Now and Next


“We talked of the tiny difference between ending and starting to begin”

                                                                   –Harry Chapin

Richard Simmons sat in my office with me and Betty, a woman who needed to lose more than a hundred pounds and was eating up to ten Snickers Bars a day. I’ve told this story before, but one detail I left out. At some point no matter what Richard said, Betty kept returning to all she had done wrong; the candy, the diet soda, the fatty foods for dinner, the stagnancy, salt, the same response so many members of the club relied upon to make them feel like they’re appropriately self-analyzing their situation.

When she was quiet a moment, Richard shook his head and said as only he can say, “Betty Betty Betty. You’re thinking is backwards. It isn’t difficult to know how you got in this position; I know, I’ve been there myself. But the more you focus on what you’re doing wrong or what you did wrong to bring you to this point, thinking you will find an answer there, the longer you will spiral into depression.”

I remember Betty looking at the Snickers Bar on my desk. I remember seeing the absolute compassion in Richard’s eyes. I had just taught an hour-long advanced class and was exhausted. I remember listening with as much intensity as Betty listened. I’d been analyzing what members ate to figure out what they should do differently in the future, and I sensed Richard was about to bring this in a new direction.

“Focus only on solutions. Focus on now and next; that’s all: Now and Next.” He talked about which good foods to have that day, where to park her car, what to do that night when she normally would have a bowl of something ugly, what to do when she normally would watch television, snacking without thinking.

Stop analyzing and thinking about the old Betty, he told her. That was then. That was yesterday. Stop listening to what anybody else says that isn’t healthy for you.

Then this: Don’t wake up a month from now knowing what you could have done differently but didn’t bother doing because it was hard or unfamiliar. Don’t wake up tomorrow regretting what you did today when you know better. I sat up when Richard looked at me for some interjection. He was excellent at knowing when to back off. So I said, “Betty, focus on the next positive solution instead of the last negative cause.”

Richard’s eyes opened a bit and he repeated to Betty, “Focus on the next positive solution instead of the last negative cause.”

I miss Richard. When I think of him, I think of Don McLean’s line about Van Gogh: “This world was never meant for one as beautiful as you.” People made fun of him, they ridiculed his outrageous demeanor and attitude. Even his friends like David Letterman would make fun of him for the benefit of their own routines. And how Richard handled it was an example so often overlooked. He laughed along with everyone, no matter how it might have hurt inside, and he kept true to what he believed in. I loved that. I loved the very notion that no matter what anybody else says, they are not on your path, they are not seeing things the way you do, they do not have your anticipation or depression or hope or hopelessness.

It isn’t difficult to understand how some of us end up where we are. For some it is depression which can lead to a downward spiral of bad choices. But for some it is an unexpected fall which others might wrongly judge. And we get caught up in their judgments, trying to show them what really happened to bring us here instead of ignoring their thoughts and focusing on now and next. And what we all have in common is the next step will be individual and unique.

We wish too often for angels, for miracles, for some unexpected assistance to help us through the unfortunate circumstances in which we find ourselves. But how we lose the weight is by what step we take next, usually alone but with as much confidence and faith as we can summon.

It is warm today, sunny, warm like July and I’m wearing shorts and flip flops, though by the end of the week it is supposed to be winter again. The geese are confused, I saw some insects on the lawn, and I’m praying the laurel doesn’t start to bud. It’s happened before. Tomorrow I start teaching again two writing courses at Old Dominion and two art courses at Saint Leo’s. Again. So much follows me, even here in nature where I’m looking out across a still and beautiful river, but my mind is preoccupied. I’m still learning to focus on the next step, even when I have no idea what that next step should be. I’m still learning to stop waiting for miracles and stop analyzing the last negative cause.

The past is in its grave.


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