Photographs by Leslie Jamison

East River Ferry, August 26

Introduced in 2024, Viewfinder is a print column about reflections on landscapes seen through windows from best-selling author Leslie Jamison.

WE RETURN HOME AS SAILORS might, watching the approach of our homeland: a pair of water towers; the red brick spire of the Catholic church at the corner of Milton and Manhattan; the old factory on which someone has spray-painted only the word smells. I often tell my students about a concept Ezra Pound described as periplum, the shoreline not as it might appear on a map, an aerial outline, but as it would look to a sailor perched at the prow of his ship, seeing the craggy rocks, the bird nests, the coves. From the ferry, my daughter and I survey the glassy high-rises of Greenpoint, the ones we’re supposed to hate because they are the end of everything this neighborhood once was, but which my daughter loves because she has friends who live in them. She has gone through entire sweeping emotional odysseys in these sleek vertical pearls of tech money and plunder: getting close, going home. The old push-pull of impermanence. Not to mention the volcanic rhythms of conflicting desires. Magna-Tiles versus dress-up. You want this. I want that. How does the world stretch to hold both?

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We moved to Greenpoint two years ago, a year after my divorce was finalized, from the stroller-clogged sidewalks of Park Slope to this gentrifying old industrial neighborhood at the northern edge of Brooklyn, tucked between Newtown Creek and the East River, between a Superfund site and a waste treatment plant and the Pulaski Bridge and the most iconic skyline in the world, just across the fragrant waters. The presence of a waterfront always feels like a reminder that the world is bigger than what’s right in front of you. Our G train is the only subway in the city that doesn’t go to Manhattan. The newsstands still sell auto magazines in Polish. A watch repairman keeps his workshop tucked in the corner of a Laundromat, his window crowded with postcards of Catholic saints and racks of broken watches. Here you can find pierogi and white borscht in a bowl of bread but also bartenders proud of their mocktails and cheese that costs twenty-five dollars a pound. Approaching our ferry stop with my daughter tucked against the window beside me, I feel a swell of tenderness—the kind of tenderness you feel for the materials of your own survival, whatever they might be. We are building a life upriver from the place where life fell apart. 

Today was just another ordinary Saturday: magical, maddening, exhausting. Mama and her girl. Morning cartoons and Eggos with jam in every square; guessing games and brushing hair and almost-tears and how many more brushes and how many sour strings can I have from the blue-and-white candy bag and ice cream–coated curls and will the zebra ever be free on the carousel and why can’t I throw little rocks if the other kids are throwing little rocks and can I dip my fingers in the river full of sewage and can I dip my sandaled foot in the river full of sewage and can I submerge my entire body that came directly from your body in this river full of sewage, this filthy, holy green water, like a baptism in this new life we are building—this childhood split across two homes. And with enough love, can’t that be enough? 

From the ferry pier, we go immediately to the playground by the river, where I watch my daughter standing with two other little girls near the jungle gym—they are solemnly conferring about something, and when I see them stomping, I realize it must be lantern flies. Kids love the permission that comes with an invasive species, the call to sanctioned violence: that when they crush the creatures with their heels, they are answering a moral call. These girls are young and perfect, their hair glinting in the sun. I watch them circle the shadows of the jungle gym, hear one’s breathy whisper, kill them all. 

Read more from Orion‘s Spring 2024 issue Rites of Nature here.

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Leslie Jamison is the New York Times bestselling author of five books, including The Recovering, The Empathy Exams, and, most recently, Splinters: Another Kind of Love Story. She teaches at Columbia University.