Saturday, December 10, 2011


I'll begin this post by skipping right to the end of it: I spent hours and hours working a jigsaw puzzle, only to discover, when it was nearing completion, that two pieces were missing. I'll bet that's happened to you, hasn't it?

I can tell you the ending of this story because the end isn't really important. What matters, at least to me, is that the process of assembling this puzzle helped me fit a piece or two into the unfinished picture of who I have become. Here's what happened:

Day One:

The rain is coming down in slow, ropy drips, the first rain we've had in weeks. I don't mind it since I have no errands to run, and I think about what I'll do to occupy myself on a perfect indoor day like this one.

I piddle around on the Internet for a while, reading blogs and Facebook posts. One person is glad it's Friday, and two others want me to copy and repost their status updates, one to show that I love my daughter, the other to honor our men and women in the military. I do love my daughters, both of them, and I do respect those who serve our country, but I never repost anything. That's a good way to get a computer virus. Besides, I'm 69 years old and have long since learned that I don't have to do a thing just because someone asks me to.

Last night at bedtime I finished my book. Should I start another one? No, I don't want to get absorbed in anything this early in the day. I'd rather do something that allows my mind to free-float for a while. I don't want to watch TV, either; the house is quiet and I like it that way. I could draw, but that would mean dragging the pens, pencils and sketchbook to the end of the sofa where the light is best, and I know that as soon as I sit down on the sofa, Levi will show up with his ball and that please-please-play-with-me look in his eyes. Hmmm.

My eyes fall on the bookcase next to the fireplace, the shelves that hold games and jigsaw puzzles. I went on a puzzle binge a few years ago, and the binge ended way before the supply of puzzles did. It's been at least two years since I've put one together. I pick up an unopened box and study the picture on the front of it: too bright and flowery to suit my mood on this rainy day. I pick up a few more boxes, looking for something more seasonal. I stop and count the unopened puzzles; there are seventeen of them. I study the picture on each box top, finally choosing one that shows a sand-colored castle, topped with terra-cotta roof tiles, surrounded by russet-hued trees and a pale blue sky.

The table knife I use to open the box isn't up to the job, but I persist and finally puncture the paper seal. Now that I've made entry, I slice down one side of the box, then repeat the whole hacking process three more times. I mentally chastise myself for being too lazy to use the right tool for the job and for not being more safety conscious. Then, in the next second, I forgive myself--as simple to do as it is to say.

The puzzle is open. That's what counts. I take it to the dining room table, have a seat, pull the box close to my chest, and start sifting through it to find every piece that has one straight edge. When I think I have all the edge pieces, I set the box aside and begin assembling the frame of the puzzle. This part is as easy as child's play. Actually, it is child's play.

Next, I pull out all the pieces that look like they might be part of the castle walls and spread them out on the left side of the puzzle. Then I look for all the pieces that might be roof tiles and lay them out to the right. Piece by piece I fit tabs into notches until all the manmade structures in the puzzle image lie, surrounded by empty spaces, in the puzzle frame.

That's enough for one day.

Day Two:

I don't begin work on the puzzle until late in the afternoon, then I dig out all the pieces that look like sky. Wow! There's a big pile of sky. I look at the picture on the box again and see that sky covers nearly half of it. This could get tedious.

I notice for the hundredth time that the light in my dining room isn't very good. Parts of the sky are light blue, and parts of it are white, and in this light it's hard to see the difference. I get the flashlight out of the drawer and shine it on the sky pieces. Now they all look yellow, which doesn't help anything, so I put the flashlight away. The only way I can distinguish the light blues from the bluish whites is to hold two pieces side by side, one pair at a time, so I do that, over and over and over, until I have a dozen little five- or six-piece patches of sky. That's progress, even though I have no idea which patch goes where.

I glance at the clock and realize how long I've been sitting here, working on nothing but sky. This puzzle seemed like a good idea when I started it, but I'll tell you what: sky is  boring.

My eyes are burning and my shoulders ache. I stop and roll my head around a couple of times, then move my shoulders up and down, forward and back. As I'm working out the kinks, it suddenly occurs to me that I don't have to finish this puzzle. I'm not getting paid to do this, so there won't be any negative consequences for quitting. No one would even know I did it. It dawns on me that, except for the care and feeding of my animals, I'm not really responsible to anyone about how I spend my time. My kids and grandkids are grown, so it's not as if I even have to set a good example. If  I want to quit, all I have to do is decide to quit, and I'm done. The newfound sense of freedom is heady.

I decide that I won't give up, but I will stop for the day.

Day Three:

After a good night's sleep, I feel fresh this morning. I let the dogs outside and sit down at the dining room table to wait for them. After a couple minutes I glance casually at the puzzle, then at the carefully laid-out pieces of sky, and one of those pieces practically waves at me. "Pick me up," it seems to shout, and I do pick it up, and its shape pops out at me so distinctly that I know instantly where to put it. There. It fits. Then I recognize the shape of a second piece and a third, and by the time the dogs are ready to come back in, I'm channeling Chicken Little: "The sky is falling."  Falling into place. This sky is mine.

All that's left is the leafy part of the puzzle. There are orange leaves, yellow leaves, tan leaves, leaves in shadow that appear dark green and even black. I lay out the leaf pieces by color around the perimeter of the puzzle and work systematically. By now I'm not thinking in terms of tabs and notches; instead, each piece has arms, legs, and a head on either end. I work with one piece at a time, trying to find a match for an outsized head that slopes to the right or a left arm that looks like an angel's wing. Minutes stretch into hours, but the end is in sight.

There's one piece left on the tabletop. I pick it up, reach across to drop it into place, and . . . wait, how did this happen? There are three empty spots in the puzzle. I fit the piece in my hand into one of those places, then start searching for the missing pieces. I look in the box and find it empty, as I expected. I lift up the bottom of the box, then the top. I lift the leaves of the silk plant that sits in the center of the dining table, then pick up the whole plant. I pull out the chairs on either side of me, thinking the pieces might have slid off the table onto the seats. I check the floor and don't see anything, but I know the colors in the autumn-leaf pattern would blend right in with the flooring, so I go get the broom and drag it carefully toward me from every direction, gaining nothing for my efforts but a little dog hair and a couple of dried leaves. Real leaves, dragged in from outside. They, too, blended right in with the flooring.

So that's it. I've worked on this puzzle for large chunks of time on three different days and have ended  up with two pieces missing. I didn't quit, but I can't finish it. And yet, I am done. I'm satisfied. Where there was anger and frustration the last time this happened, there is now peace of mind.

This post is about three puzzles, then: first, the cardboard one I just (almost) finished; second, the mystery of the missing pieces; and third, an unanswered question:  when did it get so easy for me to let go and move on? The third puzzle is the one that interests me most, because frustration used to be the flag I flew daily. Somewhere along the way between then and now, it seems, I've learned to tell the difference between mountains and  molehills.

They say that wisdom comes with age, but I believe it's perspective, rather than wisdom, that one gains over time. (Or maybe, if I'm lucky, wisdom is still in my future.) All I know is that I'm 69 years old, and, like everyone else who has lived this long, I've been through some stuff in my life.

Two missing puzzle pieces? Pffffft! Who cares?


  1. Yeah, I'd try to tell myself, "who cares?" but the perfectionist in me would still be disappointed in the missing pieces. I'd also wonder for a long time whether the missing pieces were left out of the box, or..I'd look at the dog suspiciously and inspect the poop in the yard. ;-)

  2. That is one really nice thing about getting older!


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