Working puzzles used to be something reserved for family beach vacations. On multigenerational trips to South Carolina or Oregon, there has always been a table in a corner with a puzzle in progress. Like two of my sisters in law, I can barely tear myself away while others, like my husband, can’t be bothered.
I’m on my third quarantine picture puzzle, which should be a cinch since it’s only 500 pieces. The nostalgia of a vacation pastime has given way to a daily obsession with both the jigsaw and word variety during coronavirus quarantine. The popular Wordscapes has joined the Scrabble app and Words with Friends on my iPhone, and I also work a daily crossword puzzle.
I worked most of the first puzzle with my daughter, who spent her first two weeks of quarantine with us. She raised the idea of doing a puzzle, but whatever we’d had must have been purged in our recent move to Evergreen.
We were not yet under Colorado’s official stay-at-home order, but we were staying put. Still, occasionally you need a change of scenery and sometimes a girl has a craving for French fries. My daughter and I went for a drive and wound up at McDonald’s, which happens to be in the same neighborhood as Walmart.
“Should I run in and see if they have any puzzles?” I asked.
She gave me an enthusiastic “yes.”
It was weeks before we civilians even thought about wearing face masks, so I held my breath and made a stealthy beeline to the puzzle shelves.
“Pretty picked over,” I said to the other woman considering her options. We were careful not to get too close to each other.
Most of what remained had too few pieces and were too juvenile. I settled for two that were so frilly and old fashioned they looked like something my Grammy might have picked out.
My daughter and I got to work on the 1,000-piece collage of sewing notions – embroidery hoops, scissors, pin cushions, myriad threads and ribbons, pins and needles, and about a million random buttons. When it was finally completed, it was missing nine pieces thanks to my grand puppy’s taste for cardboard.
Regardless of the puzzle, whether words or pictures, there’s something so satisfying about finishing. There are little victories along the way. The “yes!” as we snap another piece into place. Or, the “of course” when the letters in the squares finally make sense. It’s rewarding. It all fits together. We see the results of our efforts and there’s something especially comforting about that now.
I worked the second jigsaw puzzle, the lacy, Victorian “Les secrets du boudoir,” by myself. At 2,000 small pieces and a border that was all the same shade of blue, I noodled with it for four weeks. A couple of times I almost gave up.
Giving up seems an apt temptation now, because some days I want to throw up my hands and say it: I give up. I don’t know anymore. I don’t know what, or whom, to believe. But we can’t afford to give up now, can we?
Not that the universe isn’t always a bit of a mystery, but life in the time of COVID-19 is an altogether new puzzle. While health professionals and government officials try to parse the scientific and economic conundrums this novel coronavirus presents, we see that not all the parts fit together. Folks don’t agree. Much of the time it feels like they’re trying to jam the pieces into the wrong spots, whether they fit or not, because there is so much discord about how and when to move forward. There is tension, stubbornness and resistance.
Is it okay to go to the park? What about back to work? Can I get my hair cut now? Travel to see my kids?
It’s puzzling not to have clear-cut symmetrical rules. The White House has left it up to the states. In Colorado, individual counties can establish rules of their own in some circumstances. Our home sits in Clear Creek County but much of Evergreen, including our nearest essential services, are in Jefferson County. One difference between the two counties is that Clear Creek closed county roads to non-residents to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. Both agree with the state that folks should wear face masks and remain six feet apart while not at home.
So why do I have to slither past a cluster of non-social distancing, bare-faced teens to pick up my lunch order? Even before COVID-19, I spent too much time trying to figure out things that are beyond me, like the behavior and motives of other humans. My usual musings – Why didn’t he pick up his dog poop? Why is she feeding the wildlife? – have morphed into: Do their parents know they’re not wearing face masks? Why is the president giving medical advice? Why are we hoarding toilet paper?
Trying to figure out the truth and find the good in the corona mess is a challenge.
“Each of us wants so much assurance,” writes Anne Lamott, “and there really isn’t much.”
The statement was not written with COVID-19 in mind. It appears in the author’s book “Almost Everything: Notes on Hope” in an essay titled, of all things, “Puzzles.” When my friend mentioned over the weekend she’d just read and appreciated this piece, I went back and re-read it myself. Wow. Really perfect for our times.
“It is the worst thing on earth, this truth about how little truth we know,” Lamott writes. “I hate it and resent it.”
“And yet, it is where new life rises from.”
So, we carve out a new life for ourselves, a so-called “new normal.” We cope the best we can. We show our support for first responders and healthcare workers, whether it’s through applause or howling or our own silent prayers of gratitude.
We keep in touch with friends and share experience, strength and hope. We reach out with compassion where we can, beginning with thanking the people who still work at the fish counter, those who deliver our packages and come to fix our refrigerators. We encourage each other. We Zoom. We try new recipes. We practice patience. We wear face masks when we go out.
Maybe, like me, you work the puzzles. We link disparate pieces together as a way of connecting to something outside of ourselves. One piece at a time. One day at a time. And we don’t give up.
Evergreen resident Mary Novaria’s essays have appeared in O, The Oprah Magazine, the Washington Post and elsewhere. Follow her on Twitter at @MaryNovaria