“From an old English parsonage,
Down by the sea,
There came in the twilight,
A message to me;
Its quaint Saxon legend,
Hath, as it seems to me,
Teaching from Heaven.
And on through the hours
The quiet words ring
Like a low inspiration—
Do the next thing.”
~ Do the Next Thing by Elisabeth Elliot
It’s a very Christian poem, and I am not a Christian, but the advice could come just as easily from Pema Chodron or The Dalai Lama.
Do the next thing.
I am, today, what my grandmother used to call “a misery.” If it weren’t for bad luck, I’d have no luck at all. I am finding no beauty, no delight in the crisp blue of the sky or the dogs pressing against me as I write. I keep crying. I am wearing my pajamas—actually, my mother’s pajamas—and a gigantic flannel shirt from the thrift store. I keep crying.
Do the next thing.
My husband lost his job, and I rose to the occasion, spending a dedicated three hours a day looking, applying, and parsing single-spaced, 1000-word paragraphs about civil service levels and electronics and a host of other things I know nothing about. I networked, I researched, and I hustled. I wanted to help him stay positive, and reminded myself that it wasn’t about me.
I did the next thing, even when I was exhausted and worried and really wanted a break.
I was still mourning my mother, her death as fresh to me some days as if it happened yesterday. Her best friend sent a stack of pictures of her that I had never seen: Leah mugging on the beach, Leah riding piggyback on the shoulders of a handsome, broad-faced boy with a buzz cut, Leah pensive, her chin on her hand. I could not cry and upset my father, and I didn’t.
I did the next thing, which was to make him some dinner and do some laundry because I worry about him on the basement stairs.
My dad called to say he’d had a bad day—the dentist thinks the cancer is back. The oral surgeon thinks so, too. He’s so tired, my dad, and he doesn’t want to be messed with any more. We talk about his options; I say I’ll support his choice, whatever it is. It’s not about me. I don’t cry on the phone because I don’t want to upset him.
I did the next thing, which was working on my husband’s job hunt, cleaning the kitchen floor and, well, crying. Crying a lot. Thinking that this would be funny if it wasn’t so incredibly fucking awful. Trying to figure out what the next thing actually is, because I’m just not sure I can do whatever it is unless it involves lying face-down on the floor for several hours and maybe a Xanax and possibly, also, someone coming to save me. I’m not sure who, exactly, but someone who would say “you just take a nice, hot shower and I’ll make you some soup and a double whiskey and answer your e-mails and clean your house while you take a little break from things.”
I’m not doing the next thing.
I wouldn’t know the next thing if it bit me on the ass.
(One of the harder things about being a Buddhist is that the whole “savior” thing is just not on. I need to save myself, pull myself together, put clothes on, stop crying, and stop wishing for someone to take my burdens. I envy the author of the poem, who believed that her God was going to pick up one end of the weight she carried and walk with her wherever she had to go. No matter how far. Because I pretty much see myself like one of the Three Stooges falling down a steep hill with some preposterously heavy object, rolling in cartoon circles to the bottom, where the object squarely on top of me).
What is the next thing?
So I’m praying, here, not to some Santa Claus/God who will come to my aid, but to the universe I see and believe in, asking maybe that whatever is supposed to happen will happen, that I will bear it. Praying that I will have the strength to remember that everything changes and that change is not bad or good, it just is. Asking the molecules I can’t see, and the energy that surrounds me to hold me up for a bit while I get sorted, while I take all of this in and it becomes part of my map of the world instead of a shocking, painful and unmarked detour.
(Which all of life is, really; we just tend to like the detours better when they make us feel good).
I’m asking for the calm, the presence, the balls to do the next thing.
Because in the end, as long as I’m breathing, that’s always my compass and my charter: to do the next thing.
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Editor: Bryonie Wise
Photo: Lυвαιв on Flickr
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