The former head of “Home & Garden” faces the need to create a new “scaffolding” for her life.
Dominique Browning appreciates the irony that it was only after being ejected from a high-profile job at “Home & Garden” magazine that she learned to make a new home for herself. Such notes of perception are strewn through her new memoir, Slow Love, which recounts her up-and-down journey after losing her job. With gentle observations and wit, the book has lessons to share even for people facing different trials than Browning’s – in fact, those readers may enjoy thebook more than those seeking guidance after a job loss.
“Slow Love” recounts the days after the Conde Nast magazine was abruptly shut down, ending Browning’s 13-year tenure as editor. She spun into what most would call a midlife crisis as her Manhattan media life ended, compounded by her struggle to permanently switch an off-and-on relationship to off.
Many chapters could stand alone as essays on modern life. There is no one clear breakthrough leading Browning from panic to peace. She goes through good stages and bad ones and back and forth again. We follow her through spates of insomnia and hypersomnia; mindless overeating and mindful muffin-baking; and the surprising, freeing pleasures of a strict weight-loss diet. The swings makes the book less satisfying as a neat package, but certainly more believable as a real life.
Browning’s low-key epiphanies are what keep readers moving through the book. They’re sometimes enlightened, sometimes entertaining, sometimes both. The passage I keep repeating to friends introduces the concept of a “building standard” relationship. Browning learns it during her long entanglement with “Stroller,” a man who is married but legally separated, whose idea of commitment, she writes with a sharp edge, is “dinner, theater, and a long weekend.” A friend admonishes her: “You know how when you rent office space, you get white walls, spongy acoustic tile ceilings, access to bathrooms? Running water? Heat? That’s baseline ... building standard. Married is not building standard for a guy you’re dating. Divorced is building standard. Single. Available. Are you nuts? Why don’t you think you’re worth it, anyway?”
In another bright spot, Browning transforms her sleepless nights into a celebration of playing Bach on the piano, eventually seeing the value of “the repeats,” the musical notations to replay a passage, as being worthwhile in life as well as fugues. In short, she learns to slow down and focus.
“I listened to Bach’s music for 50 years before I finally heard it,” she wrote. And, as she finally does discover, a home is a changeable concept that is not rooted in décor or construction or even to place. It is “where you want to be when you die,” or perhaps the place where you feel most alive and true to yourself.
The book is filled with frank pain and confusion, which sometimes resolves itself and sometimes, as with Browning’s insomnia, undergoes a metamorphosis. Sometimes she moves on by gaining control over a situation, sometimes by giving it up, and we sometimes want more hard details about these roadblocks than we get.
We’re convinced by the end, though, that Browning has found peace in what she calls the intertidal years, “the relentless flux that is the condition of my life, of all our lives. Not young, not old; not betrothed, not alone; thinking back, looking forward; not broken, not quite whole anymore, either. But present.”
The elephant in the house for readers, the reason it might not appeal to the ranks of other laid-off workers, is that Browning’s crisis is one of identity, not finances.
She is frank and up-front about her level of unemployment, that losing her work meant losing “the scaffolding” of her life, not financial ruin. She worries about the value of her investments falling, but, after all, at least she has investments. Instead of begging to defer mortgage payments or facing foreclosure, Browning sells her Colonial Revival home surrounded by gardens in a New York suburb, then retreats to her remodeled New England getaway for her recovery. The scenes might grate on those worried sick about health insurance premiums and worker retraining and unemployment claims.
Her ample safety net doesn’t make her personal journey any less significant, but at some level it does make it less universal.
Rebekah Denn blogs at eatallaboutit.com.