Start Here

You don’t rush through yoga.

Rushing through the stretches wouldn’t make sense.

I’ve seen people speed-up salutations. Chant in double time. I've done it myself. 

But the challenge is holding the pose. Breathing. Staying still.

At the end of April I was getting back into the habit of daily free-writing every morning. I’ve been going in and out of the habit for over fifteen years. 

Yes—great! I’d think as I'd frantically scribble away. I’m doing it again. Committing to this habit that has the potential to bring so much insight and peace and steadiness to the day. Whatever other personal writing I get to later on, I'd tell myself as I grab my pen and my notebook, I'd have this for sure. My practice. I’m taking my own advice. And everyone else’s. 

Because it was private, just me alone at the table, starting again did not have a sense of dishonor about it that starting again with something even marginally public has for me.

I'd put on meditative music. Sometimes even light a candle. I'd set a scene for a calm, open, spiritual kind of practice. But in practice, I'd race along like crazy to get to a minimum page count.

I have terrible handwriting anyway but with my speed, my shakiness, my near-frantic, get-this-done-and-checked-off-the-list-ness, it was totally illegible. Not just in terms of merely deciphering the words later, but also in terms of making any meaning from them. I couldn't stick with a single thought for a sentence. I leaped around, feeling further adrift with every fragmented thought.

It was pointless. 

It took me weeks at least before I became aware of the pointlessness. 

I knew that it wasn't feeling right. I think? But that didn't translate to an articulated thought about it. I knew I wasn't getting that satisfying feeling I often get from writing (whether or not it turns into anything or just rambles on in my own notebooks I eventually fill up and feel like recycling but neurotically keep in case there's something there). 

For days I went along. I checked daily writing off my list. I had satisfied Julia CameronrightI was so committed to the idea I championed in Writer's Boot Camp, the idea that Anne Lamott, Natalie Goldberg, Steven Pressfield and Heather Sellers, all my favorite writing-advice-givers, all writer-advice-givers, espouse: Just get a piece of paper and write! I was/am such a fan of the back-of-the-napkin, waiting-in-line, doctor's office waiting room, #writeanywhere, everywhere line, that I did not stop to think that it does not always work to write that way. 

Yes, you will get words down on paper, that way, you might even finish projects. Lots of them. 

But if what you're seeking is something quieter, something more internal, something steadier, more expansive, that refuses the detours of frustration and defensiveness, resists the false arguments with past selves or constructed selves or imagined critics, resists even the resistance we create to block out just how loud those voices are, then you can't just race through writing to check it off your To Do list. 

A few weeks ago I was running by the river as I do every now and again. Throughout this blog, after a stretch of time without writing or running, I have berated myself for needing to begin again. I've returned to the beginning so many times that I've begun to adopt "Begin Again" as a mantra, thanks to writer/readers like Sarah Bousquet who were able to frame it that way. It was Sarah's comment today, on a previous post, that brought me back here finally, beginning again.

Despite the kind of Zen, pick-yourself-back-up-again, incantatory effect of the Begin Again mantra, when enacted in public, for me, starting again was always partly a failure. It meant I had lapsed, fallen off the path.

It meant that, after all that effort, after all the seeming progress, here I was back at square one. Jogging along at an embarrassingly slow pace. Here I am again, awkwardly trying to remember how I used to write here on this blog when once I was immersed in it and all I had dreamt it might mean. 

Yet during that recent run, something started to feel absolutely right about beginning again. Running slowly. Not needing to run fast or a certain amount. Not needing to prove anything to anyone who might be watching me—let's face it, no one really was—or to my own internal gold-star hander-outer. Nobody. The task was to run slowly, because that's all I could manage, but that was harder than running too fast and then needing to stop. Hold the pose. Breathe. 

I took notes immediately after I ran—still out by the river—on a single piece of paper that I then scrunched up in my pocket. Everything seemed to be coming together. So many disparate pieces of my life. Playing CBGBs on a Saturday night. Conversations with my therapist. Living in my grandmother's apartment. Reading books to Wally and Petra. The paths Dara and I wandered in the woods behind the cottage. The epic conversations with Margaret walking through the Acton Arboretum where we pushed and challenged every position, where we always committed to learning more, to growing, to staying open. Everything was making sense. Decisions I'd made. Creative failures. Nightswimming at Heather's lake. Relationships I'd prioritized above everything else. They resonated to "Lost Blues" by Palace Music, related to a lesson I tried to teach Petra about not belting out the climax of the song too early on because it's not earned yet, you haven't built to that moment. Why Gretchen Rubin and Elizabeth Gilbert infuriate me (much as I admire them and seek to take their advice). Why Rebecca Traister gets it wrong in her piece on Hillary in New York Magazine. Why Roxane Gay is right to argue for constant vigilance, why it is important to keep talking about everything wrong in all the pop culture we love, not only love to hate, but really love. I could tie it into what my friend Lindley said about her husband John saying he will only write poems from now on if he can write without any ego. Yes, yes, yes! I circled, wrote upside down, drew arrows. It all makes sense!

These notes would be the basis for a piece I would write that would more than "make up for" the long silence on my blog. A piece that would explain not just where I am now, and where I would have been if I had written more—not just more, but more mindfully—and one that would redeem my never-ending starting line. Beginner's Mind—it's a well-known Zen Buddhist concept. I could own the continual first step of the thousand mile journey. Beginning again was exactly where I needed to be. 

And then of course I lost the paper. Perhaps it slipped right out of my pocket. Maybe sailed into the river.

And now—how can I not?—I'll craft it into personal mythology. That crumpled, sweaty paper that had all the answers. It would have been a major breakthrough. Hemingway's lost manuscripts! Fermat's Last Theorem! If only I had those notes, I could explain everything. Now instead I'm just shakily starting a new post that I might never send. 

At the first Kung Fu class Wally attended last September, he was the only student. The teacher, Sifu Julie, welcomed him with a huge smile. She started right on time. Julie asked Wally to stretch and breathe. She showed him how. She didn't seem to be looking around for other students, wondering if anyone else would join.  

How can she be so enthusiastic when it's just the one student in the big empty room? I thought. Isn't she worried about how it looks? That if she's so energetic teaching just the one student, then it might not seem like a legitimate studio? Doesn't she think there's a loneliness to it? A pathos? What if it makes her look like a beginner? It's not supposed to be a private lesson. Why doesn't she seem bothered at all? How can she be so focused and deliberate with just this one little boy? 

In the coming days and weeks, the classes filled up. Soon, the buzzer was always buzzing. The door always swinging open. Bustling parents and kids and another Sifu and all kinds of activity. Kids tying their yellow and orange belts around their waists. People pouring water, stretching, waiting for their class to begin. Belt tests and tournaments and parents chatting and little siblings jumping into the games at the end.

But I just keep thinking about that first class. Picturing the way Sifu Julie led Wally through the warm ups. He wanted to get to the fun part. She didn't rush. Kung Fu means hard work. To watch her, you'd have thought training Wally was the most important task she'd ever been given. You'd have thought that scruffy eight-year-old boy, who had never even done a push up in his life, must have come to the studio in disguise, must be a child of royal blood, perhaps the son of an emperor, and the hot, 2nd-floor studio on 28th street, surely a temple. 


  1. Can you begin again, or are you always continuing with your history making it a continuation? It may seem that some things are more likely to be beginning again (e.g., exercise), while others (e.g., writing) are more continuing. With writing, you have more sentences wrestled with, more ideas integrated, more muscle memory. Exercise, at first glance, seems like another beginning—the same slow time as a year ago, as two years ago. But more runs produces a better stride—some think you need more than a thousand miles of running to develop your stride. So here too, muscle memory.
    It's also a question of process vs. outcome, of now vs. future. Will Wally get a black belt? That doesn't seem to be on Sifu's mind. Teaching well, right that minute does. Sifu takes her temple with her.

  2. This is lovely. I've been knocking a post around in my head about being a beginner. I took a temporary receptionist position after being away from the working world for more than two years. The job itself--the tasks--are not difficult, but I struggle with the feelings taking this job has raised in me. So I keep reminding myself that I am a beginner, yet again in my life, and I keep trying to stay true to that and open to wherever it takes me. Thank you for sharing this. Looking forward to more from you.

  3. Hawkeye—You make a good point about continuing. I have found it to be true, however, that after a break in writing and even in a specific type of writing it takes a while each time to find my rhythm again. Still, we are further along, once we find the rhythm, than if we really had begun again and the beginning. We can catch up, as it were, to the progress we'd made. That's a useful reframe. Thank you. I had never even thought (or known about) the development of a stride. Indeed Sifu takes her temple with her. Process vs. outcome. So very important. So hard to hold onto in our data-driven age.

    Tina—Thank you. I love the idea of staying true and open to being a beginner. There is a mastery of a spiritual kind that allows us to fully occupy that space of beginning.

  4. Love this. Isn't it wonderful that we never run out of beginnings?

    Your description of your lost manuscript made me laugh. I've done this so many times, and find it nearly impossible to come back each time. Glad it didn't stop you.

  5. I'm envious of your speed. I can't seem to get out of the slow lane. The tortoise is my spirit animal.

    I know exactly what you mean about having to recover your rhythm after breaks from writing, and running too. I like Hawkeye's note here about muscle memory and the development of stride. We begin again, but also we return to. The practice undulates. Still, the struggle of that beginner feeling is real. I love Tina's answer, to stay open to wherever it takes us.

    I wonder if a stranger will recover your crumpled piece of paper with the revelations and arrows, if one of those sentences will be a new beginning for someone else.

  6. My heart is broken over the lost wisdom scrawled on a scrap of paper. And I know that's not the point. But I'm struck thinking about where that paper went. Is it in your bag? a different pocket? What happens when ideas disappear? When the answers get lost?
    The pacing of this piece is fantastic. Slow and steady. The build up. The release. Mind yoga, with a slow exhale and the realization that everything ebbs and flows.

  7. Hi Sarah. The slow lane has gotten you pretty damn far! I don't know if speed—at least the kind I tend to employ—is anything to envy.

    I do like that idea re: muscle memory and stride. That definitely helps when I think about beginning vs. continuing. And Tina's answer is great. I agree. How I love that image of the stranger recovering the paper...jumping off from one of those sentences into another whole world. How wonderful!

    Amie—thank you for your kind response. It's very possible it's somewhere in the house, a bag, a different pocket. I often find that those "lost" ideas turn into something better when we don't have access to the original versions. Who was it that used to throw out first drafts and write the whole thing again? (I could never even IMAGINE doing that, btw.) Thank you for your attention to the words. That means so much. Ebb and flow. Always when I picture you, you're standing by the ocean.

  8. THIS: "But if what you're seeking is something quieter, something more internal, something steadier, more expansive, that refuses the detours of frustration and defensiveness, resists the false arguments with past selves or constructed selves or imagined critics, resists even the resistance we create to block out just how loud those voices are, then you can't just race through writing to check it off your To Do list. " Yep...

    I believe it was C.S. Lewis who said that nothing of value is ever written in a hurry. Things of import do seem to come in bits of a rush though, don't they...often times when it is not importune to truly write them out and so we draw memory guides, maps, code deciphering charts. So maybe those notes of yours sailed into the river? Ha! "Cast your bread on the water..."You do know the rest of the verse, don't you?

    You've penned great metaphors and analogies throughout this piece, Rachel.


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