February 28, 2020 | Narrative
small pieces, big picture
the healing power of puzzles
Two weeks ago, my housemate came back from Boston with a puzzle. It was a staggering thousand pieces because, as she told her dad, we’re smart and capable women who can handle a challenge. The box displayed an intricate map of snaking rivers, pine trees, and log cabins; the top third sported a large bald eagle clutching a banner reading “Historic New England.” Lighthouses perched on the craggy coastline studded with all manner of sailing vessels, and a diverse array of wildlife—birds, fish, even a pair of seals—dotted the puzzle’s interior. Tiny scrolls of parchment strewn throughout the landscape boasted historical facts about the various landmarks painted in bright blues, reds, and greens. Yellow highways linked together major cities and pointed to interesting rest stops: “America’s Stonehenge,” for example, is in New Hampshire, just off I-93. My three housemates and I cracked open the box and set to work separating out the edge pieces.
Until recently, I wouldn’t have called myself a puzzler. That’s a title reserved for my mom, who, every winter break, takes over the dining room table with whichever design she has chosen for the year—classic novels, Broadway plays, Art Nouveau posters—and spends hours each day rapt with concentration. She even has a felt pad that she places underneath her puzzles which allows her to roll them up and store them without dismantling them entirely. She is a puzzler; I am a casual fan. My attention span is too short to devote myself to something requiring such focus—I am easily frustrated and dislike sifting through hundreds of cardboard pieces just to find the one piece I need. At least, that’s what I thought.
It took a little over a week for us to finish “Historic New England.” I spent most of my time painstakingly working on Maine, where my dad is from. I exaggerated his accent as I searched for pieces—had anyone seen Pen-awb-scawt Bay recently? What about Bah Hahbah? I found Bowdoin College, where he went to school, and slotted it alongside a tiny thicket of trees. I found Brown as I moved down to Rhode Island for a change of perspective and smiled to myself. New England really is compact, I thought, in contrast to the suburban sprawl of the Midwest, where I’d grown up. In three months, I will graduate and I will leave New England, likely forever. My dad did, right after graduation: he went first to Minneapolis and then to Chicago, where he stayed. I thought of migration as I pieced together the hooked elbow of Cape Cod. My housemates and I are getting ready to scatter—two of us aren’t even staying on this continent—but for a few days, as we belted “What Dreams Are Made Of” from The Lizzie McGuire Movie and drank mug after mug of herbal tea, we were, each of us, rooted to this tiny slice of land.
Some find puzzles calming. I usually find them infuriating. But, after conquering “Historic New England,” we cracked open another, this one a little more my speed. Painted in rich jewel tones, it depicts “Jane Austen’s Book Club.” Jane and Virginia Woolf perch on a plush crimson couch, while Mary Shelley, George Eliot, and Zora Neale Hurston preside over the back. I notice that Virginia Woolf, the subject of my senior thesis, is disconcertingly blonde in the puzzle, as blonde as I am. Though Woolf was, after all, a brunette, I take this mistaken similarity as a sign that the universe is working out as it should. This is perhaps a lot to ascribe to a historical inaccuracy in a jigsaw puzzle, but puzzling has taught me to see the connections between even seemingly insignificant details. A splotch of red might be a stripe on the American flag or it might be part of a lobster’s tail. Sometimes, it is easier to look for the tiniest smudge on the corner of a piece rather than its larger picture, because only that way will you know where it connects. Sometimes, it is worth it to just try pieces at random until you find the one that fits.
There is no particular strategy to puzzling, other than doing the edges first, but I would call that common sense. You can move methodically, either by separating pieces by color or focusing your attention on one particular area while excluding all others, but there are no hard and fast rules. I find puzzles frustrating because they require me to recognize that I can’t know everything—I can imagine how the pieces will fit together, but I can’t know for sure until the whole thing is done. They require me to confront my failures, one after the other until, finally, something clicks. They require me to stop worrying about putting my thoughts into words and to focus on images instead, to understand that things probably won’t make any sense until, suddenly, they do.
Puzzles allow me to see the big picture, which is exactly what I have been trying to avoid. The next year of my life is starting to coalesce; a picture is forming, in streaks and smudges. I am going to graduate school, moving once again, this time across the Atlantic to the United Kingdom. I do not know where my life goes from there—I am trying to be okay with that. I may not know what the finished product will be, but I do know that I can find out. I am, after all, a strong, capable woman who can manage 1,000-piece puzzles. For now, I can focus on the small pieces: making the most of my last three months here at Brown, accepting failure, and spending as much time as I can at our narrow table, trying to keep the puzzle pieces from falling onto the floor. I can trust that the big picture of my life is out there somewhere—I just need to pay attention to the details until the day it all comes together and I realize, for once, everything is in its place.