Adventures in Puzzling | Issue 13
Why would anyone deliberately pay for a picture to be cut up into small pieces so they could put it back together?
My mother is selling her house where she has lived for 50 years. Although her house is small, she managed to fill it up with clothes, books, recipes, magazines, and impulse purchases.
My husband and I spent the last couple of months helping her downsize her possessions so she could move into an apartment.
I lived with her for two months of this process.
Any person who has helped a parent downsize will understand the particular hell we all found ourselves in. The butting of heads, the constant tug of war. Convincing my mother to part with a closet full of high-heeled shoes and boots that haven’t been worn in 20 years, I consider to be one of my greatest feats in life second only to the purse purge.
At the beginning of the packing process, I bought my mother a jigsaw puzzle. I thought it would be a nice distraction from the move and would be something we could do together that we wouldn’t argue about.
It surprised me as much as anyone else as to why I would turn to the jigsaw puzzle during such as busy and overwhelming time.
This is me in April 2020 musing about jigsaw puzzles as they became a pandemic fad:
In the past, I’ve actively been a disliker of jigsaw puzzles. I could never see their value or use. I pretty much thought they were waste of time. Unless it will serve some overarching goal of mine, then I’m not interested in hobbies. I’ve tried knitting. I’ve tried drawing. I’ll be intensely interested for five minutes and then give up.
Besides I could never understand why anyone would deliberately pay for a picture to be cut up into small pieces so they could put it back together only to pull it apart once completed and store it in a box.
What on earth was the point of that?
But truth be told, I had never actually tried a jigsaw puzzle before. I didn’t know anything about them.
So I went online and found articles about jigsaw puzzles and cognition and mental health, and how they became a popular pandemic pastime for restoring order amid chaos. After reading these articles, I decided puzzles would be the perfect activity for my mother and I to deal with the current chaos we found ourselves in around her move.
I purchased a cat jigsaw puzzle because, well, we both like cats. I didn’t know how many pieces we should get. A 300-piece puzzle seemed too easy and a 1000-piece puzzle seemed way too hard, so I settled on a 750-piece puzzle, a choice — I didn’t realize at the time would prove to be way over our heads.
The puzzle was a lively scene of rambunctious kittens playing in a bright kitchen they mischievously destroyed. When the puzzle came, and we dumped it out on the dining room table, my mother looked at it in horror. “How will we ever finish it?”
She ran her hands over the pieces completely overwhelmed. “It’s too hard.,” she laughed. “The pieces are too small.” She held one up. “Look at the size of them.”
Once I commit to something, I dig in. The moment I decided that a jigsaw puzzle was the answer to all our problems, I would not be deterred by the size of the pieces, the difficulty of the puzzle, or the my mother’s lack of enthusiasm.
“I don’t think it’s about finishing the puzzle, but more about the process,” I said. “First we turn all of the pieces over. Next we organize by colour.” I was making up this as I went along. I had no idea what to do with a puzzle. But my mother didn’t hear me anyway. She was on the phone with my sister laughing about the ridiculous puzzle I had bought along with the puzzle trays and a puzzle portfolio — my own impulse purchases.
Turning the pieces right side up and organizing by colour had proved to be not too difficult. It was fun and meditative to think of nothing but what colours went together. After I had completed those tasks, I was stumped. I couldn’t figure out what to do next. My mother was right. The pieces were unbearably small. It seemed impossible to find even two pieces that would fit together. Every once in a while my mother would walk over to the table and try to force two pieces together that didn’t fit and then would walk away muttering about how we would never complete this puzzle.
The confusion and overwhelm that both my mother and I experienced when we opened the puzzle box reminded me of that feeling I get when I’m about to work on a large writing project. Where do I start? Completion seems so far away, even impossible. This was also how we felt about the move. What were we going to do with all this stuff? How would we get packed in time? Where do we start?
Every time I walked into the dining room, the puzzle sort of called to me. As frustrating as it was, I couldn’t stop working on it, looking at it, trying to figure it out. I started asking around about the puzzle process. A friend told us she always put the border pieces together after sorting by colour. This created another step for me, so I set about putting the border pieces together.
At the beginning of my puzzle journey, I was motivated by proving my mother and sister wrong and not letting the difficulty of the puzzle beat me, but then something started to happen: I began to enjoy it.
Every day I’d approach the puzzle and look for a match or two. I used the picture on the box as a guide and was soon able to get a couple of little sections going. I found it relaxing to work on it before packing or doing my own writing.
I was completely unprepared for the thrill that a match in sea of puzzle pieces would give me. It is so deeply satisfying to fit the pieces together — especially when a section comes together easily and it seems like I’m instinctively picking up the right piece in the right moment. Bit by bit the picture begins to emerge.
This is the same feeling I get when a piece of writing is going well.
And like writing after completing an easy section, I often hit a wall. I question how will I ever finish the puzzle. I question the process. Do I even have all the pieces? I create scenarios where several pieces got vacuumed up or the manufacturer failed to put them all in the box. I wonder what even is the point in finishing.
But because the puzzle was sitting out in the open, it seemed easier to just pick away at it rather than putting the whole thing away unfinished, so I persevered despite these roadblocks.
Looking at the half-completed puzzle on the table, I couldn’t help but think of all my half or unfinished projects. The scripts and stories I gave up on too early because they were easy to forget in a word processing file when they gave me trouble. Of course the ideas that I really want to work on stick despite their problems.
After my mom moved and was settled into her new apartment, I bought her a 300-word puzzle as a housewarming gift to see if she would be interested in a puzzle with less pieces. I put it on her dining room table and started sorting the pieces.
While the 300-piece puzzle is easier than the 750-piece puzzle, it’s still challenging enough to be satisfying. I thought about how I would get a couple 300-piece puzzle going while I worked on my larger puzzle. I envisioned working on several puzzles at once with different stages of difficultly.
Suddenly I realized that this is my exact writing process in a nutshell: ongoing quick fixes in the form of stories and poems and larger back burner projects in the form of scripts and novels. My puzzle process was replicating my writing process.
The idea of writing and self improvement often go hand in hand. Festivals, interviews, and workshops focus on writing processes and best practices. Writers often admonish themselves for not doing enough and compare themselves with other writers. An endless stream of writing tips and advice are packaged for the marketing and promotion of books as if just talking about the book itself isn’t enough.
I’ve been guilty of this as well both as a writer and a publisher. I’m very rarely satisfied with my output. I’m obsessed with making my writing process better, more productive instead of accepting my process as it is and working with it.
What my adventures in puzzling showed me is that my writing process is just fine. Juggling multiple projects and genres of different lengths and scopes is how I’ve operated for my entire writing life. While it may not work for everyone or be particularly efficient, it allows for interruptions and flexibility and it’s how I’m able to get things done.
While my mother didn’t seem as offended by the 300-piece puzzle as the 750-piece puzzle, she still didn’t seem take much of an interest in it or so I thought.
I didn’t want to impose my puzzle enthusiasm on her any longer. You can’t force someone to be interested in a hobby, so I asked her if she wanted me to put it away.
“I might want to pick at it,” she said." “Is there anything wrong with it just staying on the table like this?”
“No, there isn’t.”
Issue #13 of Send My Love to Anyone
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