An Intentional Life: Step 2, Balance

Other steps: Step 1 | Steps 3-4 | Step 5

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

Other steps: Step 2 | Steps 3-4 | Step 5

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

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