Jesse Kornbluth, of HeadButler.com, this week in awe of a woman in pajamas.
“Slow love” is a good description of the way I’ve come to know Dominique Browning. After decades of a nodding acquaintance when we worked at glossy magazines, we started reading the other’s web sites. There was a chance meeting at a dinner, and, recently, cultural expeditions peppered with questions, stories, ideas. Now I grasp what others figured out long ago: Dominique Browning is that rare talent who’s both intellectually and emotionally fearless.
“Slow Love: How I Lost My Job, Put on My Pajamas, and Found Happiness” begins in 2007, with Condé Nast’s sudden decision to close House & Garden, the magazine Browning has edited for 13 years. The news flattened her: “I’ve lost the very thing that defined my days, paced and regulated my life…. Suddenly I’m floundering. I’m terrified.”
This memoir is not just the book you expect: “a story of psychological collapse, of struggling to start over again.” There’s also a parallel struggle: “not to make the same mistakes again.” She’s looking backward and forward, struggling to be wide awake, so in 267 pages, you get two books in one. [To buy the paperback from Amazon for the bargain price of $6, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]
Looking back: Her magazine had burned through five publishers in ten years. Every few months, rumors had Browning following them out the door. The editor of Architectural Digest, also owned by Condé Nast, announced, “I killed that magazine once and I’ll kill it again.” Overlords called Browning in to note her failure to buy designer clothes in sufficient quantity.
Looking forward: The absence of work was even more painful. Browning slept all day, then developed insomnia. She wasted hours reading just about anything on the Internet. And had a predictable response to panic:
Within hours of leaving my office for the last time, I could hardly bring myself to care about my reputation. I just wanted to eat. I began calling every employed person I knew to take me to lunch. I wanted to fill my calendar with the promise of meals, even if they were only penciled in — this, after all, being Manhattan. Only food could ward off the rage, despair and raw fear that overcame me.
“The first cure for illusion is despair,” notes sociologist Philip Slater. No fooling:
One of the pleasures of a workday morning had been to rise early, have a cup of tea, walk through the garden and get to the train on time, where I could read the paper front to back. Now that I did not have to get to work, I no longer had a structured time to read the daily paper, so I would pile it into a stack, thinking I would get to it later, until I realized I was creating a weekly daily. I missed Fridays especially. They once meant relief, time for rest and housekeeping. Now every day was Friday. Or Monday. Whatever.
The second cure, for Browning, was to buy more pajamas, sell her house in the New York suburbs and move to the coast of Rhode Island, where she could garden and reconnect to the natural world.
Not so fast. For seven years Browning had a lover she calls “Stroller,” who was — get this — simultaneously legally separated and still living with his wife. While at House & Garden, she was diagnosed with a potentially lethal kidney cancer and had surgery. The operation was a complete success. The aftermath was a failure: Stroller chose to go to London rather than bring her home from the hospital. If you’re like me, you’ll want to scream at Browning, to shake her. Why spend years waiting for the king of retreat to commit? We grasp his issue quickly. But what’s hers?
It’s not only Stroller. When Browning advised her employer she just had major surgery and still felt weak, she was asked, “How long is this going to go on?” Monsters, it turns out, are everywhere. Life is messy. In sentence after sentence, she makes it clear that much of what we call “normal” is simply inhuman. But if she hadn’t been thrown off the hamster wheel, she’d never have known it.
So Browning doesn’t pump up the outrage. Her default is gratitude. Forced to reinvent herself, she has. She writes a terrific blog, slow love life. She produces columns for TIME. Launched a cause with more than 100,000 supporters: Mom’s Clean Air Force.
At what point in the book did I see blue skies ahead for her? In the dark of 4 AM, when she was sleepless and went to her piano to play Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations:
I picked my way through the first aria, which has a quiet, dignified, spare quality. It is elegant, contained; it holds much in reserve. The music did nothing for my sleeplessness; if anything, within hours I was more completely, wonderfully awake than I had been in a long time. Unexpectedly, I felt a peace suffuse my bones as I lost myself in Bach’s lines. My own anxieties were no longer drumming through my brain; my mind, that hobbled old draft horse, stopped loping along in the same rut it followed night after night. It was locking into someone else’s harmony.
Bach has become a nightly visitor. I am obsessed with him: his musical tricks, jokes and puns; his charismatic energy and passion; his resilience through tragedy; his rigorous discipline; his bedrock belief in a force greater than anything human. I have to teach myself, all over again, how to practice, how to silence the critic in my head. I have to remind myself that the repeats matter, that respect for the rests is important.
What my fingers lack in speed, my heart makes up in feeling. If I have to, I will crawl through sarabandes and quadrilles, letting the dance fill my soul.
You write that well, something good’s bound to happen.
To read an excerpt from the book, click here.
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