Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write. It was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”
Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life
For most of my life, endings have come pretty easily to me. I think I owe this to the number of sad, tear-soaked goodbyes that dotted my youth. As I moved from city to city, school to school, friendship to friendship, goodbyes became par for the course. Ask anyone I know well, and they will tell you that I am most unsentimental when it comes to the ends of things. This could actually be a sign of severe emotional detachment, but that, I think, is a story for another post. Today, I want to talk about beginnings, because for me, and for many people, beginnings are hard.
I have managed to mask that fact fairly well for most of my life, but during my own educational career, I often found myself in situations similar to the one Anne describes above. In elementary school, I’d wait weeks to begin a project, not out of some sense of self-assuredness of my ability to get it done, but rather out of fear that I would somehow do it badly. The project needed to be done perfectly, you see, and if I couldn’t achieve that goal, there was no point in starting; except I would eventually have to get the job done because deadlines. I would scramble at the last minute to piece together something that resembled well thought out work, but the truth was that my academic thrashings were often, and in many ways, acts of desperation. This problem was exacerbated by the fact that, nine times out of ten, I received top marks for my intelligent, albeit sometimes messy, work. For it was not my thought process or the abilities behind it that were faulty; it was simply that my ability to self-regulate needed a major overhaul; the flaw was in the execution.
By the time I got to university, I had improved but only marginally. The difference was that I was so loaded with work at the time that I did not have the luxury of conscious procrastination. There was always something due tomorrow, which meant that I generally felt like I was on top of things that mattered, and to some degree I was. Large projects, however, still evaded me, and on more than one occasion, I would begin writing a fifteen- or twenty-page paper at eleven o’clock the night before it was due. I would spend a few hours staring at the screen and somewhere around one or two in the morning, lighting would strike, things would begin flowing, and I would stay up writing all night in a caffeine-fuelled fugue state. I frequently found myself working right up to the last possible moment, frantically running out of the house and off to class where I would turn the given project in, relieved to have escaped death once more. These were consistently returned to me with points lost, not for the ideas or analyses presented, but instead due to typographical errors and the like–things that would have been avoided with even the most perfunctory of revisions. Such was my life on the edge.
Unfortunately, I have arrived at a point where I am finally being called to task for this bad habit cultivated in secret all these years. For you see, I am staring out into the world, down the long and winding road that is my life stretching out before me, and I am not happy about the turn that things have taken. I know that there is no one who can live my life for me, but for all that I understand about the nature of the thing, I do not know where to start. I can’t seem to begin. There are no external forces to jumpstart this caravan, no deadlines to help spur me onward, and no goalposts or blazes which might mark my way. There are only the blank page and the white canvas and the unsung song that exist before things get rolling and you start picking up speed, before the eventual easing into the matter at hand. And the final deadline is the one we all must eventually come up against.
The struggle is that every choice seems overly weighty, for with each one, a thousand drastically different futures open up. Do I want to study graphic design? Do I want to write? Do I want to join the Foreign Service? Or teach English in Thailand? Do I want to get a master’s degree in Berlin? Or become a potter and move to Oregon? What about emigrating to Canada? Or Australia? Where in the world does my future lie? I want to make the “right” decision, but I can’t seem to get past the point of evaluation. I keep turning each possibility over in my mind searching for either the flaw that will disqualify it or the hidden strong point that will promote it to the status of My Destiny. But because each option is its own microcosm of pros and cons, and because I fear the what-ifs of the untraveled throughway, I do nothing. I am paralyzed by indecision. The irony of this is not lost on me. By doing nothing, I forgo all possibilities instead of just most of them. But somehow making no choice is less terrifying than the idea of making the “wrong” one.
Since I am making a concerted effort to improve the amount of self-love and self-care I offer myself, I would like to extend the following advice in the hopes that, contrary to my current M.O., I truly hear and follow it. If you find yourself in a similar boat, then maybe this can help you too.
Take it bird by bird. Begin at the beginning. Pick up your foot and place it in front of the other, and know that you have just moved forward, if only a foot’s worth. Every journey ever taken began with a step. Most importantly, know that if you want to continue moving forward, you will have to keep putting one foot in front of the other. It’s ok to sometimes take a break, but you must always remember to get back up and keep moving ahead. It will be hard, and there will be times when you want to quit and times when you’ll actually quit, and times when you will fail, and sometimes, occasionally, you will win. Bird by bird, bone by bone, feather by feather, you can build the life you want, but you must begin at the beginning. Houses do not emerge from the ground fully formed, but are hewn and bolted, framed and tiled, wired and stuccoed, from the foundation upward with sweat and blood and tears. Good things take time.
There may not be signposts to tell you whether or not you are on the right path, but there is the real and very reliable compass of your curiosity that, if you give it the attention it deserves, will always point in the direction of what you really need. However, all the pointing in the world won’t be worth a good Goddamn if you don’t do anything about it. So go. You cannot see the future, cannot know what lies ahead of you, but you can look around yourself right now and know that this simply will not do. It is not enough for you, and it never was. So put on your pants, one leg at a time, put on your shoes one foot at a time, and step out the door. You will feel so much better on the sidewalk than you do in your apartment, and sidewalks, unlike homes, are places meant for going. If — when — you are unsure of what you’re doing or where you’re going, know that I am here. I always have been and, for better or worse, always will be. I’ve got your back. I don’t have the answers, but I’ll gladly take you to the beach or out for drinks whenever you need it.
I love you. You’re awesome. Now go.