Jigsaw Puzzle Guilt

A Liberty Wooden Puzzle, with people and animal and flower shapes.

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.

25 thoughts on “Jigsaw Puzzle Guilt

  1. I think you’re right on all fronts, Maria – it’s good for the brain, it takes intelligence and a kind of visual perception that not everyone possesses – and it’s also just calming and fun, and that alone is enough! My sisters and I take puzzles whenever we go on vacation and I think I should do them more often!
    Puzzle on! And away with our guilt! I love the photo!

  2. Hi Maria,

    Sometimes I feel this way about reading mystery novels, that they are a waste of time and and escape. Tell myself I should be studying anatomy instead. Or reading non-fiction to enrich myself. Still, I do indulge in mystery novels every once in a while.

    For me at least, this guilt comes from my 1950’s-1960’s Catholic education. “Idol hands are the devil’s workshop.” And it became re-inforced when I studied Zen. “Don’t waste a minute.” Hold on to your koan, even when sleeping.

    Its as if the frivolous things in life are not to be indulged in.

    Well, I am begininng to question this. And every once in a while I pick up a mystery. “Red Means Run” by Brad Smith is a heck of a good read!

    Janet Rock

  3. Maria – thank you so much for writing about something that is also a passion of mine. Why were we made to feel that it was a ‘guilty pleasure’ of no real redeeming value?
    I just finished 5 weeks of radiation therapy, where I lived in a lodge away from home. There was a table in the ‘common area’ which always had a jigsaw puzzle ‘going’. People who never touched one before, would work on it and remark how relaxing it was. We all seem to have memories of them at Christmas or the ‘camp’, but I am going to start working on them again
    I do have some in my stash and today one is going onto the table, as I have more treatments for cancer, and I need some ‘down’ time and I can think of nothing better than puzzles. I will not feel guilty for something that gives me so much pleasure. Peg

  4. Oh Maria, you are so smart and always were. Don’t you love the way your mind is supposedly putting the puzzle pieces together while it randomly picks pieces of thoughts and ideas and memories and fits those together ? Some of our best thinking and problem solving come from that…

  5. This is off-tangent, but I wanted to share one of my (other) favorite artists with you, shari elf. http://www.sharielf.com/gallery.html
    She advertises her art as good and sturdy, and it is made from 95% trash. I think you might like it, too. Plus her posts are always uplifting.
    I have an insatiable need to do puzzles, too. There is something calming and focusing about scanning the patterns and something satisfying about finding the piece that fits. And although I love to read (English major) I don’t enjoy word puzzles. I need something that is purely visual, like a jigsaw puzzle or sudoku.

  6. Maria, you are a wonderful writer. Your blogs are changing. They were always enjoyable to read but they are taking on a new and different dimension and it’s so cool to be watching this metamorphosis!

  7. Me, too! Jigsaw puzzle, waste of time guilt. I’ve had one puzzle sitting in the closet for years and finally got it out after seeing the post of you working a puzzle. If Maria can do it, so can I. (Why do I need “permission” from someone else? I guess for courage in case anyone criticizes, which they haven’t.) Thanks for writing this post. I do believe they are beneficial to the brain. I’m good with word puzzles, not so much at shapes and designs, so I know it’s good for my brain! Now…back to the puzzle or start “The Story of Rose” on my nook?? Lovely choice!

  8. Hi Maria,
    I used to feel the same way that you did. I could be spending my time so much better than doing a puzzle of any kind or playing a game. But when i had my stroke, my doctor told me, Ordered me, to do puzzles, crosswords, find a word, matching games on the computer and especially jigsaw puzzles. Since the new kitten came here, i’m not able to lay out a jigsaw puzzle very well, but i still love to visit my parents house and help them with theirs. They always have one in progress at their home! We need to allow ourselves to play.

    1. New Kitten! How nice! and doesn’t that really make it ok when the doctor tells you to do it. Take Care Mare and enjoy the puzzles and the Kitten.

  9. Maria, jigsaw puzzles keep us totally focused in the present. Mindfulness and living in the NOW is so important in today’s crazy world. Besides, you work hard and deserve to have a hobby! Look at all the people who waste years of their lives watching inane TV shows!

    Our family tradition was to do a jigsaw puzzle on Boxing Day…a nice quiet activity after the busyness of Christmas. Now that we are retired, we still do them together.

    Go ahead…enjoy your life!

  10. Maria, I just finished the Wolitzer book and found the same quote worth reading to friends. thank you for reminding me of its meaning in my life.
    My 91 year old mother finds puzzles help her forget her pain and fear in the middle of the night. She started putting them together 3 years ago and just loves the process, also the social aspect with other puzzlers.

  11. Hi Maria, I love puzzles and easily become addicted, I don’t know what type of challenge gets me but I can’t look away. I have a friend who tells that when she and her brothers and sisters were kids the rule was you couldn’t look at the box. She says it made the puzzle last longer. I can’t do it that way, I need to look and match tiny details.
    I like what Hazel said about puzzles keeping us focused in the present.

    1. I like what Hazel said too Sue. Sometimes, if the puzzzle is too easy I don’t let myself look at the box. When I was a kid I had a small puzzle I did again and again. I used to turn it over and do it without the picture.

  12. Jigsaw puzzles were part of my youth. Never a waste of time. It helps if all the pieces are in the box! Love the look of this one!!

  13. Lovely post, Maria. When my son was young, I didn’t have much money so we’d time him as he worked the same puzzles over and over. Opposite of relaxing but for a five year old it was fun and we almost always ending up in a fit of giggles.
    I made it a point to have a puzzle in the back of my classroom for my students to work on when they finished their assigned work or if they came early in the morning. It was delightful to see their heads bent toward each other as they worked together to fit in a piece. Their favorite one? A picture of candy bars!

    1. A puzzle in a class room, I’ve never seen that, how nice. I’ve also never giggled over a puzzle, That’s a kid who knows how to have fun.

  14. Maria, thanks for the puzzle post…I too always felt guilty working one…now I won’t, thanks to you. I wish we lived close because I have a big box of puzzles just waiting for someone that wants them.

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