We were not a puzzle family. My folks preferred cards. I loved those nights sitting around our dining room table, mom having cleared everything off in preparation for a few hands of gin rummy.
But, what do I remember of puzzles? Missing pieces, mostly. What a disappointment to spend all that time getting everything in place only to realize there were little creature shaped holes in the picture. That happened with cards, too, you’d pull out an old deck and toward the end of a game you’d realize that fourth queen you were waiting for no longer existed or if she did she was hiding in the junk drawer of the kitchen with old rubber bands, extra scissors and coupons that would never be used.
I like the puzzle-making part where you get the border all figured out, and you have a frame with all the other random pieces in a messy spread in the middle, but that’s where it ends for me.
It’s not that I don’t enjoy a challenge—my life has been a series of preposterous feats I put before me and then attempted to conquer, or at least survive.
The greatest puzzle at the moment, of course, is how will this moment play forward. Here in my office as I write this, it’s a beautiful spring morning: Bobby’s upstairs painting, Sally’s dozing in her third bed upstairs, I move toward noon with clarity and purpose, after the show the day has an order that I can easily follow. Beyond that, problems arise: what about tomorrow and the next day and will our town be overrun with city folks and will the reopening lead to disaster, will there be a second wave, worse than what we’ve already seen? How do the impacts of a virus suddenly just get better just because people want them to?
With so much uncertainty, it’s important to nail down whatever we can—this is this and that is that and this is not that, to name things.
And yet, we swim in mystery, the world isn’t solid, it’s liquid, in motion, atoms swirling. Matter becoming gas, liquid becoming solid. I remember when I first learned that glass was made from sand.
My great Aunt Ruby had an irrational fear of sitting with her back to a window, until she had someone tell her that in her previous life she was a pioneer women and had been killed when an arrow flew through her window and into the back of her head.
“The windows were just open?” I asked my grandmother when she told me this.
“There was no glass at the time, the windows were just openings in the walls of a house, shutters were used to close up the house at night or during cold weather.”
How comfortable are you with the unknown, that’s what we’re being asked, can you live with not knowing how things are going to end, the way the story is going to go, who’s going to live, who’s going to die? When you’re going to travel again?
Our human brains have been wired for millennia to find solutions. We read mysteries, we follow stories, we devour horror movies—all of it touches the delicious sensation of not knowing. But what we really want is to find the killer.
How do we become comfortable with no satisfying outcome? Even the word satisfaction implies the receipt of something. But what if what you receive at the end of the mystery is a batch of not-knowing? If what you’re left with in the end is more uncertainty? Can you live with that prize?
We like to hang a picture on the emptiness before us and look at that instead of the darkness beyond. The nature of the picture, what we each choose to look at, matters: some lead to more darkness, some lead to delusion. The best pictures comfort, us—not with simple answers but the solace that no one really knows what’s out there. The maker of the picture serves as a sort of guide.
Art, music, poetry—these things point at the mystery all around us, they sometime manage to capture it and make it easier to live in a world where the days stretch out, unmapped, unknown.
Joni Mitchell, in her great song, Both Sides Now, wrote this:
I’ve looked at life from both sides now
From give and take and still somehow
It’s life’s illusions I recall
I really don’t know life at all
Here’s a mystery, how did a twenty year old write that song?
It occurs to me that instead of being bad at it, I might have mastered puzzling—leave the picture undone, the pieces unfitted, without their proper place. Maybe puzzles are there to teach us to let them be, unsolved, unanswered, unknown. You might have a different idea about that, but really, in the end, who knows?