At the Beginning

With 2018 about to end and a new year barely two days away, I’m thinking a lot about beginnings. What prompted this musing is a short piece by English poet David Whyte in his book Consolations. Whether or not we’re artists, I think we can all relate to what he says:

Beginning well or beginning poorly, what is important is simply to begin, but the ability to make a good beginning is also an art form. Beginning well involves a clearing away of the crass, the irrelevant and the complicated to find the beautiful, often hidden lineaments of the essential and the necessary.

At dawn, it feels as though there’s a lot of space and clarity for a new beginning. The complications of the day haven’t rushed in yet. It’s still quiet enough that I can capture intriguing images from a dream and unexpected ideas for a project. But then, of course, I have to face taking the next step with those ideas.

Whyte continues:
Beginning is difficult, and our procrastination is a fine ever-present measure of our reluctance in taking that first close-in, courageous step…this very simple step, is all that is needed for the new possibilities ahead.

Photo by Zach Dischner. Source:

Photo by Zach Dischner. Source:

I first read Lao Tsu’s Tao Te Ching in the 1970s. Its Taoist wisdom still strikes me as appropriate decades later. For example, one version of a line in chapter 64: The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

So I take a step, and each one successively leads to another. I write things down. I make a call. I try out a color, a fabric, a design. I draw a sketch of an idea. I meet with someone. I make a connection with someone else. I find out about a grant possibility for my project. And on and on it goes. Why? Because as Whyte explains:

It is always hard to believe that the courageous step is so close to us, that it is closer than we ever could imagine, that in fact, we already know what it is, and that the step is simpler, more radical than we had thought: which is why we so often prefer the story to be more elaborate, our identities clouded by fear, the horizon safely in the distance, the essay longer than it needs to be and the answer safely in the realm of impossibility.

“Abroad” (1882), by Thomas Crane and Ellen Houghton.  Source:

“Abroad” (1882), by Thomas Crane and Ellen Houghton.

Whyte’s words bring to mind a quote by Grace Brewster Murray Hopper (1906-1992), an American pioneer of computer programming and a United States Navy rear admiral, who knew first hand what it means to be courageous despite the seemingly impossible obstacles for a woman of her era: A ship in port is safe, but that’s not what ships are built for. Or as psychologist Abraham Maslow put it, You will either step forward into growth, or you will step back into safety.

“Disparate de Miedo” [Folly of Fear], No. 2 from the series  Los Disparates  (1864),” by Francisco de Goya y Lucientes. Source:

“Disparate de Miedo” [Folly of Fear], No. 2 from the series Los Disparates (1864),” by Francisco de Goya y Lucientes. Source:

We can play it safe by staying with what’s familiar or we can create something different from our usual work. We can let our inner critic convince us there’s no way to get accepted or we can apply for an exhibit or a grant for which we consider our work a good match. Fear can prevent us from enriching our life with daring or not-so-daring dreams. But it doesn’t have to. We don’t have to let it hold us back from new beginnings.

According to Kate Swoboda, author of The Courage Habit, we’re not required to rid ourselves of fear. It is, after all, part of our survival instinct. Instead, we can recognize fear as an ordinary element in the process of change. Her advice is to be aware of the fear and take the next step anyway. This doesn’t mean being foolish, but here we’re talking about creativity, not about hiking aimlessly alone in a forest where tigers roam. Each time we do take a step toward our vision, we gradually develop greater courage (“heart”) and resilience.

Joseph Campbell (1904-1987), an American Professor of Literature at Sarah Lawrence College who worked in comparative mythology and comparative religion, believed: …the heroic first step of the journey is out of or over the edge of your boundaries, and it often must be taken before you know that you will be supported.

“Place du Theatre-Francais, Spring” (1898), by Camille Pissarro. The State Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg, Russia. Source:

“Place du Theatre-Francais, Spring” (1898), by Camille Pissarro. The State Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg, Russia. Source:

The late 19th-century and early 20th-century artists who dared to defy the Salon in Paris too often scrambled to pay the rent and satisfy their hunger. There was little to no support for the unprecedented steps they were taking. Yet they were determined to fulfill their individual goals in creating a different kind of art. Their names are famous today and their works, though no longer avant-garde, draw millions of dollars at auctions. That’s not to say x necessarily leads to y, only that courage to keep taking the next step helped them to open the door to new beginnings in art.

Lucie Leon at the Piano (1892), by Berthe Morisot. Source:

Lucie Leon at the Piano (1892), by Berthe Morisot. Source:

I’ll end the year with a quote long attributed to German writer and statesman Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) but more lately credited to William Hutchinson Murray, in his 1951 book The Scottish Himalayan Expedition:

Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back — concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth that ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man [woman] could have dreamed would have come his [her] way. Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.



Questions & Comments:
As we move into 2019, what new beginnings do you have in mind? What will you dare to try? Where will you have the courage to go? What do you need to clear out to make room for something new to come in?