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I crouch over a treasure chest, in a ship-wrecked themed escape room, with six other grown women. Tensions run tepid; no one wants to look like a dumb dumb among coworkers. Yet, only a dumb dumb could take themselves too seriously while rummaging around the set of what appears to be a middle school production for Pirates of The Madisonian, minus an audience.

I find clues! First, I unearth a puzzle piece from a wash bin of swashbuckler clothes. Later, I pluck a pouch containing a wedding ring from the treasure chest; both hidden in places others looked and overlooked. I make a logic leap for where to place the ring, which helps reveal a potion, that eventually frees a lost soul and allows us a successful escape.

Typically I act the hasty overlooker, but now I’m practiced in finding pieces and putting them back together.

*

My stepsister and I spend many many (many) hours crouching, puzzling, and searching through my stepmom’s many many (many) belongings. She died in September.

We donate/save/toss pile after pile, bag over bag. We excavate layers and floors—> families friends estrangement births marriages adoption babies daughters sons parents divorces steps grandparents beauty youth midlife illness sudden death old age creation passion destruction stagnation abundance lack–> mining our way to the basement, where our boxed up childhood bedrooms remain.

Nostalgia-fatigued, I sift 25-year-old doodads. Precious in a different context, now this ephemera becomes another to-do in the most daunting existential to-do list. I plow through homemade hairbows, summer camp photos, and what looks like a make-up roll (a relic of co-custody, when my things lived in travel cases instead of drawers).

My instincts now trained to check recheck and check again, I unfurl it awaiting 1980s bubblegum lipstick and cobalt eyeliner. Instead, treasure! Gold, silver, and gem stones appear–long-lost, hand-made, and dearly misplaced family jewelry. Circles close in a moment of triumph among rubble; a ring reunified with a finger, a pendant placed back on a heart. Missing becomes found.

A puzzle piece, a ring, a riddle.

*

I sit bundled up on a yoga mat, in the snow, facing a felled tree stump four feet in diameter. Roots splay out around the trunk like a decaying sun. The concave base makes a bowl of darkness inviting me to add my own. I shake out a few tears, like cereal caught between the liner and the box. This tree gives me a puzzle piece, one answer to the riddle of my recent fatigue. A human owl sound calls me back to a group of forest bathers, and yes you should laugh with me about human owl sounds and forest bathers (it’s a thing, look it up).

*

The earth closes her annual ring around the sun. The last puzzle piece of 2018 gets placed. A successful escape to a new year, a new riddle.

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