*This essay is part of an ongoing series related to my Axioms for Poets, Writers, Artists &. Subscribe to my mailing list so as not to miss future installments.
Don’t wait for the ideal moment, perfect circumstance, or a dedicated studio. Begin where you are, with what you have, what you already know, right now.
Many years ago I came across a photo of text on a page, attributed to the avant garde composer and artist John Cage, that said: Begin anywhere. It flashes in my mind’s eye anytime I have the urge to make something, but think I don’t know the first step. I can get overwhelmed: so many ideas, so many possible directions to take. If I linger in the feeling of needing to choose the best way, a pressure builds, and it doesn’t feel good. What began as pure lifeforce and creativity can take on the qualities of a weight, a pressure. But I’ve learned that if I just take a step—Do something!—then I feel better. No, I feel really good. It’s actually the best. And I learn time and again that I can find my way as I go. I fall into a rhythm. On good days, I reach that flow state we all so long to inhabit.
In my early twenties I began studying Zen with a teacher, Haju Sunim, in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Around that time I was given a copy of Thich Nhat Hahn’s For a Future to Be Possible: Commentaries on the Five Wonderful Precepts, which includes a beloved poem in translation by the Spanish poet, Antonio Machado:
Wanderer, the road is your
footsteps, nothing else;
wanderer, there is no path,
you lay down a path in walking.
In walking, you lay down a path
and when turning around
you see the road you’ll
never step on again.
Wanderer, path there is none,
only tracks on the ocean floor.
Translated by Francisco Valera
That poem became my map, my companion, and an affirmation that it’s okay to grope and not know and head into the unknown. I’ve carried this idea of making my way by making my way with me ever since. It’s helpful because it’s empowering for a poet to accept that she has to figure it out as she goes. That this is how it’s done: by simply taking a step and then taking another.
I have room for one more writer in the 2019 session of A Body of Work: an online course to support the process of making your first poetry chapbook manuscript. Register by January 31.
I think it was Einstein who said that imagination is superior to knowing, or something like that. An artist must cultivate a tolerance for unknowing, but she can console herself that she has a great power in this process: her visions, her intuitions, her deepest instincts, and ideally, her self-trust. He ability to begin.
I found Machado’s poem in a collection of essays about the ethical guidelines that underpin Buddhism, compassion being among the most central themes: compassion for all beings, including one’s self. I no longer feel I need to know what to do: I just begin. I begin anywhere and trust, because I’ve witnessed this time and again, that marvelous (and perfectly ordinary) way that interesting things unfold in the process.
Back when I was reading Machado every day, I lived for a short time in a Zen Temple where I woke early each morning to sit in meditation with a small group of senior students. At intervals, one of them would shout out the following phrases while we did 108 prostrations.
GREAT IS THE PROBLEM OF BIRTH AND DEATH!
IMPERMANENCE SURROUNDS US!
BE AWAKE EACH MOMENT!
(25 more prostrations)
DO NOT WASTE YOUR LIFE!
One does this practice to unify the body and mind and to humbly meditate on what it means to work toward the liberation of all beings. It has a way of stripping you down to your essence when you do it every day
The whole experience taught me so much about what it means to live in the present. It fortified my resolve to be and become someone on whom nothing is lost, but of all the teachings and trainings and things I absorbed during that time, I probably think most often about that final injunction—DO NOT WASTE YOUR LIFE—because it so succinctly encapsulates the way I want to exist in the world. It’s another version of Carpe Diem (and yes, I loved that moment in Dead Poet’s Society when Robin Williams implores his students to seize the day, “because we are food for worms. lad”.)
In the practice of poetry, this often means taking that first step. Putting pen to paper and humbly accepting what comes: with compassion, with curiosity, with a feeling of love toward that thing within you that wants to emerge. Beginning means not waiting to know more, or have more qualifications, or get permission from someone else. (How often have you decided to research MFA programs or read a book about how to write a poem instead of writing a poem?)
Perhaps you will this video in which Benedict Cumberbatch reads a letter from artist Sol LeWitt to artist Eva Hesse. We watch this in A Secret Life and I wanted to share it with you, too.
We’ll be exploring these axioms in The Practice of Poetry during the month of February. It’s an online course and there’s still time to sign up through Interlochen College of Creative Arts.