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Make Your Own Beginnings

Once we've been a person for a while, it's hard to stave off feelings of mundanity. But who's to say we can't start again?

Menka Sanghvi
Menka Sanghvi
6 min read
Glare making it look like a finger is emitting light - a dog looks up at the finger.
Photo by artist Nina Katchadourian

Table of Contents

Hello, Good Lookers,

Welcome back, to whatever comes after the "beginning of the year". I've been thinking about how I really appreciate the explicit newness of Januarys. The sense of possibility, the permission to shift perspective, the rituals, and the rallying. But then the ride slows down with “I can't beeeliieeve it’s February/ Spring/ Half term already” and it's over.

This is Menka writing Just Looking, your monthly-ish newsletter about slowing down and noticing more. We have a theme each time, and today it's improvising our own beginnings, whenever we need them.


About Noticing (and Making) Beginnings

There was a point when each of us “began”. When we became this person we see ourselves as right now. I don’t mean conception or birth, but that moment somewhere in toddlerhood when we realise we are alive, and that not everything is. Perhaps it's less of a moment and more of a gradual awareness. A blurring into being.

Once we've been a person for a while, it's hard to stave off feelings of mundanity. This must be one of the reasons all cultures have evolved celebrations that rekindle our awareness of being alive. A new year, a new season, a new relationship - we are encouraged to gather around and elevate these new beginnings. And it works. It gives us the chance to feel new again, for a while.

The irony is that in so many ways "newness" is the norm. We are always beginning again on some level. For one thing, every day billions (like, 330 billion!) of our cells die and are replaced. Cells in our stomach only last about 5 days with all that acid, while red blood cells have a longer life span averaging 120 days. Our bones are regenerating constantly too, completing the process every few years. There are a few exceptions - certain hardy cells in our brain, heart and eyes do stay with us for our entire lives - but for the most part this body we are in now, it's quite new.

Glare making a woman standing in water look like she has a huge halo covering her head.
Cameraphone photo of glare glancing off a magazine page. Made by the artist Nina Katchadourian as part of her project Seat Assignment (see links below)

On a more conscious level, the mental and emotional experiences of daily life twist and tease us into new shapes. Every insight, idea, regret, worry and doubt ripples through us, and creates or deepens physical neural pathways in our brains.

It's all change, all the time.

My meditation teacher often says about beginnings - “From the moment we wake up, it’s dawn”. That's a literal translation from Gujarati. I think it means that the sunrise, representing our life, our potential, is not unfolding independently of us, it is actually waiting for us. Like a movie on pause, waiting for us to press play.

It reminds me of a thought experiment by the writer David Cain, in which he likens waking up in the morning (or just having a moment of reckoning in the middle of the day) to the opening scene of a movie. You close your eyes, and when you open them you imagine life has just started. The lights have just come on and the opening credits are rolling. You are a character with a rich backstory - you have a home, a job, friends, relatives, knowledge and skills. But that's all it is: a backstory.

“The curtain has just come up on this particular scene... You can recall your backstory, but just like in a movie, nothing really happened before this opening shot. This is the beginning, not the middle, and you’re free to act for the first time.”

I tried a version of this experiment earlier today, on a crowded bus. Most of us were standing unsteady, and I was getting increasingly frustrated with how fast the driver was going. This is when I thought: "Let me start again." I closed my eyes for a moment, and when I opened them, I arrived into that same bus scene, but my mind felt calmer, senses sharper.

The first thing I heard was a little girl crying, it seemed because she had dropped her soft toy bunny. The ride was way too bumpy for her to let go of her mum’s hand. Meanwhile, the bunny was sliding slowly in my direction, sideways on its bum. I carefully crouched down to grab it, and for a moment the girl looked worried about my intentions. Then this big smile emerged, revealing only one front tooth, twinning with her bunny. I couldn't help but smile back.


Looking Exercise

Starting again

Choose a moment today - any moment - to close your eyes briefly and consider this: right now is a new beginning of your life. You're starting again. The truth is, we're always starting again, but this time it's with awareness. And then open your eyes.

What's the first thing you notice?

Rubbish - some yellow flowers and a nut milk carton - lying on the street.
Rubbish on the street. By @ruby.on.her.way

You're always welcome to share images with others in this community on Instagram by using the #wearejustlooking.


Five things I thought are worth sharing this month.

Seat Assignment [See]  ‌

Meet artist Nina Katchadourian. In two of the photographs above by her, you'll see a glare of light glancing off a page of a glossy magazine. I love how she's turned glare, an unwanted outcast in photography, into a spiritual feature! It's part of her ongoing project, Seat Assignment, in which all the images are made on a flight, using only a camera phone and materials close to hand. Her Lavatory Self-Portraits are great, as are her proposals (see below) for public sculptures.

In her words, it's about thinking on your feet, and finding the "artistic potential that lurks within the mundane."

 A piece of lemon peel on a magazine page, where the peel looks like a creative public sculpture.
"Proposal for Public Sculpture." By Nina Katchadourian.

Thanks to Chris Duffy's newsletter for this discovery.

Seeing Trees: A History of Street Trees in New York City and Berlin [Book]‌

The silent stalwarts, standing between our rubbish bins and traffic lights. This book by Sonja Dümpelmann is packed with history and research, and will no doubt get you noticing the trees on our streets more closely.

Olive Emojis [See]‌

My‌ son discovered recently that the olive emoji looks different on Whatsapp vs another communication app Botim. He and my mother, living in different countries, have been enjoying extensive conversations using only emojis, no text. Their fascination has got me reevaluating my own respect (or rather lack of) for emojis so far. Part-language, part representational image, maybe they are more just funny symbols?

Olive emojis looking slightly different on different patforms (Whatsapp, Twitter, etc.)

The Startling Beauty of Scarecrows [See]‌

‌"How did I miss that?" I love projects that show me something I've walked passed countless times without noticing. Peter Mitchell is a photographer who nails that (his website is titled "Strangely Familiar"), perhaps because he has worked obsessively close to his home in Leeds for many years - he's that best kind of localist. Behind a NY Times paywall, there is a thoughtful essay about his work, written by Geoff Dyer.

Four images of scarecrows, each looking strangely human.
Photos by Peter Mitchell

Being Human, by Naima Penniman [Watch / Listen]‌

‌Such a heartening poem.


Thanks to my friend Matteo for sharing that last poem (and writing his own version of it here).

I'd love to know what's been inspiring you recently. You're welcome to simply reply to this email. If you don't usually do that kind of thing, maybe I can tempt you to try something new?

Yours in curiosity,‌
Menka


P.s. This newsletter, and other mindful curiosity projects, are supported by the kindness of a small group, the Friends of Just Looking. If that's you I'm talking about, thank you! 🎐 (That's a wind chime emoji, with a peaceful "hurray" vibe, in case you were wondering.) And if you'd like to join us, find out more here.

Letters

Menka Sanghvi Twitter

I'm a researcher, writer, and designer working on the theme of mindful curiosity. Just Looking is a project I started to help myself and others slow down and experience more wonder in the everyday.


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