Snowed In: Part III, The Waiting

Catch up with Part I and Part II

I couldn’t breathe. I ran to the bathroom. Jack followed me and closed the door behind him.

“What the hell, Jack? Is that your girlfriend? Did she come here to send us a message?”

“Elise, I swear, that is not Samantha.”

Jack rarely used her name. He knew I didn’t like hearing it.

I was leaning on the vanity taking shallow gulps of air.

“Calm down, Elise. She misspoke because I walked up at that moment.”

“You did tell me that she, Samantha, was having trouble letting go,” I reminded him.

“She’s getting better, and she would never pull a stunt like this anyway. Besides, this woman is freaking pregnant. I told you nothing physical ever happened.”

“She said she was a snake, Jack.”

“She was messing with you because she didn’t want you trying to win over the kids.”

“Was that what I was trying to do?”

“Kinda seemed like it.”

“I was trying to break the tension.”

Jack could see I was holding back tears.

“It’s like, what’s it called, Occam’s Razor? The simplest answer is the one most likely to be true. They’re just a couple that broke down, and they don’t want to be here right now. She didn’t like you getting all cozy with the kids, and then…Wait, she said she shouldn’t have told you anything. What did she tell you?”

I gave Jack a quick summary of the situation according to Jocelyn.

“OK, maybe we better get back out there.”

I glared at him. “So, you see why I might think something’s not right.”

With a big sigh, Jack pulled his phone out of his back pocket. He started scrolling rapidly through it and then stopped. He held the phone out in front of me.

“That’s Samantha,” he said.

It was a picture of a group of people from one of his office happy hours. I recognized his former boss, from before his promotion, standing in the back. In the middle was Jack and a woman, who looked nothing like Jocelyn. They were sitting close, arms draped casually over each other’s shoulders.

“It’s from like six months ago, right before I told you.”

Seeing the photo made it so much more real. I felt nauseous.

“What did your co-workers think, with you guys hanging on each other like that?”

“I don’t know. We were teammates, Elise. We were all celebrating finishing a big project.” Jack put the phone away. “Can we revisit this later? I think we should get out there.”

“OK, but I still think something’s up with these two. And, honestly, I don’t want to hear about Samantha again, as long as you promise me nothing ever happened. And that you’ve convinced her she’s barking up the wrong tree.”

“Yes, yes, of course, Elise.”

And then we both laughed, because where the hell did “barking up the wrong tree” come from?

We found Jocelyn and the kids sitting in the living room. She was looking at her phone.

“Anything from Dean?” I asked.

“No, not yet.” She said, putting her phone down on the coffee table.

“Um, Jack could set the kids up in the den to watch a movie,” I suggested.

The kids perked up. There was a long silence. I wondered if Jocelyn knew that I was trying to maneuver some more one-on-one time with her.

“Okay, sure,” Jocelyn said, throwing her hands in the air.

Jack motioned at the kids, “C’mon you two, let’s go find something fun to watch!”

I sat down on the couch across from Jocelyn and leaned over, my arms folded on my knees.

“Jocelyn, is everything ok? I know I’m a stranger, but you can talk to me.”

She picked up her phone, looked at the screen, and then put it back down.

“I can’t explain. It’s complicated. You must be familiar with complicated.”

I sat back, unsure where she was going with this.

Jocelyn continued, “You don’t fully trust Jack, right? Why do you think that is? Is it more about him or about your own baggage?”

“We all have baggage,” I conceded.

“So, maybe you’re looking at me and Dean through your own baggage.”

Huh.

I could hear the TV in the other room. Hopefully, Jack would return soon. I didn’t want to get into a battle of wits with Jocelyn—I was clearly outmatched.

Jocelyn’s phone dinged and she grabbed it. “The mechanic is working on the car,” she announced.

I started thinking about the amount of time Jocelyn or Dean had been left unaccompanied in the house. Was it long enough for one of them to steal a checkbook or a credit card? Or were they after more? Was I just being paranoid?

Jocelyn could see the gears turning in my head, I was certain of it. “Elise, my point is, it seems like you want to save me,” she said, “but what if I’m here to save you?”

“What does that mean?” I asked, my heart beating in my throat.

“Tell me why you’re having a tough time getting past Jack’s emotional attachment at work. Do you believe him when he says it’s over?”

“I do. But I have trust issues. I can’t talk about it.”

“Yet you want me to tell you my secrets,” she said slowly. “Isn’t that weird?”

The whole thing was weird. Who was this woman? Why did I want nothing more than to go grab that bottle of wine and tell her everything?

Jack walked back into the room. “They’re watching Toy Story. They seem pretty content. You might have to carry them out of here.”

“The mechanic is up there,” I informed Jack.

“Maybe I should clear off the steps; it’s really starting to stick,” Jack said.

Jocelyn jumped to her feet, “No worries! We’ll be fine.”

As if on cue, we heard a commotion outside. We all ran to the foyer, and Jack flung open the front door. At the foot of our stairs, a man was helping Dean to his feet.

“Dean! What happened?” Jocelyn shouted. As she ran out in the snow, I saw that she had snow boots on. I hadn’t noticed that before.

“I’m ok, I slipped a bit and slid down the last couple steps.”

The man, who I took to be the mechanic, helped Dean get inside. Dean was not putting his full weight on his left ankle.

“Did you twist your ankle?” I asked.

“Do you need some help?” Jack asked.

“I’m fine,” Dean said.

The mechanic helped Dean sit down on the bench in our foyer.

As Jack closed the door, it occurred to me that Jack and I were now outnumbered in our house, three adults to two. I wasn’t sure if the kids would be a help or a hindrance to whatever they might have planned.

“Please be careful as you go back up the stairs,” I said to the mechanic, not too subtly.

“If you don’t mind, ma’am, I’d like to wait here for the tow truck,” he said. “I couldn’t fix the car, and my truck’s not equipped for towin’. Not that I’d want to even try it in this snow. It’s really coming down out there.”

Aw, crap.

Coming Up: Part IV, Trust

Snowed In: Part II, The Dinner

If you haven’t yet, you’ll want to read Part I of this serialized story first.

Our house does not have an open floor plan, so the living room, kitchen, and dining room are chopped up into separate rooms, which I happen to like.

Jocelyn took a quick look around, saw that we were sort of secluded, and then grabbed my arm and leaned in close.

“Ok, so you’re going to tell me the ingredients of the chili, and I’m going to confide in you, all right?” she said in a low, urgent voice. It wasn’t really a question.

“Um…”

In a much louder voice she said, “Elise, you have to tell me what’s in this amazing-smelling chili.”

I started getting out the bowls, and in an equally loud voice, I said, “Well, you start with black beans, white onion, garlic, and brown sugar.”

Jocelyn whispered: “So, Dean and I are not married. At least not yet. I called him my husband because, I don’t know, because it sounded better, I guess.”

Dean! Two names down.

“Um, then we use ground turkey and bacon. But you don’t have to include them if you don’t eat meat.”

“The kids are his. We were picking them up at his ex’s place around here somewhere. We’ve never been out here. She usually meets him halfway.”

“Then you’ve got chopped green and red bell pepper, jalapeños, and sweet onion.”

“We were picking up the kids for the week. I don’t know them very well, so this was supposed to be a chance for us to bond.”

“The spices are chili powder, cumin, oregano, and crushed red pepper.”

We were moving around the kitchen, assembling the spoons, bread plates, and serving utensils. Every couple seconds, we would freeze and look at the doorway. We could hear voices coming from the living room.

“Ever since I started showing, it’s been weird. His ex doesn’t know I’m pregnant. I didn’t go in the house when he got the kids. It’s gotten tense.”

I asked, “Is everything ok? Do you need help?”

Jocelyn did that rolling thing with her hand that means go on…

“And, uh, a jar of salsa, some tomato paste, and some broth,” I practically shouted.

I removed the cornbread from the oven, and Jocelyn’s eyes widened.

“Holy crap, that looks really good. What’s in that?!”

Under her breath and at breakneck speed, she added, “We’re fine, he just has to get used to the fact that he’s having another kid, and he needs to tell his ex about it before too long.”

“It’s the usual cornbread ingredients, and then on top are caramelized apple slices and onions.”

And then I did something I can’t explain.

I said: “Well, Jack has been having an ’emotional affair’ with a woman at work. He says it’s over, and I’m trying to get past it. But…” I stopped myself.

What the hell was I doing? I hadn’t even told my closest friends about this yet because I was worried they would think I was crazy for going forward with buying this house. Why had I disclosed this to a perfect stranger?

It was too late to judge Jocelyn’s reaction because Jack, Dean, and the kids had arrived in the kitchen.

“Are we ready?” Jack asked as he grabbed some glasses from the cabinet.

Talk about an awkward dinner. The kids were still mostly silent. Had Jocelyn and Dean been arguing in the car and the kids got freaked out? Was their home life stressful? At least they weren’t picky eaters, as we discovered. In fact, they were demolishing the cornbread.

Dean kept looking at his phone. He ate maybe two bites of chili.

Jack was drinking one of his fancy craft beers. I was slowly sipping red wine. I was going to skip the wine, but after my confession, I started feeling anxious and wanted to calm down. I promised myself I would not drink too much while these people were still in the house. Our guests had opted for sparkling water.

“This food is delicious,” Jocelyn said. “You guys should open up a restaurant. Seriously.”

This is the point where we might normally start talking about what we all did for work. But I wasn’t sure what direction to go—treat this like two couples getting to know each other or just wait out the discomfort, because how long could it last, honestly? 

Through the window I could see the snow was coming down. Jack and I exchanged glances.

Dean’s phone played some tune I recognized but could not place. He jumped up and left the room. I wasn’t thrilled about him wandering through our house, but I couldn’t very well follow him.

“How do you like the food?” I looked at the kids who were sitting side-by-side to my right. “Do you want some more cornbread?”

“No, thank you,” said the older kid.

“Yes, please,” said the younger kid.

As I put another piece of cornbread on the smaller one’s plate, I asked, “Can you tell me your names and how old you are?”

“You don’t have to tell her that,” Jocelyn snapped.

“She’s right,” I said, feeling like I had been slapped.

And then, again, I don’t know what struck me, but I said, “Names are meaningless anyway. Wouldn’t it be so much more fun if people just called us by our favorite animal? I would be named Dolphin. Jack what would you be?”

My husband looked at me like I had sprouted another head. “What the heck are you talking about?”

But the kids loved it.

“I’m Penguin!” said the older one.

“I’m Puppy” said the younger one.

Jocelyn,” I said, putting emphasis on her name, seeing as how she had never given it to me in the first place, “who would you be?”

She grinned. Was it fake, or had I won her over? I couldn’t tell.

“Well, Elise, I mean Dolphin, I would have to be Snake.”

Touché, dear Jocelyn!

“I’m getting anther beer,” said Jack, and he got up from the table.

Dean returned and reported that a mechanic was on his way. He said he was going to wait at the car. I walked with him to the hall closet to get his coat, and he practically spit at me, “Can you just mind your own damn business until we get out of here?”

How much had he heard earlier?

“Absolutely,” I said, with an implied, Yes, Sir!

Dean rolled his eyes and stomped out the front door. I looked through the window in the top part of the door—the snow was starting to stick. I could not see which direction Dean went when he got to the top of the stairs. The street was barely visible.

Jack appeared next to me. “Maybe you could slow down on the wine for now,” he said, and I noticed that I had carried my glass of wine with me. How many glasses had I had? No more than two, but he was right. I could feel that sense of not giving a shit bubbling up.

Back in the dining room, Jocelyn was clearing the table.

“Hey there, Puppy and Penguin!” I said, and the kids smiled.

I grabbed some bowls and joined Jocelyn in the kitchen.

“Look, I’m sorry I said anything.” She exhaled and shook her head slowly, “You don’t need to be involved in this.”

Jack was now standing beside me, but she kept talking.

“This is between me and Jack—I mean me and Dean. This is between me and Dean.”

My head could not have swiveled fast enough to glare at Jack. What the…?

Coming Up: Part III, The Waiting

Snowed In: Part I, The Arrival

Note: This is the first installment of a story I plan to serialize on this blog. I haven’t written fiction in ages, and I don’t think I’ve ever tried my hand at suspense/psychological thrillers. Hopefully, it will add something fun to the mix that isn’t too far off topic. How often would you like to see new installments? Share your thoughts in the comments.

The sun had just gone down when we heard a knock at the door. It was mid-November, so it was already dark at 5pm.

Jack and I had just hunkered down under blankets on our respective couches. The first big snowstorm of the season was headed our way, and dinner was cooking in the kitchen.

We looked at each other—who could be knocking at five on a Sunday? We were still relatively new to the community, so maybe it was a neighbor dropping off a plate of cookies or a bottle of wine. Only one grandmotherly woman had welcomed us to the neighborhood so far. I was still holding out hope that a youngish couple would show up and we would all become fast friends.

Jack went to the door. We had no chain and no screen door, so he just opened the front door to whoever was there. The area was secluded and much nicer than the last place we lived, so I wasn’t too concerned that he didn’t ask first who it was.

A woman’s voice said, “Oh, hello. Thank you so much for answering your door.”

I jumped up and joined my husband in the foyer. A woman stood there holding the hand of a small child. The child was all bundled up against the cold, and the woman had on a long puffy coat that was hanging open. She appeared to be pregnant, but I know better than to make assumptions about that. She looked a bit out of breath—flushed and tired.

“I’m so sorry to bother you, but our car just broke down up there.” She motioned behind her. Our house sat at the bottom of a hill, and a flight of wooden stairs led up to the street. In the light of our street post, I could see a taller figure standing at the top of the stairs, carrying something large.

“That’s my husband up there. We are calling around to find a mechanic that can come out, but this little one really needs to use the restroom,” she looked at the child. “And I suppose I do, too.”

“Please, come in,” I said. “Jack, why don’t you go tell her husband to come down.”

The woman and child stepped into the house. I thought it might be easier for her to navigate in our small half-bath without her big coat, so I offered to hang it up. Then I showed them to the bathroom.

“We are so grateful, thank you again so much,” she said as she closed the bathroom door.

On my way back to the foyer, I scooped up the crumpled blankets from the couches and tossed them into the coat closet. When I reached the door, a man was standing there holding another child, about a year younger, on his hip. I guessed to myself that the two children were about three and four, but I wasn’t particularly good with kids’ ages. Maybe four and five?

“Would you like to come in and sit down?” Jack asked.

“We’ll be out of your hair shortly,” the man said, not moving.

“It’s pretty cold out there,” I said. “And it’s supposed to start snowing any minute. Have you reached a tow truck or mechanic yet?”

“Not really. Left a few messages.” He shifted the kid over to the other side.

“Daddy, I need to go to the bathroom,” the child whispered.

“I can show you where it is,” said Jack.

“And I can take your coats,” I said.

“That’s not necessary, we really will be out of your hair in no time.”

“It’s no trouble. What with the kids and your wife’s condition, you are more than welcome to wait here.”

The man gave me a sideways look, and I immediately regretted referring to his wife’s “condition.”

“Do you all live in the area?” I asked to change the subject.

He glanced away for a moment and took a long pause. “No, we were visiting people a couple blocks away.”

Silence. Then the child started tugging on the man’s sleeve.

“Follow me,” Jack said, and the man went off with him.

I started thinking about why this family had come to our house. There was nowhere on our part of the street to pull over their car. Was it sitting in the middle of the road? The neighbor to the right of us only came out on weekends, and he had likely left to go back to the city, so his house would be dark. The neighbor on the other side was older and went to bed early, but not this early.

The woman and child came out of the bathroom, and her husband and the other child took their place. She was holding the child’s coat and hat and scarf. 

“I’m Elise, and this is Jack,” I said. “Why don’t we all sit down?”

The woman looked grateful to sit down on the loveseat with the child.

“I can take those from you,” I gestured toward the child’s coat.

“No worries, we shouldn’t be too long. Though it does smell awfully good in here.”

“We have a big pot of chili cooking,” I explained. “Perfect comfort food for a snowstorm. I can’t believe we’re expecting like a foot of snow this early in the season.”

“Oh, my, are we supposed to get that much? I wish we had gotten an earlier start. The roads out here are confusing. We got a little turned around. And then the car…” Her voice trailed off.

“Yes, it’s easy to lose your way here,” Jack said.

The woman still hadn’t offered her name, and I was wondering if it would be rude to ask. The child was remarkably quiet and still.

The husband came out of the bathroom talking on his cell phone. Maybe one of the mechanics had called him back?

The other child hung back, behind his legs. This child still had a coat and hat on.

The man hung up. “Well, they can’t come out for another hour at least.”

“We made plenty of chili if you’d like to stay,” I offered. “It should be ready in about twenty minutes. I have cornbread baking in the oven, too.” Jack gave me a look. I knew he didn’t want these strangers in our house on a cozy Sunday evening, eating dinner with us, but what could we do?

“So, did you folks just move in?” The man asked. He was referring to the boxes stacked here and there, marked “living room” and “den.”

“A couple months ago,” I confessed. “It’s taking a while to get fully unpacked. Don’t you hate packing? I hate packing. But unpacking is usually fun because you get to decide where to put everything in your new home. But this time it’s dragging on for some reason.”

Jack gave me another look, like okay, Chatty Cathy.

Silence again. I decided to pull off the band-aid: “Can I ask your names?”

The woman stood up and walked over to the man, who was hovering on the perimeter of the living room. The child followed her.

“What do you want to do?” she asked him. “These people are being very kind.”

“I guess we could stay until the mechanic gets here,” he said and then looked at us. “But you folks go ahead and eat. We’ll be just fine. We had a big lunch earlier.”

I speculated: Perhaps they don’t eat meat. Or spicy food. Maybe the kids hate chili.

We were all standing at this point, including the two children, and it was getting really awkward.

“Is your car in the road? Do you need us to help you push it off?” I asked. “You can use the neighbor’s parking spot—he’s gone back to the city.”

“It’s fine,” the man said in a tone that said, stop asking questions.

The woman sighed, “You know what, I would love to have some of your chili. Can I help you in the kitchen?”

I could have hugged her. “Absolutely, right this way!” I headed toward the kitchen, not even caring that I was leaving Jack with the man and the two kids.

“Jocelyn,” I heard him call after her, but she ignored him. Jocelyn! One name down, three to go.

Coming Up: Part II, The Dinner

Seeking Self-Worth in Unemployment

Watching something you created come off a giant printing press is pretty thrilling.

The original “Party of Five” television series ended in 2000, when I was 34 years old. In one of the final episodes, the character Julia (played by Neve Campbell) can be seen reading a copy of the National NOW Times, a newspaper that I edited and produced for the National Organization for Women.

Someone from the show had reached out to us for materials, but I had no way of knowing if they were going to use anything. I literally squealed when I saw it. Something I had created had appeared, if only fleetingly, on TV. After years of coveting public acclaim, I was fame-adjacent!

Twenty-one years later, I am 55 and unemployed. A couple days ago I saw a news segment about how women have been leaving the paid workforce in droves during the pandemic, and a sense of sadness washed over me.

March 13 marks one year that I’ve been out of work. Unlike so many others, I did not lose my job due to COVID (though it may have happened eventually, had I stayed). Before the lockdowns started, I made the decision to resign because I was buckling under the pressure of looking after my mother while trying to work a part-time job that could not be done from home.

Thankfully, my husband was willing to see if we could make things work on his salary alone. It’s not like I was making much money, anyway. The bigger sacrifice, financially, had been two years earlier when my mom first went on dialysis and I exited a full-time marketing job that was satisfying and paid pretty well.

So, here I am, having scaled back first to a minimum-wage job and then to nothing. I shouldn’t say nothing. I am a caretaker for my 81-year-old mom, who no longer drives and has multiple health conditions. There is honor in this role. But a large part of my identity was wrapped up in earning pay and accolades for my vocation.

After college, I discovered that working hard and winning promotions could provide much-needed boosts to my self-confidence. Work became the arena where I proved to myself that I was smart and capable and resourceful. I particularly liked producing print publications that I could hold in my hands.

But after 30 years of working in offices, it turns out I was relieved to step off the management track. I no longer hungered for higher titles and increased responsibility. I just wanted to do what I was good at without having to constantly prove I hadn’t grown complacent.

I come here to confess my complicated feelings about paid work—fears and insecurities that others may share. I didn’t appreciate being constantly evaluated, and though I enjoyed collaborating with people, I resented that supervising larger and larger teams and then departments is a necessary means to moving ahead in so many fields.

As a feminist, I find it embarrassing that I like not working right now. With less pressure and expectations, my anxiety has decreased. I have been able to explore other interests and interview my mom for the memoir I’m writing.

And yet, I’m not sure who I am without a regular paycheck for my efforts, without a boss to praise me. I worry that depending on my husband financially betrays my values and makes me uninteresting.

I also fret that the longer I stay out of the workforce at my age, the harder it’s going to be to reenter if and when I need to—this concern has produced some sleepless nights.

Will my personal writing save my dignity? Stay tuned.

Rooftops and Control Issues

Years ago, when I lived in New York City, I used to visit friends in Brooklyn. This couple lived in an apartment building that was about five or six stories tall, and they had access to the roof. Hanging out on their roof offered a dramatic view of the Manhattan skyline.

Whenever we were up on that roof, taking in the towering skyscrapers, I kept my distance from the edge of the building. If I stood within a couple feet of the edge, I felt as if I might go flying right off.

I had no desire to jump, and my friends weren’t prone to violence or stupid stunts, so the chance of falling from their roof was remote. But it terrified me, nonetheless. If I did inch toward the edge, my heart started thumping and my stomach twisted, as if I were on a tightrope instead of a solid surface.

Since I was a kid, I’ve been afraid of my life spiraling out of control. For decades I struggled to feel secure about my safety, health, finances, friendships, relationships, even my mental stability.

My mind would go from zero to 60 in an instant. A sharp pain in my back was probably cancer, an overdrawn bank account would lead to financial ruin, a missed deadline meant I was about to get fired.

Clearly, I had issues with control. My brain always craved more.

No one wants less control over their lives, right? We expect a certain measure of control over the basics—where we live, what we eat, whom we love, how we dress, what we read, when or if we have a family, how or if we worship. When those options are blocked, we get our backs up, and rightly so.

But for some folks, a generally accepted level of control is inadequate. It’s too slippery, too treacherous.

Control is a funny thing. I could argue that we have way more control over our lives than we realize, and I would be right. I could also make a compelling argument that we have far less power than we think and be correct. Like a kaleidoscope, our ability to control our lives is constantly shifting due to all the moving parts.

How can we panicky people accept the randomness of human existence? I’ve decided to focus on the control that I do have. I am scouring my days, looking for parcels of time that I can affect. The simple act of pausing and choosing one thing over another instead of running on auto-pilot is surprisingly empowering.

Instead of watching cable news, I can read. In the first 62 days of 2021, I completed six books, which is the same number I read all last year.

Rather than getting lost in YouTube videos, I can write in my journal. I’ve never been much of a journal keeper, but this year I am using a book with prompts and have filled 40 typed pages thus far.

When I have 10 minutes here or there, instead of scrolling through social media, I can meditate.

Instead of doing busywork (like organizing my closet or writing out detailed to-do lists), I can take a walk or do yoga or brainstorm small business ideas.

Big actions can help clear the decks for the smaller stuff. I chose to quit drinking nearly four years ago, which was a huge power move. That decision opened up vast amounts of time in my life.

The results have been promising. The more control I exert over my days, the less I worry about my life blowing away from me.

It’s Not You, It’s Me: One Year Since Losing a Friend

Tami and my cat Gretchen

About 10 years ago my friend Tami and I were in the basement of my townhouse so that she could visit with my cat Gretchen. My other cat, Mo, was up on the main floor. The two cats had become incompatible, so my husband and I were rotating them every 24 hours, and it was Gretty’s turn to be in the basement (which I would like to point out was a finished and relatively pleasant basement).

Tami was holding Gretty, and she looked at me and said, “You know, this situation with the cats is more about you than it is about them.”

I was flabbergasted. My reply was weak and forgettable—probably something like, “Um, ok, whatever you say.” Then I changed the subject because I did not want to argue with her.

Over the years since that trivial incident, I have crafted sassier comebacks in my head—none particularly worth sharing. I’m not sure why that remark bothered me so much. Now that Tami is gone, having passed away a year ago today, it still lingers in my mind alongside weightier memories.

A woman in my grief group told us how her therapist often asks, “Why do you think that bothers you so much?”

So, I’ve asked myself that question. Why did her comment bother me so much that I still recall it clearly ten years later? The answer is that Tami was at least partly right. When the cats would fight, I couldn’t bear to hear Gretty’s cries—she sounded like she was seeing the very gates to hell. That sound made my bones ache. I did not have the guts to let the cats duke it out and settle their conflict.

A reunion did happen gradually and by accident, as people came over and left the basement door open. For a couple blissful months, the cats coexisted again. And then Mo startled Gretty one day, and the truce was over. Sometimes Gretty would pee on the floor when she was afraid of Mo, so I don’t think the decision to keep the cats apart was entirely about my own neurotic tendencies.

Tami’s remark to me that day echoes as I grieve her loss. Her death haunts me, as the unexpected death of a 54-year old woman is likely to do. I am sad. I feel guilt. Most of all, I am mad. Mad at a long list of people, including her. I hate being mad at someone who I loved and who is no longer on this earth. My anger feels righteous, earned—but as Tami might argue, it really does say more about me than it does about her.

My reactions to her life choices were largely due to my own insecurities and angst. I was afraid we would lose her, and we did, but my fear did nothing to stop that.

A part of me wants to dig through both of our failings, turning them up like soil, letting them sift through my fingers as I try to glean something of use. There will be plenty of time for that later.

For today, I will say that only a friend like Tami can challenge you in that way, and I miss her dearly. 

The Tyranny of Numbers

The balance in my bank account. My body weight on the scale. The percentage on the Kindle screen that shows how far I’ve read in my book. The number of “Zone Minutes” I’ve achieved according to my Fitbit app. The clock, reminding me that I better finish up one task and get started on the next. The current tally of posts I’ve published on my blog so far this year.  

Numbers are everywhere, and if you’re like me, you can get really hung up on them. Paying attention to the time of day, dollar amounts, and other calculations seems like a responsible thing to do. You don’t often hear people warning you off from counting.

So, I was surprised a couple years ago when I read Twyla Tharp’s “The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life” (written with Mark Reiter). I’ve probably mentioned this before, because it really stuck with me: In the book, among other helpful suggestions, Tharp writes, “For one week, I tell myself to ‘stop counting.’ . . . The goal is to give the left side of the brain—the hemisphere that does the counting—a rest and let the more intuitive right hemisphere come to the fore.”

For me, resisting the pull of numbers goes beyond freeing up the right side of my brain (which it absolutely does). You see, I use counting the way I use busywork and worrying, as a form of procrastination. Sometimes numbers become a deep forest where I let myself get lost while creative endeavors starve.

Lately I’ve been testing out a tracking system I developed for establishing new habits. The key to the system is to keep it as simple and pleasant as possible. At first, I was writing down way too much detail, as I am inclined to do. I became preoccupied with setting time ranges for my walks, which then led me to fixate on my watch, instead of just enjoying that I was getting outside and moving my body.

Numbers are deceptive like that. They promise to lend a helping hand, and before you know it, they are using their power to take up real estate in your head. Sometimes numbers are tools and sometimes they are tyrants. I’ve been known to spend an hour choosing five words to pluck out of a piece I’m writing so it doesn’t exceed some arbitrary word limit I set for myself.

But I’m here to tell you that the power of numbers can be restrained.

I’ve started stripping numbers from my life wherever possible. Obviously, you can’t do this with all figures. You need to make it to your doctor’s appointment on time, and you don’t want to overdraw your bank account. But there are lots of places where focusing on measurement does nothing but feed self judgment and obsession.  

For example, I have stepped on the scale every morning for a very long time. Eight days ago, I decided to take a week off from weighing myself. It was easier than I thought it would be, but you better believe I stepped right back on that scale this morning once the week was up. I’m hoping to take longer and longer breaks in the coming months. And I’m looking for other areas where counting is truly gratuitous.

Wondering where to start? Take a day when you don’t have to be anywhere and try not looking at the clock. It may just blow your mind how little the time matters.

A life with fewer numbers can be a less stressful, more expansive existence.

Procrastination, Priorities, and Vegetable Soup

Let’s say you are making a big pot of vegetable soup. (Yes, it’s analogy time again.) You find a recipe online but decide to improvise—spending an hour inspecting your spice rack. Once you settle on a mix of herbs and spices, you grab whatever bags of veggies you have in the freezer and dump them into the pot.

Your soup may turn out perfectly fine, but most folks would agree that your emphasis on ingredients was misplaced. Flavor enhancements are important, but this is a vegetable soup. You might want to spend more time choosing and chopping fresh veggies if you want a truly delicious soup.

If you want a truly fulfilling life, you must also choose which ingredients (or actions) to concentrate on. For years, my personal priorities were out of whack. I would spend precious time on busywork rather than creative projects.

If you’re anything like me, this train of thought might sound familiar:  I need to write a blog post, but maybe I should put on a load of laundry first. Oh, and now would be the perfect time to rake up those leaves in the front yard. And wouldn’t it be nice to organize that pile of stuff on the coffee table? Laundry’s ready to fold! Ugh, now I’m drained, and I deserve a break. Instead of writing, I’ll just collapse on the couch and watch Netflix.

This was happening over and over again because I was stuck in a loop of focusing on things that were mentally easy to do but still consumed considerable time and energy. It felt good to be crushing it at “adulting”—but this system was leaving me unfulfilled in a larger sense.

Last fall I took a course to help get my life on track and establish a writing practice. In the first phase, we were encouraged to set goals that we could achieve in approximately three months. One of my goals was to write 30,000 words in my book by the end of January.

This goal sounded intimidating, given that I hadn’t written regularly in ages. But if I wrote, on average, five days a week, I only needed to produce 400 words a day over the 15-week period. Totally reasonable!

But to make this happen, I had to stop staring at the spice shelf.

I had to break my habits of:

  • Making meticulous to-do lists for everyday tasks and striving to check off every item
  • Jumping on non-urgent things to get them “out of the way”
  • Turning trivial chores into complicated, time-consuming projects
  • Insisting on doing everything to my standards, by myself

When I felt the urge to procrastinate with busywork, I had to ask myself:

  • Will I get to these chores eventually, even if they’re not on a to-do list?
  • What would happen if I saved this task for later?
  • Am I being paid to perform this chore at a master level?
  • Can someone else help with this task or take it over altogether?

Doing the above was the only way I could make time for my writing. I had to suffer the pain of watching the laundry pile up higher than usual, push past the discomfort of seeing those damn leaves every time I walked in the front door, and learn to ignore the clutter on the coffee table.

And by Jan. 31 I had exceeded my writing goal, pounding out a grand total of 40,060 words. Writing was the star ingredient in my plan, and by placing my attention there, I produced the result I desired.

Standing Up to Cravings

When you do the hard work to break a bad habit or addiction—like smoking or drinking—you will likely recognize the same thought patterns that kept you stuck as they pop up around other behaviors.

For example: I am a salt freak. I cannot adequately stress how much I love salt. My placemat at the dining table is covered in salt. If I eat tuna salad on top of lettuce, I will probably salt it at least 10 times throughout the meal.

My blood pressure has never been high, so I wielded that salt shaker with abandon for decades. Recently I read that there are other negative health risks associated with sodium besides high blood pressure, so I decided to experiment with cutting back on salt in my diet.

In addition to reading the labels more closely on packaged food and reducing the amount of salt I add while cooking, I promised myself I would refrain from using any salt on my meals until my taste buds were restored to their factory settings.

This experiment started about a month ago, and it’s been a challenging four weeks. Suddenly, a salt drama queen was unleashed inside my head. You want me to eat cooked veggies without salt? she screamed. Wait, no salt on scrambled eggs?! What about a baked potato? Surely, we can make an exception for chicken salad. A little bit won’t hurt!

My salt queen has been describing everything I eat as boring and bland. She has even suggested that all the color has been drained from my (our?) life. How will we survive this wasteland devoid of salty goodness?

More black pepper? Yes, please, but not the same. Mrs. Dash? Nope. Maybe hot sauce? That seemed promising until I checked and saw that most of our hot sauces contain a fair amount of sodium.

My salt abstention is reminiscent of giving up cigarettes ten years ago and alcohol four years ago. In all three cases, the physical cravings were amplified by the mental and emotional links that had solidified over time.

Each time, my mind did not want to go through the readjustment period required to break those links. To me, so many foods are supposed to taste like salt. Just like long phone conversations with friends were supposed to be accompanied by cigarette after cigarette. And dinners at restaurants were supposed to feature a free flow of alcohol.

Not only that, but my use of alcohol and cigarettes had become deeply intertwined with each other. When I first quit smoking, I didn’t think I could drink a bottle of wine without going through a pack of cigarettes. Well, I proved myself wrong—I went on drinking smoke-free just fine. Then, when I quit drinking six years later, I found a way to continue eating nice meals out without alcohol.

So, now I find myself disentangling the consumption of myriad foods from copious amounts of salt. It sounds like a minor thing, but sadly it is not. My salt queen has calmed down some, but she still thinks our meals have been downgraded to black and white.

When you try to remove a longtime habit from your life, you realize how important it has become to you. How it has grown like ivy, spreading and twisting itself around many parts of your life. How a voice inside your head has been put in charge of its defense.

Deeply ingrained habits can be detached from your life, but first you must stand up to that stubborn voice, and you must be willing to sever every last vine.

Posts Against Humanity

Have you ever started a sentence with “I do not understand how a person can…” or “I’m not sure why people don’t…”? Many of us do it. Such a statement sounds like curiosity about human nature, but usually it is an expression of frustration with those who don’t act or think as we do.

I have a folder on my computer containing screenshots of social media posts and comments that demonstrate an irritation with how foolish people can be. These are not the nastiest posts on the Internet. They’re the everyday digs meant to spotlight our wisdom compared to someone else’s ignorance.    

I’m not trying to shame anyone, but I believe our tendency to puff ourselves up by belittling others is a human trait that sows division while accomplishing nothing. Here are some specific examples from my collection:

Example 1: Toughen Up, Snowflake

My neighborhood has a Facebook group where people gather to debate anything and everything. One year our homeowner’s association sent out an email suggesting that, due to a forecast of heavy rain and winds for Oct. 31, Halloween activities should take place on Nov. 1. An intense online battle followed.

Common reactions included, “I have no idea how I survived my childhood trick or treating in not wonderful weather! I’m SO lucky I lived to see adulthood,” and “Halloween is on October 31 . . . Come to my house on Friday and you get NADA!” and “I’m gonna laugh when it doesn’t rain.”

Predictably, it didn’t rain until after trick-or-treating hours, and the Oct. 31 purists did, in fact, report that they were enjoying a good chuckle.

Most people were ok with choosing between Oct. 31 and Nov. 1, and some promised to hand out candy on both nights. But a vocal minority made clear that they thought anyone opting for the Nov. 1 alternative was raising their kids to be wimps.

Example 2:  You Dog is a Hot Mess

A neighbor once commented that their dog hates being home alone, and someone theorized: “Your dog has separation anxiety because you’ve failed to properly train her.” When a third person suggested that the dog in question might be a rescue with trauma issues, the reply was, “You can always re-train a dog. Failure to do so is mistreatment because it is stressful for the dog to live that way.” Is advice offered in this manner ever helpful, or was it more important for this commenter to project their righteousness?

Example 3: Shaming the Kiddos

Some people are even willing to shame their own children! An acquaintance posted a photo of a small child sitting on the floor of a bedroom, with their face buried in their arms. The caption read, “Someone lost their doorknob privileges…” with an empty doorknob hole clearly visible. Was the goal here disciplining a child or scoring some online laughs from other adults?

Maybe I’m overreacting. Perhaps someone will accuse me of having “a case of the angry sads,” or a commenter will note: “Some people just need to obsess their way into writing a blog about pretty much anything. Grow up.”

Even if I am a big snowflake, collecting these examples has helped me become more aware of my own inclination to elevate my ego atop a hill of mockery and scorn. Now, I try to catch myself when I start to say, “I don’t understand why people…” and I make an effort to do just that—understand.