A lot of things about my life would shock my Past Self these days, but I suspect the most shocking detail for her would be that I live in Brooklyn.
I always thought that, if I ever lived in New York, I wanted to live IN New York, and for me, that strictly meant Manhattan. I didn’t care how small the apartment, so long as I had “New York, NY” as my address. I fell in love with the East Village, where I lived for the past few years in a shoebox studio that I wondered if I’d ever leave. I loved the energy of Lower Manhattan and I grew so attached to my wacky little block, the lovely park nearby where daffodils erupted in bloom as the world was shutting down, and the proximity to everything important to me: my community and my favorite bagel place.
Then, I moved to Brooklyn for a relationship.
Then we broke up.
While I was thinking about where to move next, I envisioned myself frantically hailing the first cab to Manhattan, probably in stilettos for full effect. But as I toured apartments in all the lovely neighborhoods named for villages and syllabic abbreviations, I realized something had happened in the past couple months when I wasn’t looking: Brooklyn had become my home.
I had half-filled punch cards for local coffee shops, I transferred all my prescriptions to the neighborhood pharmacy, and I’d developed a wonderful routine—the only one I’ve been able to stick with—of walking through Prospect Park twice a day. I appreciated the trees, the quiet, the vastness. It felt unnatural to leave, like I was struggling to rip myself away for the sake of an outdated identity.
Plus, it occurred to me that if I left my only experience in Brooklyn after a breakup, I’d forever associate the entire borough with this one person. He couldn’t have that! I decided to reclaim it, make it mine.
I signed a new lease during the coldest month of the year and moved during a blizzard. Photos of the apartment showed the back garden looking gloriously green in the summer, but at that point it was covered in two feet of snow. So, in the meantime, I burrowed. While I was lonely and disoriented, I created a space that felt splendidly safe. I knew I’d be healing here, launching my book here, finding renewed optimism here…I wanted a place that could support my repairing, resting, and new beginning.
Here’s how I nested in a home that has been my place of refuge and rejuvenation:
My kitchen is deliberately chaotic.
When I first went to Lisbon, I stayed in a small simple room in a French family’s apartment above the jazz club where the dad played clarinet every night. My bedroom would have made a lovely nun’s quarters—it was bare except for a bed and austere nightstand—but the rest of the place was abundant, kooky, magical. It reminded me of preserved homes of artists and poets around the world—photos I’ve seen of Dalí’s house in northern Spain, or Neruda’s three homes that I visited when I lived in Chile.
They’re filled with memories, mosaics, chipped pottery, mismatched soup bowls, floral linens, romantic paintings, antique photos, smelly books, copper tea kettles, trinkets from past loves, ancestral instruments, tacky souvenirs from travels to big cities, and tiny treasures from road stops in foreign countrysides.
One morning when the family wasn’t home, I tiptoed around the kitchen, admiring the multicolor Moka pots and brightly-colored coffee cups. It seemed like a place that could only exist in Portugal, or France, or Mexico, or any place that I was not.
And then, in time, I realized—eureka!—I, too, could own multicolored kitchenwares. I, too, could buy mismatched plates and play desert blues (link) in the mornings and make coffee in a turquoise pot. This was a possibility that was within my reach! Astounding.
So, my current kitchen is an ode to all the kitchens I have loved: the art deco one in Mexico City, the bright green kitchen in an 13th century horse stable in Italy, a Swedish grandmother’s tchotchke-covered home in Chicago, and the seaside Portuguese jazz emporium with every color and pattern represented on blond wood shelves.
Moka pot: If your coffee maker is turquoise, you’re really starting your day off right.
Multicolored silverware: I love the weight of these, and it delights me to see a rainbow whenever I open my cutlery drawer
Antique Italian tiles: I have two of these sitting on my shelf and they remind me of floors I’ve admired in Central America; I can hear the click-clack of heels on the wobbly ceramic now
Portuguese mugs: This is the kind of thing I’d really go nuts with if money were no object; they turn coffee into a ritual, and rituals deserve beautiful instruments
Placemats and napkins: My friend Susan Alexandra has just started selling homewares and these pink and yellow linens are delicious
Dutch oven: If you are aspiring toward an Iberian seaside kitchen vibe, may I suggest serving dinner in a majestic mustard pot?
I’ve always appreciated the decorative fireplaces that come with so many apartments in cities—I’ve had one in Chicago, Baltimore, DC, Manhattan, and Brooklyn. It’s an oddly grand detail that presents a pleasurably challenging decorative opportunity.
This fireplace is the first thing people see when they come into my apartment so it was a lot of pressure to put my entire personality and set of values on display! What exactly did I want to say about myself via this otherwise useless structure?
In my last apartment, I put a lot of mismatched art on the mantle and thought it looked casual and compelling—perfectly disheveled and thoughtful chaos. This time, I was working with a space that was much more grown-up than anywhere I’ve lived, and, of course, wanted my decorative fireplace to reflect my commitment to maturity and elegance.
I decided to steal my friend Henry’s idea to put a New Yorker cover in the center—as opposed to a bunch of smaller paintings. The New Yorker cover is always a hit; they’re whimsical, elegant, and show people that you’re smart. Henry’s London flat looks like one of those poet’s preserved houses, but through the sensibilities of a Danish designer: it’s somehow both minimal and memory-filled (not a balance I’ve ever gotten a handle on), so I end up gently borrowing his ideas a lot.
I knew I wanted a print with flowers, which narrowed my New Yorker cover search down to about 5 million, but after a ton of texts to friends in which I used all my data and theirs by sending all 5 million options, I decided on this Valentine’s Day illustration from the 50s which shows the outside of a flower shop. It’s so sweet and nostalgic and distinctly New Yorky. Later, I realized that the address numbers in the illustration begin ’45,’ and my street number is 450. A divine wink! It always makes me happy coming home and seeing this ode to flowers, romance, and the special storefronts of New York.
My beloved ‘Starry Mari’ sign has followed me to a few apartments now—a wonderful gift from the aforementioned Henry. I’m sure I shed a small tear when I hung it up in my newest place, symbolizing a step forward that in many ways felt like a step back. I was living on my own, but again. Claiming the whole apartment as fully mine through the sign was both triumph and surrender: This again. And “This!” again.
I’ve decorated the rest of my fireplace with various candlesticks, which I like to bundle in a jar and light all at once: a small container of wild colors and flames.
On the other side of my living room, above my bookshelf, I have a sort of alter going on. I love walls of Milagros that I’ve seen in Mexico and wanted to recreate a corner full of spiritually rich doo-dads that feel charged with meaning and (ideally) make me stop and reflect for a moment.
I get a lot of flak for this, but my favorite piece is the magenta skull. I was drawn to it in a market in Mexico City for reasons unknown to me. All of the things I truly love, I love with my body--not logic. So, yes, I decided to put a giant pink skull on my wall and I could not articulate why.
UNTIL, I learned that old-timey writers (obviously covering a big span of time here) would often put a skull on their desk to remind them of their mortality, and the urgency to write. This greatly appealed to me, and now my magenta skull has purpose: to remind me that I’m going to die!
Since I was a kid, I’ve always had to have my desk near a window. I need something interesting to look at when I bring my eyes up from the page, which I naturally do often, and now purposefully do as often as I remember.
I recently learned that looking at small screens (phone, laptop) replicates the feeling of hunting in our bodies; our nervous system activates in response to us focusing on something because the rest of our body believes we are zero-ing in on prey. Yikes! That explains why I will often feel irritated when someone is trying to take my attention away from my phone; my entire body is oriented toward the tiny screen. See also: why an email can make our entire body tense up and makes us feel physically threatened. See also: Why a mean comment on Instagram feels as real as a mean comment from someone in real life! Our bodies actually don’t know the difference.
Anyway, a way to combat this inordinacy is to look up and away from your screen as often as you remember. Windows are very good for this practice. They’re also good for keeping up tabs the neighborhood gossip.
New Yorker print: I had this one trimmed and framed at my local frame store. Now that I’ve mostly forgotten the cost of framing, I can enjoy looking at it a lot more.
Curtains: All my previous apartments came with curtains so I’ve never made the decorative choice before: fun decision! Went with embroidered flowers
Bookshelf: I’ve bought all my furniture based on color, this turquoise bookshelf no exception
Typical adulthood rites of passage are a bit delayed in New York, like getting your first bedroom door at age 35. As an almost lifelong studio-dweller, I’ve never had an actual bedroom (that didn’t also serve as my office and dining area). It feels very grown-up to have a room that separates my bed from the other seating options, and so I wanted to indulge in the novelty as much as possible.
I bought myself a new bed, which was a significant ritual in the post-breakup-move-out. I’ve always wanted an iron bed frame like I’ve seen in movies about Victorian convalescing writers or whatever, and found a good dupe of a much more expensive one. I also found a mattress that purports to be particularly comfortable for tummy-sleepers like me. It was so luxurious to invest in a bed whose purpose was to serve only my comfort, and it was a big emotional step in attuning back to the bits of self that I felt I’d lost in the past year.
I also bought a new dresser for my new one-bedroom lifestyle. I fulfilled a childhood dream of getting a piece of painted furniture, which I admired in bohemian 00s furniture stores like early Anthropologie. Growing up, I always wondered why you WOULDN’T buy a dresser with flowers on it if flowers were an option?
So my grown-up self bought a yellow dresser with painted poppies and it infuses regular tasks (getting dressed, folding laundry) with some canary joy. I must say that I wondered if it would fit the style of future homes—what if I move in with someone in the future? But making the decision to get it anyway was a really nice U-turn to my own present desires and needs (not to those of an abstract future!), and I thought it was good energy to buy an unapologetically feminine piece after moving out of a living space shared with a man.
My apartment came with this funny little nook in the middle of the bedroom, which the broker suggested I use for storage. I certainly could use all the storage I can get, but after researching nook-shelving-set-ups I decided instead to make a cozy reading nook with a pouf, lamp, and sheepskin rug. I actually don’t read in there as much as I watch TV, and nobody uses it more than my cat does, but it’s a delightful ridiculous space and it makes people smile: I think everyone appreciates a hidden corner of mystery to jazz up a room a bit.
Vanity: I am really honoring my inner child here, who got the message via Polly Pockets that all adult ladies do their hair and makeup at an inconveniently small table with a giant elaborate mirror in their bedrooms
Dresser: Buy a hand-painted dresser with whimsical flowers and increase your amusement x1000
Rainbow window decal: My friend sent me this for my birthday and it’s such a fabulous detail—the entire bedroom illuminates with color on sunny afternoons. For a garden apartment it’s a good hack to feel like you’re squeezing a bit more light out of your windows
Pouf: It was tough to decide between all the poufs in this shop! Jury's still out on whether the pouf I selected is the most Mari pouf. Jury has decided that 'pouf' is a great word though.
Lamp: I get so many comments on my nook lamp—it’s magical.
Sheepskin: This happened to be the perfect size for my nook, but I also appreciate its fuzziness
Bed: If I can build this by myself, you can do ANYTHING you set your mind to
Mattress: My tummy-sleeping proclivities have indeed appreciated this mattress so far
The garden clearly sold me on this apartment, and is completely worth the limited light. The landlord is a dancer who had constructed a stage in the backyard for her performances, and at first I had no clue what to do with it (neighborhood poetry slams?), but then I realized that having a raised platform in an outdoor space is amazing—you feel like The Lion King every day raised up high surveying your little garden kingdom (my cat also enjoys this activity).
I have a bistro table for work, a garden for admiring, and the platform is for socializing OR watching movies on my teeny laptop while putting my feet up on the table. All my garden furniture is extremely cheap and I’m embarrassed to say where I got it but you can use your imagination and google “mosaic outdoor table.”
I thought all the fun in my garden would stop once fall began, but I’ve decorated it with pumpkins and now I have my very own crowd-free pumpkin patch!
Stars and Moon Fire Pit: If it’s important that you match your fire pit with your personal brand, and your personal brand is “starry,” this is the fire pit for you.
Electric grill: My landlord left me a charcoal grill that I found terrifying, so I bought this electric one instead. I don’t love that it “drains the fat” or whatever—that sounds like the exact opposite of what one might want in a grill—but it’s very easy to use and I haven’t noticed a dramatic fat drainage situation!
Blanket: As "fuzziness" is a top priority for me, these blankets are my favorite in the world, and serve very well for outdoor coziness (just remember to take them inside when it rains--something I have neglected to do 500 times).
Thanks for stopping by, and don't write off Brooklyn!
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Mari, this is lovely!!! What a fantastic piece of writing - it's the first I've read of yours, and I became an immediate fan! LOVE your place, and love that you created such a wonderful environment for yourself!
Thank you for this beautiful, warm, deep peek into your sacred chambers! I'm currently working on decluttering/tidying... but not just cleaning... like, envisioning who I want to be and what I want my life to feel like. Also shedding the "outdated iden…
Your comments are just DIVINE!!! Thank you so much sweet one! You're re-inspiring me to shed identity and reclaim and mismatch and use beautiful instruments and I'm so grateful for that--thank you for being my wonderful mirror!! I so appreciate our kin…
I feel a 4 kinship with your home …”all the things i truly love, I love with my body not logic.” I feel this so much! My partner teases me and says all the special things I’ve collected over the years from countries and yard sales and vintage stores…
Hahhaaaa YES I have absolutely loved so many grandmothers' houses where there are just so many interesting things to look at! I've always wanted to be an adult lady with a home that reflected all my stories and I'm on my way! And yay to 4 kinship!!
Thank you for the marvelous tour; this was a really cool trip that you thought up. In true spiral fashion, you mentioned two things that tied together for me. In a visit to Pablo Neruda’s Santiago home, La Chascona (the woman with the wild hair), my gu…
Ohhh I love this gardening dream for me!! Wildflowers and tomatoes would be absolutely divine. Such a good reminder about bulb planting! I always feel like I have a lot in common with daffodils--planted in the fall and bloom in the spring Thank you Iva!
Oh my, your cozy and thoughtfully put together home feels like a warm hug Skulls also feature prominently in my decor An ex once asked me to put away a Mexican woodcarving print and I regrettably consented - but never again! I’m a death doula and …
This is too amusing! I received another newsletter with an apartment tour just prior to receiving yours. But it was just way too hyper-curated and cold and unattainable. Yours feels like I received a letter from an old friend. I found myself clicking a…