Monday, July 5, 2010

SLOW LOVE by Dominique Browning

She had me at the subtitle: "How I lost my job, put on my pajamas, and found happiness."

Dominique Browning lost her job as editor in chief of House and Garden when the magazine abruptly ceased publication; I quit my job as editorial director with a book publisher when I decided life is too short to spend three and a half hours every day commuting. She put on her pajamas and found happiness in less than three years; more than ten years later I - though grateful to be able to wear pajamas as late in the day as I please - am still working on contentment. I thought maybe Browning could lift my mood.

And indeed Slow Love was a cheering book, though not quite in the way I expected. Browning is very funny, even when she's writing about physical and emotional pain. Not many writers can make you smile or even laugh out loud when you're reading about, say, kidney stones, cancer, depression, eating disorders, and apparently unalterable codependency. Not that she gives her doomed love affair that name, but she doesn't need to.

Browning does not offer cheap cheer by telling how to overcome obstacles and achieve serenity in six easy steps (come to think of it, that kind of book isn't very cheering anyway). Serenity comes through toward the end of the book, after she has moved to her house by the ocean, in some wonderfully evocative nature writing; though I suspect Browning is better at writing about serenity than actually experiencing it.

She certainly does not give pointers that would help the average unemployed person, as a customer reviewer on Amazon seemed to think she should have done ("Except for recently unemployed New York media executives, who can really relate to her position?"). Yes, her financial concerns were minor compared to those of most people who lose their jobs, though the disgruntled reviewer should realize that a full-time writer is self-employed, not jobless. But this isn't a memoir about unemployment.

Instead, it's a memoir about values. Browning looks at our culture's image of the good life - a well-paid, high-status career, a beautiful home near New York City, designer clothes, meals in fine restaurants - and says : These things are less important than we think. Work is not the whole purpose of life. Financial security does not guarantee against depression. Status is fleeting and essentially meaningless. There are worse things than being alone.

I find these insights very helpful, though they have not yet lodged permanently in my brain. I need to hear them over and over.

As someone who has never made much money or achieved much status; who has always lived in small houses, bought clothes on sale, and cooked at home because it's cheaper; and who every now and then gets really tired of simple living and turns to her husband and says, "Let's get rich" - I appreciated reading about Browning's journey. It made me feel a lot more grateful for the good life I already have, and especially grateful for the good man I married over 42 years ago when we were both too young to have any idea what we were doing.

By contrast, Browning's pseudonymous lover, "Stroller," is a real jerk, and everyone but Browning knows this. Stroller is legally separated from his wife, but  he refuses to divorce her and is in frequent contact with her.
Every time he decided to let go of his ambivalence, he began throwing up new barricades against me. It is obvious to me, now, that our problems weren't coming from his inability to make a clean break from his marriage; they were symbolic of a larger inability to relax into a peaceful, loving relationship, one that didn't include shoving me away with stunning regularity. The mere proximity to a vital, unambiguous attachment triggered calamity in his heart.
"The situation with Stroller is not at all normal," her therapist tells her. "Why don't you think you are worth the effort?"

That's what I wondered over and over again as Browning keeps accepting, forgiving, or overlooking reprehensible behavior on the part of this clearly unstable and selfish man, who shows up (and disappears) so often that the book becomes as much about the author's doomed relationship as about her lost job. Finally, several months after Stroller leaves her alone in the hospital and goes off to London on a trip they had intended to take together, she seems to get it. "I was startled to realize that I had been using my fight with Stroller to avoid all the fights I should have been having with myself," she writes on page 219 (of 267). "I suddenly realized I didn't care any longer why he was wedded to ambivalence. Why was I so mired in it? ... Suddenly I realized that I couldn't change him. I could only change myself."

Whew. Now Browning can stop stuffing herself with giant cookies and piles of muffins. Now she can pay attention to her new house, her new garden, her new life. And indeed at this point her writing becomes more lyrical, and the book starts to match the summary of it on her blog: "SLOW LOVE means engaging with the world in a deeper, more meaningful way, learning to appreciate the beauty of everyday moments, and taking time to share them with one another - in the midst of our busy, productive lives."

Slow love is a great concept, even better than slow food. I hope she's practicing it. I hope she's gotten rid of Stroller, once and for all. But I wonder. Here's the third sentence in her Acknowledgments: "Many thanks to Stroller for reading this manuscript with care and concern, and for taking the time to comb through the pages, pointing out distortion and delight alike."

Earth to Dominique: It no longer matters what Stroller thinks. You don't have to check your memories or opinions with him. Stop already! You're worthwhile, all by yourself. And if you must hang your self-worth on personal accomplishment rather than simple existence, then take this : you're a brilliant writer. And as for happiness - well, you know what you need to do.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this review! I read this book a few weeks ago, and really enjoyed it but for the obvious dysfunctional relationship with Stroller. That bothered me to no end, and I too was disappointed to see her so effusively thanking him in the acknowledgments.