I am starting a new diet this morning. Not an occasion for a Shehekheyanu. A marginally high blood pressure reading. A doctor’s friendly suggestion, though we know there’s an ultimatum behind it. Manage this behaviorally or I put you on drugs. An ordinary beginning. How many people start diets all the time.
And here, it’s hard to distinguish starting and stopping. Because, of course what it really means is my milkshake last night was my last ice cream for a while. When you start quitting smoking, it is a new attempt to end something— beginning and ending amount to the same thing. When someone says, “I’m seventeen years sober,” it’s also rather clear. You don’t become a new person without saying goodbye to the old person.
On Monday, I finished the book I’ve been translating. That time I did say Shehekheyanu (the brokhe said on doing something for the first time, reaching a milestone, or more generally, for a joyous occasion). The book is a collection of moral stories, published by my grandfather in 1956. As always, I learned a lot about my grandfather and about Yiddish, both from the stories I liked, and from the stories I didn’t. The book got stronger as it went, so that, in this case, the ending was even more of a pleasure than the beginning.
Then, after it was done, a helpful person found typos for me to correct. Another asked if I was open to feedback about which parts flow naturally, and where the English is a little awkward. With writing, all endings are provisional. Luckily, out of superstition, I had already translated the first paragraph of another one of my Zeidy’s books, before even sending this one out. A beginning made to immunize me against being stuck in a never-ending ending.
Poets, particularly those who recognize the importance of revision, often cite the quotation “A poem is never finished; it is only abandoned.” W.H. Auden’s variant of a Paul Valery quote. This is a blending of a couple of different things Valery said. Whichever original quote you choose is less pithy than Auden’s. Here’s the better one: “A work is never completed except by some accident such as weariness, satisfaction, the need to deliver, or death: for, in relation to who or what is making it, it can only be one stage in a series of inner transformations.” It’s fitting that the revision of that quote and not the original is what comes to us. The concise version is punchier. But Valery has an interesting list of “accidents”. Weariness, satisfaction, the need to deliver, or death are not arbitrary. One needs to take care of oneself. Sometimes good enough is good enough. A published product freezes the writing, but without that, how can it be shared? And death is not arbitrary from the writer’s point of view. Only from the point of view of the still imperfect work.
Today is the birthday of Leslie Loveless, my late wife. Born in 1961, into a military family, as the Cold War was gathering momentum to become hot. Born to two people who were intelligent and caring and wounded. People who had hopes, and resources, and problems. Like any beginning, in other words, her birth was conditioned by the past. We know now that not only do people pass on genes, and not only do they repeat patterns of behavior across generations, but they can pass on experiences biologically.
But a human birth is also a new event. There was only one Leslie A. Loveless, and there will never be another. What she made from that start was deeply good, and I am a happier and better person for having shared some time with that unique life she began on this day 55 years ago. She was intelligent, funny, generous, practical, passionate about justice, curious, unassuming… no list of adjectives could encompass her. She lived according to her values even when it was hard. She enjoyed life. She was a great, loving, supportive daughter, sister, friend, wife, and mom, but always much more than that, too.
The first few years after she died, almost seven years ago now, I tried to make her birthday different in feel from her Yortsayt. Now the beginning and the ending are the same commemoration. When I woke up today, I looked for something I wrote to my friends on her birthday three years ago, only to discover it was on her Yortsayt instead. Here’s what I wrote:
“I set myself the task of writing an elegy. Not a lament, “Oh, woe, what I’ve lost”, but a real appreciation. And I woke up this morning and channeled Leslie’s voice. She told me she would rather I clean the apartment.”
That was Leslie. Start in the here and now, start with what you’ve got. Do the work that has no beginning and no end. Do it well.
In less than a month, I am finally about to start an online Yiddish class, skeptical though I am about on-line learning. I’ve registered for one above my head. I want to get on with it. If I slip back, so be it. I will have tried. So in order to try to get caught up, I made a pre-beginning beginning. I bought a textbook and started doing grammar exercises, hoping to do one exercise a day, and have a couple of dozen under my belt when the classes start. I began with enthusiasm, did three exercises in two days, and then stopped. I think that was four days ago. So, a deep breath, and I start again. Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. We finish the Torah and we start again. We fall off the wagon and get back on again. Learning is little more than a commitment to keep beginning, again and again.
And here’s what my diet instructions say: “Reward successes and forgive slip-ups. Reward yourself with a nonfood treat for your accomplishments, such as renting a movie, purchasing a book or getting together with a friend. Everyone slips, especially when learning something new. Remember that changing your lifestyle is a long-term process. Find out what triggered your setback and then just pick up where you left off…”
Beginnings without end. Many beginnings carry the past heavily in them. Some simply represent a moment of effort to change course by a degree in one direction or another. Some are continuous and arbitrary: the sun coming up again, except that it doesn’t “come up” at all. We spin around, away and away, until away becomes back again, and when it appears at the edge of our sight line, we say, “New!” each and every time. Some are dramatic and courageous, like leaving an abusive household or emigrating, like moving in together or giving birth. Beginnings are as rich and varied as everything else. The only thing they all have in common, is hope.