Aristotle said that, in order to lead a solitary life, one would have to be either an animal or a god. Nietzsche added a third alternative: one would have to be a philosopher.
Of late, I’m discovering that each of us has the capacity to be a philosopher, oftentimes, against our own will, as we navigate our way through the uncertainties of the surprising and unexpected. You chart a course, you think it sound and one day, without warning, it capsizes.
For these last months, I have been in a kind of free fall, the kind that comes with change. There is something deafening about change, probably because we are so ill-equipped to deal with it. Predictable patterns assuage and soothe, but change, that’s completely unacceptable, altogether different. And, certainly, not to be discussed in polite company.
A few days ago, I was noticing a good number of referrals coming from a website ingeniously entitled Slow Love Life. Intrigued, I went in to investigate further; it’s always wonderful to have like-minded friends send new readers your way even when their pedigree may be a bit in doubt (“Porncake” readily comes to mind).
It was there, I discovered, rediscovered, really, the incomparable Dominique Browning. For the uninitiated, Dominique was the editor of House & Garden, a venerable Conde Naste publication, that she, herself, extolled as celebrating the “good life.” And good it was. For twelve glorious years she cultivated its readers with thought-provoking columns, dispensing expert advise, common-sense wisdom and yes, a bit of philosophy, before the noble venture, suddenly, unexpectedly, and for its loyal readers, tragically, expired, folding in March, 2007.
When I try to explain my thoughts at finding Dominique’s blog, and reading the very moving excerpt of her experiences from the soon-to-be-released, “Slow Love: How I Lost My Job, Put on My Pajamas and Found Happiness,” that appeared this past Sunday in the New York Times magazine, I am rendered nearly mute in having discovered a voice, who, so eloquently, articulates a life that, even under the best of circumstances can, without warning, come undone.
“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.”
For those of you who follow my own inept errant musings, you might remember the transition I spoke of in Noticed a few months back. Self-imposed though it was, the after effects were no less hazardous, leaving me reeling between bouts of unfathomable turmoil and simple, sweet gentleness.
“These days I can be spotted walking the dog in a serenely beautiful and desolate bird sanctuary, alternating between quiet moments of revelry interrupted by an occasioned outburst of bellowing at the top of my lungs. … You might say my existence right now is akin to a total do-over. Transition. Redefinition. … There are days when I marvel at the simple and uncomplicated ease of it all, secretly thinking to myself this is not half bad.
For the moment, at least, with no plans, maps, goals, or destinations, there is an undeniable grace, beauty and bliss in discovering the unexpected pleasures to be found in the presence of your own quiet company.”
The quietness of one’s own companionship does not come easily. It requires a kind of heroics that is not celebrated or carried on cable. It’s hardly discernible, and for the cautious, rarely mentioned. Who, after all, can bring themselves to reveal, even to the most trusting confidante, a journey so ill-defined and consummately vague that the very topic itself engenders confusion, explanation, nervous laughter and a psychiatric referral.
Beyond the Errant Aesthete, my therapy of choice was taken up with reading. I have a long and enduring love affair with books that has never left me and I doubt it ever will. While salvation was readily found in lovably misunderstood characters like Madame Michel, the Parisian concierge, in Muriel Barberry’s wonderfully brilliant “The Elegance of the Hedgehog,” or Stieg Larsson’s spellbinding goth heroine, Lisbeth Salander, better known as “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” it was “The Reveries of the Solitary Walker,” by Jean-Jacques Rousseau who spoke to me of real solitude.
As one reader noted, “With eloquent lyrics that beautifully portray his sincere sentiments, this collection of contemplations shows the self-searching rewards evident in solitude and tranquility.” Yet, another reader was unapologetically blunt, deeming it “the admirable and the regrettable,” and a third assailed the man with this: “along with Schopenhauer and Richard Nixon, one of the great paranoids in human history.” Nevertheless, I found Rousseau’s musings on solitude, not as an escape from the world, but as the most philosophical way of embracing it and of living in it, sensibly wise.
Not unlike Dominique’s portrayal of what she poignantly calls the “intertidal years.”
“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 betrothed and not alone; not broken and yet not quite whole; thinking back, looking forward. But present. These are my intertidal years.”
It is this philosophy of the “intertidal years” that I love and abide by. A very warm welcome to a delightfully familiar presence, Dominique Browning, who is sure to fill our days with wonder and awe. And to you dear readers, whatever your spot in the grand design, take notice. It may prove, one day, insurrectionary.
Orchid by Krish Mandal
Petals 2, Alberto Tolot
Rain Blossom, Ernst Haas