It was a Saturday afternoon, The Battle of Bunker Hill, a 1000 piece puzzle was in front of me on the dining room table. I imagined a contest, like the Olympics for puzzle building. Crowds stood around me watching, their mouths hanging open in amazement as I put the puzzle together. Scanning the pieces laid out on the table, I placed each one without making a mistake. I was the winner, everyone cheered. My family finally took me seriously, the kids at school still didn’t talk to me, but they didn’t bother me either, except maybe I got a boyfriend out of it all, someone who understood me and didn’t get scared when I cried and would go out with me on a Saturday afternoon.
This is still the first thing that comes to my mind each time I start a new puzzle. I didn’t do them for years, probably because of this memory and, as much as I loved to do them, I always felt like they were a waste of time, like I could be doing something more productive. In my mind, it was ok to do a crossword puzzle. People who do crossword puzzles are smart and they’re keeping their brains sharp too, even avoiding Alzheimer’s. But jigsaw puzzles are for little kids and old ladies, people in hospitals, people who have nothing better to do, ( people like me on a Saturday afternoon in Jr High School).
So a few years ago, when Jon found out I loved doing puzzles, he started buying them for me. Wonderful puzzles made from thick cardboard, each piece a jewel. The first was a Frank Lloyd Wright, then Klimt and Monet, and the hardest, an MC Escher (one with all the stairways). He said they were good for me, they took me out of myself and helped me relax. I was truly aware of my obsessive nature for the first time. My whole adolescent life I tried to stay awake to watch Saturday Night Live but could never make it past 11pm. But give me a puzzle and I can stay up all night doing it.
Still, I had puzzle guilt. I kept trying to figure it out. Why do I like doing them so much? Are they beneficial in any way. I could easily be doing something else obsessive that, at least when I’m done I’d have something to show for it. (like cleaning out my closet or weaving. There’s my loom sitting empty for years, while I’m doing jigsaw puzzles only to break them apart and never look at them again).
In my search, I read The Pattern in the Carpet by Margaret Drabble. It’s a whole book exploring the appeal of Jigsaw puzzles. (actually I haven’t finished it yet, it can be a bit long winded with many asides and facts that don’t really interest me, but I’m slowly working through it) From what I’ve read so far, I have a feeling that nothing earth shattering (or enough to rid me of my puzzle guilt) will be revealed. The most helpful thing I’ve come across so far is a passage from An Available Man by Hilma Worlitzer. In this novel, the 90 year old grandmother complains that her mind is so sharp she forgets nothing, even the things she wishes she could forget. She credits her memory to jigsaw puzzles, which she still does with a huge magnifying glass.
That’s it, I thought. It’s my own prejudice. I have this belief, that if you’re doing a puzzle with words, you’re smart and doing something worthwhile. But if it’s pictures, colors, shapes, then it’s not to be taken seriously. It’s only a game, play, entertainment. Which is of course what all puzzles are. (seems like it’s also a self worth issue) But suddenly it makes sense to me that if a puzzle with words exercises your brain a puzzle with images and shapes and colors also exercises your brain. Maybe a different part of the brain, but is one part of the brain better than another? Is a writer better, smarter than a visual artist?
Suddenly I can feel my jigsaw puzzle guilt slipping away. There is a purpose to jigsaw puzzles after all. Or better yet, maybe someday I’ll get to the point where I don’t care. Were all my past jigsaw baggage is gone and I can just do a puzzle because I want to, because I enjoy it and that is enough.