Begin Again

Begin Again

Beginning ended, this is how the end begins. 

We wake in the other world, sky inside our eyelid. 

Lens swivelled inward, the sea’s volcanic vents

Leach into the brain. Here is self’s jungle ajar. 

[. . .]

The day is perfect. There is only one. It lasts

a thousand years. Years are the thinnest pages

in a book, vast as a continent, heavy, sunk in sand. 

At sunset, the end began, brain’s

forest roars up into flame. Cool skull, a moon

released, tumbles onto the marble table of night, 

rolls over the edge. 


—May Swenson, “Beginning Ended”


Somewhere along the way, in my past-life as a student/scholar, when my main practice was not physical movement but the mental movement of writing essays, I developed a formula that produced very satisfying (in my opinion, and I like to think my professors’) ten-ish-page meditations on literary craft. Here’s how it went: I’d find some compelling image, passage, or moment in whatever piece of writing I was writing about, and use it as my opening set piece to introduce the argument of my essay. Over the next several pages (five-to-seven was a mere suggestion; I had more to say!), I’d bring in more examples to advance and/or complicate the original premise, weaving a taut thread through my tapestry of analysis that tried to illuminate some perhaps obvious point about the text in a new way. Arriving at the end, on the brink of running out of coffee- and Cracklin’ Oat Bran-fueled stream, my mental faculties so drained that none of what I’d written made any sense any more, my special formula would come to the rescue. For the conclusion, I’d bring back that opening image, not only to make things feel neat and prove the utter mastery of my analytical skills, but also to suggest that, even in what seemed like a thorough interpretation to start, through the course of the essay I’d unpacked (a favorite word of English majors) even more juice from that original example. What else might be lurking in between the lines? this strategy asked. Everything and anything. Plus, I avoided a lot of anxiety in those final moments of writing to have a conclusion already written, and done so under the much more preferable conditions of when I was starting, full of inspiration and curiosity and mental stamina. I didn’t always know how the middle of the essay would go—somehow it always worked out—but with these anchors I felt confident that at least something intelligent would emerge from my meager attempt to add something to the field of literary criticism. 

The word “essay” comes from the French word “to try,” which puts a lot of things in perspective when it comes to the stakes of college essays—as well as to how those exercises of critical thinking, craft, and understanding the value of different efforts applies to the real world. On pretty much my first day working in publishing, the magical place where all those books I spent years reading and writing about were born, I got a stark reality check on what all my brilliant ideas were actually worth. At my house, where some of the living writers whose books I wrote college essays on where published, I was sure that my sophisticated essay writing would not only be appreciated, but that my analytical skills would continue to become more and more nuanced. I’d be able to apply them in real time, to books as they were being written, not just in retrospect.  Instead, I learned that looking for meaning in writing only mattered as much as it helped to sell that piece of writing. As such, my writing became “commercial”—another kind of formula that opens with a “hook” and ends with a vague promise of “universal truths” and “unflinching humanity” that “explore the landscapes of the heart.”  There might be some accuracy in those claims—most stories are the same, love/grief/self-actualization stories—but how they do that is not because of some profound, analayze-able meta-artistic craft. They’re either sold to be so, to meet the need we all are so hungry to have met, the way ads for hair dye or prescription drugs promise a carefree and confident life; or, they’re so utterly unaware of their own literary machinations that to read any symbolism, social commentary, or stylistic intention into them feels like a silly act of pretentious navel-gazing. Look how smart I am that I noticed this phrase repeats 5 times in 400 pages (totally by accident, since my boss, if she was the editor of that book, would have flagged the repetitions and made the author change them).

When it comes to making sense of our lives, we also have to let go of any expectation that the coherence we seek—the symbolism, the organic and satisfying arc of beginning, middle, and end—is predetermined. It’s true that, like me sitting down to write my essays, beginnings feel full of hope and promise, and we can even outline a path forward that takes us to a conclusion that feels familiar but also somewhat evolved. But in life, at least in my life, and at least recently, endings do not circle back to the beginning for a satisfying or familiar conclusion. Endings are messy, written by someone else entirely, maybe about another text, and seemingly in a different language. When I’ve ended jobs, relationships, and ideas about myself—or, when those things have ended, out of my own volition—I try to look back and see if I could have predicted this, where the argument in the middle fell apart. But there was never a thesis, let alone an outline, and the beginning was just a nameless dock that I cast out from, and wouldn’t be able to recognize after having traveled through such a vast and stormy sea. 


When writing essays, endings were easy because I was in control of the whole argument—the thesis, the evidence, the stakes (why all people don’t major in English is a mystery to me—it’s so easy!). In life, no such control exists, and yet there is still a contained system in which we can find some hope that our tries to make our beginnings have staying power will work. Ayurveda offers an interesting contradiction in its explanation of life cycles as such. When we describe the evolution of the five elements, we move from vata at the beginning (space and air) to its almost exact opposite, kapha (water and earth), at the end. When we look at the life cycle of beings, it’s just the opposite—we begin in kapha (wet, dense, drooly—like babies and spring), and end with vata (dry, frail, a little confused—the elderly and fall). (Thank god for pitta, who is always clearly and confidently in the middle, illuminating and helping us make sense of those beginnings and endings.) 

Which model is right? Both, of course, because when we see vata and kapha up close, specifically the space and earth elements, we see they are opposites in order to complement each other. There is more similarity between them than we think—which is why, even physiologically, vata and kapha can be so confusing, and we can rely on pitta (heat) to deal with them both. One is full of unmanifested potential, and one is saturated with manifestation. Vata is either not yet formed or totally spent, and kapha is either gassed up for adventure or sodden with the detritus of a life lived fully. 

Beginnings and endings can be both, too. Sometimes a beginning contains a beautifully complete thought that has more than enough juice to get it to the end and pose interesting questions that keep you thinking, wanting to re-read the whole book and discover something else you might have missed. And sometimes we reach an end because we’ve used up all our good ideas trying so hard, too hard, to make sense of it all, and so we start over, the blank page staring and cursor blinking at us with frightening, vast silence. What is there to say? Not having an answer is every English major’s nightmare, and the art of essay-writing teaches us to face that question head on, and try to do something with it, sometimes with more success than others.


These frightening beginnings are not what I perfected in college, but not much of what I perfected in college has lasted (including perfection itself). As I look into many new beginnings in my life right now—and invite you to join me in this monthly exploration—I don’t have a clear sense of what I’m trying to prove or what my evidence will be, let alone how I’ll try to neatly wrap up the end of that journey. 

But—here’s the thing: The beginning of my essays was never just that opening image. The beginning was a gathering, when I pored through my notes and the marginalia of those newsprint-thin paperback pages, gathering potentially interesting details and searching for…what? I didn’t know. But I knew I’d find something. 

That’s where I am now. Beginning, again, not for the sake of knowing what the next ending will be, but relishing the simple act of gathering observations and letting something beautiful and curious arise from between the lines of life, whether they were placed there internationally for me to find or not.

Spring is a time of beginnings in many ways, as is tonight’s full moon—the last one of winter. It is an end and beginning, since the lunation allows us to release things and thereby open a space for something new, desired or unknown. 

What beginning are you welcoming? What blank pages are you scared to face? Now is the time to open the document and commit by clicking save, even if the title is a “WIP.” We’ve got both complete spaciousness and complete groundedness on our side at this fulcrum of the seasons between vata and kapha. Build a fire and let it transform the story of you into one you’ll never want to stop reading.

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