Start Where You Are


I often think of the words, credited to the famous tennis star, Arthur Ashe:


“Start where you are. 

Use what you have. 

Do what you can.”

The three simple declarative sentences create powerful guidance for me about moving forward, no matter what. Guidance in matters large, and guidance in matters small.

I think that’s why the framed poster on the wall of my family home in Leland, Michigan, tickles me so. 

Last summer when we were at the cottage, I was cleaning closets and came across the poster rolled up in a tube, tucked away in a closet.  It seemed a waste not to use it, so I unrolled it and thumbtacked it on a wall (one of the joys of a home with cedar walls, is you can tack stuff up with ease).  But as I looked at the results, I thought the poster deserved a better, more artistic framing.  Not just being thumbtacked to the wall. 

So I said to my husband, David, who is precise (with an engineer’s math skills) and handy (I swear the man can fix anything) “Why not just create a wood frame and put it around the poster?  Right where it is on the wall.  Don’t need to buy a frame, but we (read that as “you, David”) could make one from whatever we can find around the cottage.  There has to be a chunk of quarter mold or something we can use in some of the scrap wood in the basement.” 

David took precise measurements of the thumbtacked poster, and disappeared into the basement in search of a chunk of quarter mold that would be long enough.  He found one—just barely long enough.  And on the picnic table on the front porch, he set to doing to making the mitered cuts to form a frame.   

Minutes later, when he was finished, and had framed the poster (which seemed perfect to me, although you could see one tiny spot where a little wood was missing), he handed me the little bitty scraps left from his work. I put the scraps on one of our dinner plates and photographed it. A perfect example of, “Use what you have,” indeed.



Start where you are.

Use what you have.

Do what you can.


So what does Arthur Ashe’s guidance require of us? 

1)   Start where you are. First of all, we need to know where we are, and what this place has to offer.  We need to know the place, the land, the community.  We need a real sense of where we are.  I am reminded of my colleagues who write about “the power of place.”  

In our case, we knew that the old cottage had all kinds of scraps stuck away in nooks and crannies, left from old handy-man projects. We could see where quarter mold had been put to good use in the past.  And the place had a family history of resourcefulness. Making do. We laughingly told stories of how, when my dad was wiring the place for the first time in the 40’s, he created his own electrical fixtures out of Chase and Sanborn coffee cans.    That pretty well terrified the electricians who replaced them in the 90’s. 

2)   Use what you have.  That requires that we know what we have, and are creative enough to make good use of whatever is around us.   David had a mitre box in the basement, and was looking for any good excuse to use it.   And there was scrap wood everywhere down there, left from projects of Dad’s, my brother, my friend Marlo, and from David’s handiwork—no sense in throwing good wood away. 

Who was it said, “It doesn’t have to be perfect to be good.”  That adage seems important when we aim to “use what we have.”

3)   Do what you can.  That requires having skill, and being willing to test our skills by experimenting, trying things, doing things for the first time.  The first time you make a picture frame, you are doing what you can, but you don’t know yet that you can do it.  So it requires an experimental mindset.  Curiosity about what you indeed, can do.  And that requires having the discipline to hone our own abilities, skills, talents—so that we can do what we can.   We probably don’t yet know what we can do.  Life expects us to test our capacities.

And all of that requires being open to finding the unexpected and the creative and the multi-talented everywhere within us and around us. So let me end with this story about unexpected talent put to good use:

Rosemary’s frail father was, as his Italian heritage would have suggested, a great lover of opera.  So in the midst of a household renovation, Rosemary had turned on the music of great tenors for him to listen to.  The young guy working on the dry-wall began to sing along with the music.  Beautifully.  Skillfully.  It turns out he was an opera singer.  And skilled at hanging drywall.  Before long the two men were chattering in Italian.  And the tradesman was singing in full voice.  Opera and drywall.  Who would guess they go together?  But then, why not?  When Rosemary’s father died, the family asked the tradesman who had done the drywall work, to sing at his funeral.  Perfect.

So remember the words;

Start where you are.

Use what you have.

Do what you can.