My 2021 Year in Review, Part I

Since launching this blog five years ago, I’ve made some big changes in my life and tried lots of new things. But some days I feel like I’m not doing enough.

I’ve been unemployed for more than a year now. Acting as my mother’s health advocate/personal assistant keeps me pretty busy. Plus, I’m trying to fulfill my longtime dream of becoming a writer. At the same time, I’m trying to accept moving at a slower, gentler pace, which seems to suit me. Still, it’s hard not to feel like I’m behind in a race, and I’m never going to catch up.

While scrolling through Instagram this morning, I encountered a post by author Glennon Doyle that suggested: “Instead of thinking about how far there is to go…consider how far you’ve come.”

So, I decided to review what I’ve been up to in 2021 and give myself credit for all the things I’ve done. Surprisingly, I ended up with so much stuff, I’m doing this in two parts!

If you’re not into me bragging on myself, then I’ll see you in the new year. Otherwise, let’s get started…

Writing

In case you don’t already know, I’ve written a memoir. I started 2021 with about 33,500 words already in my manuscript, and my book now stands at 64,500 words. With all the chapters I added and subtracted, there’s no telling how many words I actually wrote this year.

At the end of spring, I recruited a bunch of people to read my manuscript and provide me with feedback. A total of 10 people have read the whole book so far, including an editor who delivered a very thorough critique. I edited my book a total of five times, and right now it’s with a proofreader.

I joined the Maryland Writers Association and several online self-publishing support groups. I’ve reached out to other writers who have published independently and learned a lot from them. I even got started working on a cover with someone I met through one of my groups. Originally, I thought I would publish my book by the end of this year, but that didn’t happen. And that’s ok. Hopefully I’ll get it out in early 2022.

Since the inception of this blog in 2016, my posting has been sporadic at best. So, I set the ambitious goal of posting 40 pieces here in 2021. It looks like I’m going to hit 35, which is pretty darn good, if I do say so myself.   

Included in these posts was Snowed In, a six-part suspense story—the first time I’ve written fiction in ages! I’m hoping to do another serialized story next year, and it might even feature some of the same characters from Snowed In.

I’ve been working on developing a daily writing practice that’s just for me. Journaling has never been my thing, and I still have to remind myself to do it, but I’m getting better. I find that journals with prompts are really helpful. This year I completed What’s Your Story by Rebecca Walker and Lily Diamond, and next year I plan to do Get Untamed by the aforementioned Glennon Doyle.

All in all, I feel more like a “real” writer every day, and that is what’s most important (though a royalty check would still be nice).

Sobriety

This year I celebrated four years of living alcohol free. Removing drinking from my life has been a game changer.

First of all, I don’t think anything I just shared about my writing would have been possible without me embracing sobriety. Alcohol was a big hijacker of my time, energy, and brain space. Quitting was an investment I made in myself, and the returns continue to build.

I wrote a lot about this in my memoir; it was extremely helpful to get my experiences out of my head and try to make sense of them. Hopefully my words can help someone else in 2022.

Habit Shifting

For years now, I’ve been tinkering around with a framework to help balance my life. Habit shifting is a big part of this, and in 2021, I developed a process called An Intentional Life. I contemplated turning this framework into an online course. Alas, I did not have the energy to do both that and finish my book. Instead, I wrote up the process and posted it on this blog in four installments.

Every week this year I updated my “Colorful Week” board, which helps me track the habits I’m developing. About two-thirds of the way through the year, I could see which habits had begun to stick and which ones were still sitting on the sidelines.

Two habits that started to become ingrained in my routine were yoga and meditating. I no longer had to push myself to do them—they were becoming almost as automatic as listening to my favorite podcasts.

But I needed to get more cardiovascular exercise, something I’ve long struggled to incorporate into my life. So, in September I joined a local fitness studio where I can take both yoga classes and cycle (spin) classes. Since then, I’ve been averaging four classes a week. I’m enjoying the indoor cycling classes way more than I thought I would, and I’m feeling great!

The last habit on my goal list that wasn’t getting any love was crafting. I’ve never been a particularly crafty person, but I wanted to start doing something that would hone my hand-eye coordination. And I was longing for a creative outlet that would be different from writing.

I tried knitting early in the year, but it was not for me, so I gave up on crafts for a while. Then, I ended the year strong by finally completing a gift for my mom that turned old jewelry into an art piece. Who knows if I will continue in this vein in 2022, but at least I gave myself the chance to see how much I enjoy working with my hands to make something beautiful.

Part II: Reading, tech use, and connection

Lake of Tears

Image of geese flying over Lake Linganore in Maryland (photo effects from Nexmuse.com).

Recently I was reading through the memoir I’ve written, giving it one more light edit before sending it off to the proofreader. About halfway through, something occurred to me: I am a big crybaby.

My manuscript covers the full scope of my life, with a strong focus on my childhood, teens, and early adulthood. Apparently, those years featured a lot of bawling. Out of curiosity, I searched my document for the use of words like “cry,” “tears,” “sob,” “weep,” etc.

I found no fewer than 14 descriptions of me wailing, gasping for breath, whimpering, or blubbering. Despite my embarrassment at all this lamentation, I decided to keep each and every reference to tears in my book. Though I come across as dramatic and self-indulgent…well, that’s who I am to a certain degree.

Over the past five years, I’ve tried to interrupt this inclination to lean into my emotions, particularly the self-pitying and indignant ones. I hear a lot these days about the importance of sitting with your feelings: We are meant to feel our feelings, not run or distract from them. At the same time, it can be unhealthy to get lost in our emotions—to let them sweep us away.

Last week, I was in a yoga class, and we did a number of hip-opener poses, which can help release stored-up stress and emotion. Toward the end of class, in our next-to-last pose, I found my eyes filling up with tears. It freaked me out at first. I held back, and then when I got out to my car, I had a good little cry and got in touch with what was stirring inside me.

As I sat there, I thought about how our emotions are like water. They are important, but their power must be respected. They can overwhelm us if we aren’t careful.

The lake where I live is beautiful; it serves as a water source for our county, as a home for countless creatures, and as a place for recreation and connecting with nature. But it can also be dangerous if you don’t practice appropriate safety measures. People have died in boating, swimming, and diving accidents in this lake.

Emotions don’t often kill us, but they can swallow us up. In addition to all the crying scenes in my manuscript, I also write about my issues with anger. I have been known to let my temper get the best of me, to fight tooth and nail to win an argument. This fury can lead me to say terrible things to others, to push the most sensitive buttons of the people I love, and to act in a way that seems out of sync with my values.

So, I’ve been working on locating that fine line between exploring my feelings and drowning in them. Meditation has assisted in this effort. Spending time outdoors helps put things in perspective. And sometimes simply thinking about the impact of our emotions, as I did in the car last week, and as I’m doing right now, helps bring everything together in a lesson that’s hard to forget.

What Scary Things Can Teach Us

For the past 14 months I’ve been writing and editing a book about my life. This memoir tells the story of how self-doubt, drinking, and anxiety kept me from chasing my dreams. I am 56 years old, and this is my first full-length manuscript.

The young woman who chose creative writing as her major in college, and who relished the praise she received from her professors, would be dejected to learn that it took her more than three decades to finally write book number one.

Don’t get me wrong—I am proud of many of the things I’ve done over the years. During my most recent read-through of the manuscript, I noticed a number of times when I didn’t let fear get the best of me, when I took on challenges that were outside my comfort zone.

But those scattered moments of pluck were not enough to build a solid foundation of confidence that could sustain a writing career. It took years of self-exploration, sobriety, the death of a dear friend, and a worldwide pandemic to finally get me to draft this book.

After the writing came the endless editing. Just when I thought the revisions were done, they were not (and possibly still aren’t). Once my work was in good enough shape, I recruited people to read my manuscript to make sure I wasn’t deluded in my belief that it is worth publishing.

And, because I’ve written a book that recalls real scenes with real people whom I love and respect, I decided to reach out to some of the more prominent people to give them a chance to read the passages that involve them.

Sending your book out into the world before it’s perfect (is it ever?) is terrifying. At least it has been for me. I still have several more steps in the creative part of this process, and one of them is the most difficult step yet: talking with my mom about the chapters devoted to our complex relationship. I’ve been putting this off, and I cannot procrastinate much longer.

I know from the earlier steps I’ve already taken that I can do things that scare me. When I do scary things, I usually learn something about myself. One of the things I learn (almost every single time) is that I am brave and strong—braver and stronger than I could have imagined.

And when you keep doing things that intimidate you, you get to discover over and over how brave and strong you are. And who wouldn’t want to confirm that fact over and over? I think maybe this is a lesson we are meant to learn.

Over the past several years, I’ve taught myself that it’s ok to be frightened of doing certain things. I don’t have to pretend that I’m not scared in order to do these things—I can acknowledge my fear or discomfort and then do them anyway. An open and willing mind can lead me to take desired actions, and taking those actions produces an increasingly positive mindset.

In other words, the more I do this, the easier it gets. I only have to look back to yesterday or last week for proof that my heart can pound and my stomach can twist itself in knots and I might lose some sleep, but I will not fall apart.

Paper Jams and Perspectives

Have you ever tried to fix a paper jam in one of those huge copy machines that’s the size of a refrigerator sitting on its side? It can also happen on a small home printer, like it did to me the other day. I’m usually pretty good at clearing those jams, mainly because I’m patient.

You have to try everything. When you find that first crumpled piece of paper and pull it out, you may feel satisfied that you’ve resolved the problem. But there is a 95 percent chance that at least one more piece of paper is stuck even further inside.

You go for it anyway: You close the door or tray and take a look at the little display screen. The machine informs you that it is still jammed. So, you try again. And again. Eventually you will find a small, brightly colored handle that you didn’t know existed, and it will open a compartment you’ve never see before. And there you will find a piece of paper so mangled that you have to pry it out in shreds.

When you finally close up the printer for like the tenth time and it stars to hum and you hit start and copies come out, you feel like Jack in Titanic shouting, “I’m the king of the world!”

This machine might not end up on the bottom of the ocean, but much like Rose, you will outlive it. One day you will arrive at work and encounter a gleaming new printer that, according to the office manager, will change your life. Wrong. It just has even more places where paper can lodge.

This past year I wrote a memoir about how I got stuck for a long time. As I wrote this book, I reminded myself not to be content with the easy discoveries. Even in the editing phase, I tried to peek into every possible hiding space where the answers might be tucked away. I had to take on new vantage points—to peer at my life from every angle I could embrace.

But sometimes one person is not enough. The possibilities are too vast, and an individual’s frame of reference only goes so far. A team of people working on a project is almost always enhanced when each person on the team offers a distinct set of skills and insight. Welcoming in new viewpoints makes the team stronger.

So, once I completed the third draft of my memoir, I recruited test readers. I reached out to a whole bunch of people because I knew it was important to obtain a variety of perspectives. These folks might spot a weakness that I was too close to observe. Some of them did, and their comments made my manuscript better.

A couple weeks ago I attended a writer’s association meeting, and I shared with the group the progress I’ve made on my book. I was informed that my collection of beta readers was still too narrow because they were all friends, acquaintances, or former co-workers. A member of the writer’s group who I had only just met offered to read my book if I would read theirs.

A part of me feels like I’ve been working on this book forever, and I should just skip this step. That’s the part of me that wants to stop fixing the friggin’ paper jam already. Luckily, that part almost always concedes to the part of me that wants to keep looking. After all, who knows what this new reader will find? What if they locate that final crinkled piece of paper that eluded everyone else?

Each person we collaborate with brings with them a whole host of contexts and experiences that exist well beyond our own. We should think of our self as our first collaborator, and our duty is to push past those early automatic thoughts to get to the deeper stuff. And then, when we are stretched to our outer limits, we can invite in others to help us extend the boundaries of what’s possible.

How else do you think those giant printers came to be?!

Let’s Talk About Talking to Ourselves

A while back, a friend of mine told me he was going to try to stop talking to himself. I was horrified—why would anyone want to do such a thing?!

I have been chatting with myself since I was a kid. As an only child, I spent a lot of time alone in my room talking to my dolls and acting out scenes. I also had pretend friends with whom I carried on lengthy conversations inside my head.

Decades later, I still speak to myself out loud when no one is around. I do this pretty much every time I am driving by myself in the car and often in the kitchen.

If you’re anything like me, you talk to yourself in order to rehearse a presentation for work or to practice your answers for an upcoming job interview.

In addition to these scenarios, I tell myself stories from my life. Some of these stories are unpleasant, like the events leading up to my friend’s early death. Reliving such memories is like being voluntarily stuck in a nightmare, but at least I know the outcome.

Not all the stories are negative. After I quit drinking, I used to pretend that I was being interviewed on a podcast, and I would go over the steps that led up to my decision and the challenges I faced. I did this over and over, kind of like playing a favorite song.

Clearly I was in need of new material. Brain space is precious, and I was wasting my creativity by repeating the same old stories.

I decided that I would make an effort to explore new ground whenever I talked to myself. At first, I resisted and pouted. But it got easier and more natural in no time, thanks to these three templates:

Kid therapist: I pick something that has been bothering me, and I try to get to the root of the issue. Basically, I act like a little kid and keep asking “but why?” after each answer. The theory is that you should be able to ask yourself at least four or five whys before you get to the good stuff—the real reason why you can’t stop stewing over something. I did one recently that went on for nine whys!

Burner shift: I pick an idea that has been sitting on the back burner of my mind and talk through what would be required to move forward. What could be shifted from the front burners to make room for this project? I try to envision the potential obstacles along the way and how I might work around them. And I envision the potential rewards that I would experience, not just at completion but during the process as well.

Writing detective: Let’s say I’ve come up with a topic for a blog post, but I haven’t stared writing it yet because I’m not sure where it’s going. I play the role of a dogged detective who is questioning me to solve the mystery of what this piece is about. This process almost always helps me locate the main points of the piece, and I usually come up with some good turns of phrase as well.

Recently I was driving, and I caught myself starting to narrate one of my old stories. I was delighted to realize that it had been a while since I had hit replay on one of my top hits.

I will probably keep talking to myself until the day I die. Here’s hoping I manage to keep it fresh!

Social Media and Me: It’s Complicated

Embrace the Lake is just one of my Instagram accounts!

Last week a friend announced on Facebook that they would be scaling back their level of engagement on the platform. Declarations of temporary breaks or permanent departures from social media have become increasingly common. I’ve done this myself several times over the past five years, typically returning with a fresh perspective on the benefits these networks offer and the pitfalls they present.

Three years ago, I posted an article on LinkedIn identifying the Five Ways Social Media Can Lift Our Lives. This morning I went back and re-read that piece, and I still agree with every word of it. In fact, the former supervisor mentioned in the opening of that article sent me a friendly text message just the other night. Once again, I was reminded that social media has helped our friendship thrive beyond the handful of years that we worked together.

When I joined Facebook and Twitter back in 2008, it was primarily for my job. I couldn’t imagine how I would use social media personally. I remember thinking how ridiculous it would be to post that I had just done some yardwork or gone grocery shopping. And yet, in the time since then, it has become perfectly acceptable for users to regularly update their friends and followers on the most mundane aspects of their lives.

To test this out, I opened Facebook, and within seconds I was able to learn what someone had for dinner last night, how much exercise another person has been doing for the past month, and the kind of behavior a third person considers cringey on Zoom calls.

To be clear, I am not here to complain about over-sharing. If you are someone who posts multiple times a day, I salute you! I enjoy seeing what everyone is up to, honest.

I love to talk about my life and my thoughts as much, if not more, than the next person. For years I have welcomed the green light to post endless photos of my cats, my political viewpoints, and pics of my meals.

But somewhere along the way the novelty and utility morphed into something closer to an addiction. The expectation that I share my life in real-time because others were doing so began to feel oppressive.

These days, I am barely on Facebook. I deleted the app from my phone more than a year ago, and I feel much better for it. No longer do I get sucked into pointless arguments in the comments, and I am able to keep my scrolling to two short sessions per day (well, mostly).

TikTok came and went on my phone in a matter of weeks due to my obsessive nature, and I’m on Clubhouse, but I’ve yet to actually do anything on there.

Instagram is a different story. I have four individual accounts that I feel compelled to update regularly, which can stress me out—even though it is my choice to keep these balls in the air. I enjoy posting on IG and cherish the communities that have developed on the platform, but sometimes it feels like a 24-7 personal branding competition.

I’ve started hating how every time I do something, I wonder if I should post about it. I can’t take a photo or form an opinion without assessing its post-worthiness. Or, if I haven’t posted on one of my Instagram accounts in a while, I feel the need to generate ideas. It’s like I’ve taken on the role of digital marketing and public relations for the business of simply being myself. And don’t get me started on how, as a writer, I should totally have a newsletter by now!

Currently, I’m experimenting with posting only when I truly feel inspired versus pushing myself to keep up a regular schedule. I’m in search of the right balance of posting, consuming, and commenting that makes me feel connected to others without getting all angsty about it. One day I might decide that no such balance exists, and that will be the day I leave social media altogether. But not yet.   

In the meantime, consider following me on FB or IG @lisamaybennett!

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.  

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