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Begin Again: On Getting Unstuck

Last week, I watched Begin Again. The film (starring Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo) is a tale about love and music set on New York’s Lower East Side, a neighborhood where I sometimes hung out in the early 1960s — drawn, at age 22, to the artists, hipsters, and existentialists who populated the area.

I was in New York to study for the ministry at Union Theological Seminary. Sensing that my divinity gig might fall through, it seemed prudent to cultivate — how shall I say? — a philosophical fallback position. I guess I thought that drinking espresso and breathing the East Village air would make an existentialist of me!

I liked Begin Again for several reasons, not least that it gave me a good laugh to remember who I was fifty-plus years ago. But this isn’t a movie review or a mini-memoir. It’s a meditation on the film’s title and how those two words are helping me get “unstuck.”

I’ve been feeling stuck about many things, including how to respond to the world’s nonstop saga of suffering: the ongoing carnage in the Middle East, endless episodes of mass killings in the U.S. and around the world, the racism deep in the DNA of my native land, our collective blind eye to radical economic injustice and climate change, and the grotesque parade of political “leaders” who bloviate about God and prayer while doing squat about gun violence and other evils.

I’ve also been feeling stuck as a writer. Over the past 18 months, two books have fizzled out at my keyboard. Forgive me for adding an apparently trivial personal problem to my list of major social ills, but we all live at the intersection of our small worlds and the big one around us. If we want to serve others, we must attend to both. Since writing is one of my main ways of connecting with life at large, writer’s block is a vexing problem for me.

I have other ways of connecting, of course. I sit with folks who want to explore their problems or pursue their dreams. I lead renewal retreats for people in the serving professions. I’ve been assisting my granddaughter with a project on homelessness. I also help out at home as allowed, which means whenever there’s a task that does not involve food prep and/or breakable things.

Still, I’ve been feeling sidelined by my inability to get traction on a major writing project. Friends have advised me to think of this as a fallow period, a time to let the soil rest and renew before I try to grow a new crop. Well, I’ve had fallow times, and they felt life-giving. Being stuck has felt more like stagnation, and whether you’re 76 or 26, there’s no life in that.

The day after I watched Begin Again, the movie’s title came back to me in the form of guidance: “You need to begin again.” I don’t mean begin again as in a new book. I mean begin again as in what Buddhists call “beginner’s mind.”
Then I recalled a poem I found a few years ago that now reads as if it were written to help me find a way forward. Here’s Wendell Berry’s tribute to his old friend, the celebrated poet Hayden Carruth, who was in his eighties when Berry greeted him “at the beginning of a great career:”

To Hayden Carruth
by Wendell Berry

Dear Hayden, when I read your book I was aching
in head, back, heart, and mind, and aching
with your aches added to my own, and yet for joy
I read on without stopping, made eager
by your true mastery, wit, sorrow, and joy,
each made true by the others …

(Excerpted from New Collected Poems. Read the full poem here.)

To get unstuck, I must let go of my “career” as an established writer and begin again as a novice. In truth, I am a novice in every new moment of the day, each of which presents possibilities unknown and untried. Why not embrace that fact and see what happens? As Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki said:

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.”

In practical terms, what does it mean to begin again? I was afraid you’d ask. The truth is, I’m clueless, which may prove, mirable dictu, that I’m actually practicing beginner’s mind. If I’d waited for an answer, I wouldn’t have written this little piece — and writing it may help me get unstuck as a person, as a writer, as a citizen of the world. Simply pecking away at it over the past few days has already taken me to a place that feels less stagnant and more alive. At very least, I’ve been reminded that such a place exists.

Of course, nothing I eventually write or do will solve those urgent problems I named. But since writing is one of my main ways of engaging the world, whatever I write will help me get reconnected and might even move me toward other ways of being useful.

I doubt that I’m the only one who has been feeling stuck. If you’re another, let’s remind each other that the planet cries for all of us to contribute our personal gifts — whatever they may be — to the common good. Let’s make a pact of mutual support to begin again with beginner’s mind and with hope.

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