Before I moved to San Diego from Portland, Oregon, I kept a letterpress print above my desk with the words, “Always We Begin Again – After St. Benedict.” It is a beautiful print created for the 10th Anniversary Issue of Ruminate, but also pairs nicely with Ruminate's Issue 31, also titled, Always, We Begin Again.
I could see the print from anywhere in my bedroom. It was directly in my line of sight when I woke in the morning and above me when I worked at my computer.
Walk through any Home Goods or Target, and there are thousands of proverbs and platitudes printed on crisp canvas or restored wood. Some are more cliché than others. They remind us of who we are, and in little ways, of what occupies our minds and hearts. In a house with a “But first, coffee” pillow on the sofa or a “Write like a motherf---er” mug on the coffee table, you have some insight into the values and hobbies in that home.
More often than not, the phrases start to blend into the background with the furniture. Especially if the words become overproduced; they lack the lyrical strength to make an impact over time. After a while, they fail to speak on a bone marrow level.
But some sayings continue to ring like a tuning fork when our eyes rest on the words. This is how the Benedictine phrase is for me. In Portland, waking up each morning to the blue script, Always We Begin Again, was a gentle hand on the shoulder. Solidarity.
I have trouble giving myself grace when I feel like I’m not making progress. When I feel slothful or behind the curve, it’s easy for my brain to say, You’re worthless. Just stop.
At night, when feelings of ineptitude are at their height (even after a productive day), Saint Benedict’s words were a salve. An inch of grace in a world that expects a marathon each day.
It’s okay. Tomorrow, we begin again.
Recently, I’ve thrown myself into the study of habit and routine. Since moving from Portland, where I was wrestling (and losing) with depression and anxiety, I have been able to make a number of healthy changes in my life.
For the last year, I’ve cultivated a consistent morning routine: three morning pages, 30 minutes of home yoga practice, a 1.5 mile walk to the ocean with Nala, and ten minutes of mindfulness meditation. (Full disclosure, the meditation piece has only been routine for the last four months.)
These changes, along with more sunshine and open water in San Diego, have cut my wrestling routine with my mood at least by half, maybe even 60 or 70 percent.
In Portland, I was trying and failing to cultivate wellness habits. For five days in a row, I could wake up early enough to practice yoga in the living room. Then, the routine would fizzle. For ten days, I would pull myself up early in bed to write three morning pages. One late night watching Game of Thrones, and my habit was dragon toast.
Why were my efforts always torpedoed in Portland but not in San Diego?
In her book Better Than Before: What I Learned About Making And Breaking Habits, Gretchen Rubin cites the “Clean Slate” as an effective habit strategy.
She writes, “In one study of people trying to make a change—such as changes in career or education, relationships, addictive behaviors, or health behaviors including dieting—36 percent of successful changes were associated with a move to a new place.”
I laid the foundation of good habits in Portland, but there were a lot of reasons I struggled. Unhealthy relationships, long distance from my family, a long distance from the ocean, and Portland’s staple gloomy weather. As much as I loved the city—the flowers and the green and the creative people—it wasn’t a healthy place for me to thrive.
I know the Clean Slate effect was a critical factor in my ability to make these changes. My habits are further facilitated by San Diego’s environment. Warmer, drier weather and proximity to the beach make it much easier and more enjoyable to walk with Nala for a few miles a day. It’s now a treat to take my walks—not a “healthy habit” I push myself to maintain.
If we really seek to change our habits, Rubin says it’s more important to change our surroundings than ourselves. She also recognizes the importance of identity in driving motivation: “Research shows that we tend to believe what we hear ourselves say, and the way we describe ourselves influences our view of our identity, and from there, our habits.”
I’ve always identified as a “water baby”—someone who needs to be near large swaths of sea to feel grounded, open, and free. I also identify as a sunshine person. I’m usually the last sunbather on the beach, skin-drinking the last drops of sunlight until goosebumps rise on my body with the evening chill. (You may be wondering why I was living in soggy and sunless Portland in the first place. That’s a blog post for another day.)
The combination of a clean slate plus moving to a location better aligned with my identity created an ideal environment to nurture habits I’d been trying to keep for years.
But these things were high quality fuel in the engine. They were not the driver or the ignition. How many of us have moved to a new apartment only to bring the same old clutter with us to the new space? How many of us have started a new job and slipped back into the same old counterproductive habits of the old job?
It was the concept of baby steps. Grains of rice on a scale. Bird by bird. Inch by inch. Beginning again, and again, and again, that grew real change in me.
Rubin calls this the “One-Coin Loophole.” It’s a true paradox of habit formation. “It’s clear that any one instance of an action is almost meaningless; yet at the same time, the sum of those actions is very meaningful. [...] True, any one visit to the gym is inconsequential, but the habit of going to the gym is invaluable.”
One coin at a time. One day at a time, I choose to walk with Nala all the way to the ocean. One day at a time, I choose to roll out the yoga mat and flow for 30 minutes. One day at a time, I sit on a folded blanket, close my eyes, and focus on my breath for ten minutes. Eventually, five days in a row turn into 20 days turn into three months turn into a year. Lo: a habitual morning routine.
There’s an important ingredient to mastering the Baby Step method: self-compassion, which was difficult to offer myself in Portland. Now, if I sleep through my alarm or get sick or travel, I remind myself to be gentle. I breathe and remind myself that it’s okay to begin again. I am not a failure for taking a day off from yoga, but I know it is paramount that I begin again the next day.
One tool I often use is a guided breath meditation from Sharon Salzberg. She reminds me that thoughts, emotions, fantasies, and other distractions are normal when meditating. I don’t have to chase after these things, but I don’t have to attack them either. The breath is like a friend in a crowd, she says. You don’t punch and kick others to get to your friend. You merely make a way toward your friend, the breath. “There’s my friend. There’s the breath.”
“If you have to let go and begin again thousands of time, it’s fine,” Salzberg says. “That’s the practice. It’s just one breath.”
One breath. One coin. One baby step. Again and again and again until we turn our heads and see a thousand steps in our rearview––until we see how we’ve changed.
When I was packing for my move to San Diego in the spring of 2017, I tucked my Benedictine letterpress into the 10th anniversary issue of Ruminate for safe keeping. Last week, I sprained my ankle on my sister’s stairs, and I’ll be in an air brace for the next three weeks. I can walk, but only short distances. I can practice yoga, but only on the floor and with my foot flexed. No down dog and definitely no tree pose.
After the fall, I sat at my sister’s dining room table and wept. “One step forward, two steps back,” I cried.
It wasn’t until I sprained my ankle that I remembered where the letterpress was, and how much it meant to me. I pulled it from its hiding place and framed it over my desk––its natural home. Something in me calmed as I stared at the words. My ankle will heal, and I will begin again.
After reading Rubin’s book and reflecting on how I’ve nurtured my own habits, I remember the only way to begin again is through grace. Salzberg says, “With great kindness to ourselves, we can begin again.” Without this grace, it’s a fight to allow ourselves to start over. This is another paradox because, when we cultivate healthier ways of living, our bodies and minds are better equipped to forgive.
On May 11th, it was exactly one year since I began my Clean Slate in San Diego. I bow my head to all the wise ones who gave me permission and grace to begin again:
Again and again and again, begin.
Comments will be approved before showing up. We don't allow comments that are disrespectful or personally attack our blog writers.