I read Dominique Browning’s beautiful memoir, Slow Love, this weekend. Just last week I wrote about discovering her blog, Slow Love Life, and feeling as though I’d tumbled into an alternative universe filled with my own preoccupations, just far more gorgeously expressed. The book gave me the same feeling: it was as though my most eloquent and accomplished best friend was talking about the very things that bother and worry and inspire and touch me.
Browning’s book talks about losing her job as editor of House & Garden, and about the year that follows, which brings tremendous changes for her. Though it is initially cataclysmic to her identity and sense of worth, losing her job eventually triggers a fundamental re-orientation of how Browning interacts with the world. Her memoir traces the arc of this evolution in a tone that is conversational, a joy to read, and sprinkled with arresting imagery and metaphor.
The first part of Slow Love is infused with losses of all kinds – Browning loses her job and professional identity, she bids farewell to a long and complicated love affair, she leaves the house she raised her children in, she grapples with the movement of those children away from her (they have both left home). For the first few months (and Slow Love is structured as a year, with each season being its own section), Browning struggles with depression, swamped by the sudden onset of so many endings.
When she says, ” I fully appreciate how much magic I’ve been living in all along” and then, pages later, “I have always been fatally drawn to melancholy. Undertow is my specialty,” Browning evinces the very tension that defines and delineates my own life. I too am both keenly aware of my tremendous blessings, of startling joy, and at the same time oriented towards sadness, particularly sensitive to the loss and pain that is part of life. Far from being contradictory, I’m coming to see that this combination is in fact intuitive: one propensity allows for the other. Still, I often feel different because of this oscillating perspective, and it is profoundly comforting to hear from someone else who is able to be wrenched asunder, literally, by the way the world can wound and then, within the same hour – minute – be stunned speechless by its beauty.
At the midpoint of the book, literally, the last page of the second of four sections, Browning gives a clear-eyed summary of the fundamental shift she is living through, of the emotional enterprise she finds herself engaged in:
What I have found, in these hours of sleeplessness, is something I may have once encountered as a teenager, and then lost in the frantic skim through adulthood – the desire to nourish my soul. I do not have the temerity to think I have found God; I think instead that I have stumbled into a conversation that I pray will last the rest of my life. I suppose that is up to me.
Browning moves to a small home on the coast of Rhode Island and finds her life falling into a slower, more organic rhythm. The “frantic skim” she mentions is familiar to so many of us, and I suspect that the effort to slow down in the midst of it, to not miss these years as they whip by, is universal. The spring and summer sections of Slow Love describe the peace that comes to Browning as she lets go – not only of things, but of long-broken relationships, of old crutches, of destructive patterns. “I was tired of clenching my fists around hope. Finally, I let it go. In return, I found peace. And gratitude.” For someone who has written much about the way I white-knuckle my way through life, these words resonated deeply. And I exhaled.
The last parts of Slow Love focus on Browning’s relationship with the coast of Rhode Island, where she now lives. She writes with reverence about the natural world in a voice that contains, at least to me, echoes of both Mary Oliver’s poetry and Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s Gift From the Sea. Finding her balance within the new, slower cadence that marks her days, Browning observes the sheer glory – and terror, as in a graphic description of an osprey killing a fish – of nature. In particular I adored her reflections on broken shells, where she notes that the beach she lives on is often a disappointment to visitors, who want to see shells. Instead, the shells there are more often in shards, which Browning observes are “for those who appreciate fragments of poetry, the beauty of which lies as much in a suggestion of what has been lost as in what is preserved.”
And this is, fundamentally, what Slow Love is about: the beauty of what comes after great loss, the ability to find splendor in what remains, the sturdiness and resilience of the human spirit. From crushing heartbreak, both professional and personal, Browning finds her way to a completely new way of being in the world and to a serenity that radiates off of the page. She describes her move into a place of calm communion with the natural world and her own consciousness, and of the ways that in that slow quiet she accesses a joy and deep peace she had never known.
I am always surprised by joy, and that is what is suffusing my entire being. I feel it start deep in my belly and spread up and over my body, and I recognize it for what it is: a slow flush of love for the world – the sheer pleasure of being here, the profound honor of witnessing life.