On Beginning

Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l’entre deux guerres
Trying to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate—but there is no competition—
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.

T.S. Eliot from Four Quartets

Beginning is hard.

It is not the marketed fresh start: ball dropping, gym joining, closet de-cluttering, blind hope that somehow just because it is the first day of a new calendar year- everything will be different, that transformation will magically occur if you wake up a little earlier, drink a green smoothie for breakfast, or head to the Container Store on your lunch hour.

It is not like this. This is proffered to us in the catalogs of storage containers: hemp baskets, magnetic spice racks, canvas cubes. It is also there in the self-help section of the bookstore, and on the magazine covers with titles that include the word “Simple” as if there is some code we can crack.  “25 Ways to Finally Get it Together and Be Happy.” “10 Things You Can Do in the New Year to Make Your Life Better.” “7 Simple Secrets to Success.” One says we can live in a home we build ourselves- perfectly modern and less than only 300 square feet. We can live off the land with few possessions. This will be the beginning. Another says purchasing more, not less, will create the ambiance we wish for in our home, in our families, in our lives. “What is it you think your home should look like?” my therapist asked me years ago. “A French country farmhouse,” I answered without pause.Without pause. Still, another way is offered- it is all about living intentionally. If only I am clear on what it is I want- what I desire. If only I put it out there in the universe- make a vision board collage of everything I think I want. Maybe buy that sequin dress and hang it up in my closet even though right now I’ve got absolutely no place to wear it. These intentions are the place to begin. What   I   want.  Because the universe loves me; it’s rooting for me. Please do not personify the universe- it is annoying. Utterly. If you mean, all of the living things in the world- say that. If you mean, all of the people- fine…believe that. If you really mean, the Creator, or life force or energy that is stringing the universe of suspended spinning masses together and keeping it from imploding or exploding or burning out this very second, please say this.

Beginning is often done with no intention, no real idea of what the end result will be. It is not simple, but mysterious. We begin in the dark. We begin- afraid. We begin- alone. Truly alone. Though there are fond send-offs and well wishes- if you do not feel alone, you are not beginning. Then you are evolving. Then you are progressing. Beginning, however, starts with nothing- or at least almost nothing, and somehow also with the whole idea already in existence, even though hidden.  A few random elements and some pressure and heat- matter waiting to be formed. It starts with the cosmic blank page. With hovering, and words, and creation. And eventually, if one is lucky, incarnation. The Word Made Flesh.

I learned in a writing class that usually one can just chop off the first page or so of an essay draft- it’s usually just not very good- and the meat of the essay actually begins on page two or three, or even four. I passed on this lesson to my own college students- and found as a rule, it generally held. I think I may have just about gotten there.  Bear with me.

Perhaps the power of beginning for us humans is hidden in the ending.  The power lies in the fact that something else is over- and that what happens next can be completely and totally different- new.  Not the same.  Unlike.  Other.   In the trinitarian idea of creative work set forth by writer Dorothy Sayers, we are given Creative Idea, Creative Energy, and Creative Power- and somehow they are all fully present as individual entities and as one at the same time.  The beginning then, catapulted by one ending, contains within it already the completeness of the new body of work before the energy has begun to work it out- before the power has begun to give the incarnate meaning.   I believe this is the only paradox strong enough to push oneself past the hovering, past the darkness, into light and life.  Catching a glimpse, even for an instant that you may doubt existed later, of all of the working out laid bare before you.

I am beginning. At the age of 37. I am hovering over dark waters. I want to speak out words, to create, to say it is good. The life I have led up until now feels foreign to me. I have wearied of being marketed lives that are not mine. There is no amount of containers or decluttering or intentions that will corral my faint spirit in the right direction.  There are no seven simple steps. I have tired of my own sedentary orbit. “To Begin Where I Am” is the title of a collection of favorite essays by poet Czeslaw Milosz,  and if I may be so bold as to borrow that phrase- I also will begin where I am. I will not romanticize my life- to make the ordinary beautiful, prove that I live in gratitude and wait for my reward.  I don’t reside in a French farmhouse.   It’s New Jersey.  On New Years’ Eve. In my dining room. Alone.  Listening to a spattering of fireworks in my otherwise silent home but for the faint refrigerator buzz coming from the kitchen and the occasional commuter train whistle and breaks from across the road, woolen scarf around my neck because I’m perpetually cold, trying to keep my dry eyes from closing- trying to write through midnight – beginning.

“Home is where one starts from.  As we grow older
The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated
Of dead and living.”

T.S. Eliot from Four Quartets

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