Last week, my daughter Lily and I needed to spice up quarantine, as life was beginning to taste a bit – bland. Thanks to Lily, I’ve now had a number of unexpected firsts. I danced in my first TikTok video. I learned the word “scar wax” and made it with Lily, a budding special-effects make-up artist (did you know that vaseline and flour make an amazing skin-like paste from which you can create the most frighteningly-real wounds?). And Lily gave my tresses their first encounter with Manic Panic vegan hair dye. Suffice to say, the job was botched. Green-purple-red hair doesn’t become me. Sigh — it only lasts six weeks.
In reflecting on what else would serve us best in this time of funk, I suggested we pitch a tent in our backyard. Lily’s joy was contagious. In our new pop-up home, we played bingo and flashlight charades while listening to the sounds of the wind and the woods. And I was struck how — in this time of intensified uncertainty where the familiar has been pulled out from under our feet and our bearings are under constant readjustment — feeling the solidity of the earth beneath us as we played and slept felt profoundly supportive. The sense that the earth can hold it all never felt more real.
One night in the tent, upon Lily’s urging, we ate popcorn while watching Frozen 2. I found myself surprisingly touched by the movie’s themes and their relevance to these difficult times we find ourselves in. Thus one more unexpected first — Disney informing my understanding of the Buddhist concepts of right action, right mindfulness. In the movie, the princess-sisters Anna and Elsa must confront the new realization that their long-revered ancestors elected, out of greed, to do what was best for the few — themselves — in the moment rather than what was best for the common good and future generations. With this difficult truth settling in, Anna additionally faces a personal loss so great that she is overwhelmed with grief and sorrow. She falls into despair, alone and in the dark, seeing no way forward. Anna comes to the point of questioning if she even wants to move forward.
In the song “The Next Right Thing”, Anna sings “this grief has a gravity… I’ve seen this dark before, but not like this.” With these times we are in, and the impact it has had on me, I could feel the depth of her grief. The song explores the difficulty of recovering from extreme loss, even for an optimist like Anna. In this dark place, Anna recalls a friend who himself had encountered and moved through great adversity. She remembers what he had told her. “Just do the next right thing”. In these times, if we find ourselves stuck, frozen, hitting the wall, and losing heart, we can make the choice to simply put one foot in front of the other. To take this one breath. And then this one. Staying with just this moment, we can find our way through.
Kristen Bell, the actress who plays Anna, puts it this way, “What do I do when I don’t know what to do? My personal mantra is you just do the next right thing. It also stems from when I am experiencing anxiety and depression. What do I do when I don’t want to get out of bed in the morning? You just do the next right thing, and that’s stepping out of bed. The next right thing is brushing your teeth. The next right thing is eating your breakfast. The next right thing is looking at your calendar and going to work. This idea of having an intrinsic motivation versus extrinsic motivation is something that as a parent I know is incredibly important to show kids and to help them cope. I really wanted Anna to be representative of that.”
With this support from her friend’s words, and with a dose of profound courage, Anna is able to take a step into and through the darkness, to face the difficult past with honesty, and to consider what the next right thing is. For Princess Anna, this is the next right thing for everyone, not just herself, even if it feels painful. As Frozen director Jennifer Lee said, “fairy tales are created for children to help them get through tough times”. Whether it is the climate crisis, school shootings, or fall-out from this pandemic, kids right now are grappling with a lot. How do we, and our children, skillfully navigate internal weather systems that can be overwhelming? How do our children find their way when life upends itself?
This is a time of paradigm shift. If these times find you or a loved one overwhelmed or at wits’ end, the grace of mindfulness practice is this: amid the winds of change, you can always re-return, re-relax, with this one breath. And this one. You can come back to the fundamental instruction to be with what is right here, right now, with kindness. This one step forward. And this one. No more, no less.
This has been a particularly helpful reminder for me in these topsy-turvy times. With this pandemic, we are not all in the same boat, even if we are in the same storm. For me, it has been difficult. It is as if everything is under a flame — as if all is intensified. Just as these times are unprecedented, so are the highs and lows I’ve experienced. This is partly due to being a ‘we’ of six. One large family + pressure-cooker of quarantine + stressors = the perfect storm for multiple permutations of frustration. Relationships have been put under the microscope. There is much to bump against when we are up close and personal. There are sea swells of joy and connection, and descents of sadness and despair. Then there is the grace of space. Space to breathe. Space to rest, even for just a moment. Each one of us has tripped along this uncharted path, often taking each other down with us as we fall. Yet, if we can pause, get back up, dust off one another’s knees, take a breath, we can — to the best of our ability — do the next right thing.
Give yourself a break. Breathe. We are in times of great change and difficulty. Befriend and check in with your heart — in this moment, what is the next right thing?