Are You Ready to Shine?

Basketball isn’t exactly my favorite sport, but I’m familiar with the major players. I was a big Michael Jordan fan back in the day, I’m mildly obsessed with Shaquille O’Neal, and my current faves are Bradley Beal, Steph Curry, and Kevin Durant. If one of the NBA teams from my various hometowns appears headed to the playoffs, I usually start paying attention.

So, when the New York Knicks brought backup player Jeremy Shu-How Lin off the bench in 2012, and the team proceeded to go on a thrilling run, I took notice. It’s hard to overstate the frenzy that became known as “Linsanity.” Lin was on fire, helping resuscitate the Knicks at the end of a disappointing season.  

The crowds were going nuts. Fans held up signs with playful puns on Lin’s name—like “Truly a Linderella story”—and waved giant carboard print-outs of Lin’s face. Suddenly, I was counting the minutes until the next Knicks game. The energy exploded through our television, and I found myself jumping up and cheering.

Lin was all over the local New York City newspapers. He appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated several times, scored the cover of TIME magazine, and even had his own flavor of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. The Knicks made it to the postseason thanks in large part to Lin’s play, but he exited prior to the playoffs due to a knee injury. Linsanity was over, but what a ride it was while it lasted.

Not to insult Lin, but I’m guessing he won’t be remembered on the same level as basketball greats like Jordan or LeBron James, or even within the next several tiers of players. But for seven glorious weeks in 2012, no one was more talked about or admired in the sports arena.

I have long enjoyed watching people excel in their chosen fields. I think most humans are drawn to dramatic success stories. Our appreciation is usually limited to those whose work takes place on the public stage—like athletes, actors, musicians, and other performing artists.

As a writer, I have struggled to come to terms with my lack of achievement. While I was in college, I came to believe that rising to the top of the literary world was essential to my sense of self-worth. Anything less would indicate that I was inadequate. Instead of working hard to prove that I was more than adequate, I simply gave up under my own judgmental eye.

These days, I’m comfortable admitting that it’s a long shot I’ll ever be a famous, decorated author. Very few people get to sit atop the heap. But I do believe that Linsanity-like moments of transcendence are available to us all, regardless of who we are or what we do.

I’m talking about experiences where everything comes together, when you’re in a groove and it just feels right.

Here’s a real-time example: I wrote a full-length memoir recently. After thoroughly editing it twice, I recruited some test readers to determine if I have something worth publishing. Despite my fears, I took a deep breath and hit send on a series of emails. The comments have started coming in, and I’ve had conversations with several readers.

For someone who less than five years ago thought she had given up on her writing for good, it sure is a bizarre feeling to discuss your manuscript with someone, to hear what passages touched them and what made them laugh. Maybe this book won’t be read by more than a handful of people, but the experience of having it reflected back to me by someone else has been priceless. I imagine it’s a little like having a crowd painting your name on signs and screaming for you.  

A New York Times article reported how Lin was “underestimated and overlooked” for years and credited his breakthrough with the Knicks to his “perseverance, hard work and self-belief.”

You have to be open to the possibility of channeling Linsanity. You have to put yourself out there. You have to let the coach of the universe know that you’re ready to shine.

Stepping up to the line is scary. Going for a promotion, taking your first-ever ballroom dance class, heck, even attending a party after these long lockdowns—challenges of any size can be intimidating.  

But if you can get past the assumption that being “the best” is the only trophy worth having, then you can bask in your own personal breakthroughs.

An Intentional Life: Steps 3-4, Goals and Motivation

My “Colorful Week” board

In case you missed it: Step 1 | Step 2

Steps 3 and 4 in my life-balance framework go hand-in-hand, so I’m going to cover both of them in this post. When last we met, you divided your Automatic and Willpower activities into The Four Ps and then gave each category a rating based on your current activity level. Grab your work from that Step 2 exercise, and let’s jump in!

Step 3, Goals

First, determine a set period of time during which you will work on building new habits. I suggest anywhere from four weeks to three months. For your first time doing this, I wouldn’t go any shorter or longer—but ultimately, it’s up to you!

Now, look at your ratings for each of The Four Ps. Where would you like to be at the end of this set time period? Do you want to do more in one of the Ps and less in another? There might even be a P where you don’t necessarily want to move up or down in intensity, but you’d like to reprioritize the activities you’re doing within that category.

Let’s say you’re using numbers for your scales. You’ve determined that you are doing a lot of activities in Productivity and Play but few in Progress and Peace. So, you might want to move from an 8 to a 6 in Productivity, and from a 7 to a 5 in Play. In Progress, you’d like to move from a 3 to a 5, and in Peace from a 2 to a 4.

Remember: This exercise is subjective—there are no perfect levels to achieve. These ratings are there to help you envision how to adjust the balance of activities that fill your days. But they are only a guide, not grades.

So, how are you going to turn the dials up or down? Under each P, list several actions that you can start performing either more or less frequently, which will help you move in the desired direction.

Here are a few examples:

Productivity (aim to spend less time and energy here)

– Split up laundry duty with other family members.

– Scale back frequency of yard work.

– Consolidate errands into once or twice weekly trips instead of small daily trips.

Play (aim to spend less time or higher-quality time here)

– Limit social media scrolling to 2x/day (15 min. max each).

– Take two nights off a week from TV/Netflix.

– Phone, Zoom, or visit with friends instead of just texting.

Progress (aim to increase activity level here)

– Do yoga 2x/week; experiment to find suitable time of day.

– Read before bed 3x/week.

– Start taking pottery lessons.

Peace (aim to increase time spent here)

– Make a gratitude list 3x/week after breakfast.

– Take a walk outside 2x/week with phone in pocket for emergencies only.

– Sign up for free trial w/meditation app and aim for 10 min. sessions 2-3x/week.

Try to make your goals specific and achievable. If you set your goals too high, you might get frustrated. Small, incremental changes will add up.

Step 4, Motivation

Now it’s time to create some motivation. I designed a reward system for performing new actions. It is ridiculously simple—so simple, you might question whether it’s worth doing.

Refer back to the list of goals that you just developed. Take the activities that you want to start doing regularly and assign each a one-word label, such as: Exercise, Yoga, Nature, Learn, Write, Craft, Meditate. This list should not include any activities that you’re already doing regularly; the purpose here is to motivate you to do the things you’re not doing.

Decide how you want to track your rewards. My online course was going to have a cool app to help participants do this, but for now you’re on your own. Get creative or keep it simple. Here are some ideas…

You could keep a running note in your phone, and under each day, add the word for each activity you perform that day.

Or, you can go big and colorful, like I did (and still do). I bought Post-its in lots of different colors, and gave each activity its own color. I got a big white board (but you could use a piece of poster board or even an old mirror or framed picture) and wrote the days of the week across the top. Each day, I add the appropriate color squares, and then at the end of the week I take a photo of the board, move the squares back over to the holding area, and start all over again.

You could do a version of this on a piece of paper using colored markers or in a document on your laptop. I like having something highly visible. I find it inspiring to watch as my habits develop—it helps me spot patterns and see where I can use some more color.

There are no rigid rules as to when you’re allowed to give yourself credit for having done an activity—that is up to you. Perhaps you read a book for 10 minutes instead of scrolling through social media. Give yourself a reward!

Maybe you’re thinking, these labels or squares don’t sound like much of a reward. Give it a try anyway; I think you’ll find it surprisingly motivating, as I did.

Reflect on how this unfolds: Are some colors showing up more than others? Are any patterns emerging? Do certain times of days work better for adding in new activities?

Not everything will turn into a regular habit, and that’s ok. For example, over the six months that I’ve been doing this, I’ve seen reading, writing, yoga, and meditating form into pretty solid habits. Exercise, crafting, and learning remain more like options on an à la carte list. Still, seeing them listed there helps me remember to do them more often than I would without a reward system.   

Over the last couple years, I’ve read a number of excellent books about habits and motivation, so I created a recommendation list as a supplement to this step. You don’t have to read any of these books, but if you do, I’m sure you’ll find them helpful, especially Atomic Habits by James Clear.

I’ll be back in about four weeks with the final step. In the meantime, good luck, and I wish you many colorful days!

An Intentional Life: Step 2, Balance

In case you missed it: Step 1

For years I’ve been developing a framework to help me build a more intentional life. During the pandemic, I started transforming this concept into an online course. The live version of the course is currently on hold, but I decided to start sharing the content here.

In this post, we will walk through the second exercise. Step 2 moves beyond the insights of Step 1, further dividing the activities that fill up your days into what I’ve dubbed The Four Ps.

I first wrote about The Four Ps back in 2016. You don’t have to read that old post, but it goes into a bit more detail about my early experiences with the process, if you’re curious.

Here are The Four Ps and how I define them:

Productivity: A fitting term for this category might be “adulting.” It includes cyclical tasks that must be performed regularly, like paying bills, shopping for groceries, preparing meals, caring for children or other family members, participating in the paid workforce, and so on. Some of us are inclined to load up on these tasks, others less so.

Progress: This category encompasses hobbies, passion projects, and upgrades. These activities typically help you cultivate a body of knowledge, hone a skill, or produce a tangible product. This includes pursuits like writing, painting, knitting, guitar lessons, researching how to start a small business, renovating a bathroom, learning a new language, and so on. They tend to be less recurring and more linear than the Productivity tasks (and one would rarely call them “tasks”).  

Peace: These activities promote quiet contemplation, presence in the moment, or devotion. This category includes activities like spiritual practices, meditation, time in nature, journaling, gratitude practices, and other actions that allow you to refocus and recharge. Other P words that work here are Pause and Perspective.

Play: These are activities you do to have fun without concern for any specific outcome other than relaxation, entertainment, and/or connection. Pamper and Pleasure are two more Ps that apply here. This category includes hanging out with friends, watching Netflix, scrolling through social media, “retail therapy” (yes, I think sustainable amounts of this are ok), getting a pedicure or massage, etc.

If you are feeling dissatisfied or out of sorts, perhaps you are doing too much of one or two of the Ps and not enough of the others. It is my firm belief that working toward a balance of The Four Ps that clicks for you can be life-changing.

Four Ps Exercise

Make sure your list from Step 1 is handy. Now, take another piece of paper (or whatever medium you prefer to use) and draw a vertical line and a horizontal line in the middle so that it’s divided it into four equal squares. Write Productivity at the top of the first square, Progress at the top of the next square, Peace in the third square and Play in the final square. (It really doesn’t matter in what order you place them.)

Take the items from your first sheet and write each one in its appropriate square. Try to find a way to note whether each item came from the Automatic or the Willpower column. You could write an A or W next to each item (whichever applies) or write the Automatics in one color and the Willpowers in another color. Maybe you write the Automatics in lowercase and the Willpowers in ALL CAPS? It’s up to you.

You don’t have to transfer every single item from Sheet 1 to Sheet 2—just the ones that take up significant chunks of time. For example, if you wrote “brush teeth” under Automatic, you could probably skip that one. You will also transfer over the Willpower items that don’t yet take up much time, but which you want or need to do more often.

Some items may fit in more than one category; do your best to limit each item to just one P. For example: I put yoga under Peace, though it could also fall under Progress. As with the first exercise, don’t get hung up on trying to be “perfect” here—if you find yourself wavering, just pick a square.

Now, look at your Four Ps: How do they compare? Do some squares have more Automatic items while others have more Willpower items?

Assess the amount of energy and time you currently dedicate to performing activities in each category. Give each category its own rating for comparison’s sake and to establish a baseline. Previously, I used numeric scales for measurement purposes. These days, I try to avoid using numbers when they aren’t necessary because they feed into my OCD tendencies.

My paid version of this course was going to have a kick-ass color-based system to give each category an “intensity” rating (shout out to my husband who was going to do the coding). For now, you can use a scale of 0-10, or a letter rating, or whatever floats your boat. Feel free to get creative!

A score at one end of your range indicates that you’re doing zero regular activities in the category; a score at the other end of the range signals that you’re performing a heavy load of tasks in the category. For most people, the high end of the scale is not the goal—in fact, it likely means you’re overloaded in the category.

Once you have assigned your ratings, ask yourself: How do I feel about the balance that my Four Ps depict? Would I like the categories to be closer in intensity?

As we move on, remember that there is no ideal recipe for The Four Ps—only the formula that best suits you.

Until next time, great work!

Ready for more? Move on to Steps 3 and 4.

An Intentional Life: Step 1, Awareness

Over the past six months, in addition to writing and editing my memoir, I’ve been developing an online course. The concept is based on a life-balance framework that I first wrote about on this blog way back in 2016.

For a long time, I felt stuck in my daily routine. I wanted to cultivate a more fulfilling mix of activities in my life, but I was always putting off taking action. So, I started reading about habits and motivation. Then, I experimented with how to set new priorities and make mindful choices. A course I took from Jocelyn K. Glei called RESET also helped get my butt in gear.

The approach I came up with worked so well that I am now writing, reading, practicing yoga, and meditating regularly—all things I was struggling to do before.

I’ve decided to pause creating the live version of this course, but I still think the ideas are worth sharing. So, I’m going to post the content here in four steps, similar to how the course would have unfolded in Zoom sessions.

If you aren’t quite ready to hire a life coach but could use some tools to shape an intentional life that works for you, my approach just might help.

Activities Exercise

Start by taking a close look at how you currently spend your time—this includes activities that you do on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis.

Take out a piece of paper and draw a vertical line down the middle (or do this on your laptop, on a white board, your phone, whatever makes you happy). At the top of the left column, write Automatic. At the top of the right column, write Willpower. Then, start listing activities under each category, as defined below:

Automatic – These are activities that you perform freely, with little-to-no prodding (from yourself or others). This includes activities that you find fun or rewarding, habits that have become second nature, and tasks that you perform willingly out of a sense of responsibility.

Willpower – These are activities you want or need to do, but do not perform consistently (if at all). You have to summon significant willpower to start and/or complete these tasks, so they rarely get done. This includes activities that you find boring, challenging, or alien to your regular routine. 

Here’s a condensed example of my sheet from when I first started doing this:

Automatic

  • Watch TV
  • Scroll on social media
  • Caretaking for Mom
  • Walk the dog
  • Make meals
  • Pay bills
  • Texting with friends
  • “Busy” work (tidying, organizing)

Willpower

  • Read (and finish) books
  • Write and edit
  • Yoga
  • Meditate
  • Cardio exercise
  • Crafting
  • Calls and visits with friends
  • “Heavy” chores (bathrooms, floors)

Take your time and try to get down as many activities as possible. My full list had 22 items in each column! Sometimes a task seems to fall in the middle. Try your best to put it in one column or the other—you’re not being graded, so just pick a side.

Now, reflect on why items landed in either column and how you might shake things up. Ask yourself these five questions:

  1. Why do I perform the Automatic activities on a regular basis? This may include a variety of reasons, depending on the task. You don’t have to do this for every item, but try picking out at least five and asking why. Keep going if you’re having fun and gaining insight.
  2. Why are the Willpower activities so challenging for me to perform regularly? Again, varied reasons may apply, depending on the task. Start with a few items and continue as long as you like.
  3. Which Willpower items would I most like to incorporate into my schedule? It is highly unlikely that you’re going to suddenly start doing everything in the right column. This approach is about creating a sustainable balance—not pushing yourself to take on too much. As you move on to later steps, you may want to build habits for some of these Willpower activities so that you perform them regularly; for others, you may simply want to be more mindful that they’re on your menu.
  4. Are there any Automatic tasks that I can scale back or delegate to other people in order to free up time for Willpower activities? Circle those tasks. (Sadly, there is no magic way to add minutes to your day. You must make the time yourself, and the Automatic column is where you look to do so.)
  5. Am I resistant to the prospect of letting go of any of the Automatic tasks? If so, why?

This exercise might seem like a giant no-brainer, but I promise you that being more aware of how you spend your time is critical to moving forward. Getting it down on paper can be hugely enlightening, even to those of us who consider ourselves highly self-reflective.

Splendid work—good for you for getting started!

When you’re ready, you can move on to Step 2.

Hokey and Proud

The wall above my desk is super cheesy, eh?

I just wrote a book—a full-on 64,000-plus word book! The process started last September, and it took me five months to finish the first draft. Then, I needed three months to complete two extremely thorough edits. Yesterday, I sent the manuscript out to some trusted folks to give it a read and let me know if I have something worth publishing.

For a person with a history of anxiety and catastrophizing, this is a big leap. Especially since the book is about my self-doubt—how I came to have it, how it held me back, and how I am finally moving past it.

I have much trepidation about the forthcoming responses from my test readers. Amongst my many fears is the sinking feeling that this memoir reveals me to be hopelessly trite. And I don’t think I’m alone in preferring not to be associated with that trait.

Call it what you like—hokey, cheesy, corny, sentimental, earnest—it’s a quality that our society doesn’t typically value, at least not proudly. These words might mean slightly different things, but I think they all imply a certain softness, and being soft marks us as vulnerable.

On the Ten Percent Happier meditation app (which I use faithfully), co-founder and journalist Dan Harris has referred to his aversion to coming across as cheesy. It’s helpful to know that someone as successful as Harris struggles with the connotations of this label.

I’ve come up with some examples from my own life to help illustrate what I’m talking about here. I think you will agree that some of this stuff is pretty embarrassing:

Hokey – Making up a song about our dog, sung to the tune of Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy

Cheesy – Clapping along with an audience on TV (I get this from my mom)

Corny – Using sayings like “good golly!” and “holy guacamole!”

Goofy – Dancing down an empty aisle at the grocery store

Sentimental – Crying while watching This Is Us

Treacly – Crying while watching Top Chef’s Restaurant Week (it was soooo good this season)!

Trite – Hanging inspirational quotes, like “enjoy the journey,” on the wall above my desk

Earnest – Believing an “angel” in human form was sent to save me at just the right time

As I typed this list, it occurred to me that these behaviors and emotions are coded (at least partly) as feminine and/or young. Our culture tends to idolize femininity and youth, but we don’t seem to respect them. There is a delicacy that makes femininity and youth special but not dignified.

Dignity, on the other hand, is a characteristic that conveys strength and power, which is coded as masculine and mature. I’m not saying I agree with the associations of these words as being female or male, or that one or the other is necessarily good or bad. I just wish we could get beyond the kinds of simplistic characterizations that hem us in and make us anxious.

Personally, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being soft. We are all fragile sometimes. And if we’re lucky, we feel free to act silly when the mood strikes us. I don’t think anyone is immune to these attributes—it’s just a question of whether we are in touch with them and can embrace them.

If my book, and by extension me, turns out to be sappy, I will wear that badge proudly.  

Accepting New Things

There’s a saying that goes, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” According to the internet, this quote is a mash-up of writings by Mahatma Ghandi and a 1914 speech by union leader Nicholas Klein.

These men were referring to the gradual success of political movements, but I think the insight captures the spirit of how we humans respond to all kinds of new things.

Earlier this year, I went to pick up food at a Five Guys burger joint, and while I waited, I became fascinated with a sign that was attached to the side of their soda machine. I don’t know if you’ve ever interacted with one of these touch-screen soda machines, but they’re pretty cool. You can choose from like a thousand options of soda, tea, lemonade, sports drinks, and fruit flavorings. It makes the traditional soda fountain look quaint and insufficient.

The sign instructed customers that they could use their smart phone to scan a QR code from the screen of the soda machine. This would allow them to select from all of the same beverage options through their phone rather than having to touch a screen that other people may have touched.

At first, I rolled my eyes hard. I snapped a photo of the sign, looking forward to sharing this ridiculousness with my husband. He, too, chuckled when he saw it.

Months later, I was scrolling through my phone and happened upon that photo. With some distance, it didn’t seem quite so silly. Why not offer people an option that takes advantage of the powerful technology that so many of us carry around? Who was this sign hurting? OK, it might slow down the line a tad as people try to figure out the app, but what’s the problem with slowing down for a minute or two?

Things that are new and different scare us. Our minds haven’t yet figured out why we need them or how they work, so we reject them. Why is that? Maybe the primitive part of our brain worries that if we don’t understand something, if we have to incorporate new information in order to “get” it, that implies something is lacking in us.

But as time goes on, and we acquire that knowledge without even trying, as we think about it some more and become familiar with the new thing, we start to warm up to it.

Sometimes, like the quote, we still fight against the new thing. And those who fight don’t always win. But slowly, the new thing becomes a part of our culture, and we grow to accept it. Can you think of an example of a practice that was shunned, even outlawed, which is now embraced? I bet you can. This has been happening for centuries in societies all over the world. The process can be long or short or anywhere in between.

This same principle is at work in our personal lives. We resist making changes. The new thing—think meditation, exercise, journaling—runs counter to the self that we know. Contemplating adding this new thing to our existence suggests that we are currently incomplete or deficient. And that makes us feel unsafe, so we puff ourselves up by snickering at the alien thing.

However, once you immerse yourself in something unusual, the process of acceptance speeds up—like stepping your foot on the gas. We can all override our instinct to ridicule the new and unusual, and the reward is a more expansive life and a more inclusive society.

The Next Best Thing to Stopping Time

At least once a week I grumble to myself, “I wish I could make time stand still. Why can’t the world stop spinning for just one day?” Then, I picture people freezing in place while I get caught up on my errands, so that I can eventually unwind.

That word eventually is key. For some reason, my brain is convinced that I can’t truly enjoy relaxing or doing something fun unless I have nothing important hanging over my head. And my definition of important is generous, so it’s darn near impossible to achieve the state of tranquility I’m seeking.

I might even delay going to the bathroom in order to put on a load of laundry, answer a couple emails, and wash a few dishes—until my bladder is about to burst.

A couple weeks ago I was standing in the kitchen, agitated about something, when I said it again: “I wish I could stop time.”

Instead of bemoaning my lack of magical powers, I decided to explore that yearning.

For as long as I can remember, being responsible has felt like carrying a backpack full of bricks that I cannot put down. Those bricks represent all the things I need to do or think I should do, plus my concern with performing each task to a precise standard.

While I was pondering this self-oppressing sense of obligation, I remembered that I was about to celebrate four years of sobriety on May 12. Aha! The connection between the two emerged in a flash.

For decades, I used drinking to stop time. Not really, of course— I know alcohol doesn’t prevent time from moving forward. But consuming vast quantities of it puts you in a bubble of sorts where time marches on around you, but you stand blissfully still.

I thought about all the times that alcohol allowed me to switch off my brain and cast time aside. I might be out at a restaurant with my husband waiting for a table, but as long as we were having drinks at the bar, the time ticking away didn’t seem so bad.

Or, I might be hanging with friends, and as the booze took hold, we didn’t care that we had some place else to be (including bed). All that mattered was the alcohol-induced timeline we were inhabiting and the way it was slowing down and stretching out endlessly.

If I came home from a stressful day at work, sitting on the couch with a glass of wine that I kept refilling made the night feel longer, looser.

Stopping time with alcohol worked temporarily, but it introduced its own set of problems—not the least of which was a net increase in my anxiety rather than a decrease.

In the years since my last drink, I’ve found healthier ways to relieve my stress—I write a lot about those strategies here on my blog.

And without realizing it, I’ve also been experimenting with pausing the world. I discovered that Pilates, yoga, hiking, kayaking, and paddle boarding give the over-thinking part of my brain a breather. Engaging in these activities truly is the next best thing to stopping time.

Removing alcohol from your life is not the final answer. Being sober is for figuring things out. Every year or so, a new question or a new answer presents itself.

So, this year I’ve acknowledged that only I can grant myself permission to chill and have fun without running through a gauntlet of chores first. And finding healthy ways to slip from the mental bounds of time is critical to my well-being.

Snowed In: Part VI, Accumulation

In case you missed it: Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV | Part V

I hoped Jocelyn hadn’t seen any change on my face. If her boyfriend was trying to ditch her, I needed to keep her occupied. That was my first instinct.

“The singing competition?” I asked. “He told you about that?”

“Yeah, he said you tried out after college for that show, and you made it through the auditions.”

Why had my dad told her about that?

“Did he say what happened next?”

“Only that you didn’t make it on TV. But he was proud of you.”

I gulped down some more wine. I could see shadows out in the snow.

“Well, what really happened was…I got there, and everyone else was so talented and ambitious and committed to becoming a star. I chickened out and left after a couple days.”

I had never said that part of the story out loud. Everyone just thought I failed, but I knew it was even worse. My brother was right, I had auditioned because I was trying to win my dad’s approval, and once I got to the next stage, I realized that wasn’t going to be enough.

“What did you sing for your audition?”

Why was Jocelyn so interested in this? Normally, I would have avoided this conversation at all costs, but now I was trying to fill time.

“Midnight by Yaz.”

“I don’t know that song. How does it go?”

I started singing. About halfway through, tears started trickling down my face, and I didn’t care.

Midnight, it’s raining outside, he must be soaking wet
Everyone is sleeping tight, God knows I tried my best
Darling, you know it looks bad
Just lost the best thing that I ever had, well
Still I don’t know why I did him wrong, no
It’s too late, now, he’s gone to say

Baby, oh, no, can’t leave me now
Said, think about it, please
‘Cause I love you, and I need you
And I should have thought of that before I did you wrong

Jocelyn stood up suddenly and ran from the dining room. I followed her to the den, where we found the room empty.

“Where the hell are they, Elise?”

“I have no idea. I was in the dining room with you, Jocelyn.” I wiped the tears from my face.

How the hell had Jack snuck everyone out without us hearing? There was a deck attached to the den—maybe they went out that way. Their escape would be a challenge with the kids, so maybe we still had time to catch them.

“Let’s go!” I yelled and ran to the coat closet. We both grabbed our jackets and headed outside.

The snow had piled up as high as the top of my boots. We could see fresh, deep footprints on the steps. I looked to my right to the neighbor’s driveway. The headlights were on, the engine was running, and it looked like Jack was helping the guys clear off the car. In the lights, I could see how fast and heavy the snow was coming down.

“No time for the steps,” I whispered to Jocelyn. “We can cut across the yard, but we have to be careful.”

I reached out and grabbed her hand.

Not only did I want all of them gone, but my mind had shifted, and I could no longer bear the thought of Dean leaving Jocelyn behind. It was a shitty thing for him to do, regardless of her messed up scheme. I could see why Jack was helping Dean, but I didn’t want it to end like this.

The walk from our front step to our neighbor’s driveway included large rocks and tree roots, which were hiding beneath the snow. Had we lived in the house longer, I might have been more familiar with the location of these obstacles. Plus, I was feeling the effects of the wine.

“Maybe he was coming back for me,” Jocelyn said. “He just wanted me to finish up with you.”

We both knew that was a stretch.

I stepped on something and almost fell. “Watch out here, I think there are some stones.”

I wondered if they could see us from the driveway. The car had been backed in, and its headlights were pointed toward the road. With all the snow, I thought there was a chance we might surprise them.

“I need to sit down a minute,” Jocelyn said. She was flushed, like when she first arrived at the house.

“We need to keep going.”

“I can’t.” She was brushing snow away, creating a place to sit on one of the stones.

“Stay right there, I’m heading up to stop them,” I said.

I looked back once at Jocelyn sitting there in the snow. She looked so alone yet peaceful.

As I got closer to the driveway, I shouted, “Hey, you guys forgot someone!”

The three men turned to look at me trudging through the snow. The car was pretty much dug out.

“Elise,” Jack started to say something, but I cut him off.

“Jack, how will Jocelyn get home if they leave her here?”

“She seems pretty capable of handling herself,” he said.

I had reached the car. I could see that the fake mechanic dude was using our shovel to create a path in front of the car.

“How do you guys think you’re going to drive away in all this snow?” I asked.

“Oh, we’re getting out of here, don’t you worry,” said Dean.

“Let me get Jocelyn, she’s right down there,” I pleaded, motioning to the property line between the two houses.

“Look lady, she might have gotten to you, but I’m done. I don’t think she knows whether she’s lying or telling the truth anymore.”

Dean and the other guy jumped in the car. I could see the kids in the back seat. They looked terrified.

I pounded on the driver’s window, “You are putting these kids’ lives at risk!”

Dean rolled down the window a crack, “Don’t you tell me what to do with my kids. Now move the fuck away!”

I stepped back and fell on my ass. I wanted so badly to just lie down in the snow and stay there. As Jack leaned over to help me up, the car started moving forward.

“Jocelyn!” I screamed and ran back the way I came, with Jack behind me.

Jocelyn was gone.

There were footprints leading to our stairs. We followed them and headed up to street level in time to see the car driving slowly in the other direction. There was no sign of Jocelyn.

Jack informed me that he had no interest in looking for Jocelyn. He went in the house, and I walked all over our property, falling several times, calling out Jocelyn’s name.

After I don’t know how long, I finally went inside and told Jack everything, including the parts I had been leaving out for years.

*****

A couple days later I called my dad. I asked him if he had been seeing a young woman who told him she was pregnant. He claimed he had no idea who this woman was—just some scam artist, probably. And then he closed the subject. I resigned myself that I would never know who or what to believe.

Next, I spoke with my mom. She wouldn’t say if she had written a letter to Jocelyn—she said there were some things she might never be able to discuss with me. But when I offered to help her get away from dad and that maybe the two of us could take a break from drinking, she took me up on the offer.

Finally, I called my brother, and we mended our relationship. I didn’t tell him about Jocelyn specifically, but I told him I had seen our dad from a new perspective. I even got him to ease up on Mom.

We never saw or heard from Jocelyn or Dean again. Jack and I lived in that house for 25 years, and I always wondered if she might come back, but she didn’t.

We weathered the pandemic in that house, raised two kids together, and did our best to always tell each other the truth.

But you can only know your own story, right? And that’s a fact you learn to live with, hopefully—sometimes the hard way.

Thanks for reading Snowed In!

Midnight lyrics by Alison Moyet

Snowed In: Part V, Negotiation

In case you missed it: Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV

Jocelyn demanded to speak with me, and she refused to do so in front of Dean. Jack did not want to leave me alone with her, but he didn’t want to leave the two men alone, either. Eventually, Jocelyn and I decided to go into the dining room, and the three men headed to the den to sit with the kids.

On the way to the dining room, Jocelyn opened the coat closet, plucked an envelope from her jacket pocket, and carried it with her.

We sat down at either end of the dining room table. I didn’t say a word. Jocelyn was going to have to go first.

She opened the envelope and removed a piece of paper, unfolded it, and smoothed it out on the table.

“This is a letter from your mom,” Jocelyn announced. “Susan, right?”

My stomach dropped like an elevator falling 80 floors.

Jocelyn continued: “Your dad is Greg. We met when he was on a work trip, and we started going out whenever he came to town. He always treated me nice. Then I got this note from your mom telling me to back off.”

“She wouldn’t do that,” I said, trying to keep any hint of emotion from my voice.

Jocelyn held the letter up. “Is this her handwriting?”

I squinted. “I don’t know,” I said, but it was a strong possibility.

“She says here that he’s had girlfriends in towns all up and down the east coast—that there’s nothing special about me. She told me to move on, to find someone who’s not married.”

My wineglass and the open bottle were sitting on the sideboard, hovering at the edge of my vision. I wanted a drink so bad. I needed to stay alert, but my nerves were on fire. Maybe the alcohol would help?

“Um…Elise?”

How long had I been thinking about that wine?

“What the heck do you want, Jocelyn?”

“Well, first I want you to tell me that I’m speaking to the right person.”

I took a deep breath. “I don’t think you’re speaking to the right person at all. But if you’re asking if Greg and Susan are my parents, then yes, they are.”

Jocelyn sat back a bit in her chair. She was studying me.

“I don’t think I can help you in this situation. I honestly didn’t know my mother cared enough to send a letter like that.” I reminded myself that there was a chance that the letter was fake—that all or most of this tale was a fabrication.

“Forget your mom. Let’s talk about your dad.” Jocelyn leaned forward again, elbows on the table. “Around the time I got the letter, I found out I was pregnant. I told your dad, and he said he didn’t believe me. He thought I was trying to con him.”

My head was like a busy airport, and my thoughts were a hundred planes getting ready to take off. Which plane should I choose? What was the right path?

Jocelyn turned her palms to the ceiling. “Look, Elise, I really liked your dad. We had some good times. I didn’t expect us to get married or anything, but I couldn’t believe he just blew me off, stopped responding to my texts and calls.”

I rested my chin on my hand and tried to present a calmly quizzical look. “How do I know this isn’t a con? Your plan seems…” I searched for a word that wouldn’t set her off, “…impractical.”

She was offended anyway. “What the hell do you know about my plan?”

Every time Jocelyn’s anger surfaced, my own rose up to meet it.

“I know that you brought two small kids into a stranger’s house. I know you wasted a lot of time while it’s snowing like crazy out there. And I know you’re afraid to talk about this in front of Dean.”

“I’m not afraid of anything, Elise. I just didn’t want him to have to listen to me talk about your dad. He’s already heard enough about Greg.”

I sighed, “Okay…”

Jocelyn took the cue and went on: “When I started showing, I tracked down your dad. Boy, was he pissed off. He told me to get lost. He said I must have gone out and gotten pregnant to try and scam money from him.”

“Did you?” Ugh, that slipped out.

“Jeez. Like father, like daughter. No, Elise. I started dating Dean not long after your dad tossed me aside, but I was already pregnant. Dean doesn’t particularly want to be here, but he agrees with me that a man needs to take responsibility for his kid.”

“So, what do you expect me to do about it, Jocelyn?”

“Tell your dad to be a man and stand up.”

I wondered what would happen if I said no. How far was she going to take this?

“Why should I trust you? How do I know you’re not some grifter trying to hustle my dad or me out of money?”

“Sounds like you watch too much TV, Elise.”

“All right, then tell me, did your car really break down?”

Jocelyn pursed her lips. No answer.

“And who the hell is that mechanic? Seriously, Jocelyn, who is he?”

“He’s a friend of Dean’s. He came along for extra security. I think he must’ve gotten tired of sitting in the cold car.”

“And Dean’s fall on the steps, was that real?”

“I’m fairly sure that was real. I can’t imagine Dean going rogue on me like that.”

I stood up, grabbed that damn wine bottle from the sideboard, poured myself a big glass, and sat back down. I let the glass sit in front of me, untouched for the moment.

“Do you see why I might not trust a word you say?”

“I have a print-out from my doctor. It shows when I got pregnant. It’s in there, too.” She tapped on the envelope, which now that I looked at it, did appear to have another piece of paper in it.

I should ask to see both pages up close, I told myself. She hadn’t handed them to me yet, so she could be bluffing.

Instead, I changed the subject.

“Jocelyn, when we were in the living room you said that maybe you were here to save me. What did you mean by that?”

She smiled, and I immediately regretted asking.

“Maybe this is your opportunity to stop being a daddy’s girl. Maybe I’m here to help you put to rest any lingering illusions you might have about your dad.”

My heart sank. Either Jocelyn was an astute observer of the human condition, or my dad had told her about me. Possibly both.

I could feel my eyes welling up, so I finally lifted the wineglass and took a long swallow.

“You’re just fishing, Jocelyn,” I said in a shaky voice that was not at all convincing.

“Tell me about the singing competition, Elise,” she said, and she leaned back with a smirk.

Before I could burst into tears, something caught my eye in the window behind Jocelyn. Was Dean trying to make a break for it?

Coming Up: Part VI, Accumulation

Snowed In: Part IV, Trust

In case you missed it: Part I | Part II | Part III

Trust is this invisible thing that holds families and societies together. It allows people to count on each other. When you have it, you don’t think too much about it. But when you lose it, you start questioning everything.

Could we trust these strangers in our house?

Could I believe my husband?

And you: Can you trust me? What if I’m one of those unreliable narrators? What if I’ve conjured up one or more of these characters in my head? I promise you I haven’t, but why should you believe me?

When I was a kid, I thought my life was pretty normal. When you feel safe and solid, you don’t think to yourself, I feel safe. You just feel that way. For seventeen years, it never crossed my mind that I might be standing on a rotting foundation.

Sure, I wished my dad were around more. He stayed late at the office a lot and went on frequent work trips. But he consistently showed up for my school choir concerts. He was the one who encouraged me to try out for solos. When I started acting in musicals, too, he was so proud of me and always brought flowers to my performances.

On the day I was leaving for college, my dad was supposed to be there to say good-bye, but he couldn’t get back in time from a conference. My mom sat down next to me on my bed, packed suitcases and boxes at our feet.

“I hate having to tell you this, but I think it’s time you knew,” she said. “Your dad has been having affairs for years. Whenever he’s late or stuck somewhere, it’s usually another woman. He’s probably with the latest one right now.”

“Wait, what?! You’re kidding, right?”

“I should have left him years ago, but I couldn’t. I kept thinking he would come to his senses and stop. But it’s just who he is.”

“How do you know?”

“Oh, Elise, I’m not going to present you with the evidence. But I could. He knows that I know. We’ve fought about it many times.”

How had I missed all this? I felt so stupid. And betrayed.

She went on: “He won’t deny it if you ask him. I told your brother two years ago before he went to college, and your dad came clean to Matt when he asked.”

“You told Matt two years ago?” Suddenly Matt’s emotional distance since going away made sense.

“I didn’t want to tell you then. You had two years of high school left, and it was so important to you when Dad came to your performances. I couldn’t destroy that.”

“So, you just destroyed it in retrospect,” I hissed. Tears were streaming down my face. I was gasping for air and thought I might pass out.

“We both love you, Elise. Nothing can change that. Your dad is still your dad.”

Mom put her arm around my shoulder, and I threw it off.

“You do know that I have friends coming to pick me up for a three-hour drive, right? Great timing, Mom.”

“I think it’s best this way. Now, if you don’t want to talk to me or your dad for however long, we won’t all be under the same roof.”

On the drive to school, I cried and cried to my two best friends. We all shared a dorm room, and they had to deal with me on many a sad, drunken night. I almost flunked out that first year, but eventually I got my act together.

I never really stopped talking to my parents. I refused to confront my dad about it, and he said nothing, either. I did talk with my brother. Matt told me he had decided to cut them both out of his life entirely. He hated Dad and he couldn’t stand that Mom was putting up with this shit, even after we had both left home.

When I was 21, Matt broke off contact with me. He thought I was still trying to win Dad’s approval. He called me pathetic. It’s been a little over ten years since we’ve spoken.

Mom and Dad still live together, but their marriage is over. It’s just a convenience thing, them sharing the house. It’s a miserable place to visit, so I go for a couple days once a year at most. Mom drinks a lot. She often asks about Matt; she can’t believe he’s not talking to me. Dad, on the other hand, seems light and free. I guess he finally has full permission to do as he pleases.

Sometimes I wonder how many half-siblings I might have out there. Is Jocelyn a child of my dad’s, here to check me out? If so, why go to all this trouble? Why not just send me an email, or knock on the door and say, hi there, I think I’m your sister?

When trust has been yanked away from you so unexpectedly, so completely, it makes you suspicious. Anything becomes possible. Everything is on the table.

*****

“Jocelyn, where are the kids?” Dean asked.

“They’re in the den, watching a movie.”

“I’d like to check on them.”

Dean and Jocelyn looked at each other, and after what could have been years, she went over to the bench and helped him get up. He was limping as they shuffled off to the den.

I grabbed my snow boots from the coat closet next to the bench and put them on as quickly as possible.

“I’m going to clear off the steps,” I announced and dashed out the door.

The snow was falling thick, creating an eerie silence. I looked left and right—where was our damn shovel? I gave up and clomped up the stairs as quick as I could. Up at street level I saw one car, maybe an SUV, parked in the driveway of our weekends-only neighbor. The car had a lot of snow on it. Too much snow on the hood for it to have been opened recently, at least in my estimation. And there was no sign of the mechanic’s vehicle.

I had left Jack alone in the house with those people. What if Dean was faking his injury?

I ran back down the steps, almost falling myself.  

Jack and the mechanic were still standing there, and Jocelyn and Dean were just coming back into the foyer.

“Elise, did you go for a little walk?” Jocelyn asked.

“I was going to shovel the stairs,” I said, realizing how ridiculous I looked, covered in snow, with boots on, but no hat, coat, or gloves. “But I changed my mind.”

Jocelyn started to say something, and I cut her off.

“I think it’s time for all of you to go,” I said, shaking from the cold and the adrenaline surging through my body. I was afraid to kick them out, and I was afraid to let them stay one minute longer.

“Look, Elise, I can explain,” Jocelyn said.

“Explain what, Jocelyn?”

This time Jack cut her off: “No need to explain, just leave, please.”

“We can’t do that, Jack.”

Dean growled, “Let’s just go, Jocelyn. You’ve messed around here long enough, and now I’m hurt, and there’s a ton of snow on the ground. Let’s get the kids and go.”

“No!” Jocelyn shook her head and scrunched up her face. “We won’t be leaving until I get what I came for.”

Coming Up: Part V, Negotiation