The Peace Of A Puzzle

When it feels like the world is falling apart, literally
putting something back together is powerful. It’s even better
when this doesn’t require any dirt, manual labor, talent, or

Posted on December 01, 2017, 14:16 GMT

Last winter, my coworkers turned an empty desk on our
floor into a puzzle table. They really liked puzzles, and we
all liked the idea of occasionally standing up, having
nonvirtual conversations, and looking at something other than
our devices’ glowing screens. So Terri brought in a 500-piece
puzzle, and every few days, she or Julie would take a little
break to work on it. And I…kept meaning to take a turn, but
just never really got around to it. I had nothing
against the puzzle; it seemed perfectly nice. I stayed
at my desk mostly due to inertia. Neither the puzzle itself nor
the idea of keeping my brain and body from turning to mush were
stronger than the beep beep bloop bloops of my laptop
and phone.

A few weeks later, we took a coworker out to lunch for her last
day, and I forgot both that it was not happy hour, and that
this restaurant’s margaritas are very strong. Back at my
desk, I tried to get work done…and quickly realized I had no
business writing anything other than a “u up?” text. But
because it is apparently “weird” and “a little concerning” to
do that at 3 p.m. on a weekday, I decided that the puzzle was
the next-best use of my lowered inhibitions. And after a few
minutes hovering over the hundreds of brightly colored, Route
66–themed pieces, I realized… I loved doing puzzles!
Of course, a drunk woman loving something she was just
introduced to moments ago isn’t exactly a solid endorsement.
But I went on to buy myself a beautiful 1,000-piece
puzzle, which I completed over several fully sober hours in
my apartment — indisputable proof that while a bit of tequila
can certainly make putting tab A into slot B more fun, it’s a
pretty universally satisfying experience either way.

When I’m working on a puzzle, I feel both very big and very
small. I love the way the thin cardboard pieces feel as I turn
them around in my fingers, sort them by color, and press them
into place. I am delighted by all of the aha moments —
like when it becomes clear that I’ve finally found the correct
spot for a piece I’ve picked up and put down a dozen times
already, or when I realize that a huge floating island I’ve
constructed can now be connected to another completed expanse.
I love working on the final 30 or so pieces, when I’m going
based mostly on shape and not color, and am both excited to
finish and trying to savor each moment. I don’t think it’s an
accident that I got into puzzles during a personal low period.
When your life is falling apart, literally putting something
back together is powerful. It’s difficult not to find
pleasure in the act of turning a disorganized pile of fragments
into something beautiful and orderly. It’s even better when
this doesn’t require any dirt, manual labor, talent, or skill.

Speaking of talent and skill, puzzles are an excellent hobby
for people who lack both. And unlike many hobbies, puzzles
don’t require you to buy a bunch of special tools or supplies
just to get started, or ask that you wait out a frustrating
learning period. The first thing you try to knit will probably
look pretty lumpy when you are done. The first puzzle you
complete will look perfect.

Equal parts soothing and stimulating, puzzles cast a gentle
spell that is somehow still strong enough to pull my shoulders
down from my ears in less than 10 minutes. They are, by their
very nature, a challenge, but it always feels like a friendly
one; I have never once doubted that the puzzle genuinely wants
me to win. When I start a new puzzle, I do so with the
confidence that I will be able to complete it. It becomes,
then, an exercise in patience. Sure, I can devote more time
each day to working on a puzzle, but, ultimately, each one will
just take the amount of hours it takes. I found this
frustrating at first, but I’ve since come to appreciate the
steady pace of a puzzle. (Or, more accurately: I’ve come to
appreciate being able to smugly say, “I’ve come to appreciate
the steady pace of a puzzle.”)

When I’m working on a puzzle, I feel both very big and very

While I’d be lying if I said that I don’t Snapchat my progress
on occasion, I typically shut my laptop and put my phone in Do
Not Disturb mode in another room when I’m working on a puzzle.
Instead of splitting my attention between tabs and apps, I am
building a tiny universe; after just a few minutes, everything
beyond its edges feels very far away. Lately, I’ve been
combining puzzling and podcasts. It’s one of the only ways I
can get myself to actually listen to podcasts while I’m at
home, and something about the pairing feels delightfully
old-fashioned — like, Gee-whiz, all it takes to keep me
entertained is a jigsaw puzzle and the radio!
But I often
don’t even need that; I can work on a puzzle in total silence
for hours. Doing puzzles makes me feel like I am healing the
parts of my brain that the internet has rotted. I look for a
piece I need, I find the peace I need.

While puzzles are an incredible solo activity, I’d be remiss if
I didn’t mention the magic of doing them with others. As far as
group activities go, they are an incredibly wholesome choice.
Yes, you could suggest smoking a joint or playing Cards Against
Humanity at a gathering, but you’d do so with the knowledge
that you might alienate some partygoers. Puzzles though.
You really can’t go wrong proposing a puzzle. They are
especially good for times in which multiple generations will be
together under one roof. Unlike card and board games, puzzles
have no complicated rules to explain to new guests, nor do they
ignite the sort of familial competitiveness that ends in tears
or bloodshed. Doing a puzzle is also significantly safer than
watching a movie, which may contain a graphic sex scene no one
knew about. If a puzzle contains a graphic sex scene, it’ll be
right there on the box.

Speaking of talent and skill, puzzles are an excellent hobby
for people who lack both. 

Cartographer John Spilsbury is widely credited with creating
the first jigsaw puzzles; he mounted maps on wood, cut them
into pieces, and used them to teach children geography.
Two-hundred-and-fifty years later, puzzles are still good for
helping people find their way. Even on days when I don’t make
much visible progress, I, at least, always feel a little more
whole when I’m done with a session. Puzzles are an incredibly
pure way to begin healing a broken heart, and to occupy a mind
that would otherwise be consumed by thoughts of loss, anger,
fear, or simply the notifications on your phone. A puzzle won’t
solve all of your problems, but a puzzle is a problem you can
solve. •

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