i am, as i so often am, late to the game. it’s a game i’ve not played since the long-ago years when a fat-fingered toddler might be plopped on my lap, as he and i searched for the fat wooden pieces, maybe seven in all, and slid them into their hollowed-out shapes on the puzzle board. little boy blue, i remember. and thomas the train.
but this week, stirred by winter snows and stitches in my paw that kept me from typing too much, i found myself pulling from the cobwebby corner a 500-piece jigsaw sent my way a whole year ago by my very best friend, my friend who spent all of wednesday in surgery.
i was pulled at first by a faint curiosity, a wondering why she and so many i love seem entranced––almost in meditative spell––bent over card tables of cardboard squiggles and bits, allowing images to emerge out of what starts as some iteration of chaos, albeit colorful.
sometimes mesmerizing, quite often maddening, it’s a picking-up-pieces sort of a game, a game particularly apt for these times that make so little sense, these times that feel in such tatters and broken-up bits. the whole point of this puzzling pursuit is to make of its maddening and disjointed parts a seamless whole that slowly, serenely comes into view, soul-satisfyingly so.
it didn’t take too many days before i found it all but impossible to stay away from the spillage on the dining room table. in very large measure, i felt pulled deeper and deeper by a wanting to be connected––all these thousands of miles away––to the one who’d shipped me the box. by the time it was wednesday, the day framed squarely in the lens of her surgery, the pieces of puzzle had become some sort of pressed-cardboard prayer bead, an amulet of wiggly edges and bright splashes of color. i was puzzling for something akin to protection, in that way that two very best friends sometimes imagine, wielding shield and sword for each other, willing to leap tall buildings if that’s what it takes.
if piecing together the puzzle she’d sent—a charming illustration of a braided-hair girl reading a book to the birds (its title, en français, charmingly: la fille qui lisait aux oiseaux; in english, quite plainly, “the girl who reads to birds”) from the french illustrator nathalie lété––somehow drew me into the inner sanctum of my puzzling friend, allowed me to slip in like some sort of guardian angel, then the hours of her surgery could pass with certain focus, and most determined purpose.
as the faraway surgeon deftly excised the cancerous nob, i focused more and more sharply on the pieces before me, magically thinking that my high-voltage zeroing in might somehow guide the hand and the blade of the surgeon. i aimed for nothing short of textbook precision. i wanted my dear and gentle friend, my friend who sends puzzles by long-distance post, a children’s librarian fully fluent in the charmingest of pages, a wonder of a human who knows by heart the storybook hits of all of the ages––i wanted her clean and unbound from all cancer.
as the long afternoon drew longer, and the minutes ticked numbingly by in my head, i discovered that puzzling is as much as anything an exercise in fine-tuning attention. but that isn’t all. there slowly emerged an even more pressing call to attention. it’s not merely visual, the narrowing field of super-fine focus. there seems, along with the eyes, to be a training of the mind, a sharpening of cognitive mettle, a nifty little syllabus for teaching your brain not to leap to conclusions, not based on scant bits of shape, size, or color: sometimes what you see is not what it is. a squiggle you’re sure is the claw of a bird, just might turn out to be the twig of a tree. and the point, over and over, seems to be some sort of lesson in keeping an open mind. not shoving the piece where you think it belongs. only to find that you’re wrong. that seems a wisdom that reaches far beyond the puzzle corner.
at the start, as the 500 pieces tumbled onto the table, all i saw was a dizzying morass of undulating edges. the first few passes were sieved simply by broad swaths of color: pinks over here, blue-and-white stripes shoved to one side, and whole other piles neatly haystacked all round the table: stippled bits of yellow and brown, the reds of a bird, followed by blacks and browns and golds and blues, and all the greens of the various leaves.
but the longer i kept at it, i found my focus shifting from broader swaths to barely visible daubs and dots. i noticed the shifts in the flow of the paint brush’s bristles. and soon enough i realized i was teaching myself how to see, how truly to see. and how to patiently wait for puzzling clarity. in time, the puzzles give way to emergent precision. an indecipherable brushstroke of brown suddenly manifests as the branch that it is. what appears an odd variegation of white dashes on black suddenly makes sense as the wing of a towhee.
it’s all in keeping the focus, honing in on the subtlest of clues. working hard to keep open your mind. allowing the truth to slowly emerge.
it took hours and hours. no short cuts in puzzling. no short cuts in seeing the whole.
it finally came, though. where my eyes had been spinning, my pupils near bursting, there suddenly was the deep satisfaction of the whole greater than any or some of its parts. those dashes and dots had turned into fine-feathered birds. the brushstrokes of the yellow and brown, the braids that spilled to the little fille‘s frock.
and now, the last piece inserted, my beloved best friend home in her bed, i’m ready to puzzle again. it’s an insatiable pull, the puzzling clarity that comes in a box, 500 bits at a time.
shall i go for 1,000?
do you puzzle? and have you a pastime that teaches the secrets of seeing? and keeping open your mind?
a little bit about nathalie lété:
a one-woman whimsy factory, madame lété. it’s been written that she sought refuge from a troubled family life in the make-believe world of european fables and chinese legends; she was an only child––“sad and solitary”––shunted between a german-czech mother and a chinese father “who did not get on,” as she’s told it. though she now lives and works in paris, the walls of her tucked-away cottage in fontainebleau forest are alive with playful folk-life motifs. it’s a bit alice-in-wonderland sprung to life: a giant papier-mâché toadstool serves as a console table. a door is fringed with ceramic “moss.” a pink bedhead, adorned with hearts and birds, and tree trunks hemming the edge of the doors. it’s all inspired, she’s said, by the bloomsbury group, who painted across walls and floors, over and under furniture, including lampshades, and carpets, and the bindings of books—a palette without end. hers is a hand-painted world filled with “an air of fairy-tale wonderment,” according to the slick world of interiors (she’s also been profiled in harper’s bazar UK, and chinese edition of vogue and cosmo, and of course france’s le monde).
prayer corner: prayers for the puzzler in sunny la, and prayers for sweet P, a dear and beloved friend of the chair, getting herself a brand new ball and socket this morning. xoxox. and giant giant happy birthday prayers for my beloved “baby brother,” the one who was and is my dream come true, born 2/4/68, the perfect pair to my odd numbered 1/3/57.
p.s. quite a morning here, with back-to-back phone calls starting at 7 a.m., including one from my favorite law clerk who called to report that he’d bumped into none other than the real sarah palin (sounding “more tina fey than tina fey,” he reported) as he ambled into the courthouse this morning. thus, the delay. so, so sorry.