The Next Right Thing

In At This Point by Stephanie Piperleave a COMMENT

Five weeks into the new year, I’m glad I resisted the temptation to make any resolutions. I would certainly have broken them all by now. Cut back on chocolate? Not a chance. Step up the exercise? Didn’t happen. Be unfailingly kind and non-judgmental? Take a wild guess.

I could blame my unimproved self on too many bleak headlines and too much cable news, but that would be an easy out. In fact, I have been giving the media a wide berth since November. When a click of the remote sends my blood pressure skyrocketing, it’s time to quit.

And where does that leave me? Floating along in a bubble of cares real and imagined, debating with myself about the duties of an informed citizen versus the need to practice some degree of mental hygiene.

Many years ago, I had a friend whose calm demeanor I envied. I used to study his quiet ways, trying to understand the source of his still center. He moved away before I could figure it out, but he left me with a parting gift. It’s a perpetual calendar clock, he said, placing a box in my hands. I opened it to find a brightly painted piece of wood. On one side was carved the word “today.” The other side said “now.”

It has moved with me from house to house and office to office and still sits on my desk, a reminder that peace of mind is in direct proportion to simplicity. There are long stretches when the block of wood is just part of the scenery, no more evocative than the stapler or the pen holder. Lately, though, I find myself picking it up and turning it over, studying the words, wondering about today and now. Because, like it or not, that’s the date and time. It’s what I’ve got.

I’ve been over this ground before, treating myself to preachy little exhortations about remaining present and doing the next right thing. There are days when I’ve actually sustained this way of life for an entire hour. It’s uphill work.

But I’m feeling a certain urgency about it now, a longing for the simple truth of the moment in a troubled and troubling world. Yesterday is done, no longer subject to revision. Tomorrow is unpredictable at best, downright scary if I relapse and click on cable news. My wooden clock is ticking. Act now.

So I breathe deeply and begin again. I wonder about the next right thing, how I will know it when I see it. It could be the winter dawn, faintly pink and azure blue, inviting a mindful witness. Maybe it will be the next person I encounter, someone who needs me to see them whole, acknowledge their presence, even if it’s just a nod in the hallway. Maybe it will be the next item on my daily list, completed without procrastination or complaint. It could be the recognition that I am a fallible human being who could gain wisdom from listening to someone else’s opinion. It might even be spaghetti carbonara, a favorite person’s favorite dish, prepared from scratch on a ho-hum Tuesday night for no special reason.

It seems unlikely that these puny efforts will have much impact on the complex web of world events. Still, there is something to be said for action, for lighting even the smallest candle instead of cursing the darkness. Or floating indefinitely in the bubble. It’s not a resolution, exactly—more a slow but steady course correction, a set of small goals to order my time. With patience and practice, I might actually learn to live by my calendar. Now. Today.

Stephanie Piper's At This Point examines the mystery, absurdity, and persistent beauty of daily life. She has been a newspaper reporter, editor, and award-winning columnist for more than 30 years. Her Midpoint column appeared monthly in Metro Pulse from 1997 until 2014.

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