During 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.
Gentilly 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.