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Dominique Browning (FRANCES PALMER FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Dominique Browning (FRANCES PALMER FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

The Interview

Dominique Browning: A job lost, a life gained Add to ...

Dominique Browning is looking out the bedroom window of her house on the coast of Rhode Island.

"I can see across to a marsh pond," she reports over the phone. "Then there's a barrier beach. And then the sea."

She is wearing clothes as comfortable as pyjamas.

She is 54, a mother of two sons, 25 and 21.

She is divorced.

She is single.

She is no longer the editor-in-chief of Condé Nast's U.S. edition of House & Garden. She lost that job in November, 2007, when the magazine folded.

She tells you everything - if you give her a pause to fill. She has written a book, her fourth: Slow Love: How I Lost my Job, Put on my Pajamas & Found Happiness. And you can feel her thoughtfulness in her voice, in the calm manner the sentences are handed out, as though they've been carefully knitted over the months of her quiet ruminations and stored on the shelves of her mind, ready, should anyone ask what she thinks about her life.

Ms. Browning was facing a cruel irony. After masterfully juggling a busy life at home and at work, fulfilling the have-it-all exhortation of her generation, she suddenly found herself with nothing at all, wondering what it had all been for.

The career had gone. So had the children - grown and out of the house. The 10-year marriage to the father of her children was long since over. And she was realizing that a decades-long on-again off-again relationship with a man she calls Stroller - she was going to call him Walker, because he was good at walking away, until he gave her the pseudonym he preferred - was never going to amount to the love she wanted.

In fact, she was beginning to see that she had an unfortunate thing for unavailable men - Stoller was separated from his wife, but refused to divorce her and still, on occasion, took her out - and maybe that was because she didn't feel she was deserving of a good, committed relationship.

And something else: Maybe she had put up with Stoller's ambivalence because a fractious relationship was better than no relationship at all. Maybe, like many women, she had a fear of being alone.

Oh yes, Ms. Browning was putting her hands on what could be called the successful woman's wobbly bits. Nothing was holding them in any more. Distractions had peeled off like Spanx undergarments.

"I started thinking I needed to figure out why I was so dismayed about losing my job," she says. "And I ended up feeling that what I needed to think about is this midlife passage I'm in. Because all the wheels are falling off the wagon, not just work. It's that I have to think about health, mortality, motherhood, being a partner, creativity, all those things."

She breathes, silent for a moment, and you let the quietness linger. "It's not feeling needed anywhere," she confesses after a long pause, "which leads to not feeling loveable, not feeling wanted, and then the real work began when I started thinking about what does it mean to feel needed and what do I need."

She realized she had to take a leap into the void, to make a change. Partly, her age - she was then just crossing the threshold into her 50s - demanded courage for something new. "Almost deliberately you have to say, 'I'm going to keep growing, keep active, because I could see how easy it is to kind of hold still.' "

She sold what she had thought would be her forever house, purchased and refurbished after her 10-year marriage ended, in a suburb of New York and downsized to Rhode Island, a three-hour train ride from the hurly-burly of Manhattan.

"It was a complete panic of loss," she acknowledges of the immediate post-job-loss period. She put on weight, eating incessantly, as though needing to sustain herself through a harsh winter. She knew the magazine industry was dying. If she had lost her job 10 years earlier, another one would have quickly come available. Before her 13 years at the helm of House & Garden, she had worked at Mirabella, Newsweek, Texas Monthly and Esquire. But now?

She began to write in her journal, about her feelings, her decisions, about Stroller, about the beauty of her new, remote surroundings. Slowly, a revelation bloomed. "I loved my job and loved having that structure and that sense of purposefulness, and I had to learn to recreate that and give it to myself, build it for myself, as opposed to an externally imposed purpose," she says.

Another pause. Another insight: "I think that feeling needed is both a wonderful feeling and it can be a crutch," she says to fill the silence.

"Both by inclination and training, I was great at multitasking. And I'm now coming to feel that that's a nice word for a bad habit.

"A little mono-tasking is in order." She laughs gently. "When you suddenly don't need to multitask, you realize what you miss."

She stops.

Like what?

"Like eating your egg, but you're standing at the sink, waiting to wash the dish, so what are you doing? You're not really focusing on anything. You're certainly not focusing on the pleasure of what's in front of you or what's in your mouth … I wish I had done more of that while I was so busy doing all the things [as a working mom] I wish I had been more self-aware. But I also try not to beat myself up, too," she adds. "I do think there are life stages for these things as well. Your children do leave home … By necessity, one comes to this."

She joined the Y.

She read.

She took freelance work.

She planted a new garden.

She kayaked.

She swam.

Some of her lessons came from the sea, in fact.

"Sometimes, when I'm in the ocean, I get caught in a current, and, knock on wood, nothing terrible has happened. I managed to get out. But this feeling of being caught in a current while swimming is exactly the feeling I had emotionally. I got caught in a feeling of loss and disintegration. I got caught in something larger that I couldn't control. What I had to learn are three things. One: Stop thrashing. Two: Accept that I was there. Three: Start moving but in a slow, deliberate fashion."

You ask her about her garden. She sighs. The expanse of greenery she sees beyond her bedroom window, that borders on the marsh pond, was once a lawn, meticulously manicured.

"I turned it into a meadow," she says. "It's full of wild flowers."

There's a pause.

"It looks like a lot of milkweed is coming up," she reports as if talking out loud to herself. "A lot of daisies." You imagine her peering out the window. "The birds like it," she says absentmindedly.

"Every year it's different."

Follow on Twitter: @Hampsonwrites

 

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