Slow Love

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.

Half a Life

I was privileged to attend a reading/discussion last night with Dani Shapiro and Darin Strauss, talking about the art of memoir.  I had just finished Darin’s fantastic memoir, Half A Life, and we all know I’d walk to the ends of the earth for Dani.  The event was fabulous – my super-incredible writer friend who came with me even said it was probably the best writer’s event like this she’d ever been to.

Dani reviewed Darin’s book for the New York Times, which she’d mentioned to me, so I was predisposed to like it.  But.  Wow. The book took my breath away.   It is a spare, short, searing meditation on how what it means to live a life.  Darin, at the age of 18, was involved in a car accident that resulted in the death of a girl he went to school with.  Cleared of all guilt by the court systems, he spent the next 18 years trying to bury the accident, to get “over it.”  Finally, after writing three successful novels, he said last night, he realized this experience was getting in the way of his fiction.  He decided to write about it, initially just for himself, and it turned into this book.

Go, now, and buy this book.  You will read it in a day, turning the pages hypnotically, as I did.  I think the brilliance of Darin’s book is his ability to generalize from a very specific and tragic occurence to a much more universal human question: how do we live with what happens to us, and with what we do?  How do we incorporate the small and big moments, those anticipated and not, into the fabric of who we are?

It was a larger and more complete moment than simply the words that were like whitecaps on the surface of it.  All moments are like that.  But the rare thing is to have a clear sense of this depth, and to know another person is sensing it, too.

Darin writes gorgeously about the moments that define our lives, both in the living of them and in the ways that they reverberate, both forward and back.  Dani referred, last night, to samskaras, which is one of the most powerful motifs of her book for me, and one that I had in mind a lot while reading Half a Life. Samskaras are the moments, people, places, and losses of our lives that harden into little knots around which the river of our consciousness learns to flow … these little hardened rocks alter forever the path of our lives, perhaps imperceptibly, perhaps not.  Over time, as we know, a slight arc in a stream of water cuts into the bedrock beneath it, and we are changed irrevocably.

Half a Life explores this question: how do the things that happen to us shape our lives?  What arcs and shapes does chance, and luck, and happenstance carve into who we are?  We can’t know these things as we live them, and their ramifications play out over years, unfolding like a slow motion Jacob’s Ladder.  But the path that they trace is, in retrospect, understandable.  And there is power in this kind of mapping.

Darin speaks in his book about something he touched on last night as well: the performative aspects of grief.  I think this can also be extrapolated into the performative aspects of reality and life itself.  He says “I kept waiting to become more who I thought I should be,” with specific reference to the grieving boy in this story, but can’t we extend that sentiment to all of us?  I often have the sense that I am watching myself go through my own life, inhabiting a series of masks that are predefined and predetermined; the act of this is soul-draining, and Darin excavates what this feels like beautifully.

Ultimately, Half a Life isn’t about getting over tragedy, about closure, or about moving on.  It’s about acceptance, forgiveness, and humanity.  It’s about owning our own childhoods, our own trajectories, replete as they are with love, hurt, mistakes, and grace.  It is about learning to walk our own paths, and incorporating what happens to us as well as what we do to others along the way.  This book is about nothing less than what it means to live in this world, and I can’t articulate how it moved me.

It is fitting that some of Darin’s last lines refer to T.S. Eliot, the poet whose words so many readers have sent to me.  This is what Half a Life is about.  And I can’t recommend it highly enough.  Go, go, go, go now.  Read it.

Things don’t go away.  They become you.  There is no end, as T.S. Eliot says, but addition: the trailing consequence of further days and hours.  No freedom from the past, or from the future.

A Strong West Wind

This summer I read Gail Caldwell’s memoir about her friendship with Caroline Knapp, Let’s Take the Long Way Home.  I loved it – I found myself weeping and smiling, thinking of those few people I love best, and sharing it with my mother who knows what it’s like to lose someone so dear they take with them a part of you.  In fact, Gail’s story made me consider returning to my abandoned novel (which I call my project, much like Whit’s recent surgery was a procedure – it’s all about the nomenclature) because it, too, is about the loss of a best friend.

And then, impressed by Gail’s writing, I turned to her first memoir, A Strong West Wind.  Oh, my.  This one, like the wind of its title, blew me away.  Gail may be, in my opinion, the most gifted architect of the English language I have ever read.  Literally.  She’s an artist whose mind is her brush, words her medium.  But Gail’s sentences are not the faint strokes of Impressionism.  They are more like the bold movements of the Abstract Expressionists: Gail writes in a muscular style that manages to be unsentimental and deeply moving at the same time.  Somehow, even in her assertive, powerful voice, Gail evokes the fragility that exists at the heart of life.

I have never read someone with such a complete command of the canon.  The Canon.   Gail’s memoir is rich – replete – with offhand yet confident literary references.  I was dazzled by the way she can refer to Faulkner in one paragraph and Herman Wouk in the next, summon both Dagny Taggart and Lily Briscoe at will, demonstrating in all cases the casualness that can come only from deep familiarity.

Gail’s book is a hymn to her father and the Texan plains on which they both lived.  It is the telling of her reckoning with the ways that where she came from has rippled throughout her life.  This is a reckoning we all undertake, I believe, in our own ways, and there is much to learn from hearing those of others.  Particularly those as gorgeously told as Gail’s.

An introverted child, Gail sought refuge from the tornados that whipped across the plains -“all that God and nothingness” – in the pages of books, finding herself attracted to “writers who offered mysteries instead of doctrine,” instinctively drawn to the deep possibility of the written word.  Gail becomes her father’s sidekick, and through their adventures and his example he teaches her the fearlessness that will eventually take her away from him.  From his stories (Gail’s father fought in WWII) she becomes fascinated with war.  War as metaphor informs much of A Strong West Wind, and both WWII and Vietnam wind unavoidably through the story, coiled and dangerous, scarily unknown and unavoidably close at the same time.

For years Gail is leaving where she came from.  In particular, her description of the women’s movement in the 70s impressed me.  I could imagine my own mother, herself a participant in those early, heady days, standing beside Gail in the marches and sit-ins she describes.  Though I sense this is not true for many of my peers, I still feel very keenly the passion of the generation that came before me, acutely aware of the changes their efforts wrought in the landscape I grew up facing.  Reading Gail’s first-hand account of the experience was moving.  Her summary made gasp:

For all its external conflagrations, the women’s movement gave us something that couldn’t be legislated, condemned, or even taken away: some core balancing point, a plie that sheltered and enhanced the spirit.  And this, more than anything else, was the movement’s seminal legacy and greatest threat.  Feminism redirected the narrative.  It was when the story, for a million protagonists, finally stopped being about somebody else.

The fearlessness that Gail learned from her father finally made real her desire to leave Texas behind.  Gail follows a clear and firm sense of where she wants to go, though we know that clarity is hard-won from the spiritual wandering that marked her early adulthood.  As she reflects, Gail recognizes and names the sadness that lingered around even a journey so hotly desired:

I had yet to understand that striking out for the territory is inherently a sad enterprise, though the fact is often neglected in the adventure tales we tell ourselves.  It is always hard to leave: a home, a drama, a way of life, a life.  So I sat there warm and safe that night, held by the sea and a good man and my own good fortune, victim and witness to all the transitory sweetness, like Gatsby’s dreams, that stood before and behind me.

Woven throughout Gail’s story is a respect for where she came from.  She describes a bald get-the-heck-out-of-dodge impulse, but simultaneously evinces an affection – sometimes even a reverence – for her familial roots.  This is a delicate balance, describing a desire to leave so powerful it propels her across the country while still appreciating the place she left, and she manages it with grace.  I suppose hindsight helps here.

A Strong West Wind is also a meditation on the power of the story:

But then stories have always been the hymns of history: From the grandest Homeric epic to a guy on a porch with his shotgun, they organize our dreads alongside our desires.

The strongest hidden narratives act as divining rods, ordering your life path without even bothering to show you the map.

As she looks back on where she came from, the place she left, Gail tells stories from her childhood, adolescence, and adulthood.  These stories all inform her present life, just as her current understanding of the world refracts how she sees those long-ago days.  As such, Gail brings to life the dialog between past and present and the ways in which this interchange affects both.  She reflects with affection and compassion on her parents, both on their relationship and on the individual impact they each had on her.  She also describes other relatives – notably her uncle Roy and her aunt Connie – whose lives echo through her own.

Gail’s memoir closes in her father’s hospital room at a VA hospital, where his roommate, a Vietnam veteran, is the embodiment of grace.  This man – really, a stranger – treats Gail’s father gently and warmly, and watching the two men together she feels the two wars that circumscribed her life and ran through it pulsing still, but more gently now.

Close to the end of the book Gail writes two paragraphs that seem alive with her wishes for her story.  A Strong West Wind evokes the meaning of the empty space and elucidates many of the mysteries she lists.  This section also seems, to me, to call to Caroline, whose loss Gail has already suffered but who does not appear in this book (other than in the acknowledgments).  Having read Let’s Take the Long Way Home we understand the ways in which Caroline’s absence howls through Gail’s entire life.

Loneliness, the mystery, the empty space, loss, the mundane and divine truth of our tread on the earth: all breathe in the words of this stunning book.  Enough of my lumbering words; I’ll leave you with Gail’s poetry.

What we have of anyone is so slight: the timbre of a voice, the leftover stories, the smell of a hunting vest.  And yet so much of life is about the empty spaces; I finally learned that much from all that land.  The vacuum will always define its opposite: prayer in the void, or hope encased by despair, or the languor of a silent, precious day.
Here, for instance, I have left out the river at dusk in autumn, the hard taste of loneliness about which you can do nothing, the view from the far rise.  I have left out the elegaic presence and great consolations of the dead, who are always with us and who become the mirroring pool into which we gaze.  And I have left out the way loss changes one’s tread upon the earth, as though gravity itself were affected.  But these are the mysteries for which there is no story; they are the air that circles the breaths we take, and they shape our lives as surely as winter, war, God, or luck.


The time has come … (I keep hearing, in my head, “the walrus said, to talk of many things…”) But the time has come. It’s here. Life After Yes debuts today and I whole-heartedly encourage you to order it. It’s been such a pleasure and an honor to live this process a little bit, vicariously, through Aidan. I read snippets of the book as she revised it, listening to Coldplay, at Starbucks. I saw the cover before it was final. And, finally, last week I got to hold it in my hands. And read it. And revel in it.

Life After Yes is, first and foremost, an absolute pleasure to read. I gulped it down in two sittings. Aidan’s characters are human and likeable, despite their real and visible flaws. The dialog is real, the descriptions of New York vivid, the particular moment in life recognizable to all who’ve been through it.

But Life After Yes also dares to ask some big questions. The book is, in my view, about two main things: about the ways that loss echoes through our lives, crippling and humbling us in ways we cannot anticipate, and about the various crutches and devices we use to keep ourselves from embracing life, from saying, wholeheartedly, YES.

The book’s protagonist, Quinn, lives in the shadow of her father’s unexpected death on 9/11. This is particularly poignant because any reader of Aidan’s blog knows that she lost her father very recently. It gives me shivers to think that Aidan wrote this novel before her father was sick, as though her subconscious was prodding her to work through this particular life passage in advance of needing its wisdom. Quinn’s fiance, Sage, also struggles with a deep loss. The way that Quinn and Sage and others around them (in particular, each of their mothers) reckon with the ramifications of these deaths forms the beating heart of the book.

Quinn’s story is also about the myriad ways that we hide from true and honest engagement in our lives. Aidan explores thoughtfully all the various tools that people use to numb themselves, to avoid really looking at the core of who they are and what they have chosen. There is alcohol, there is empty flirtation and sex, there is betrayal, there is plain old denial. We watch Quinn realize the futility of all of these crutches, and ultimately we see the beauty and joy that is possible when we overcome the human instinct to hide from ourselves. Part of this process for Quinn is also about letting go of her need to follow the yellow brick road, the path of great adulation and achievement. I relate to this keenly, and particularly loved the passage where Quinn begins to trust her inner compass:

Something clicks. I’ve spent my whole life stockpiling reasons – for why I should go to law school, or become a litigator, or become a wife. Maybe some things don’t need justification to be right. Maybe instinct is the best measure.

There are other themes in Life After Yes. Quinn’s maturation into herself is integral to the plot, and we watch her dreams of how her life would be confront the reality of how it actually is with results that are sometimes bitter, sometimes beautiful. Life After Yes is also a love letter to New York, and Aidan’s abiding love of the city she grew up in and still calls home radiates from every page. The law firm where Quinn works illustrates the alternative universe some professions inhabit, where a very different morality passes for normal and where people are so good at their facades that they can lose sight of their actual selves.

I loved Life After Yes. This book is fun to read and also full of provocative questions and lingering meaning. I can’t imagine a more compelling combination. I am proud of my friend and very honored to have been able to read this book. I heartily encourage you to do so as well. You can buy it here.

The Gift of an Ordinary Day

A beloved blog reader sent me the YouTube video of Katrina Kenison reading from her book, The Gift of an Ordinary Day. Predictably, the video made me cry, hard. I ordered the book immediately and it sat on my bedside table for a few days before I picked it up. And then. I read it, in a couple of long sittings, underlining and nodding vigorously as I went. In the simplest terms, this is the poetry of midlife, and a heartfelt exploration of loss. Kenison describes a vague but growing sense of unease in her comfortable suburban life that reminded me of both Dani Shapiro’s description in Devotion of being pushed from behind and my own deep, restless discomfort.

Kenison describes this feeling beautifully: “Watching my sons growing and changing so visibly, almost from one day to the next, I sensed something inside me breaking loose and changing as well, something no less powerful for being invisible.” She and her husband make a decision to leave their familiar town without being entirely sure where they are going. They move in with her parents and eventually buy a small and falling-down house on a hilltop in rural New Hampshire.

The book traces a summer spent in the cabin on the hill, the decision to raze it and the process of building a new home in the same location. Kenison is a gifted chronicler of the everyday: under her steady gaze the most mundane moments become luminous pearls. She describes a late-in-the-day snowshoe with her son and the way that a sunset brings meaning and color to an entire day, the lessons learned in the careful, rote stripping of years and years of paint from their cottage’s old doors, intended for reuse, and the heartbreaking mix of pride and sadness in watching her older son across a college cafeteria, chatting with sophomores and seemingly already right at home.

The book is suffused with loss. Kenison explores the very same themes that preoccupy me every single day. She wrestles with the impermanence of life, the inevitability of time’s moving forward, and the profound desire to recognize the beauty right in front of her. The project of building a house and of falling in love with a specific landscape becomes a metaphor for finally putting down roots, literal and symbolic. This, of course, entails closing doors and accepting what will never be, which Kenison acknowledges and mourns.

Being alive, it seems, means learning to bear the weight of the passing of all things. It means finding a way to lightly hold all the places we’ve loved and left anyway, all the moments and days and years that have already been lived and lost to memory, even as we live on in the here and now, knowing full well that this moment, too, is already gone. It means, always, allowing for the hard truth of endings. It means, too, keeping faith in beginnings.

Another theme that Kenison speaks about is the importance of making space for her sons to simply be. She describes the difficulty of ignoring the culture’s “siren call” but is delighted about the summer in the cabin when the family does nothing. She is passionate about giving her sons the space to daydream and to become themselves. This is so resonant for me, and of course I am reassured to have such an eloquent and intelligent person advocating the view I share.

As Kenison unpacks boxes in her new home she stumbles upon a pile of old journals. In their pages she rediscovers her old self, from 10 and 15 years ago. She realizes that her desire to live in the moments of her life, to really see the peace and the beauty that she knows is heaped in front of her has always been there.

This, I realize, is what I’ve wanted all along: to be more attentive, to honor the flow of days, the passing of time, the richness of everyday life. Some part of me has always known it, known it well enough, apparently, to write it down, over and over again, year after year. Finally, there is another part of me that’s ready to stop and listen to what I’ve been telling myself, ready to pay attention to what I know.

She knows that she already knows the answers, such as they are. Perhaps, really, there is no single answer, but only more questions. Still, to sit with oneself and to learn what we already know: this is no small feat, no simple task. It takes maturity and wisdom and peace. To be quiet enough to trust what our body, and our spirit, is telling us. Kenison etches this journey in gorgeous, simple words: the faint markings of the first frost on a window come to mind, lit to sparkling brilliance by the sun coming up. Her search is both blindingly simple and the most complicated thing in the world: to know who she is, out beyond the traditional markers of identity (“mother,” “wife,” “publisher,” “writer”) and to recognize that much life’s task is to say goodbye. To those we love, to places that have held us, to versions of ourselves we may have been very invested in.

In the keen awareness of her son’s movement away from her, Kenison hears the call to grow herself. This, of course, takes faith: in the face of fear and change, it would be easy to instead cling to the familiar, to make a shrine of that which has always been known, always worked. But no.

I know I can’t make time slow down, can’t hold our life as it is in a freeze frame or slow my children’s inexorable journeys into adulthood and lives of their own. But I can celebrate those journeys by bearing witness to them, by paying attention, and, perhaps most of all, by carrying on with my own growth and becoming.

That is what this book is. It is a beautiful witnessing of Kenison’s ordinary family life and of her growing sons. It is a record of three unsettled years of moving towards a new definition of home. And it is the commitment of a woman at midlife to continuing to grow, which means letting go of old identifiers and, ultimately, coming home to herself. In moving foward we circle back, we women do, to something that has always been true but that has required a certain amount of life experience for us to be able to see. Doors open and doors close, we move resolutely forward, yet we also dance back to something primal and primitive. We must accept that every single moment is limned with loss.

The transience of life breaks our hearts and also gives them back to us. In letting go of our attachment to the now we are pierced with loss, but we also know something new will come. Kenison quotes Jack Kornfield, “To live is to die to how we wanted it to be,” expressing the interconnectedness of true awareness and painful loss. It is in trusting the journey that peace comes. My favorite line from the book is this one, towards the end:

The future is never ours to call anyway. No matter how carefully we may try to orchestrate or foretell outcomes, there are forces at work in this universe that are far more powerful than any of our human machinations. So be it. We all learn by going where we need to go. Let us welcome the mystery then, and trust that what is meant to be, will be.

Read this book. It will sweep over you like a wave of truth, like the soft morning air at the ocean, like the smile of a good friend. If you are interested in what it means to be a mother, a woman, a seeker of peace and contentedness, you will find much here to love. This is a much, much more beautiful rendering of many of the thoughts and fears that are dearest to my heart. Thank you, Katrina Kenison. Thank you.