Beautiful words have no price

Dominique Browning is a writer, lover of beauty and a passionate voice with an environmental conscience.  I envy her in that she lives in a house overlooking the ocean in New England and has written three books, her most recent released in the spring of 2010 entitled “Slow Love:  How I lost my Job, Put on My Pajamas, and Found Happiness”.   She writes a blog with the same name as this latest book, Slow Love, and also submits regular pieces for the website of the Environmental Defense Fund.

She was the last editor of the iconic American version of House & Garden magazine, which had an epic run from 1901 to 2007, with a brief hiatus between 1993 and 1995.  In 1995, Browning was hired and the magazine continued for the next thirteen years under her direction, when the features on gardens were particularly inspirational and beautiful.  Her book recalls how she suddenly received notice that she no longer had a job because, according to Conde Nast, the magazine’s publisher, “we no longer believe it is a viable business investment for the company”.  She responded by retreating to her home, shunning people and public functions and tried to figure out who she was now that she didn’t have to go to work in NYC.

Although I’m sure money troubles played some part in Browning’s angst-ridden seclusion, one never gets the sense that she is in dire financial straits.  This is perhaps why some readers of her book have been slow to find sympathy with her journey of reflection and self-discovery.

Especially now, when unemployment in the United States is at record high levels and the retirement investments of many have all but evaporated, hearing that she “found happiness” by basically checking out is a dream for which many would gladly trade their own financially precipitous lives.  Exposing one’s doubts, especially if there has been some privilege, and expressing personal struggles is like making one’s way through a mine field.  People don’t want to hear belly-aching from people with means.

I remember watching an old, early episode of Martha Stewart’s television show when she was suggesting Christmas gifts for the likes of mailmen, corner store owners and other marginal acquaintances.  She had assembled a basket full of themed presents, like a garden-inspired one which included seeds, quality hand tools, kid gloves and perhaps a homemade jar of plum jam.  I calculated the ingredients in my head and came up with a present that made the $75 mark at least — an amount that I would strain to afford for my nearest and dearest friends.  That is when I realized that Martha wasn’t actually one of us, but was from another world.

But the thing that saved Martha for me was her commitment to the best.  When she wanted to speak to someone about the newest, most unusual plants, she sought out the likes of Dan Hinkley or Marco Polo Stufano.  If she wanted beautiful hand-made pots, she found Guy Wolff (and made him a star!)  She featured relatively unknown makers of hand-made rugs, baskets, furniture, canoes, etc. and by elevating their craft to the holy grail of what one should search out, made all these artists stars.   Perfection in the details, whether crafted or made by the natural world, have always been important to this lifestyle maverick.

Similar to Margaret Roach’s journey, that is, leaving a media-centered corporate job in Manhattan and retreating to the country, Browning tries to come to terms with her own value, how she identifies herself in regards to others (mother, ex-wife, lover) and the earth (gardener, environmentalist, lover of natural beauty).  But it is in her blog, and her entries centering around the minutia of the natural world that I am most drawn.

It strikes me again that not only does Browning have a keen eye, but she is able to find just the right words for what she sees.  In her most recent post, she talks about the autumn landscape around her home in the dawn, when she is usually still in bed in this, her new life.   Here is how she describes the broken cobwebs that have long-since been abandoned by summer spiders:

They are in tatters, as though the fey creatures of night had caught the hems of their gowns and the lace of their sleeves on sharp thorns, and torn them in the race to get home before sunrise.

and upon seeing the other-worldly quality of the last vestiges of summer in the meadow, this:

I felt as if I were catching a glimpse through a wormhole to another world in another time–you know, the way you pass a window while you are walking a noisy city street at dusk, and inside chandeliers are lit, the chestnut furniture has a burnished patina, the portraits in oil are deep and dark, champagne sparkles in glasses, women are in gowns, there is a party–but you do not hear a sound and the people inside are oblivious that to your presence. You stand, transfixed, in the noisy 21st century, peering into the 19th.

4 thoughts on “Beautiful words have no price”

  1. Thanks Ailsa,
    That was a great blog. I love her description of the last of summer being like walking past a place that’s from another time altogether, but the party still goes on. Really enjoying your blogs. 🙂

  2. Hi there. Let me assure you that I didn’t find happiness by checking out for a dream. I saved money from my lifetime of working–but certainly didn’t save enough to live on for the rest of my life, by a long shot! I’m working harder than ever now, and pay my bills–and avoided debt–a big recommendation to everyone. My problem was never that I did not “have to go to work” on the contrary: my problem was the magazine business tanking at the same time as HG was folded! So I had to completely reinvent what I do for a living….i.e. MOMS CLEAN AIR FORCE.org. The happiness I found is of a much more profound nature than simply what my job was, and that’s what I write about!
    Thanks for checking out the book, and the blog, of course. Yours is lovely. d

    1. Dominique, I’m very glad you wrote and gave more clarity to what I might have misrepresented. I am and have been a great fan of yours (as I am of Margaret Roach) and know that you have been working very hard on your own since the rug was pulled out from under you, doing things both that you love and are important — many of which I’ve read about on your blog. You were in a position when the magazine folded that you had, as you say, saved for the future and so were able to breathe for a while before you started “reinventing” what you do for a living. Of course you know that many who have lost their jobs have lived close to the poverty line, didn’t save for one reason or another and then had no financial safety net, i.e. no time or money to allow for any breathing room. My comments about people not wanting to hear those with means “belly aching” was meant to refer to readers’ perceptions of you (at least this is the impression I got when reading some of your book’s reviews): i.e. “She’s rich, what’s she complaining about?” and the like. Although sometimes your posts are “dreamy” and make it appear that you lead a charmed, stress-free life, I know this is far from true. Anyone who must re-define themselves because their job has disappeared, requiring them to go out and re-market their skills creatively and independently in a new, scary world, are incredibly brave and tenacious. I applaud you as I do all of them.

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