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My dining room table holds the square outline of a jigsaw puzzle. In piles around the square, I’ve sorted pieces by color. Slowly, painstakingly, I am filling in the outline.
The pandemic is waning, and my life is returning to the way it was before. Yet I’m still working on a puzzle.
I am new to jigsaw puzzles. Before the pandemic, I thought people who liked puzzles were meticulous, craft-loving types, somewhat in the same camp as people who built model airplanes or did rug hooking.
I didn’t understand the appeal of puzzles. They seemed tedious and difficult. I was convinced that jigsaw puzzles weren’t for me.
I’m task oriented and I like completion. I like delivering the deliverable. The idea of noodling over a puzzle for days or weeks and only getting a few pieces in at a time was, er, puzzling.
But when stay-at-home orders went into effect and my husband and I tired of Netflix and listening to music at night, we ordered a puzzle from a local bookstore. It was the last one they had in stock.
The picture on the puzzle was an impressionistic pastel drawing with lots of colors. It was 1,000 pieces. My husband, who had experience with puzzles, took the lead.
“Let’s do all of the edge pieces first,” he said. I didn’t even know that was standard operating procedure. Then he taught me to sort pieces by color and look closely at shapes. Many times, during that first puzzle, I forced in the wrong pieces. I didn’t realize that if the piece is right, it fits exactly. I had a lot to learn.
Maybe because time moved slower during quarantine, I began to enjoy the relaxed pace and deadline-free focus of “puzzling.” (We turned it into a verb.) I began to accept incompletion and I relished returning again and again to the same pieces yet seeing them with fresh eyes.
It was slow and frustrating – and fun. I was completely in the moment as we leaned over that puzzle, and I felt a visceral thrill when a piece fit perfectly.
As time went on, we developed new phrases centered on our pandemic pastime, using words like “nub” and “flange” to describe pieces. And we laughed about what we dubbed the “missing piece phenomenon,” which goes like this: You search for a piece you need for a certain spot. You can’t find it. You’re convinced the piece is missing. You get on your hands and knees and it’s nowhere to be found. But then later, maybe even days later, you find the piece on the table and you realize it was never missing. For whatever reason, you just couldn’t see it until now.
I’ve spent a lot of my life focused on getting things done quickly: finishing the chore, the project or the assignment so I could check it off my list. But puzzles aren’t like that.
When you put a puzzle together, there’s no rush. No one is waiting on its completion. In fact, finishing is anticlimactic. After a day or two of admiration and running your hand over the smoothness of the interlocked pieces, you break it up and put it back in its box. The outcome is less exciting than the process.
Since that first puzzle in April of 2020, I’ve put together five or six more big puzzles, sometimes with my husband, sometimes on my own. Each time, they seem daunting at first – so many pieces, so many colors. But slowly, I sort and search. I work on it a little bit at a time and the picture becomes clearer as the pieces fill in.
It sounds silly, but I’ve learned a lot from this new hobby. It’s helped me give myself permission to do something enjoyable that has no end use. It’s taught me to focus on the endeavor at hand and not the result.
I’ve also extrapolated the lessons of jigsaw puzzles to the more complicated puzzles in my life. When I find myself perplexed or worried about something more than cardboard pieces, I remind myself that if I’m patient, I’ll eventually find what I’m looking for. In time, the myriad tiny parts will come together and form an image that makes sense.
— Nancy E. Anderson