I grew up working on puzzles with my family during the winter holiday breaks. Every year between Christmas and New Years, every member of my family could be found hunched over a temporary card table set up in the middle of the living room. Never-mind Santa Claus; The main source of magic in those days was waking up to find a gigantic portion of the puzzle completed. Sometimes, feelings of gratitude flooded the soul, since a piece that had eluded me was found and locked in place. Other times, I would feel cheated, because a large portion of the puzzle was no longer available for construction.
The purchaser of puzzles was my mom, and she wasn’t very picky. She brought home pictures that she liked. They were typical interlocking jigsaw puzzles consisting of anywhere between one and two thousand pieces.
Mom was the best at finding matching pieces. I remember puzzling over a section for a long time, only to have mom visit the project, survey the available pieces, and pick the most random-looking one out of the mix. Not every time, but often, she’d have flawlessly, and seemingly effortlessly found the missing piece!
Now, I am teaching my daughter Scarlet how to assemble puzzles. My wife and I have given Scarlet puzzles for years, but this Christmas is the first time that she is really engaged in puzzling through a 750-piecer, independently. I came downstairs yesterday morning to find her hunched over the colorful enigma, piece in hand. As I began explaining that sometimes it isn’t enough to look at the colors of the pieces; “You have to examine the negative space to find a matching piece;” I thought about the ways people interact with one another.
When Scarlet and I first dumped out the 750 pieces, I instructed her to turn all of the pieces over, so that the glossy, colored sides were facing up. As we did this, we placed any pieces that had straight edges into a separate pile: Those were the edge pieces. We also began forming a few other distinct piles of pieces during the flip over process. Any pieces with blue on them went into a pile separate from the pile of red pieces.
Anyone familiar with putting together puzzles knows that you first assemble the border, so that you have a literal frame. This also provides a frame of reference for where to place increasingly connected groups of pieces. Sometimes you have to open up the border to allow large sections of connected pieces to slide into the middle of it. Other times, you can pick up a handful of attached pieces and drop them into their spot. Then there are times when you work on bringing individual pieces into the frame to fill gaps and complete sections, all the while you are hunting relationships between interlocking, individual, man-made masses of color and shape that are meant to be together.
Scarlet, Mommy, and I are only about a quarter done assembling our family puzzle, when it hits me: What if people had the same attitude about other humans that a person putting together a puzzle possesses? The whole time you work on a puzzle, you are only thinking, where does this piece in my hand belong? Who does it connect to? What spot in the puzzle is its home? How does it relate to the rest of the puzzle?
The puzzle that we are working on is tricky, in that the pieces seem to be cut right on the cusp of varying colors. I am working on assembling a section full of poinsettias and looking for an adjacent piece. I first try pieces that look similar to those adjacent the vacancy. None of those fit. Next, I examine the opening that the missing piece forms; the negative space. Are there any pieces in the pile of red that possess a similar shape? Eventually, I go ahead and try sticking red pieces into the gap, just in case there is a geometric abnormality that I am not seeing. Perhaps one will work, even though it does not look like it. That’s happened before. No success. I widen my scope of potential pieces to include ones that share the colors of surrounding pieces; greens and browns. When finally I do find the piece, I notice that the cut followed the line of red color, seeming to purposefully fool anyone relying on that.
This story goes to show that while it may be advantageous to categorize puzzle pieces into separate colors, initially, this reliance on related pigments can eventually cause frustration. I would have found my missing piece faster, had I looked at the picture of the puzzle on the box, and included any piece that had red AND leaf colors/designs in my pile of poinsettia pieces. And, really, if you want to get really figurative and technical, poinsettia petals actually are leaves that turn red!
The important thing to understand is that the entire time you are putting together a puzzle, you are being inclusive and accepting. Every single one of the 750 pieces is a potential fit for any opening. They all belong somewhere. I think it was the experience of this particular puzzle’s play on color that brought this to my attention. Time after time, I found myself needing to open my mind to accept the possibility that pieces I never would have imagined going together actually did!
A coping strategy for dealing with frustration when assembling puzzles is to step away from working on a difficult relationship, in order to focus on another part of the puzzle. When I am not finding the elusive connecting pieces between poinsettias and chipmunk, after searching for tens of minutes, I must move on to the yellow section of flowers on the other side. Often times, I will eventually stumble across a piece that I recognize belongs to a foreign part of the puzzle. The satisfaction felt when dropping it into its home is immense.
Each piece has a home; Has a purpose; Has a special function. The piece that you hold in your hand belongs somewhere, even if you aren’t sure where that spot is at the moment. You can put it down, but don’t lose it! It has immense value. They all do!
The most important dangers of a puzzler include: Do NOT lose even one piece! In fact, if you lose even ONE, you may as well throw the whole thing away. Or, if you are creative and graceful, you could make a substitute piece, but if there are more than one or two missing, it does not matter how creative or full of grace you are, the puzzle will look wholly unfinished; not holy. Never force a piece. If you do this, you could ruin its shape, so that it won’t fit nicely into the relationship it was meant for. Also, if you leave a forced piece in place, it warps the whole puzzle. You might attach a few more pieces to this wrongfully placed piece, but eventually there will be a line of unrelated-ness, like a saltwater tide infringing on brackish water in a bayou.
Before I leave you to chew on this metaphor, I must mention some of its limitations. First of all, Life has no borders; It has a beginning and an end, but there is no ceiling or floor. Sore as high as you can, and be careful of exploring its depths too far. Understand that experiences, places, and people are all part of your puzzle. Also, it is more like a three-dimensional puzzle. Build out wide on either side to support potential experiences that could attach to your life. Then, watch piece after piece fall into place, grow, and assemble. Finally, but not conclusively, it is ever changing. The piece you hold in your hand may not fit now, but in a few minutes, it could be exactly what you need! Life is like a coral reef; a puzzle of plant, animal, and rock… Living rock.