June 9, 2010 -- Dominique Browning's "Slow Love: How I Lost My Job, Put On My Pajamas & Found Happiness," tells the story of how Browning lost her job as editor at House & Garden magazine, and as a consequence, also lost her focus in life.
With humor and insight, Browning tells how she eventually found insight, purpose and happiness.
Read an excerpt of the book below, and then head to the "GMA" Library to find more good reads.
THE INTERTIDAL YEARS
The wind often dies down in the afternoon. The pond is a glassy black; it is a good time to go out in the kayak. Theo has returned to school, the summer renters have left as well, and the whole town seems to breathe easier, decongested. I have been alone for the last week, enjoying an unusual amount of solitude -- no visitors, no dinner parties, no deadlines, and no need for phone calls. Just my piano, my journal, my books, and the coyotes, foxes, minks, otters, raccoons, possums, bats, birds, snakes, and owls at my doorstep.
It will be an easy trip across the pond to the barrier beach, where I'll take a long walk and a swim in the ocean before dinner. I get the paddle and rubber boots out of the garage. It gives me pleasure to set out on this journey with a small bag containing only what will fit with me in the boat: goggles and a towel. My field glasses hang from my neck. I have a debate with myself about the cell phone. That old anxiety, but am I really going to need to call the coast guard for rescue? I don't want to become unable to disconnect. Trouble will wait. Good news ripens in delay. I set off without the phone.
I head out the back door and down the path mowed through the meadow to the edge of the water. I am careful not to step in a small creature's hole. If I wrenched an ankle, who would help me? I'm annoyed at that tinny voice that natters through my days. My parents, my sister, my children, and my friends all tell me to be careful. Don't swim by yourself. Don't go so far out. Don't use the kayak alone. Don't leave your doors unlocked. What are you doing up there, all by yourself? They're expressing love, I remind myself. But their worry is contagious, making me nervous, and I get the distinct feeling that they disapprove of my solitude; it also makes them anxious. So be it. I have finally come to embrace it. Someone once explained to me the difference between an introvert and an extrovert: both can enjoy going to a party, but the extrovert is energized by society, whereas the introvert has to recover from it. My batteries get drained easily these days, and need recharging in silence. Alone, I am willingly, cheerfully thrown upon myself.
It has been a beautiful September day, and the air is fresh and clear. What a gift to be able to go where I want. I am no longer young, but after all, I am not yet so old. Although I worry about pulled muscles, I am not at all frail. Even though I live alone, I live in the watchful care of loving friends and family. I take a deep breath, feel my lungs stretch against my ribs, and blow out the day's fears. I am strong, healthy, vibrant, and thankful. I have the energy and the will to get going. I have learned by now that getting going is the most important thing.
My little boat is a poky, squat, plastic affair, but it sits high -- helpful in shallow water -- and it is stable. It is dark green, to blend with the field in which I keep it, upside down, so it doesn't fill with rain. I flip it over. It does fill with ants and spiders and pill bugs, which I wipe out before dragging the boat down to the water. The thing may be ugly, but it fits me, or I fit it, and that is satisfying.
I ease one end of the boat into the pond, pushing through a gap in the cattails, which are so tall they hide me. Good thing, too, because the sight of me getting into the boat is comical, if not embarrassing. The water is so low I have to take a step into the muck to get the boat out far enough to float it. I've done this maneuver a hundred times, but I'm surprised by my awkwardness, my stiff knees. They actually creak. I have to move slowly, which means my foot is sucked deep into the mud before I wrench it out, give the boat a wobbly push, and crouch into the seat in the bottom. I'm fine once I'm settled. Feeling thankful again for their cover, I back out of the cattails.
I turn my boat around and get the hang of the paddle. The cormorants gathered on a rock have spread open the shiny black capes of their oily-feathered wings to dry. The swans drift away; there were at least a hundred on the pond this summer. "What'd you do?" a friend once asked. "Call Disney? This place is out of central casting." They are mute swans. They came here, the story goes, from Long Island, where a wealthy man had imported them to his estate from England in the '20s: the queen's own swans. I had seen the same kind on the Thames. When the man lost his fortune in the crash of '29, the grounds went to ruin, and the swans left to feed from other ponds. Their population no longer controlled, they spread across Long Island and then came north into Connecticut and Rhode Island. They are beautiful and nasty. They are fiercely territorial, and when threatened they attack -- bodies high, necks thrusting, beaks wide and hissing, enormous wings flapping so powerfully they could easily snap my arm in two. It is not difficult to imagine how poor Leda was carried off by a swan to be raped. From time to time the swan population begins to overwhelm this marsh pond; the birds' necks are so long that they feed easily off the shallow bottom. They make it difficult for the smaller ducks to find nourishment. Some of the swans keep their necks underwater so long that their feathers become green with algae. Every once in a while someone starts a population control program, addling the large eggs and leaving them in the nests to fool the swans into slowing their production. It doesn't seem to work for long. Lately, though, some of the swans, perhaps feeling crowded, have pioneered the short flight to settle on Martha's Vineyard.
My arms ache, though I am not very far across the water. Taking the island that sits squarely in front of my house as a midway point, I give myself a rest. I balance my paddle across my lap, and as the boat drifts gently, I take an inventory of the other houses around the pond.
I've often wondered where home really is, for those of us (most of us) who don't live where we were raised or where we raised our children. I've finally decided that home is not necessarily where you live all the time; it is where you want to be when you die, where you want to be buried or have your ashes spread. Or perhaps it is the place where you feel most alive and true to yourself. This pond, then, is home to me, at least for now. I've come to accept that I can't count on anything to be permanent and it no longer matters. I know that if I ever leave this home, I will make another. If I ever lose my garden, I will plant another. What I crave is a place that slows me down and reconnects me with nature, the sea, the trees, the night cries of the animals. I picked this place to be my home; I wasn't born into it. I picked it, and now I have grown into it.
At rest in my kayak, I hear the commotion before I can find it -- the loud pumping of wings. I raise my field glasses up as I twist around in my seat, in time to see the huge bird, its belly flushed with the late afternoon sun. It hangs, treading the air, suspended in place, wings beating fiercely, neck craned, head trained on the water, and then suddenly the osprey plunges, feet first, into the pond. When it comes up, it is holding a fish, its talons gripping the writhing creature over the top of its back so that the fish looks like it is flying horizontally through the air. The fish thrashes frantically from side to side, swimming still, as it was moments ago when it was plucked from its path. Its blue-gray and white scales catch the light, setting off a sparkle of sequins. The osprey, now skimming over the pond, squeezes its fingerlike claws. The strong, thick talons pierce deeper into the gills. Blood streams through the sky.
The osprey flies heavily toward the woods bordering the pond. No matter how many times I have seen this deathly spectacle, it horrifies and thrills me. I have been given the honor of witnessing a sacred ritual. I train my glasses on the osprey as it comes to rest on the uppermost limb of a tall, gnarled, and leafless tree at the edge of a meadow. With most of its rotting branches snapped off by storms, it has become a piece of sculpture, the suggestion of a tree. Its bark has been polished smooth and silvered by winds carrying fine sand. Its jagged form etches a lightning bolt against the greenish black of the leafy woods. The bird sits at the top, proudly, I can't help but think, though it is only its nature to hunt successfully. The bird gives a few short, shrill whistles and then hunches over its prey. The fish continues the frenzied folding of its long, taut body. The osprey lifts one leg in threat, but the writhing of its prey is of no consequence; the fish collapses and dangles. The osprey gently lowers its leg, turns its head to look about, then lifts its wings, stretching.
In one sudden, graceful motion, it knifes its beak into the fish. This brings on another round of desperate thrashing, the terrible furor of life taking leave. Delicately now, the osprey turns the fish over with one talon, gashes the flesh again, lays the fish back down, and sits erect, watching the horizon. I can see that the osprey has pecked out the eyes; should the osprey drop it, which is unlikely, the blinded fish will be unable to escape. Still, the fish jerks wildly, putting up a determined struggle even as its body is being broken down. I am impressed by the precise, systematic surgery of the osprey's ruthless dismantling.
The osprey leans in, craning head to talons, and begins to pull hard. It twists off the fish's lips. A bright red stream of blood gushes from the side of the fish and streams down the trunk of the tree and pools in the crotch of a branch. The fish thrashes once more, a fierce spasm, and then it is over. The osprey tears off its head.
The bird opens its enormous wings and lifts off the branch. It disappears into the woods, tunneling into an opening in the trees. It will take its meal privately. I think of the poet Mary Oliver, who wrote: "Such beauty as the earth offers must hold great meaning."
Lifting my paddle again, and ignoring the twinge in my neck, I push off against an outcropping of red granite on the island. A breeze is playing across the water; a rogue wind is coming up. I have no idea how long the journey to the beach is; it might be only a mile or two, but it feels like ten. The anticipation of arrival elongates the miles. They are shorter and easier when I'm heading home. I know exactly where I'm headed: to the edge of the sea, that "strange and beautiful place," as Rachel Carson called it, a "marginal world."
It is a place I have returned to again and again over the years, to walk the beaches at all tides, to examine the boulders and eddies and coves along the way, to stir and poke and chase the tiny creatures that populate a continually changing place that is no place, really, more a condition. You cannot say, exactly, where the edge of the sea begins and ends. The tides are sculpted by moons, winds, and storms; they are by turns violent and subtle, yet utterly reliable in the rhythm of their leaving and returning. When I go to the edge of the sea, I marvel at the constant change, wonder at what has turned up in the swells. More than ever before, this tidal zone draws me with its mystery and movement and magic. I can never sit by the sea; I am always walking alongside it, breathing deeply the fragrant air, rich with ozone and drying seaweed. Strange to think of being grounded by water, but that is exactly what happens to me when I am near the ocean.
The edge of the sea has many voices, as I think of them, some booming, some frantic, some crashing. But the voice I respond most deeply to, listen most closely to, is one that whispers: a susurration of water riffling across clacking stone, mingled with breezes catching in the high grass of the dunes. After years of first finding and then finally hearing and understanding what that voice can teach me, I have just begun to accept the relentless flux that is the condition of my life, of all our lives. Not young, not old; not betrothed, not alone; thinking back, looking forward; not broken, not quite whole anymore, either. But present.
These are my intertidal years.
I reach the sandbar and my kayak crunches into the rocky shore. I know that this beach is often a disappointment to visitors, who complain about the rocks and wonder where the shells are. There are shells, but usually in shards. They 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; those mysterious, random interruptions and suspended thoughts that invite the reader to imagine the rest, or to marvel at the violent effect of such delicate breaks. Somehow, not having the whole shell makes me more aware of the subtle wash of creamy colors across its surface.
The common purple sea snail makes it to the beach in better shape, perhaps because, improbably, it lives on the surface of the ocean. Its story is sweet and sad. "This snail is remarkable in its adaptation to life as a drifter," I learned from my well-worn Audubon field guide, a book that can achieve the grace of the Psalms. "It manufactures a raft of mucus bubbles to which it clings upside down. If detached from its float, it sinks to the bottom and dies." Difficult to imagine such a fragile hold on life, in a home anchored by no more than the thread of a baby's spittle. But we, too, get turned upside down, and perhaps we only think we have a surer grip; we float our hopes on bubbles of optimism and opportunity, and the lines that keep us alive are easily snipped.
The larger whelks are usually eroded, so what I find on the beach are the thick inner whorls of the shells. Strange that, for us, the shell of a home is a sad or incomplete thing. We describe an early, uninhabitable stage of construction as a shell; a bombed-out shell in wartime; a rotting shell left behind by floods. A shell is an empty place, soulless. And yet, the shell of a sea creature is all the home it has; it is all it needs. I like the idea of fitting perfectly within my shell, and sealing it off against anything that threatens me. In my intertidal years, I finally come to the realization that I no longer want to be around people who make me feel like I am in harm's way. Where once this was thrilling or seductive, appealing in its unending neediness, now it is draining. I'm learning to seal myself off from toxic encounters.
It's hard for most shelled creatures to make any kind of home in this intertidal zone, where they can be swept away on a wave; they're too fragile, too vulnerable to the pounding of surf against stone. That makes the ones that do thrive all the more astonishing: the various mussels, snails, limpets, whelks, rock periwinkles nestled in the ropy weeds. I have to change my focus and come in close to appreciate them; I often take my reading glasses to the beach. It was years before I learned that the rough, chalky surfaces of the boulders at the tide line were actually filled with living creatures; the barnacles were not merely a mineral deposit, as I'd assumed. I've scraped myself against their sharp cones often enough, but I've never been able to pry one off. Waves slide right off their shells, and you need a sharp knife to cut through the strong cement with which they have affixed themselves to their rocks, sealing in life-preserving water during low tides.
Limpets are the most enchanting of these rock dwellers, to my mind, probably because there is something mysterious and poignant about their attachment to home. The limpet is a snail, though its shell isn't whorled; it is a flattened cone, without an opening at the top. The limpets found in my neck of the coast are small, the size of a fingernail, and camouflaged by growths of green marine algae. The limpet will occupy the same spot its entire life. It shapes its shell to match precisely the contour of its rocky perch. After it returns from foraging on the night's high tide, it must find that spot, as it fits nowhere else but on its "home scar," as some poetic scientist called it long ago. I admire the indelibility of that term. The limpet seals itself on its spot so tightly that no brute force can remove it; it will allow itself to be destroyed rather than lose its hold on home.
I think of the limpet when I look back on all the places I've called home, all the houses I thought I would never relinquish, until I had to leave. Each time of moving was difficult, until I somehow fit myself into the new place. I suppose it could be said that I've created home scars in that I've left marks in the very soil and timber of the places I've lived. But from time to time, I find myself envying a creature who will know only one home, with generations of offspring colonizing nearby, a strange, tiny creature for whom there is literally no place like home.
By now I'm hot enough for a swim. Immersion in the cold Atlantic always quiets the throbbing of my mind. In the ocean, my body feels sleeker. The salt water is heavy on my arms, like the satin of a gown. Many people do not like to step into the ocean. The darkness of the water is frightening, and so, too is the thought that you cannot see what you are putting your foot down on. The pull of the powerful, unseen tides and currents is eerie. I love being lifted off my feet; I enjoy the intimacy with the water and the drop into an endless horizon. I once swam for long minutes off the coast of Maine with a seal pup for company and became mesmerized by our dance, by the warmth and humor in the pup's eyes, convinced that I had become a selkie, an enchanted woman-seal at long last returning to her natal element. I realized only too late that what I had become was hypothermic.
I've been swimming every day for the last couple of months, at one with the ancient nymphs who kick and wriggle to safety. There's something primitive about the feeling of washing away pain. Even so, this year I'm aware of how much more careful I have to be about getting in, attuned to half-submerged mossy rocks or sharp eelgrass or rough surf. I used to just run for it. My feet are no longer tolerant of the rough cobbles. It is vexing to consider the onset of frailty, until I consider the alternative: avoid anything dangerous. I am more fearful of the pull of currents and tides than I used to be, but I suspect, and hope, that there will come a time when I am so old that they will not frighten me in the least. I won't mind where they take me; I will be ready to go.
I wade in, shudder with the cold, and then pull for the horizon. I've been relearning my stroke this summer, having decided to take some lessons from a lifeguard. I had always prided myself on staying flat in the water. Wrong.
"We roll, now," the lifeguard told me, shouting a bit, in that infuriating way the young have toward their elders. "You want to maximize your stroke. Reach as far as you can. Your body should never be flat on the water -- always on one side or the other. You roll. You reach."
It was annoying to learn to swim all over again. The lifeguard was critical of every move I made: my hand position, my breathing, my head placement.
"Keep your fingers spread. Like a baseball glove."
Here again. The shadows come into play.
"Don't worry," she said. "It will feel awkward at first, but it doesn't look funny. It only feels that way. Everything always feels exaggerated in the water. That's the nature of water."
Quite the philosopher, I think, remembering her instructions as I tunnel through the ocean. The wind is picking up -- weather changes so quickly here -- and the water is getting choppy. I contract my belly into my backbone and surf the waves, and finally get their syncopation. I feel like I'm climbing a ladder, pulling myself across the swells, rung by rung.
"When you pull through the water, you must reach your arm down low. The water around your body is already moving. You are moving. When you make a shallow stroke, you are only pulling through moving water. You are just pulling through your own motion.
"You must reach deeper. You must reach to where the water is still. Then you will move faster."
Once I'm over being annoyed, I'm amazed at what a swimming lesson has taught me. If I'm a middle-aged dog learning new tricks, I'll be an old dog willing, at least, to be up to my usual tricks. That sounds like a good future to me, no matter how careful I have to be about slipping on rocks.
My reveries are interrupted by the sulfurous smell and the buzzing sound of a gasoline-powered boat. A strong voice cuts across the water.
"Hey, there. You. You swimming. Hey!"
A fisherman is standing in a whaler. The sea is pitching his boat around; he bends to the back to cut off the motor. I look around, dizzy and disoriented. He motions for me to swim in, and cups his hands around his mouth.
"You are too far out!"
I swim in to the far end of the beach, where a rubble of boulders is strewn around, half sunk in sand. I lean on one to catch my breath and clear my ears. The larger ones are encrusted with tiny snails, glued firmly down; the snails at the top of the rocks are already dusted with the salty film left by drying seawater. Their shells are the same pinkish-brown color as the stone and the sand. I stand perfectly still, staring at the boulders glowing rosily in the late afternoon rays of the sun. I wonder if the snails will die desiccated and fall off the rock; I even consider splashing water on them, before I realize how silly that would be. The snails know what they are doing.
Everything seems still and silent. Before I see it, I feel it: there is tremendous movement at my feet. The sand around me is covered with snails, hundreds of them, their fleshy, slimy bodies tipping and pulling out the front, dragging their shells at an impossibly slow pace, leaving behind a glistening, sticky trail. I can see that they are moving only because I am not. By the time a snail has traveled the length of my foot, the shadows have lengthened and the wind has picked up strength as the coral-throated gulls laugh and bark and wheel over the dunes. A crane wings past, making its sharp click click click call. I walk the length of the beach back to my boat.
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. As I paddle home across the pond, I'm overwhelmed with the beauty all around me. There's a lot to enjoy in a life of solitude, I've learned, but I know that I'm not alone, either. Love is all around me.
A splash of white in the distance catches my eye. It is a bride. She seems to be standing at the steps of the porch of a neighbor's house, at the far end of a wide, sloping lawn. She is looking out at the water beyond. All the hope, all the love. All our beginnings, over and over again. The wind gusts, and it is blowing hard. The bride's veil lifts off the stairs and flies behind her like a banner. How brave she is.
I reflexively put my binoculars to my eyes and adjust them to get a better look. The bridesmaids are in black gowns, red shawls wrapped around their shoulders. How clever these children's styles are now; they look like the red-winged blackbirds that careen through the meadow. The groom, with his proud bearing, glances at the musicians, a cellist flanked by a flutist and a violinist. They are pulling their bows across the strings, swaying, bending into the music, but the wind is blowing the sound away from me, and I cannot hear a thing. The wedding is played out in pantomime. Soundlessly, the procession moves down the brick path; soundlessly, the musicians play; soundlessly, the minister says his blessing; soundlessly, the congregation claps and the children cheer a silent kiss.