Staring out the window after moving house.
I stand at the window and watch the storm suffuse the sky, a palette of grays and blacks blending into one another as the heavens concentrate dark power. Twenty-two storeys above the modest streetscape I survey, I see the city hunch its shoulders against the sodden twilight; the movement of the rain begins to meet the glass. The wind driving the water is silent to me, palpable only in the spray that beads upon the panes, inches away but out of reach. Behind the bulk of an apartment building even bigger than ours I glimpse a patch of the river that snakes through the park two blocks away, and beyond the park the illuminated hotels, small office blocks, and houses that gather into several neighborhoods, until the city cedes the view to a rim of trees describing a horizon the encroaching night will soon blur.
Thus, at the start of September, I pondered the arrival of Hurricane Ida—technically a post-tropical cyclone by the time it had reached us—from the perch afforded by our apartment on the top floor of a building in downtown Stamford, Connecticut, to which we’d moved in May from a house more or less in the woods. I was balanced between a sense of immersion in the storm’s elements—it was as if I were looking it in the face as it pressed against our windows—and detachment from its threats. After all, I was suspended in the air, fathoming weather from an unfamiliar angle, closer to the sky than was my custom; at the same time, the panes before me weren’t shivering with every gust as the windows in the house we’d left had taken to doing over the past few years, and trees weren’t looming outside them like ominous giants whose majesty might be upset at any minute, unleashing dormant vehemence in a splintering of trunks and limbs. Which is to say I had the good fortune to study the storm, to respect it without fear, almost admire it, unlike many people inhabiting the miles I overlooked, who would struggle against its violence through the coming night and subsequent days, powerless, inundated in floods and sorrows; it was a savage storm.
The next morning, despite the deadly wreckage on the ground, the view from the same window was brilliant, the sky delivering astonishing delight: in the distance to the south I could see Long Island Sound reflecting the sun’s return; looking west from the water and farther away, the skyline of Manhattan rose like a chimera, serene in its remoteness, like a sketch of San Gimignano in the deep background of some imagined Renaissance painting, a figment of destination never to be reached. The destination we had reached, five months earlier, was thirty-five miles away from the four-bedroom house on two-and-a-half acres that had been our home for a quarter-century. The transition to our new residence—the listing, cleaning, sorting, packing, showing, selling, storing, moving—was made with unexpected but determined speed. We’d leapt into the process with trepidation—how would we ever sort through the lifetime of possessions we’d accumulated? how would our four new rooms accommodate them?—and then, increasingly, with a glee that grew to abandon as we put each category of goods—clothes; cooking equipment; the paper trail of our daughters’ passage through grammar school, high school, college, even, for one, wedding day; tchotchkes and cherished mementoes; books, books, books—under the increasingly tightly-focused lenses of utility, need, sentiment, and deadline, mapping what remained after our purposeful inventory to fit the dimensions of our new quarters.
That exercise, of course, was part of the point: could we make what’s left of our lives more by carrying less? How much of what we were leaving behind would we really miss? What kind of gaps would we create in the present by moving out of the crowded past, by distilling the history that house held to furnish a set of empty rooms? It took us nearly a month of work with tape measure and masking tape to mark out where each piece of furniture would fit. With uncharacteristic meticulousness, I measured the walls that would accommodate bookshelves and calculated how many books the shelves would hold, then simulated my prospective library in the old house, volume by volume, to see exactly which ones would make the cut to fill the total my formula allowed. Margot did the same with the tools of her culinary trade. We did a good enough job of preparation that the two-hundred-odd boxes the movers deposited in the apartment’s large living and dining area, taking up nearly every available foot of floor space, were broken down after a few days into what quickly felt like the perfect mise en place for the next few years—not only orderly, but pleasing. In the end, the culling proved liberating, even though we made our editing easier by putting more stuff in storage than prudence could validate, as if archiving manuscripts for a variorum edition of a future that only promises time for a single reading.
If the matter of our memories—the stuff that accretes to the substance of living like barnacles upon a vessel—were dispersed, discarded, consigned to the forgetfulness of storage, the meaning of those memories would travel with us, even be made easier to admire through the less clouded lens of a less cluttered life: that was the bet we made as spring turned into summer. And what I began to realize the morning after the storm had wreaked its havoc was that despite the shrinkage in space, the view had widened: the large windows through which I had watched the arrival of Ida, and now welcomed her departure, imbued attention with a new capacity. The high-ceilinged rooms they filled with light—bright by day, even when the sky is overcast, and sparkling and elegant in the evening courtesy the urban illumination that surrounds us—were making hours feel bigger moment to moment and, so far at least, month to month, than the house, looking inward on its crowded, happy history, ever did. Nestled into the downslope of a hill and sheltered by trees, the house fixed gazes inward as surely as the children it sheltered domesticated love. In contrast, the vistas afforded by our new aerie stretch to the edge of sight, unlocking intimacy and reframing what it could see.
What I can see now daily, as never before, is weather, heralded by the infiltrating light—overwhelming even when muted by clouds—that awakens the interior and draws it outward, attracting my gaze toward a space capacious and mutable, indifferent to whatever notions I’ve woken with: thought is lost in the distance and grandeur that comprise the sky. Each morning is like the first exhibit in a museum of prayer: whatever we do, the weather comes as it pleases, rampant or restful. We can dress for it, prepare for it, welcome it or worship it, dread it or diminish it to data points—still, it responds only to its own accord, or some other calling beyond the reach of our plans and motivations. Every day delivers its own demeanor, and it’s good to acknowledge, if not embrace, its influence.
In such a vista, do the household gods give way to larger ones, those that hold sway out there on the horizon, where the thin air that quickens us—out of which we summon the stories of our lives and into which we disappear once our bodies lose their breath—dissipates beyond the ken of our known world?
Rather than words comes the thought of high windows:
The sun-comprehending glass,
And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows
Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.
So wrote Philip Larkin, transcending his resentment of the permissive liberties pursued by a younger generation, but failing to imagine where transcendence always comes down to earth, and what windows always frame: a perspective of our own devising, less complete but more complex than understanding. Comprehension, like transcendence, is impossible, as long as we are looking, no matter how clear we think the glass; apprehension reigns, with all the wonder and worry that word contains. Standing at my new window, I begin to see afresh what was before me all along: the airy nothing to which I’ve given, through love and loss and learning and memory, a local habitation and a name, a landscape I can carry with me.