In the early days of the pandemic, when what we didn’t know about the virus far exceeded what we knew, my mother was packed off to the countryside to isolate with her in-law equivalents in a place where walks in nature could be safely undertaken, and company during the strange twilight of lockdowns could be enjoyed.
Around the world, for some reason or other, people started doing puzzles and making sourdough. Gluten intolerant I eschewed the latter but bought myself a 1000 piece diced up version of Klimt’s The Kiss to participate in the general way of the times. It sat in a jumble for weeks on the games table, where bit by bit I slowly managed to wrestle it into shape. I found the whole thing sort of cathartic, so I sent my mum in the UK one too to while away the hours between walks, yoga and reading books. Unfortunately, by this time, puzzles were in short supply, so she got, eventually, a 1500 piece of Paris at night. Or, as she might say, an endless frustration of impossibility.
Fast forward two and some years, when Australia’s borders were finally opened up for family, I found myself at the airport ready for a long-awaited hug from my forebear. Mum arrived in a moment of rare sunshine in this strange and wet summer, bearing with her this nemesis of a puzzle buried deep in her suitcase. Like some sort of homage to Ikea, the parts already done were cleverly flat-packed into plastic sleeves, and the pieces yet to make their way into play came boxed up in take-away containers. Inventive, my mum is.
After catching up over cups of tea, and walks with the dog, and a swim in the bracing sea already in the grip of Autumn, and a genteel explore around Dangar Island, and all those sorts of things, we got the puzzle out.
And she was right. It is a nightmare of a puzzle. The bits that remain to be placed, about a third I imagine, are a bamboozlement of hard to differentiate splashes of colour. Blurry shades of blue and dots of yellow or splatters of pink on hopelessly small pieces of cardboard. It’s hard to know where to start when sorting them into mostly-similar-bits seems impossible.
Two and a half puzzles down in my adult life, that’s my go-to approach. Sorting. It’s a layered approach. First, the edges from the not-edges to create a frame to constrain the mental misery to follow. Then the not-edges into broadly distinct groups. This is followed by a more granular sorting within a particular group until we finally get to a place where we might find pieces that actually go together in the same vicinity on the kitchen table.
It takes patience and a willingness to engage in organisation to do a puzzle, I think. Patience is not my strong point. But, in puzzles at least, I’ve worked out its quicker muddling through the process than trying to skip ahead and hoping life magically lines up all the pieces for me.
There is a rhythm I’ve noticed when doing a puzzle. A sort of valleys and hills rollercoaster of alternating flow and halting frustration. Little hits of dopamine when you land one, long stretches of fruitless endeavour in between. My mum’s puzzle is at the pointy end. It feels like we are sludging up a very steep hill. We are at the place where many of the empty stretches seem to have the same characteristics. There are hundreds of pieces remaining, and it seems impossible to sort them into any order. And being unable to find a way to sort them makes the whole task of solving this thing daunting. I’m putting off the sorting because it’s hard, and because of that, I’m making no progress at all.
Doing puzzles probably seems like a ridiculous waste of time. They are difficult, time consuming and frustrating. You spend hours, literally hours, on them only to pack it all up upon completion, so that you are back right where you started, with nothing but a nebulous sense of hard-won achievement in your mental armoury.
But, being a ruminative sort of soul, I think about how doing puzzles is not that different from doing life.
Much like a puzzle, we need structure to frame and make sense of our experiences. Our structures are the beliefs and assumptions our brains cobble together out of the random slices of life they are exposed to. Those we inherit from our families and experiences, and that go on to create the contours of our minds. They create the perspective through which we process and organise incoming information. Wisdom lies in recognising, unlike a puzzle, that our mind-made structures don’t reflect the true state of the world, and that we can alter them to create better mental perspectives for ourselves. Some say enlightenment comes when your mind no longer has edges, but until then, we can at least recognise the edges we do have are not a faithful reproduction of reality.
Puzzles take tenacity – a commitment to starting and keeping going when things are hard. Ironically, an easy puzzle is not necessarily a fun way to pass the time. Boring, easily done and lacking in challenge, they provide no joy. Life without friction and growth is much the same. It is in the roughness of life, in the pursuit of dreams and the squeezing of joy from the lemons it serves up, that richness and satisfaction most lie.
Puzzles are seemingly pointless. But really, is life much different? You are born and then you die, and nothing you achieve along the way will change that. And yet, life is still worth persevering with. It’s jam-packed full of opportunity for joy, for connection, for kindness and compassion. For smelling flowers and watching birds and sunsets, and seeing a newborn smile for the first time, and eating freshly picked strawberries, and playing board-games with your children and going on adventures with your husband. Puzzles are a journey, and so is life, and it is the journey, not the destination, that we might be better off directing our attention towards.
I’m not sure whether mum and I will solve this particular puzzle. Ever optimistic, I think with time and my soon to arrive stronger prescription glasses, we will. But even if we don’t finish it, doing a puzzle with my mum is a wonderful way to while away the hours. It is a rare and beautiful opportunity for incidental conversation, for spending time in the same space in each other’s company and being present, with no real goal or agenda. And then there is the shared excitement of slotting a piece in place.
Puzzles are about the joy found in the space between events, something we seem to forget in our achievement orientated, hurly burly modern lives. Maybe we would all get more out of life if we took on a puzzling mindset?