“Losing It” – by Dominique Browning
I loved this article from the NY Times Magazine. At some time or another, most of us have experienced a slide out of the comfort of our lives. Whether it’s been through trauma or an internal shift, we’ve experienced a descent that leaves us clutching our habits and stripped to the bone. Dominique’s journey reminds us that transformation does come, and that joy arrives in smaller packages than we might expect.
Losing It, by Dominique Browning, from the NY Times Magazine
For 12 years, I had a job I loved as the editor of House & Garden, a magazine that celebrated the good life. It would be an understatement to describe this enterprise as part of a company not primarily in the business of philosophical, spiritual or moral soul-searching. Condé Nast’s roots and branches are in the material world. The good life at House & Garden generally meant cultivating your own backyard rather than being involved in the body politic. I pushed against the limits of making a so-called shelter magazine by publishing articles about spiritual issues and the environment, but I always felt clear-eyed about how things stood. I spent more than a decade in the belly of the beast of muchness and more. That was a precarious place to be when the real estate bubble began to leak.
Tanyth Berkeley for The New York Times
The folding of the magazine was ruthless. Without warning, our world collapsed. No one was expecting it, though with five publishers in 10 years, we had our share of turmoil. I came to work on a Monday in 2007, went to the corporate offices for a meeting, had a different meeting, got the news and was told to have everything packed up by Friday. Security guards were immediately posted by the doors.
In the four days we were given to pack up our belongings, I was overwhelmed with an urge to hoard and began stuffing every House & Garden paper bag, pencil and notepad I could get my hands on into a box, so that I would never run out of office supplies. I salvaged enough to run a small corporation from my kitchen. I didn’t think of this as stealing. I thought of it as a twisted sort of recycling — part of the strange new economy of severance into which I had been thrown. Everything with our logo on it was destined for the Dumpster anyway.
Even so, a few weeks later I realized I had some gaping holes in the inventory: I had no ink for my printer. The pages of my résumé looked faded, ghostly. You would think I was fading, too, but I wasn’t. I was getting plump. All I could think about was food. This was the beginning of being hungry all the time. My addled brain interpreted the white noise of unemployment to mean that I was going into hibernation, that I had to lay in reserves. After the closing of the magazine was announced, my public line was, “We had a great run, we took a magazine from zero to 950,000 readers in 10 years, fabulous renewals, we won awards, published six books. . . .” I was a zombie. “Great run . . . 950,000 readers . . . six books. . . .”
But privately, I was in a whiplashing tailspin. My nightmare had finally come true. For years, I had a profound dread of unemployment that went way beyond worrying about how to pay the bills. I would like to say that this was because of the insecure nature of magazine publishing, but my anxiety had more to do with my own neuroses — though I didn’t think of it that way. Work had become the scaffolding of my life. It was what I counted on. It held up the floor of my moods, kept the facade intact. I always worried that if I didn’t have work, I would sink into abject torpor.
I have always had a job. I have always supported myself. Everything I own I purchased with money that I earned. I worked hard. For the 35 years I’ve been an adult, I have had an office to go to and a time to show up there. I’ve always had a place to be, existential gravitas intended. Without work, who was I? I do not mean that my title defined me. What did define me was the simple act of working. The loss of my job triggered a cascade of self-doubt and depression. I felt like a failure. Not that the magazine had failed — that I had.
The thing about running a magazine is that there is always too much to do. I liked not being in control of my time — I was always busy. I didn’t want time to think things over, things like feeling guilty about spending more time with my office mates than with my children; feeling sad that those children were leaving home; or feeling disappointed in love or frightened by terrible illness. Everything else, in other words. The demands of my job kept me distracted. Besides, no one else was paying my mortgage.
With the closing of the magazine, my beloved family of colleagues was obliterated. And so was the structure of my life.
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.
How had I managed to get this far in my life completely unprepared for the unknown — which I had always known was out there?
During my first post-employment lunch, my panic was full-blown. It was all I could do to keep myself from wrapping a dozen breadsticks in a napkin and tucking them into my bag. I floated the idea, actually, and my companion laughed slightly, nervously, gauging the level of my seriousness. I managed to control myself. He is a good friend and gave me loads of advice, which I heard through my frantic chewing. I ended the meal extracting a promise of several more meals in the future; I wanted friends bearing menus.
After a few weeks of being unemployed, I began to settle into a routine — of getting up.
“Today is Saturday,” I said to myself one morning. I repeated this several times, trying to convince myself to get out of bed. Saturday is what I came to think of as one of the nice days, like Sunday — that is, when I considered days at all. “Today is Saturday. No one is working today, so you are no different from anyone else,” I would say out loud.
In fact, I found it hardly necessary to be aware of what day it was. 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.
Time hangs heavily on the unemployed soul. If I ate an egg at 8 a.m., by 9:30 I was starving. I became obsessed with eggs, gazing on their refined shape in wonder. Perfect packets of nutrients. I ate eggs all day long. When I had a job, I never thought about eggs.
I would feel busy, and then, when I was in bed again, realize I had done nothing. The last time this happened I had a newborn and was so exhausted from nursing through the night and keeping an eye on the sleeping infant all morning that I couldn’t get into grown-up clothing until late in the afternoon. For heaven’s sake, I hadn’t even thought of it as grown-up clothing since I was a 5-year-old dressing for kindergarten. Frankly, I no longer saw any reason to get out of my pajamas at all. A long coat covered everything up when I went out for food.
The pace of my life had become so slow that I was struggling to keep up with it.
“How are you today?” my sister Nicole asked whenever she called. She phoned several times a day. “How was your morning?” my sister wanted to know.
“Incredibly busy. Unbelievable.”
“What were you doing?”
In this way, being unemployed is a lot like being depressed. You know how there are millions (O.K., a handful) of things you swear you would do if you only had the time? Now that I had all the time in the world — except for the hours during which I was looking for work — to read, write, watch birds, travel, play minor-key nocturnes, have lunch with friends, train a dog, get a dog, learn to cook, knit a sweater, iron the napkins and even the sheets, I had absolutely no energy for any of it. It made no difference that music and books and nature had long been the mainstays of my spirit. Just thinking about them exhausted me. I had absolutely zero experience in filling weeks — what if it became years? — with activity of my own choosing. Being unemployed meant being unoccupied, literally. I felt hollow.
“Today is Saturday. Get out of bed.”
Saturday meant that I could feel a little bit normal. Saturday is not a workday. What mattered was that everyone else’s Saturdays were different from Mondays and therefore the same as mine. I rose early. I made a breakfast of the leftovers from a post-employment lunch and then I put on a hat and mittens. Did I mention that we were all fired just as the holiday season was upon us? So much for Thanksgiving.
I headed into the streets. The early sunlight slanted across the shop windows. Everyone hurried past me. Suddenly I noticed that the men on the sidewalk looked strange; they were in overcoats and polished leather shoes and carrying briefcases. The women were dressed up. They had introspective, determined, grim faces. Strange for a Saturday.
That’s when it hit me.
It wasn’t Saturday. It was Friday.
After a month of unemployment, it had come to this — foraging for my dinner, at 4 in the afternoon. In my own kitchen. I had developed a habit of eating leftovers from meals enjoyed days earlier; my breakfast of spaghetti and meatballs at dawn sickened me by noon. Before too long, I was hungry again, but balky, wary of my own housekeeping. Better to have a drink. Safer.
Normally I like a bottle of Guinness stout when I need a nutritional hit, but I’d gone through my supply. I spotted a nearly empty bottle of Lillet moldering at the back of the refrigerator. Sugar and liquor only improve with age, right? I emptied it into an oversize breakfast cup and read the recipe on the bottle. A twist of lime? Who keeps limes? I threw in a slice of lemon. Then a few more. Half a lemon. Vitamin C. I like to rehearse the nutritional content of my food, and there are times when a drink qualifies as a meal. I took a sip, and it wasn’t half-bad, or, I suppose, it was only half-good. Note to self: Next time, make an effort. Have a whiskey sour. More vitamin C.
Drink in hand, I decided it was time to wash the windows on the second floor. I could use a little exercise, I thought. Funny how sugar works: suddenly a surge of energy. Cleaning was an activity I had thrown myself into in recent days. I might be a mess, but at least I could control the mess in my house.
“How are you today?” my sister asked. She was down to calling two or three times a day. “How was your morning?”
“Incredibly busy. Unbelievable.”
“What were you doing?”
I got a big sponge out from under the sink, filled a bucket and climbed the stairs to my bedroom. A few more sips of the Lillet to fortify me for the job, and my mind was racing. As I reached for the corner with my sopping sponge, sucking on the lemons at the bottom of my cup at the same time, I imagined the casement snapping under my weight.
I watched myself fall out the window. I watched my cup shatter on the flagstones.
I looked down from the window and saw myself splayed on the stone terrace, my back cracked and spine twisted — like the lime that’s supposed to be in my drink? — my head resting at a birdlike angle. This is where they (who?) would find me four days later, when it occurred to them (who, though?) that I hadn’t been seen for a while, hadn’t kept an appointment (do I have any?) and hadn’t called the children.
The children? I can’t help it. I think of Alex and Theo as children still, though they are grown and out of the house. The children were not going to be the ones to find me broken-necked on the terrace. Frankly, no one would. I’d rot.
I decided I was in no condition for housekeeping this evening and dropped my sopping sponge into the bathtub. O.K., so now I had watched myself hit bottom. That’s what you have to do to get better, right? Anyway, I was hungry. For a change.
There were three jars of peanut butter — protein! — on the shelf. I didn’t even bother to find my reading glasses so that I could choose the freshest jar, but I took down a dessert plate, just to maintain standards. I fished around in the utensil drawer and found a spoon, unscrewed the lid and dredged deep. I dolloped the stuff onto the plate — an extra helping so I didn’t have to go back downstairs for seconds. I put the plate of peanut butter, a half bottle of wine, a glass and a linen napkin on a tray and climbed back to my bedroom.
I started to lift my glass in a toast.
I thought better of it.
“To life!” I said out loud. Then I gave myself another one of my hourly lectures. Buck up. Just because something failed doesn’t mean you’re a failure. Just because something has ended doesn’t mean it was all a mistake. Just because you’ve been rejected doesn’t mean you’re worthless and unlovable. Sound familiar? It should, if you or anyone you know has gone through a divorce. This felt like the same thing.
Worse. I had no control over any of it. And no one was holding a safety net for me. For years I relied on only myself, but my confidence was shattered. Now what?
I began keeping notes about how I was feeling, what I was doing. Writing had always been my way to absorb things; I often wrote out my troubles. It even crossed my mind to write for a living. I had not changed my lifestyle while I was working at Condé Nast, so I had saved some money. I knew that writing wasn’t lucrative, having spent my career supporting writers. But I figured if I got consulting work and lived carefully, I could subsidize myself. Then I developed a strange typing problem — and I am a world-class typist, having spent years as a secretary. I kept mssng the “i” key — thngs kept comng out whtout t. There was certainly nothing wrong with the middle finger of my right hand. Mssng the “i” meant constant retypng. That was the end of wrtng.
Within months of House & Garden folding, the entire economy was in freefall. Advertising was vanishing, layoffs and buyouts were announced. I was beginning to feel like an antique, an artisan whose skills were no longer even respected, much less needed. Editing? How quaint. Managing creative people? All we’re trying to manage is to get rid of more of them.
It was strange and maddening to be forcibly retired. Even the generational rhythms were out of whack. It seemed just yesterday that my father retired. How could we have reached the same stage of life together?
Four months after being laid off, I decided to sell my house in the suburbs of New York. The stock market was sliding perilously. I didn’t want to spend my savings maintaining the mortgage and high taxes. I wanted to be out of debt.
It took me ages to create my home — 25 years, and all the years before that of daydreaming about how I wanted to live. This was the home I thought I would grow old in. It was a forthright, dark, wood-shingled, center-hall colonial revival, nearly a hundred years old. It was supposed to be my Forever House — the home you think you will never leave, the house you love beyond all others, where you’ve recaptured only what made you feel safe and happy in your childhood and left the rest behind. The Forever House is where you’ve passed along the values you admire to your own children — and filled the rooms with laughter and tears.
I called a real-estate broker, a cheerfully competent person who arrived disconcerted at the kitchen door, unwilling to brave the front path overhung with gnarled, carefully pruned azaleas. They gave the entrance character. Was I thinking, Character doesn’t sell, when I made my home? No. I was thinking, This looks good. To me. We toured the house: “And over here is the laundry room, with bookcases built in — ”
“I’ve never seen so many bookcases!” the broker said. “People don’t want bookcases. They don’t even want libraries. They want media rooms. Where did you say you hid the TV?”
I could see her mind whirring as she began to figure out just what type of character she had on her hands . . . single, unemployed, not going out much, reading instead.
We walked through the kitchen. She eyed the walls warily.
“Interesting color. Very.”
Isn’t that what people say when they can’t think of anything nicer to say?
“You’ve decorated your house so beautifully,” she continued. “This kitchen is gorgeous. Now you’re going to have to clear all the counters. Books. Knickknacks. All the stuff. I love what you’ve done with this house. Make sure you put it all away.”
Knickknacks? Maybe houses are like children. You can see yours only through eyes of love. Soon strangers would be tromping through my house, passing judgment, but the only way to have an open house is to shut away everything that made it your home.
“Don’t worry,” the broker went on. “You don’t have to be here. You shouldn’t even be in town! I’ll handle everything. Don’t forget! Counters! Walls! Personality! Cleared!” The broker smiled graciously. She was fantastically reassuring.
I felt as if I were in the presence of a dying beast. If Wendy and her brothers could have a big dog for a governess — well, this house could be my Nana. It was steadfast, if creaky; it gave me years of solace and protection. Every once in a while, when I thought of how I was about to abandon it, I would lean into a wall and kiss it. I loved my house.
I could not step past the threshold of a son’s room without becoming engulfed in memories, triggered by things as slight as the worn patch on the armchair where my elbow rested while cradling a nursing baby. This was the home I imagined my children would return to visit, with their children, whose first steps would be taken in the garden, their tiny fists curling around the white azalea branches for support, just the way their fathers’ had. I wish we still lived in a world in which houses were passed down through generations, but our sense of home has become portable. That may be one reason we invest our possessions with so much more meaning — they, rather than rooms and gardens, carry the memories.
The house sold quickly. It struck me that I had lost House & Garden, the job, and was now losing house and garden, the life. What took years to create was about to be undone in a matter of minutes. Come to think of it, kind of like being blasted out of a career.
I had access to a city apartment owned by a friend, but I couldn’t commit to living there all the time. It made me too sad — an unresolved chapter of my last decade. I decided to move to the small, coastal Rhode Island town where, after divorcing years ago, I bought a run-down Modernist house that had been on the market for years. I was rebuilding it. I know I was lucky to have such a choice — no, not just lucky! I had worked hard to save enough to buy that house. It was a wrenching move. I was haunted by the anxiety that it wouldn’t be the last, either. This was just the beginning of letting things go — starting with the Forever House.
I called Alex. “How can I give this house up? I’m walking around thinking this has become the museum of my happiest moments. I’m making a big mistake. Don’t you think? The museum of my happiest moments. . . . ”
Alex was used to me by now.
“Time for a new museum, Mom.”
Spring blew in so wildly that year that it seemed unnatural, or perhaps I just noticed what spring feels like once I wasn’t sealed in a climate-controlled building all day. Weather — the actual experience of it, not the forecast — is one of the more dramatic discoveries to come with a slower pace of life. There were days at the office when I didn’t know whether it was muggy or cool, or if it had rained. It dawned on me that there was something unsavory about having been so cut off from nature that I was surprised by the golden hue in the slant of light at four in the afternoon — on a weekday, no less.
I took to wandering in my garden at all hours. As if to give me one last chance to change my mind about leaving, spring unfolded in splendor. The daffodils multiplied generously and spilled across the front in a riot of gold. Bunches of hellebores appeared in March and nodded their prim white, mauve and purple caps for more than two months; when I bent down to turn up a small head and peer into a quiet, trusting face, I winced at the thought of leaving them vulnerable to whatever depredations a new owner might visit upon them. I apologized in anticipation. I strolled the paths, examining the thick, furry spools of the unwinding ferns; the gnarled purple fingers of the peonies clawing out from the damp, fragrant earth; the green stubs of the Solomon’s seal; the sharp tips of the hosta encircled by improbably large patches of bare ground that would soon be hidden by gigantic leaves, bearing aloft the fragrant white wands that seduce the moths at dusk.
With all the anxiety about the move, my brain flipped a switch, and I went from sleeping all the time to being utterly lost in sleeplessness. In exhaustion, my memory faltered. Black holes gaped open before me as I spoke; in the middle of a sentence I groped zanily for safe passage to the next word. During the moments of sleep that I could snatch, I had vivid, disturbing dreams. I was being born — I was blinded by a bright light — and seconds later I was dying. I was reaching for the telephone to call an ambulance but couldn’t remember which number to dial: 411? 911? 411? 911? 411? 911? What did I need? Help? Information?
I turned to the wisdom of the ancients. I went to Ovid, where women run from rapacious gods, and Dante, where women writhe in purgatory, and Homer, where women unravel their work, and finally I pulled off the shelf the old black leather-clad King James Version of the Bible I was given in high school. I read feverishly from cover to cover. I had forgotten how much of it is about fear — over and over again, the response to change, even to the miraculous, is fear. I was fighting fear. And what was I so afraid of? Being alone with myself long enough to wonder what is the purpose of my life?
I turned most frequently to the Psalms, whose gorgeous, intricate, sensual prayers blanketed me in wonder. There I found my anthem for that year, the most eloquent expression of grief I ever read: “I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint: my heart is like wax; it is melted in the midst of my bowels.”
One night, at four in the morning, in a panic of sleeplessness, I went to my piano and on impulse pulled an old volume of music off the shelf, J. S. 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.
Slowly, slowly, the months go by, each one a variation transposing loss, loneliness and anger to gratitude and hope. I no longer dread the advent of another rosy dawn. As I stop struggling so with fear and simply accept the slow tempo of my days, all those inner resources start kicking in — those soul-saving habits of playfulness, most of all: reading, thinking, listening, feeling my body move through the world, noticing the small beauty in every single day. I watch the worms, watch the hawks, watch the fox, watch the rabbits. I open my heart to new friends. I settle into my new home; its healing balm has been there all along, nestled in a sofa that beckons me to pick up a book, hovering outside the window inviting me to take a walk. I find room in my life again for love of the world, let the quiet of solitary moments steal over me, give myself over to joy. What a surprise! That I can cook a meal for my children, or take a long walk on the beach, or watch an osprey wheel through the sky, or set down a page of thoughts — these are moments of grace. Old Testament loving-kindness, the stuff of everyday life.
One adventure is over; it is time for another. I have a different kind of work to do now. I am growing into a new season. At the water’s edge, watching the tiny, teeming life of that mysterious place between high and low tides, the intertidal zone, I begin to accept the relentless flux that is the condition of these days. I am not old and not young; not bethrothed and not alone; not broken and yet not quite whole; thinking back, looking forward. But present. These are my intertidal years.
In those sleepless nights, when I am at the keyboard, I connect with 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 cannot move through the music the way I hear it in my head. Nothing works the way it used to. My hands feel stiff. But every once in a while, I accomplish a passage adroitly. Fingers dance over keys. I take all the repeats. I observe the rests. I enjoy myself. And I am happy for small-boned miracles.
Dominique Browning writes a column for the Environmental Defense Fund Web site and has a new blog, SlowLoveLife.com. This piece is an excerpt from “Slow Love: How I Lost My Job, Put on My Pajamas and Found Happiness,” to be published next month by Atlas & Company.