“The world is a violent and mercurial — it will have its way with you. We are saved only by love — love for each other and the love that we pour into the art we feel compelled to share: being a parent; being a writer; being a painter; being a friend. We live in a perpetually burning building, and what we must save from it, all the time, is love.” – Tennessee Williams
The bedroom had two sunny windows that opened up to a red fire escape. Below stretched a busy sidewalk and a bustling street, like coursing veins between my building and the ones across the way: a deli, a garden store, more apartments. Diagonally down the block, a shiny silver diner’s neon sign blinked silently, its name pulsing in pink cursive.
I planned to position my bed in the corner, next to one window, where I could sit propped against pillows on weekend mornings to sip slices of sky with my coffee. My desk was going to go in front of the other window so I could daydream between scribbling sentences, looking down at the scrambled, scattered currents of anonymous strangers, coming and going while I sat rooted in my chair.
The landlord let me pick the paint color for the kitchen, which had two windows of its own. I chose baby blue. It matched the tiny tiles on the wall behind the sink. There was a deep, wide sill in the bathroom that I imagined propping with potted greenery — a few long-fingered ferns, maybe, with their little leaves lapping up the leftover shower steam.
From the outside, it was nothing special. The front door of the building was pimpled with graffiti, and not the artistic kind — just ugly, aimless scrawls. It sat above an uncharismatic Dunkin’ Donuts. But on the inside, it was perfect. It had the sunlight, the space, the simple abundances I needed. It was the place to replant myself, the way 20somethings must so often do as the seasons shift — as jobs and roommates and rent rates change — in order to continue to grow. It would be the permeable, permutable setting for the next chapter of my story.
I spent the first week of June packing up boxes in my old apartment. I cleaned out every crevice of my bedroom, preparing to donate bagful after bagful of expended stuff I no longer want nor need in a delayed episode of spring cleaning, trying to loosen up any stuck and sticky parts of me that are overdue for ditching, too. A lot happens in two years of new adulthood — a lot of unnecessary muck and mess mix in with the soil as our sprouts start stretching in new directions. Certain buds blossom, while others wither and have to be pruned.
This is the start of my fourth year in New York, and it’s my second move to my third apartment — pruning time, before replanting.
I started lugging the important things over to the new place in stages. That Friday, I stopped work early and took three separate cabs back and forth and back and forth and back and forth, emptying the same two suitcases before filling them again. One of the taxi drivers poked fun at me, blustering as he lifted the heavy bags into his trunk. “What’d you put in here? Bricks?”
Books, I told him. My books are, in fact, the bricks to my heart’s house, the sturdy walls of cozy safety I’m always building taller to keep me warm. I moved the books before anything else, both because they were cumbersome — I wanted to get the hardest finished first — and because, as soon as my books were there, the apartment would truly feel like home.
I personally purchased some of them, but more were gifts from strangers who left stacks on their front stoops in the process of their own pruning. I’ve adopted orphaned titles of all kinds over the years — non-fiction, fiction, even children’s books with watercolor illustrations. I love that they connect me in an invisible, anonymous way with whoever owned them before. We may not know each other, but we have some of the same words wedged under our skin, some significant tidbits of treasured tales to share as common ground.
After the books came some clothes and shoes; wall decorations; mugs and bowls and plates for the kitchen. I have this six-by-five-foot painting that a friend made in high school, and it’s traveled with me to five different apartments between college and now. It’s a massive depiction of an orangutan with a smile on its fiery, furry face; a bright splash of character; a conversation starter each time a new friend is invited over.
My parents arrived on that first Friday night of June to help me with most of the big and hard and heavy stuff, including my furniture. On Saturday morning, I carried the monkey canvas — too big to squeeze into even an SUV — from the old apartment to the new apartment, where they met me with their car.
But of course — because otherwise, there would be no story to tell — things did not go smoothly. A few hours later, everything that belonged in the new apartment was packed again into my mom and dad’s trunk, and it was pouring as I left the building above Dunkin’ Donuts for a final time, carrying the orangutan back from whence it came. I must have looked like a crazy character, hoisting the canvas like a tent over my head, the rain dripping down the monkey’s painted face.
There turned out to be a man living directly below my new rental who sat at a desk all day, every day, with his door wide open, blaring a tiny boxed television and smoking packfuls of cigarettes. He wasn’t there when I originally visited and signed my lease, but he’d been there each time earlier in the week when I’d gone to drop things off, which is how I knew the habit was a constant. I just kept wishing it wasn’t, hoping it was temporary, was unimportant, was going to disappear. Because the apartment was perfect, remember? Because I didn’t want to create a conflict. Because the papers were already signed. Because it didn’t feel like my right to fight against someone else’s way of living — even though we were sharing the same air, planted on the same plot. This just wasn’t the direction that my plot line was supposed to go.
There was much more quirk to him than the TV and the smoking, but it feels wrong somehow to spear him with further description. The fact is, he was only being himself. He was only doing what he does. Unlike me, he has apparently lived stably in that apartment for fifteen years, and he’s settled in there, as you could tell from the quickest peep through his open doors. His book collection trumps mine indisputably, with hardbacks piled up on shelves from floor to ceiling across an entire wall.
But the smoke filled the hallways and seeped up into my bedroom, and I had to hold my breath while walking up the stairs or else bear a sore throat and stuffy nose. It wasn’t livable for me. And it took until halfway through the move — until my parents were there to help confirm that this was, indeed, going to be a problem — to accept and admit it.
I’ll save you the detailed spiel, but after speaking with the landlord and then enduring an uncomfortable conversation with that fellow resident, everyone decided it was best to break the new lease and find elsewhere to live. And so, I shuffled back to my old apartment, where my last lease has fortunately not quite ended. My mom and dad — both of whom were absolute gems all weekend, sans a single complaint — carried much of my nonessential stuff with them back to Maryland for now, including my books.
I spent the following week surrounded by boxes and bags in this strange in-between state, neither moved out nor moved in, uprooted and uncertain while contemplating my plan b. Between bouts of work, I scoured Trulia and StreetEasy and Craigslist, searching for studios that were affordable, safe, and livable all at once, which is the New Yorker’s version of hunting for a needle in a haystack.
When I started feeling defeated, I inevitably hopped over to Facebook or Twitter or Instagram in a desperate craving for distraction, where I landed on depressing dialogues of unsettled frustrations far more monumental and mass-culturally relevant than my own: diatribes against one presidential candidate or the other, or quarrels over the outcome of the Stanford rape case.
This led me to Google searches like “easiest ways to move to France” and “how to live and work on a farm without electricity.”
The anxious sense of groundlessness made me reevaluate everything, like a dandelion seed given an extra floating moment to consider where I really want to land. Where and how do I want to lay my roots within this mucky, messy world? Where’s the safe haven amid all the discord? When common ground seems crumbled, when no cozy space seems solid, is there still such a thing as “home?”
Last Sunday, I had an appointment to visit a studio apartment in Greenpoint. I woke up that morning to the news of the massacre at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub.
If the ongoing apartment snafu had uprooted me, if the Stanford rape case and the election-oriented clamor had disgruntled me, this was the tragedy that ripped the ground right out from underneath me.
Brock Turner brought out the ire in so many of us — towards him, towards his family, towards the judge who let him off the hook. And I don’t think I know a single human who isn’t convinced that (at least) one of our two presidential candidates is a wicked monster. I’d been struggling to stomach all of the anger and aggression and hate for weeks. But this was a whole new sort of evil.
The Orlando tragedy resonated particularly powerfully with me because I could so easily imagine myself inside it. “Queer” is a personality trait I’ve been working to accept in my story for years, and those killed and injured victims are connected to me in an invisible, anonymous way — we may not know each other, but we have some of the same words wedged under our skin. Our treasured tales are different, but aligned at the pain points. We fight similar demons. Together, we manifest the morals of pride and authenticity over shame and secrecy — or at least, we try.
It’s not about me, of course. It’s about those who were directly affected. Rationally, it seems silly to bemoan my own feelings rather than focus on celebrating the 49 precious stolen lives and supporting the 53 survivors and their families. But it’s human nature to see reflections of oneself in other people — this is the same strange trick of the heart and mind that allows for empathy. Though the massacre occurred many miles away from where I live, it seemed to hit close to home.
I went to the apartment appointment. The building sat on a quiet, tree-lined street with a peeling pink facade, and its hallways were painted with charmingly kitschy murals of wildflower fields, giddy smiling suns, and cartoon butterflies. It was cute, but it didn’t feel like home. I’m not sure anyplace could really have felt like home that day.
“Home” is so much more complicated than the construction of a physical shelter between a roof and walls. It’s not as easy as a red fire escape, a bed in the corner by a window, a baby blue kitchen, and a windowsill overflowing with potted ferns — not if the surrounding environment is suffocating.
Sometimes, an honest “home” looks more alien than quotidian, like a nightclub, like Pulse, with neon lights spliced through a shimmering chandelier above a dance floor where everyone feels welcome in their most expressive bodies, with smiles and sweat dripping like glitter.
But then, how do you make yourself “at home” — as in, comfortable and at ease — when your home is demolished?
In this poignant essay, Raillan Brooks explained the challenge of feeling at home in two potent identities that are perpetually pitted against one another. He told the story of coming out three separate times: first as a Saudi Arabian and Muslim American just after 9/11, then as gay, to his friend in tenth grade and to his family in college. To come out again as both Muslim and gay at once, via a viral Tweet last Sunday, brought a whole new slew of spurning reactions.
How do you make yourself “at home” when your cohabitants keep trying to kick you out? How do you make yourself “at home” in a home country that sometimes doesn’t seem to want to renew your lease?
In her gut-wrenching letter to Brock Turner, the 22-year-old woman implicated in the Stanford rape case wrote, “You took away my worth, my privacy, my energy, my time, my safety, my intimacy, my confidence, my own voice, until today…I had to force myself to relearn my real name, my identity.”
How do you make yourself at home in your own body, in your own frame, after being unjustly invaded?
She wrote, “You have no idea how hard I have worked to rebuild parts of me that are still weak.”
How do you reconstruct comfort and ease when all of your walls have been knocked down or burned to the ground?
She wrote, “You bought me a ticket to a planet where I lived by myself.”
Once you’ve been through a trauma as severe as hers — or a nightmare as harrowing as what the Pulse community just endured — do you have to call a foreign planet “home” forever?
I have quite a few questions. I don’t have the answers. I don’t have a new apartment yet, either. When my lease ends next week, I may take time to travel before moving back later this summer; I may sublet somewhere in Brooklyn for a little while; I may, at the last moment, find a studio that feels right.
I’m trying to make peace with the groundless mess, because I think life’s purest gold gets dug up from the rubble. Counter-intuitively, a disarming jumble can be the best place to find the clearest truth — it just takes time and patience and a willingness to sift through the wreckage.
This doesn’t mean that true global tragedies can be dismissed as blessings in disguise. Violence is not a blessing. If I could undo what happened at Stanford and what happened in Orlando (among other horrors that hit different corners of the world on a frequent basis), I would.
But it does mean that all is never lost. In the wake of massive monstrosity, glimmers of otherwise untapped human goodness start to glint. Hidden hints of heartfelt emotion emerge.
Theater groups have transformed themselves to guardian angels to protect mourners in Orlando from anti-gay protestors. A JetBlue crew passed sheets of paper around the aisles as the grandmother of Pulse victim Luis Omar Ocasio-Capo flew to Florida to grieve, and passengers filled page after page with warm messages to offer her compassionate condolences. Seniors at Stanford used their graduation ceremony as an opportunity to rally support for the woman that Turner assaulted.
People speak. People act. Kindness happens. Tenderness happens. Bravery happens. Love happens.
If the home is where the heart is, where’s the heart? This is the one question for which I’ve unearthed my answer.
I think the heart is in the story.
Sometimes, when the ground gets ripped out from underneath you, when the roof caves in and the walls crumble down, when the building gets burned to the base — all you have is the enduring shelter of your voice. What you have as a haven is your story, and inside that story, you find some beating bits of yourself; some pulsing, loving semblance of whom you’re meant to be and where you fit within the mess of the world.
Your story roots you as a living being on the earth you still belong to, even if it doesn’t feel that way.
When she dared to share her story, the victim, the survivor, the heroine, the student, the woman, the girl from California — I wish I could ask her what she preferred to be called — she brought some part of herself back home. She found her meaning, her motivation, and her message inside her voice. She constructed a platform from her story and made herself a lighthouse for “girls everywhere” by writing, “I am with you. On nights when you feel alone, I am with you. When people doubt you or dismiss you, I am with you…As the author Anne Lamott once wrote, ‘Lighthouses don’t go running all over an island looking for boats to save; they just stand there shining.’ Although I can’t save every boat, I hope that by speaking today, you absorbed a small amount of light, a small knowing that you can’t be silenced.” By telling her story, she became a shining beacon for those who see slivers of themselves inside her individual experience.
Brooks also built himself a structure of insight to rest inside when he told the story of his coming out, and he welcomed fellow LGBTQ Americans, Muslims, and people of color in there, too. In his essay, he wrote that the best result of his viral Tweet was the multitude of responses he received from other gay Muslims who expressed varying versions of solidarity.
When our own stories are too slippery to solidify, we can still search for ourselves inside the tales told by other people, whether printed into treasured books or shared digitally. In the story of the guardian angels, the story of the flight passengers, the story of the Stanford seniors — within the willingness of these groups of people to wield their power of speech — we’re reminded of the better sides of our humanity.
With story, we make meaning of our differences. We hone our hazy experiences into sharper understandings. We whittle our weird quirks into significance. We turn crumbled walls to common ground, and we use the rubble to rebuild a new home where the heart can rest.
As Toni Morrison wrote, we live in a perpetually burning building, and what we must save from it, all the time, is love. We save the love by preserving it in story.
Story is why, after several weird and wandering weeks, I feel better now. I feel slightly more rooted, because at least my words are planted down. At least I can curl up inside the sloppy, scary, sad, perplexing mess, because I’ve given it a structure. I’ve pulled some small shreds of love from the chaos and hammered them into a tiny tent. And you’re invited in here, too. Please, come in.