Putting Together the Pieces

I visit a lot of charity shops, where I dig through piles of discarded junk like a grizzled miner sifting through tailings. There might be gold hiding on that thar shelf bulging with chipped novelty coffee cups, after all.

Occasionally I pick up a jigsaw puzzle if I think I can flip it for a couple of bucks. Puzzles themselves are mostly worthless, but if the subject matter has some sort of cross appeal then I’ll give it a shot. That means a yes to the 500 piece Sgt. Pepper and a big fat no to the 1,000 piece nature scene. The challenge here is that I can’t resell a Beatles puzzle missing Ringo’s nose, and let’s be honest with ourselves: Americans don’t often donate their good stuff to charity shops. Your local Goodwill is packed with worn out furniture, Walk of Shame Barbies , and records that look like they were used as road patches.

And so when I get my Fab Four puzzle home I’ll clear the dining room table and assemble it to ensure that it’s all there. This gives purpose to my puzzling–it’s work, after all–and if there’s anything we value more than a tax deduction on half a pack of donated Depends it’s purpose. Maybe it’s a vestigial tail passed down from our Puritan ancestors but we demand returns on our time investments. Gardening is a great hobby, for example: When you’re done you have food or flowers or nice landscaping. Home renovation–look at how much value I’ve added to my house! Running, bicycling, woodworking, playing an instrument–there’s always value in our hobby propositions.

But working a jigsaw puzzle? When that exercise is completed all you have is an unusable dining room table and a less attractive version of the photo on the puzzle box. Puzzles are a waste of time, not a use of it. Thrift stores, by the way, have taught me that some folks aren’t having any of that. When they’re done with their 750 piece Thomas Kinkade snowy cottage they glue that sumbitch together and mount it like a deer head. Look what I caught! He was a fighter, but it all came together when I found the cottage door!

It’s not just the wasted time, though. Puzzles simply aren’t cool. No one with exception maybe to George Clooney has ever gotten laid with the line, “Would you like to go back to my place and work on my jigsaw puzzle?” Puzzles are for small children and elderly people, the tail ends of life’s bell curve. Those of us in the middle need some flimsy excuse for pissing away a Saturday on something so frivolous. Making sure that my latest charity shop grab is 100% complete is as good of an alibi as any.

Now, here’s what children, the elderly, and sexy puzzlers like George Clooney know: Working a jigsaw puzzle is far from a meaningless waste of time if one is open to the lessons contained inside that chunky box. Dumping those seemingly disparate pieces onto the dining room table means entering into an open-ended contract: I don’t know how long this will take, but I will sit here until each piece locks into place. That agreement tests one’s patience, persistence, will, and ego. Are you willing to admit that you were taken down by 500 pieces of Jaws movie poster? I’m not.

Staring into that box of pieces can feel overwhelming. Where does one begin? How am I supposed to bring order to this chaos? And so we dig into that pile of jagged cardboard for the initial coarse sort. Most folks pull out all of the edge pieces and arrange the rest by color or pattern–all the blacks in a pile, all the blue stripes in a pile, etc. As we sort we occasionally stumble on a couple of connected pieces, and we’re confronted with a moral dilemma: If I leave these together, can I really take credit for completing this puzzle? We hope for at least one obvious pattern–text, for example–that might provide a little boost, but preassembled pieces; well, that’s a bridge too far.

The edge pieces are the first to see action. Not only are they the easiest to place, but they literally provide a framework. Everything that we hope to accomplish will occur within these parameters. The frame provides our first clues, maybe where the sky meets the horizon or some such. We dig into our sorted piles based on this tiny bit of information and begin solving the problem.

But a jigsaw puzzle isn’t a single problem. Rather, it is a plexus of interlocking problems. There’s the edge problem that we’ve already knocked out, and the horizon line problem that we’re working on. There’s the sky problem with its scattered cloud problems. Somewhere down in this green area awaits a cow problem, a barn problem, a tree problem, and several hay bale problems. If clocks still ticked ours would tick tick tick away as we work through our problems. Some of us are slow and steady: I will work on this barn until it is complete. Others are like hummingbirds flitting between flowers–a little bit of tree, a little bit of sky, a little bit of cow. Hummingbirds must avoid the barn when working with a slow and steady. The latter don’t appreciate your ADHD contribution to their slowly emerging barn.

A secret language emerges as we work through all of this, one that exists only for the duration of this exercise: I need a blue hunchback….where is that long-tail I saw a minute ago….a triple header with a wonky arm….They are words that remain unspoken because at some point when the clock was not tick tick ticking we slipped into the right hemispheres of our brains–the non-verbal sides of our noggins that handle the spatial problems. This is the prime real estate valued by artists and meditators, the state of mind that I refer to as “the hum” where time and words fall away and all that exists is this thing, this moment. Everything is beautiful inside of the hum. (It probably doesn’t hurt that each puzzle piece that clicks into place provides us with a tiny shot of feel good neurochemicals. Bigger doses often lead to the “double tap,” wherein an insistent index fingers pokes a hard won piece into place not once but twice. This is the jigsaw version of an end zone dance.)

Process of elimination dictates that as we solve one problem area of our puzzle other problems become easier to solve. Fewer pieces mean fewer possibilities, after all. There’s a life lesson there.

Yes, and as we near completion a new concern emerges: What if pieces are missing? This was a thrift store purchase, after all. What if some goon donated an incomplete jigsaw puzzle? Will I be able to accept that hours or days of work will never be complete? If not, what am I going to do–throw it away? Make my own missing piece? Stick the defective puzzle in a closet and hope I find another example to cannibalize during some future charity shop visit? Go into a Hulk-like puzzle rage and scatter my 999 carefully assembled pieces like confetti? Donate it back to the thrift store so that some other sucker buys it only to eventually discover that a piece is missing? And you thought the trolley problem demonstrates an ethical dilemma.

Regardless, when it’s done it’s done. As a child I had a hard time accepting that, or maybe I just wanted another little dopamine rush. I’d take apart an area of my puzzle and do it over and over, sometimes for days before I’d concede that the thrill was gone and the time to return Underdog to his cardboard dungeon had arrived. And that’s all one can do with a completed puzzle, really: tear it apart and put it back in the box. Mounting it like a swordfish suggests an inability to accept that impermanence is the ultimate lesson that jigsaw puzzles provide. Puzzles are essentially cardboard mandalas, mass-produced facsimiles of the intricate sand mandalas created and then destroyed by Tibetan monks in an effort to demonstrate the impermanence of all things. Embracing that one simple truth is what gives life its beauty.

Maybe we need a few more puzzles and a few less busy Saturdays in our lives. Perhaps being reminded that methodically approaching our myriad problems is far from a waste of time, or that accepting that some things can never truly be finished is just a fact of life. Maybe practicing the art of not hanging our every accomplishment on our walls to be admired will tame our egos and teach us to value experiences for the fleeting moments that they are.

I don’t know. But I’ll make you a great deal on a 499 piece Beatles puzzle.

Categories: op-ed

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