I have a real problem when it comes to finishing things. When I take on a big project — like trying to draw all the birds in North America — I get it in my head that if I know what all the parts of the project are, I can finish them in one sitting. Then I sit down and I get very fussy when I can’t complete the project in, say, an hour. This was particularly bad while I was finishing my book: I kept thinking the illustrations weren’t going to take very long, because I like making illustrations, and shouldn’t that mean that they'd go fast? They didn’t go fast. I became I very unpleasant person to be around.
Last summer I took out my sewing machine to make a green skirt. I decided that my wardrobe could really benefit from a skirt made out of several green t-shirts from Village Thrift. It was definitely going to make me look like a real 30-year-old adult woman with a job. But mid-project, my sewing machine broke. “No problem,” I thought. “I’ll just watch a tutorial on the internet and fix my sewing machine."
I could write a whole essay on the steps I took to try to fix the sewing machine. I can sum it up by saying that I spent nine hours watching YouTube tutorials, and that power tools became involved, and that at one point, a little piece of the bobbin fell into the mechanical system of the sewing machine — into the part I couldn’t get inside. Needless* to say, I failed.
This was a full year ago, and I haven’t touched my sewing machine since then. I can’t stand the idea of having to start over. I get it in my head that life is all about finishing. Starting over feels like moving backward.
This is an area around which I need some reframing. When I lived in New Orleans, one of my roommates studied Zen Buddhism pretty closely, and at important times in my life — particularly stuck times — he’d talk about shoshin, or “beginner’s mind.” In Buddhism, “beginner’s mind” refers to being open, eager, and to let go of preconceptions around something, even if it’s something you’re really good at, or have been doing for a long time. “Come to everything with the enthusiasm of a beginner,” my roommate would say. Easier said than done.
It’s easier said than done because our culture rewards mastery and expertise. Just a passing glance at the American political jungle in 2017 makes it painfully obvious that the most valuable currency these days is rightness. People want to be right so badly that they’ll chain themselves to lies long after they realize their error.
Beginners ask questions and find delight in what they are learning. They don’t spend even a modicum of energy on the kind of fierce argument that is connected to winning. A beginner says to her adversaries, “Huh! What an interesting thought. Maybe that’s true. I’m curious about all the ways that this issue could be complicated."
A beginner sees a broken sewing machine as an opportunity.
Here's another example before I dive back into the sewing machine — because I am sure you are thinking, “Uhhhh, a broken sewing machine is simply not an opportunity. It is an annoyance. A potentially expensive one.” This example is about working out — a thing at which I will always be a beginner.
As a decidedly non-athletic, blog-having person, I have never been able to do a push-up. About nine months ago, I started weight training, and after eight weeks, I could finally, for the first time in my life, lower myself to the ground and push myself back up. It was crazy to feel my body do something it had never done before, and I was proud. But then I got busy and I spent a few weeks not doing any push-ups. A few weeks turned into a month or two. When I returned to the mat, I found that my arm muscles couldn’t support my weight anymore, and the push-up had left me.
I didn’t want to start over. I was unnerved that I’d spent months and months building a muscle that had just disappeared. But a beginner is always just starting, and is always curious about how things are going to grow. When I finally got over myself and my whining, I found that it only took a week to re-learn the push-up. My body remembered how to do it; my arms just needed a little time to catch up.
What I’m getting at here is that humans are not like white boards. You don’t ever erase everything. You hold on to mysterious bits and pieces of your own life experience, and they aid you in equally mysterious ways as you move forward. Starting over doesn’t mean going at it from scratch; it means re-entering a room curious and hopeful and brave.
There's this funny balance to coming at things with fresh eyes while simultaneously trusting that your experience and personal wisdom will inform what comes next. The key is that you start over again and again without the frustration that seems like it should come with starting over.
So the sewing machine. It’s an opportunity in the way that failure always is: to see something anew, and to start over. Even if I never fix the sewing machine, I have added muscles that have to do with using power tools and dropping bobbins into abysses. A beginner doesn’t know what the purpose of something is; she asks questions and makes hypotheses and tries on different purposes for size. The world benefits from beginners. It is why we hold children in such high esteem.
It can feel impossible to start over. I know this from experience. (I know this from the way I am feeling right now, in this very moment.) But if I just change my perception the tiniest bit, it becomes clear that starting over is all there is.
*There is probably a pun I’m missing about needless and needles. Because… needles and sewing… and sewing machines… Whatever, I couldn’t get there.