Jennifer Meyer
technical writing
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Piecing It Together

I’ve always treasured solitude. As a kid in a family of six in crowded living quarters, I sought out hidden spaces. The dusty closet underneath the attic stairs. The packed dirt “fort” behind the juniper bushes in the yard’s far corner. And my favorite: the highest limbs of the catalpa tree, offering powers of invisibility granted solely by people’s general disinclination to look upward. I had two opposing ambitions. I would either move to New York and become a famous Broadway actress, or I would live as a hermit in a mountain cabin, my only companions the injured raccoons and deer I’d nurse back to health with love and herbal teas.

I fulfilled neither of these dreams. I did manage to get a degree in Theatre Arts, but under audition spotlights, I rediscovered my longing for obscurity. I moved instead to a two-room cabin in the Santa Cruz Mountains and bought a horse and an Irish Setter. But I was hardly a hermit. In fact, it turned out my secluded setting was the perfect ingredient for romance and seduction. I launched a veritable career of short-term relationships, tempered by bouts of brooding isolation.
Eventually I seduced the woman who felt like home to me. Within a year, I was a mother with little interest in the world outside booties and blankies. Now, twenty years later, I had two teenage sons, a beautiful wife and home in Oregon, a steady if somewhat boring career in technical writing, and a growing sense of discontent.

For everyone else, our house was a bastion of nurturing warmth. The kind of place where your kids’ buddies drop by for a sandwich even when your kids aren’t home. Where friends let themselves in the front door and pull up a chair to the table if it’s dinnertime. More often than not, our guest room was in use by one of the myriad misplaced souls we’d adopted: an old friend getting divorced, a niece unhappy with campus housing, a homeless teenager nine months pregnant, even overflow from the battered women’s shelter. My partner was a social worker whose job was little more than an ingenious way to make money doing what she’d done all her life for free.

It was a pleasant chaos mostly, but it wasn’t really my party. I was more like the tired spouse trying in vain to signal my wife across the room. I just wanted to go home, but the problem was, I was already there.

Here in this rambling house in the Oregon hills, there was no such sanctuary for me. My home office often doubled as a guest room. Even the master bathroom was fair game for someone who “just couldn’t wait.” More and more, I felt displaced, invisible, and I had given up vying for time with the beautiful, nurturing woman who had once focused those magical healing powers on me.
Eventually, it came to this: I had lost myself, and the only way I figured I could find me was to go away. For a while at least. So this winter, I left the kids and the messy house to my partner, packed up my laptop, the family’s golden retriever and a tower of self-help books, and headed to the coast for a month, where for a month I rented a quaint, older house just yards from a dramatic, rocky beach.

photo by Kate HillAfter a few days of near-debilitating chaos withdrawal during which I marked off days on the calendar like a prisoner in solitary confinement, I settled into a comfortable routine. I walked the dog on the beach twice a day. I cooked well-balanced, miniature meals for myself only when I was hungry, and kept the kitchen spotless. I unplugged the TV and taught myself how to meditate. I even picked up juggling again, which is a skill, as it turns out, with a longevity similar to that of bicycle riding. And as each day passed, I learned to appreciate, even revel in, the wonders of living alone.

One of the things I love most about living alone is that when you put something down somewhere, it’s still there when you come back. The kitchen scissors don’t mysteriously disappear from the knife drawer every time you need them. The pillows you arranged on the couch don’t jump to the floor in front of the TV when you’re not looking. Every bag of cookies you place in the pantry doesn’t automatically transport itself to your teenager’s room. Likewise, unclaimed objects don’t magically appear in random places about the house. Foul-odored sneakers on the living room carpet. Schoolbooks on the kitchen table. Crusty cereal bowls and empty pop cans in obscure corners of the family room. Generally, when you live alone, things in your house remain as you left them. I love that. And I was ruminating on this basic law of solitary living as I shampooed my hair in the shower. Just before I reached for the soap. That wasn’t there.

Now soap is probably the one thing in your house that you wouldn’t expect to misplace. It’s not like car keys or reading glasses that you might carry from one room to another and set down in some odd place without thinking. The soap pretty much stays in the corner of the bathtub where you set it every morning.

As far as I knew, no one other than myself had been in the house since my shower the day before. It was possible, I suppose, that I had forgotten to lock the front door when I walked the dog. But when I thought about it, I couldn’t really imagine that someone would come into the house, pass by my laptop on the coffee table, pass by the wad of folded bills on the kitchen counter, pass by the unwrapped bar of soap on the bathroom sink, and steal the used soap out of my shower. Even a soap-starved homeless person would probably go for the new bar.

I scrutinized the dog. Had he developed a new fetish for sandalwood scent? Strong enough to override his aversion to bathtubs? But even if he had taken the soap, he wouldn’t have swallowed it whole. He would have to have left at least a few telltale soap shavings on the carpet.

The next day I stopped by the vacation rental office and entertained them with an animated replay of my personal hygiene mystery. They weren’t that surprised, actually. Although this was the first time something in the house had disappeared. In the past, items had just been moved from one area of the house to the other. Often enough that a recent tenant had insisted they replace the locks. They suggested that, just to be on the safe side, I make sure to bolt the door between my kitchen and the laundry room that is shared with the empty apartment next door. So that night, before I went to bed, I moved the dog dishes from the laundry room into the kitchen, then carefully bolted the door to the laundry room.

photo by coastal residentThe next morning, I was pouring dog food into the dog dish before I realized that –- wait a minute –- the dog dishes were back in the laundry room. And the laundry room door was wide open. I went over my memory of bolting the door a dozen times in my head. There was no question about that. I suppose I could have walked in my sleep, compelled by an urgent need to move the dog dishes out of the kitchen. But I’m not a sleepwalker. And although I’ve discovered that given free reign, I’m tidier than I ever knew, I’ve never been compulsive. I’m not even a Virgo.

Okay, I thought to myself, maybe I don’t really need to lock this door after all. But I did that night, just to see if it would happen again. It didn’t. In the morning, the door was still bolted and the dishes in the kitchen. But the following night, I woke at 2:30 in the morning to strange sounds in the kitchen below. It sounded like an object being placed firmly on the kitchen table. Clunk. Just once like that, repeated every 30 seconds or so. Sometimes louder, sometimes softer, the sound continued for the next 40 minutes. The soap, even the dog dishes hadn’t scared me. I’d had an oddly calm and curious reaction. But this – this was different. It was dark. And I wasn’t about to budge from that bed.

The next morning, I scrutinized the kitchen. Everything was exactly as I’d left it. On the table, there was only a pair of salt-and-pepper shakers. I lifted the saltshaker and set it down hard. Clunk. Close, but not exactly. I lifted the peppershaker and did the same. Clunk. That was it. Exactly the noise I’d listened to, cowering in my bed in the middle of the night.

Things were getting weird. But it still felt all right. Whatever it was in this house, it was a benign presence. I felt safe here. In fact, the energy in the house was so comfortable and so inviting, that I thought if there is a ghost, this must be some kind of welcome with a wink.

photo by J. MeyerA couple of days later, I crawled back into bed late in the morning to listen to the rain on the skylights and read. A luxury I haven’t given myself in years. It was almost noon and I was starting to think about getting up again when a muffled boom! jolted the room and shook the bed. A recovering Californian, I was certain it was an earthquake. I leapt from bed, went downstairs and turned on the local radio station. But the noon news came and went without any mention of an earthquake. And when I checked with the rental office down the street, no one there had felt anything. They suggested it was time to vacate the premises and offered to move me to a different place. But the idea seemed preposterous to me. I’m not an exceedingly brave person, but I felt curiously unthreatened. If anything, I felt lucky to be having such a personal encounter with unexplained phenomenon.

For a week, whatever spirit had been toying with me stayed quiet. I was beginning to question my susceptibility. Maybe I’d just been spooked about being on my own. Maybe things like this happen all the time; it’s just that when you live alone, you have no one to blame them on. Maybe boredom and excessive solitude had compelled me to create an imaginary companion out of a few unexplained events.

I tried to focus on what I’d come there for. I studied the books I’d brought with the earnestness of a college freshman. I charted the enniegram of my personality. Drew stones called Runes from a velvet bag and read their meaning from an ancient text. Dealt Tarot cards with elaborate, colorful pictures that could reveal my path. Tossed pennies to unearth my I-Ching. I made lists of the pros and cons of family life versus single parenting and debated with myself in my journal.

Then one afternoon I gave myself a break and took down one of the jigsaw puzzles collecting dust on the laundry room shelf. I worked on it obsessively into the evening until the final piece was placed. I stood back and admired it, ran my fingers over its smooth, cobblestone surface, then climbed the stairs to bed.

photo by J. MeyerWhen I went to admire it again in the morning, two of the pieces were missing. Noncontiguous pieces from the interior of the puzzle. I scrutinized the puzzle from various angles, wondering if there was any way that I just hadn’t notice the missing pieces the night before. But they were distinct ones that I specifically remembered placing. I scoured the floor, looked in the puzzle box, scanned every counter. Nothing. “Very clever,” I said to the air around me. “Now let’s see you put them back.” And I left the puzzle there for days, but the pieces stayed missing.

I started calling the house spirit Hazel, remembering the spunky, opinionated housekeeper from a sitcom when I was a kid. I imagined a stubborn, mischievous older woman who enjoyed watching my dumbfounded reactions. Eventually I put the puzzle away and put together a different one. This time, I left the last four pieces out, setting them provocatively on the table. Anyone who has ever put a jigsaw puzzle together knows how that last few pieces nearly shriek with the demand to be put into place. But Hazel didn’t take the bait.

My time at the coast was coming to a close, and I still didn’t have all the answers I’d come there for. I was starting to feel desperate and, all right, maybe just a little bit batty, because I found myself looking to Hazel for advice. In one of the books I’d brought with me, I’d read about a woman who communicated with spirits (or some all-knowing Other) through writing. She would write out a question, then close her eyes with pen poised over paper and wait for the spirit to move her hand. Sort of a Ouiji Board thing without the Milton Bradley packaging.

With only two days to go, I figured I had nothing to lose. I turned down the lights and lit a candle. (I’m pretty sure candles are prerequisites for spirit-raising.) I got a pen and notebook and wrote, “Are you happy here?” then closed my eyes.

My wrist didn’t move. I tried to get things going with a few scribbles and scritches. After awhile I could feel my hand scrawling letters, but I wasn’t cognizant of how they fit together. Eventually, I heard words coming one at a time into my head, and I let them flow through to my hand without interpreting them. Somehow, it worked.

We are not in the world of the time that you are in. You are here and I am here, but that is not the way it always is. The start of it is not in the house, but I am here. I am happy to be here with you now. This is a good place to be.

“Did you used to live here when you were alive?”

Not all spirits are dead people, you know.

“Were you a person?”

I am part of every person.

“Where is my soap?”

Ha, ha, ha. You don’t know. I like to tease you. It makes you laugh. That’s good. You need to laugh.

“Why did you take the puzzle pieces?”

I don’t think that really matters. It was a nice puzzle, but we don’t need to have all the pieces of the puzzle to put things together.

“What is your name?”

I am not in a world of names. I cannot be someone in particular. I am a lot of people. That is how it goes.

“Can I call you Hazel?”

That is a good name. But Harriet is better.

“Can you help me?”

You don’t need help. You are the kind of person who asks everybody what they think but never listens. But that doesn’t matter, because you only need to listen to yourself.

I put down the pen and studied my wild handwriting spewed across the pages, barely discernable. My heart was beating fast, but I felt an odd tranquility. Whether this was Harriet or God or that inner voice I’d been waiting for, the message cut to the quick.

photo by J. MeyerI backed off a bit from my rabid quest for black and white solutions. I took a walk on the beach and breathed in the ocean air. Witnessed the first visible sunset of the entire month. I walked back towards the town I was about to leave behind as dusk settled in and warm, yellow lights dotted the hills. I imagined all the various households behind each of lights. A grizzled, old fisherman being served up dinner by his wife of forty years. A family vacationing from Portland, brushing sand off their children’s feet. A middle-aged widow watching the news while she heats a can of soup.

I imagined my own home from the outside in. Kate and I chopping vegetables in the kitchen. The boys wrestling the dog in the living room. Me turning down the music to answer the phone just as our neighbor lets herself in the door with a plate full of brownies. Suddenly I missed it all. The noise, the smells, the activity, and especially the people I loved. It dawned on me that I was ready to go home. Maybe all the pieces weren’t in place, but the picture was clear enough.

© Jennifer Meyer. To reprint, please ask for permission.

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