I go a long way back with jigsaw puzzles.
While M and I waited for our first child to be born, we did our first puzzle together. It was 500 pieces. As I recall, a country scene with plenty of green. We set it up on our dining room table and ate on snack tables in the living room. We got to know how different the green of the trees was from the green of the bushes and the green of the grass and how different from all three the green of the park ranger’s uniform was.
Puzzles remained a backdrop to our lives, especially when we were waiting for something – for news about a job offer, or publication of a book, or arrival of another baby, or the health of someone we loved. We were good at it together. M worked at one end, I at the other. He took on some of the harder tasks, like an all-white center with slight hints of yellow or gray. He had a good eye and more patience than I. We did the 1000 piece Jackson Pollack “Convergence” puzzle when it came out in the sixties. It was advertised as the most challenging puzzle at the time and it took us most of one winter. We talked about gluing it and framing it, which people were doing in those days, but then we thought we’d rather do the puzzle again someday, so we broke it up and put it in the growing stack of jigsaws at the back of the closet.
When we had children and cats, we did our puzzles on a giant wooden board, the thickness of wall paneling, and when we were not working on the puzzle, we lifted the board out of reach of little hands and leaping cats, and set it on top of a dresser, or bookcase, or desk. I don’t remember where we got the board or where it went, eventually, but for a time in our lives there was always a puzzle in progress on it.
What is it about doing a puzzle that is so…what is the word? Captivating? Therapeutic? Calming? It is a sort of mindfulness in which you can focus on getting the right tab to fit in the right groove, and the subtleties of color and cut make figuring it out challenging, while remaining completely meaningless in the large scheme of life. That one, no that one, ahhh, there it is, see how neatly it snaps into place when it’s the right one? Its irrelevance is absolutely key to the pleasure it brings, like a small stay-at-home vacation in the midst of Whatever. And if you happen to have something touchy to say to your spouse (like, for example, “I broke your electric razor shaving the pilling off the couch”), saying it while he is in the midst of looking for a corner piece is like a get out of jail free card. He’ll hardly hear it.
Tongue, tab, gap, slot. Tooth. I’m trying to think of the perfect way to describe the yin and yang of jigsaw puzzles, how the reciprocity of space and space-filler satisfies something in us. Too much metaphor? All right.
Right now, I’m doing a 500 piece puzzle of someplace in Central Park, my first in a long time. Auditioning for 1000. Want to see if it still works for me. So far, so good. Though I still don’t have the eye for subtle whites, I have learned, through age and necessity, to have patience.( I just found a clump of azaeleas, and it segues into a red tulip bed, and I got it! Ahhh.) So for an hour or so, I exit the Whatever, and step into the delightful irrelevance of jigsaw world. And if all goes well, I might try “Convergence” again one day.