Appreciating the View

A novelist on finding a new self, and a new home, in New Orleans.

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This is not a "Goodbye to all that" essay, this is a "Hello to everything" essay.

I moved into my crumbling loft building in Williamsburg in the early aughts for three reasons: It was affordable, I loved the barren beauty of the neighborhood, and there was a remarkable view. All day I sat at my desk staring at a computer screen, trying to write something that would make a difference, so what rose beyond that screen needed to be inspiring in some way. And it was special, this view. There was the Williamsburg Bridge, both stoic and solid, yet constantly in motion with traffic, and the city behind it, with the Empire State Building changing its lights every night. Sure, I also had to look at the garbage-strewn rooftops of a few shitty warehouses beneath that, not to mention the burned-out cars on the street below, but look up and out, my friends! Look up and out.

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I never dreamed of much beyond the view. It's hard to make a living as a fiction writer, not to mention my first three books didn't sell particularly well. Once, I floated the idea to my accountant that someday I might buy a home, and she laughed at me. No one will ever give you a mortgage, she said. Your finances are too unstable; for God's sake, you're a fiction writer.

I never dreamed of much beyond the view.

So I committed to the life of an artist: I would write my books, tell my stories, work until I was dead. I didn't care much about the money anyway. You can't. You have to make your art because you love it and because it will kill you to stop. Not because you want to buy a house someday. That dream was for someone else.

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And so for many years, the two things that defined me were my writing and my apartment. My life was a whirlwind, and I didn't care about finding the center of it. I threw myself into my work and my career and my life in Brooklyn, with Manhattan always outside my window. Frequently I caught myself dazed, staring. That sky was good for maintaining an open mind and visualizing hundreds of pages. I would never own a home, or have savings, job security, or benefits. I always felt as long as I could look out at Manhattan through a wall of windows and was still publishing my work, I was doing something right.

But how long did I think that view would last? A fool would say forever, but New York City is no fool. Five years ago, one apartment building went up in my neighborhood, blocking most of the bridge, then three years ago the warehouses were torn down. One was replaced with an apartment complex for the Hasidic population last year, and then a fancy condo went up this past summer; another is in progress. Chipping away at the view. There was more street traffic, more construction. My neighborhood was barren no longer. Every winter, for four years, I went to New Orleans to write, and each spring, I returned to Brooklyn to find a different chunk of the skyline gone. I have uttered the phrase "I had a good run" approximately a thousand times, never once taking consolation from it.

I have uttered the phrase "I had a good run" approximately a thousand times, never once taking consolation from it.

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Somewhere in there, my career turned. The hard work paid off. My accountant no longer scoffed at the idea of my buying a new home. I fell more in love with New Orleans with every visit. It wasn't my shimmering city full of big dreams; it was something calmer, deeper. The slow strolls I took at sunset quieted my soul. What if I just bought a house in New Orleans? What if I just threw everything into that life? It had been so many years since I had considered it as a possibility. Was I there now? Had I become that person?

A few months ago, I began to look at houses to buy in New Orleans. I couldn't afford much, so I allowed myself only a few requirements, the most important of which was a good writing space. I'd never have that view back in New York, but maybe I could find something just as special, even if it was completely different.

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One day I walked with my real-estate agent into a tiny shotgun house. I felt myself drawn straight through the side hall to the back room. There were two large windows plus a windowed door. Sunlight everywhere. A green backyard, with an enormous, sumptuous loquat tree hanging low over the fence from the neighbor's yard. Weeds and wildflowers. A shack in another neighbor's yard. More trees in the distance, and a big, blue, unstirring sky.

And then I found myself uttering these words: "If I lived here, I would never want to leave." No one was more surprised than me when I said it; they rose up from somewhere new in me. I didn't even know that was what I was specifically looking for — to find a place I never wanted to leave — but there I was, almost immediately feeling at home.

And then I found myself uttering these words: "If I lived here, I would never want to leave."

A flurry of negotiations followed. I signed away the contents of my bank account, a decade's worth of work. It always feels crazy right before your life changes, but I don't think you should question the crazy; you should embrace it. And anyway, changing your life, being in control of where you live, securing stability for yourself, carving out a new space for yourself, getting an identity as a homeowner, that's not crazy at all. That's a goddamn gift you give yourself.

A month later, the house was mine. I type this now staring out into the backyard, my dog asleep in the grass after a long, contemplative morning walk through the streets of our neighborhood. Here, I think, is the new place I will grow into the next version of myself. I can hear a train whistle in the distance. There are mourning doves that alight the fence, and I think of them as my birds. At night, I am no longer greeted by the ever-changing colors of the Empire State Building, but my neighbors turn on the string lights hung alongside their house and a soft glow illuminates my backyard. Who is to say that someday that view won't change? I don't like to think about what could replace it, so precious a place is New Orleans. But I promise to treasure it while I have it. I have learned now never to take my view for granted.

Jami Attenberg is the author of five books of fiction, including The Middlesteins and, most recently, Saint Mazie (@jamiattenberg).

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