The Land of Beginning Again by Louisa Fletcher 

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

I wish that there were some wonderful place

Called the land of Beginning Again,

Where all our mistakes and all our heartaches

And all of our poor selfish grief

Could be dropped like a shabby old coat at the door,

And never put on again.


I wish we could come on it all unaware,

Like the hunter who finds a lost trail;

And I wish that the one whom our blindness had done

The greatest injustice of all

Could be at the gates like an old friend that waits

For the comrade he’s gladdest to hail.


We would find all the things we intended to do

But forgot, and remembered too late,

Little praises unspoken, little promises broken,

And all of the thousand and one

Little duties neglected that might have perfected

The day for one less fortunate.


It wouldn’t be possible not to be kind

In the land of Beginning Again;

And the ones we misjudged and the ones

Whom we grudged

The moments of victory here

Would find in the grasp of our loving handclasp

More than penitent lips could explain


For what had been hardest we’d know had been best

And what had seemed loss would be gain;

For there isn’t a sting that will not take wing

When we’ve faced it and laughed it away;

And I think that the laughter is most what we’re after

In the land of Beginning Again.


So I wish that there were some wonderful place

Called the land of Beginning Again,

Where all our mistakes and all our heartaches

And all of our poor selfish grief

Could be dropped like a shabby old coat at the door,

And never be put on again.

Today I want to tell you a story. A story about the importance of staying open to possibility, of how our prisons, both literal and figurative, can become opportunities to get free, and of how our willingness to show up and do something badly can help us with a fresh start.

It is a story about a man named Mike.

I met Mike in a codependency circle on the recovery unit at the Middlesex Jail and House of Corrections in Billerica, Massachusetts. That’s “B’rica” if you’re a local or Bill-Erica, if you’re my cousin, Abby.

I met him during my internship for chaplaincy school. I was a group co-facilitator that day and we were all crammed into a small meeting room around a table—me, my mentor at the jail, Martha—or Maaatha, if you’re a local—and about 12 men in their beige jumpsuits.

On this particular day, Martha and I were recruiting enrollees for a 7-week, mindfulness-based program called Houses of Healing that teaches prisoners emotional literacy in order to help facilitate healing and rehabilitation. So instead of our usual codependency curriculum from Codependent No More, we were doing a sample chapter on forgiveness from the Houses of Healing book. We would hand out photocopied pages from the book and the men would take turns reading and discussing the material.

Mike was one of the inmates in our group and he was hard to miss. He was a giant barrel-chested man, bald-headed with a red goatee that drew to a point at the end. He was also congenial, warm, and very open to sharing in our circle.

After volunteering to read from the chapter, he shared that he had done the Houses of Healing program not once but twice before during a previous incarceration at a different jail. And while he had enjoyed the program, and was willing to try it again, he told us hadn’t made any real breakthroughs. Mike said that for instance, forgiveness was hard for him. He still wasn’t able to forgive himself, his Uncle George, or his uncle’s girlfriend because when Mike was 6, he walked down the basement stairs and witnessed his uncle shoot himself in the head.

Mike blamed himself for not being able to help stop his uncle, he blamed his uncle for abandoning him. But he blamed his uncle’s girlfriend most of all. Mike shared that he hated the woman that hurt his uncle and made him do that himself. Apparently, his uncle and the girlfriend had gotten into a fight that day before George decided to shoot himself in the basement.

Mike also shared that as he grew up, he became an avid gun collector. He told me, “I don’t know why I collect guns. But I can’t leave the house without one. They just make me feel safe.”

I had a hunch and so I asked him: “So when you were a child, you watched your favorite uncle kill himself with a gun in front of you. And then as an adult you began collecting guns because they helped you feel safe and gave you some sense of control in your life?”

I paused and carefully watched Mike’s face before I asked him if he felt there was any connection between those two things.

The room went silent and everyone turned to look at him. We all saw his jaw drop open slightly and the realization washed over him. It had honestly never occurred to him before that there was a connection between him collecting guns and of him losing his uncle to suicide by gunshot when he was so young.

And with that small opening, that brief moment of insight, Mike was ready to begin the program again.

And so we did. We had 11 men in the group of all varying levels of engagement and interest. But Mike was, by far, one of the most engaged members, especially given this growing awareness between the trauma he experienced as a child and the choices he made as an adult, some of which landed him in jail.

Besides struggling with forgiveness around his uncle’s death and all the fallout from that throughout his entire life, Mike was also a self-proclaimed “terrible meditator.” Since mindfulness and meditation are a significant part of the Houses of Healing program, he was very sure to let me know repeatedly that he was a terrible meditator, that he really struggled with quieting his mind and with sitting for long periods of time in silence. I asked him why he thought that made him a terrible meditator?

He replied, “Isn’t that the whole point of meditation?”

I said “to do it perfectly? No.”

I told him the point of meditation was to practice quieting the mind enough to become aware of the present moment and to observe the thinking mind but not attach to thought—to imagine those thoughts as clouds moving through the bright blue sky of your mind— and then to practice this over and over during some set period of time to help create a sense of inner peace and freedom. It wasn’t about torturing ourselves for 20 minutes and then blaming ourselves for not doing it right and ultimately giving up.

“Don’t we already do that to ourselves enough?,” I asked him.

So I encouraged him to embrace doing it badly. Show up but keep your eyes open, only do it for five minutes, notice you’re composing a to-do list in your mind and let that be okay. That in fact “doing it badly” was an essential part of the practice because that’s how we learn where our work is. But at least we show up. And that if we live in fear of doing it perfectly at the start, we never really begin. We never begin to meditate. Or to heal. Or to grieve. Or to forgive—all important parts of this program—because each of those things take time and are a practice that requires an acceptance of doing it badly.

“If we were already good at it,” I asked, “would we be here in this room together right now?”

And so with a skeptical in-breath and a chuckle, Mike agreed to do it badly.

I have to tell you, watching Mike drop-in for the first time during one of our meditation exercises and find that moment of quiet and internal peace was absolutely unforgettable. As I drew the meditation to a close, I watched his eyes FLY open and a gleeful, shocked and silent “Oh!” form on his lips. He could barely contain himself when I asked if anyone wanted to share their experience. I thought he was going to stand on a chair and sing out to the room in his best Oprah howl, “I DID IT! I MEDITATED!” but instead, he lightly levitated off of the chair as he shared the feeling of quieting his mind and not attaching to thought for even just a moment and how FREE that made him feel.

From there, things really just continued to open up in Mike in a kind of breathtaking way. He was dedicated to doing his homework and sharing what he learned with his family, which he had never done before.

It seemed like every week when I came in for our circle, he would come into Martha’s office to share a new experience or revelation. One time, he came in to tell me he asked his wife to drop off all of his hand guns (he had about 7) to the police station for disposal.

Another time he shared that he got a birthday card from his mother and she apologized—for the first time ever—for the way he was treated as a child. He then giddily told me that his Dad even signed the card and told him for the first time ever that he loved his son.

Mike expressed a lot of fear about not knowing how to relate to his kids other than through gifts. But during one of our now-regular one-on-one check-ins he shared that during a recent family visitation day his kids who he hadn’t seen in two years came and they hugged (a first!) and they actually talked and he told them he loved them (also a first!) which was a Very Big Deal for all of them.

In one of our final catch-ups, he shared that he had completed the culinary program at the jail and had made a big decision for when he got out because he couldn’t go back to what he was doing before as a drug supplier, which is part of what had landed him there in the first place (and the second.) Excitedly, he told me that when he got out of jail he was going to buy a food truck. His family had owned a well-known Italian restaurant in the area when he was growing up and he loved making food and was GOOD at it. He had already told his wife and she was excited and had started looking up costs and details on how to buy and own a food truck for when he got out. And I could feel the ebullient joy at the possibilities he felt—finally, finally, finally—for the future. He had a vision. A plan. The support and love of his family. And the willingness to start over from this new place and perspective.

There’s a Zen Buddhist concept called “shoshin” or “Beginners Mind.” The invitation of Beginner’s Mind is to adopt an attitude of openness, eagerness, and a lack of preconceived notions when approaching a subject or idea, even at an advanced level. Zen Monk and Teacher Suzuki Roshi said in his book, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”

Many of us think we are experts at life. We’ve been at it for so long that surely we must know what we’re doing? I know I have certainly believed that and from what he shared, Mike did, too, before he landed back in jail a second time. And yet this belief also means that we can grow hardened to the possibilities that our lives have to offer us, the possibility that every ending in our life offers us a chance at a new beginning. We confuse our experience for wisdom and our expertise for excellence. We live and die by routine and wear grooves into our lives forcing us into limitations that can become prisons of our own making, both literally and figuratively. We stop seeing all the possibilities our lives have to offer and instead find ourselves like poet Louisa Fletcher yearning for the “land of Beginning Again” where we can drop all of our mistakes and heartaches like a shabby coat at the door and never put it on again.

It’s funny how our life speaks to us. How it gives us chance after chance, opportunity after opportunity to begin again. To try something new. To gain a fresh perspective. Every dawn we welcome a new day. Between every out-breath and before every in-breath there is a moment where we are given a chance for a sacred reset. But somewhere along the way we lost that language, that understanding. We lost our wonder, our curiosity, and our capacity for forgiveness. We stopped listening to our lives until our lives forced us into crisis or chaos and we had no other choice. The prisons of unprocessed grief, trauma,or abuse hold us in their houses and tell us that our lives are too limited for anything more.

Rachel Carson, the well-known conservationist and the only famous person to ever graduate from my alma mater, once said, “A child’s world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement. It is our misfortune that for most of us that clear-eyed vision, that true instinct for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring, is dimmed and even lost before we reach adulthood. If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over all children, I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life.”

In other words, Beginner’s Mind.

I’m not sure if I’ll ever see Mike again nor get a chance to thank him for what he showed me: That we can find freedom even while imprisoned in our lives, our traumas, our beliefs. That it is never too late to heal, to forgive, to be forgiven, to find compassion for ourselves and to find understanding for those who hurt us.

I don’t know if he ever got his food truck. Or if he even stayed out of jail. I don’t know if I’ll ever know. But I do know I’ll never forget the many firsts that I got to witness for Mike as he embraced his Beginner’s Mind. Experiencing the freedom and peace of its stillness as he meditated. Witnessing the moment he finally felt seen and loved by his parents. The moment he let himself feel strong enough to share his own love with his own children. I’ll never forget the moment when he felt safe enough in his own being, in his own life, to give up the guns he had lived with for so long. And I will never forget the moment he finally, finally forgave himself. His uncle’s girlfriend. And his uncle for what happened on that day when that precious 6-year-old boy walked down the steps to the basement only to have his life changed forever in that moment.

And If I could have an audience with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over all children, I would actually like to thank her for the gift she gave that still-small boy who lives inside that giant, barrel-chested man whose life I overlapped with for all-too brief a time: Thank you for giving him a chance to let go of the pain. An opportunity to begin again with grace. And thank you for giving him the gift and wonder of a new day.