. Joyce, after reading this post I ordered your Dream Homes and have just finished it while sitting in my “wild garden” in a northern suburb of Chicago. Your beautifully-written memoir contains much wisdom gleaned from your reflections on family, memory, origins and transitions, and the meaning of home. Just wanted to let you know how your story, so different from mine in the details, offers truths that help me come to terms with challenges in own life. So thank you for that gift to the world of your story…to quote Simone Weil, “God loves that perspective of creation that can only be seen from the point where I am.”


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