Haunts and Habits: Reflections on I Came All This Way To Meet You by Jami Attenberg
Ordinary Story is a monthly series by Rachel Schwartzmann that features musings and conversations on one of our favorite ordinary habits: reading. In the thirteenth installment of this series, Rachel reflects on I Came All This Way To Meet You by Jami Attenberg.
In the late ’90s, I lived in a haunted house. The exterior was ornate and stood out on an otherwise typical, tree-lined California street. I’ve blocked out most details about its interiors, but I remember it was eerily quiet (save for the loud creaks that echoed through the halls when someone ascended the stairs). I occupied the top floor, which would have been every child’s dream. It was large, filled with light, and had a small adjacent room that could double as a fort or hideaway. We dressed it up and settled down, but I never felt at home.
When night rolled around, I knew I was not alone. The air felt cold and still. The empty rocking chair positioned at the far left corner of the space swayed steadily with no explanation. Pulling the covers over my head did not bring its usual comfort. During the day, a sewing pin—sporting what looked like a handmade papier-mâché angel at one end—often appeared in my jeans (while I was already wearing them) and, later, in my jewelry box. You could chalk this up to childhood imagination, but my memories of feeling afraid are still palpable today. Eventually, I retreated to sleeping on the downstairs couch for the remainder of our time there.
As children, we’re told we must face our fears. And as adults, we often build habits that are in service of destroying what scares us. Lately, I’ve been thinking about the space between fear and courage, especially in a period of continuous global tumult. These themes were especially prescient as I read Jami Attenberg’s memoir, I Came All This Way to Meet You: Writing Myself Home.
Throughout seventeen chapters, Jami Attenberg takes readers on an intimate journey around the world and into the depths of her life. Travel is at the core of her experiences: Attenberg traverses the open road and sky while en route to literary events. She jumps off a cliff in Guatemala and teaches a writing workshop in Lithuania. She finds home in New York City and, eventually, New Orleans. Locale aside, Attenberg also reflects on art-making, friendships, romance, family, and womanhood against the backdrop of a turbulent, politically-charged America.
Attenberg is a writer to the core. With witty prose and an eye for humor, her story is an enticing invitation for anyone wishing to follow their creative dreams—but to do so also means looking closely. There is a level of self-awareness and vulnerability that anchors Attenberg’s experiences. From her visits to the Cimitero delle Fontanelle (an ossuary) in Naples, Italy, to the Capela dos Ossos (The Bone Chapel) in Évora, Portugal, travel widens the lens for Attenberg to recount past traumas, familial losses, failures, heartbreaks, and yearnings. In this way, I recognized a familiar feeling page after page—a sense of being haunted.
For many years, and not unlike Attenberg, movement was an ordinary habit in my life. Before the haunted house, there was the San Francisco apartment where I took my first steps. Later in my youth, a large residence accompanied by a short stay in Dallas. Eventually (read: finally), there was New York City—where I live now. It’s the place that’s been my home the longest. (I’ve lived in three states and at sixteen addresses.)
I began writing this piece a few weeks after celebrating my seventeenth anniversary in the city. I thought I would meditate on life as a New Yorker (as Attenberg poignantly does throughout her book). But recently, I’ve found myself more nostalgic when thinking about the concept of home overall: The elementary schoolyard. The suburban cul-de-sac. The house that haunted me then or the future that haunts me now. Should I feel so haunted by what could have been—what’s to come? What would my life have looked like had I stayed in those other places? Or, as Attenberg writes in “Extra Life,” perhaps the “better questions to ask... What do I know already? What do I need to learn? Is that a ghost in the shadows or just another person slipping into the night?”
In “No Lambs,” Attenberg tells her own ghost story. Shortly after arriving at a halfway house turned hotel in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Attenberg details the emergence of an “otherworldly presence.” The scene shakes her to the core. “I knew that it was bad, this was a bad thing in front of me, but I didn’t want to stop looking,” she writes. “It was completely new and foreign; a deep curiosity had now been born, even as it was mixed with fear.”
To be haunted by fears or uncertainty can be paralyzing—but it’s also a sobering reminder to pay attention to what’s around us. And, when necessary, to look inward. My haunted house was a precursor to my parents’ future divorce, personal illness, and countless other losses. These were hauntings I had not yet learned to recognize. Instead, I remember actively participating in the moments surrounding those events: habits were being built; life was being lived. I’m sure it was the little things that got me through.
It’s possible to feel haunted and hopeful at once—even if we don’t know it yet. And whether at home or abroad, Attenberg’s many stories acknowledge this. “When you slide down a mountain, or jump off a cliff, you accept the not knowing,” she writes. “Don’t tell me how it ends; let me see for myself.”