Step 1: Choose from the following activities:

A) Wash the dishes

B) Vacuum the living room carpet

C) Rake the backyard

Step 2: If in Step 1 you chose “A,” stand at the sink and watch the flotsam of leftover breakfast swirl and gather in the strainer. If you chose “B,” stare into the middle distance as you pick lint and dog hair from the vacuum attachment. If “C,” let go of the rake as you inspect the blisters that have bloomed too soon on your baby-flesh hands.

Step 3: Let those tendrils of worry or regret or anxiety overrun your mind.

Step 4: Conjure the person with whom you need to discuss this urgent matter—the spouse, the sibling, the in-law, the outlaw, the ex-, the coworker, the offspring, the former best friend, the dead parent. It’s simple. Watch their drooping face, age spots, shaky jaw, deliberate way of speaking, how they hide behind their sunglasses and never make eye contact, and let it all enter the crenellations of your agitated brain.

Step 5: Let that conversation that you’ve already rehearsed a hundred ways play out. Let it play out again within the echo chamber of your mind’s ear. You have rehearsed your lines:

  • “But you understand why that upset me, don’t you?”
  • “You never called or even texted.”
  • “It was a 40th birthday party.”

You supply their side too. Hear the familiar arguments and counterarguments, feel the dodges and weaves, taste the sour return of anger, drain the temptation to take the bait.

Step 6: Better to skip the face-to-face or phone call. Instead, compose the email in your head, or begin to tap out a text, beginning with one of the following openers:

  • “I know it’s been a long time, but I think we need to talk…”
  • “How on earth can you live with yourself?”
  • “I’m hurting as much as you are…”

Step 7: If in Step 1 you chose “A,” this would be a good time to pause, let the scrubber fall from your shriveled hand, and contemplate that crud stuck to the bottom of the pan, unresolved like a stubborn thought or feeling. If you chose “B,” this would be a good time to pause to swap out the vacuum cleaner bag, but accidentally rip it in the process, sending three months of dust and hair and dander and skin cells into the air. If you chose “C,” this would be a good time to pause to lean the rake against the shed, pop open a beer and watch the new angle of sunlight attack the backyard in a way you hadn’t noticed before, before you detach and drain the garden hose coil and put it away for the winter, then consider the snake-like conversation in your mind’s ear, and let it digest, the way a python digests a goat.

Step 8: Now let the slurry of images, voices, faces, situations slosh in that murky space between heart and stomach. Feel the waters of regret, resentment, fealty, betrayal, anger, woundedness wash through your core. Then comes the tide of doubt. Do you truly feel this way? Are you entitled to those emotions? How to manage your target’s reaction?

Step 9: Decide to never make the call. Never have the conversation. Never send the letter. Erase the thought-email-letter-text from your head, backspace it one character at a time into oblivion. Never make the call. Never have the conversation.

Step 10: Grasp the pan, the vac nozzle, the rake in your hand. Realize these mundane tasks are infinitely more solvable than the difficult living thing you’ve pondered. Return to the scrubbing, the vacuuming, the raking. Because, of course, there are more dishes. There will always be more dust and dog hair and cobwebs clinging to the corners and the baseboards. As for the leaves, go back and re-rake them, for the wind has scattered them once again.

Ethan Gilsdorf is an essayist, critic, journalist, poet, teacher, performer, and the author of the memoir Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Esquire, Wired, Salon, O the Oprah Magazine, National Geographic, Electric Literature, Poetry, Poets & Writers, The Southern Review, North American ReviewThe Massachusetts Review, among other publications. Twice his work has been named “Notable” by The Best American Essays. He teaches creative writing at GrubStreet in Boston, where he leads the Essay Incubator program; he also leads writing workshops for non-profit social justice organizations.

Artwork by Barbara Gillette Price