The enjoyment, humility—and wonder—of a lifetime of recent beginnings
At 28, I was older than most other beauty school students when classes began. Some girls had just graduated from high school, others were already working in salons. And then there were a few like me, people who were looking for another way to make a living. I tried to be an actor in New York City for eight years, but to no avail. I found myself trapped in the dream machine, feeding money to the seedy industry that dangled vague promises of success like a carrot in front of hopeful actors.
On the first day we received our kits – two mannequin heads, a set of plastic rollers, cheap scissors, a comb, a brush and a jar of Queen Helene Green Gel. There was a smock with the school’s acronym, LIBS, and a cutting cape—everything a beauty school beginner could need. The teacher, Ms. Evalyn, said in her Staten Island accent, “When you finish this course, you’ll never be without five dollars in your pocket.” To this day, I’ve found this to be true. I have finished the course. I earned my license. And I don’t think I’ve ever scratched enough to buy myself or anyone else a cup of coffee.
Learn how to learn
I didn’t feel it back then when I suffered from getting lost in a haircut on the school salon floor or trudging through a poodle perm, but taking the chance at beauty school didn’t just change the trajectory of my life. It gave me the space to be as uncomfortable and bad as I needed as I began to learn a skill I had no talent for and no earthly idea of how to even begin. But it presented me with the tools I needed to learn how to learn. Each new step brought a new challenge, and with each new challenge I found myself a perpetual novice, caught in an endless loop of pushing forward and circling back. Each long journey consisted of a series of mini-journeys dependent on my willingness to listen not only to my human teachers but also to the materials I was working with, which were the real teachers.
The benefits of the beginner’s mind are well documented. The lack of expectations is a boon to the human experience, an open mind is key. But aside from all that, there are other perks to being a perpetual beginner. A life of learning keeps things fresh. The connections between different ideas and skills become clear. And when a hopeful beginning fails, like when I got my motorcycle license, even though I drove a scooter into a ditch, you not only learn what failure brings, but that a complete new beginning awaits.
Some beginnings are easy. learn to bake bread. Hiking in the mountains of Maine. Read a book in a genre you have never read before. Some are more complex. Adopt a pet. Learn to drive. Marry. Entry into a new profession. And other new beginnings are forced upon us – those times in life when a person doesn’t choose the beginner’s path, but the path chooses them. The new experience of having a child, for example. Or leading a loved one to their death—the kind of fresh start that happens when something else ends. What if the practice of beginning and learning is also a practice of humility? What if life as a perpetual beginner taught us to get through the toughest of beginnings with a little grace, a little kindness, and maybe even the pain of loss with a tiny, maybe almost invisible, glimmer of hope?
It may not seem logical, but entering LIBS on that first day of class triggered a chain of events, beginnings, endings and middles that forked like rivers or cracks in glass. It led me to work behind the scenes on Broadway, a whole new world that I’ve explored for over 15 years. Working in theater is one of the very few places where working a different job every year is a benefit as opposed to a liability. Each new show was a new, fresh beginning and required new ways of thinking, new strategies, new experiments and new subtle and surprising teachers. I suspect this practice and profession of beginnings and ends is what led me to graduate school, which led me to write a book, which led me here to write this article, another fresh start because I’ve never had before written about being a perpetual beginner.
Ms. Evelyn knew the score as she walked us through unpacking our kits, counting our rolls, and setting up our mannequin heads that first day. In my memory, she had a slightly mischievous quirk at the corner of her mouth as she watched us struggle to comb our mannequins’ knotted hair. Neither of us were good. We were all beginners. She knew this moment would be the beginning of things we never saw coming.
In this new year, dare to become a perpetual beginner. Learn a new skill, start a new hobby, pick up that instrument you played in high school. It doesn’t matter if you’re good at it. You will become a better listener… with a more open mind… not afraid of failure. And with these developments live and see a brighter life.
Novelist and screenwriter Amy Neswald was awarded the New American Fiction Prize for her novel debut in stories. i know you love me too (New American Press, October 2021). Her screenplay The Placeholder won Best Screenplay at the 2008 Rhode Island Film Festival. She also teaches creative writing at the University of Maine and continues to work on her animated shorts about monster children.