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SunLit

SunLit Excerpt: “Peace by Piece” suggests the jigsaw puzzle as metaphor — and life tool

Laurel McHargue took on puzzling as a COVID-fueled diversion. Nadine Collier, counselor and puzzle expert, suggested a book. It's about life as much as puzzles.

1: Patience and Persistence

Patience, persistence
Noble qualities indeed
Remember to breathe!

After removing the clear wrapping from the colorful box, I shook open the lid. Another sealed bag inside the box awaited my scissors. This bag held the treasure—2,000 pieces—and all I had to do was put them together to create a larger, much larger version of the spectacular scene on the box.

How difficult could this be?

The dining room table was prepped, all six feet of its surface completely cleared for the first time ever, awaiting what would come next. I cut open the bag and poured its contents into a heap at one end of the table. And then, after staring at the mess in disbelief, I walked away.

The mere sight of this impossible mound of little squiggly-shaped multicolored pieces was beyond my ability to comprehend. How long would it take me just to turn each piece right side up? Who did I think I was, Houdini? I was no puzzler! The last and only jigsaw puzzle I remembered completing was a little 550-piece fun one, and my friend Nadine Collier had done most of the work. 

I walked back to the heap and considered sweeping all the pieces back into the box. No one would be the wiser. I hadn’t promised anyone I would take on such a task. As I just mentioned, I was no puzzler. But was I a quitter? It seemed like everyone and their best friends lately were completing jigsaw puzzles, an odd side-effect of this novel coronavirus pandemic. It has affected people in mysterious ways. Puzzling ways, one might say. And I was about to be affected.

I can do this, I told myself, walking back to the daunting pile on the table. I’ll just turn the pieces right side up today.

UNDERWRITTEN BY

Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit.

And that’s all I did for the next hour. It was a small accomplishment, but it felt huge. I smiled.

Everyone knows the way to eat an elephant is “one bite at a time,” though I never have and never will eat an elephant. Please don’t eat elephants. Or bats. But you get the idea. When a huge task looms over you like a storm cloud, or an elephant, how do you get out from under it?

First, you might have to step back a pace or two and take a deep breath. If the task is something you must accomplish, be it a presentation at work to a judgmental crowd or a personal goal of completing a 2,000-piece puzzle, you must remember to breathe. That’s just plain old good advice for every situation life hands you—Breathe! 

And you might also consider practicing patience. I like the Cambridge Online Dictionary definition of patience:

the ability to wait, or to continue doing something despite difficulties, or to suffer without complaining or becoming annoyed.

Waiting. Difficulty. Suffering. Complaining. Annoyance. Just typing those words makes me feel discouraged, and discouragement will stop people from achieving their goals. It’s easy to walk away—and stay away—when you become discouraged. It takes courage to forge forth into the fray and stay there despite the discomfort. 

On day 2 of the great puzzle project, I returned to the table and shook off another wave of discouragement. The pieces, now laid out right side up, took up a full half of the table. And where, oh where to begin?

I was delighted to see that several of the pieces were already linked together, an obvious mistake in the manufacturing process, but my joy was soon squashed by puzzlers online who told me I had to separate the pieces. Otherwise, I’d be cheating. And so, because I wanted to be proud of how I completed this task (another life lesson?), I grudgingly separated the pieces . . . though in truth, I kept them near one another on the table. This little trick—I thought I was so clever!—was pointless, however, because days into the project, I’d rearranged all the pieces in ways too difficult to track. 

When you consider the question of where to begin, some will suggest tackling the most difficult, time-consuming part of a project first. Once you finish the hardest part, the rest is easy, they’ll say. 

I’m not a member of that group. From my perspective, that would be like deciding to link together all the sky-blue puzzle pieces first—which I considered doing until I saw how many nearly identical pieces there were on the table.

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

Nope. I’m in the group that favors knocking out the easy stuff first, and in the case of completing a jigsaw puzzle, that would be the edge pieces. Get the frame done first. Much like creating an outline for a story plot (not that that’s easy, per se) or making a checklist of action items for completing a large project, select tasks that are bite-size when compared to the whole.

Now, in the case of my 2,000-piece puzzle, there were 178 edge pieces (I counted them, though now I’m not sure why). Not exactly a quickie task, but at least when I sorted through the chaos on the table, I trusted there’d be a good chance I could easily pick out all of the pieces with one straight edge, or two, in the case of the corner pieces.

I know, I know, there are jigsaw puzzles out there with no borders and no straight edges, but my goal here is not to address impossible challenges and people who deliberately like to torture themselves—I’ll save those topics for future books.

Although it took several hours to almost complete the edge pieces of my puzzle, almost completing that task gave me the dopamine rush—that wave of good feeling—necessary to keep me engaged in the project. I had made the decision to continue searching for the next pieces without complaining. I accepted the reality that every phase of this project would require an unknown quantity of time. I evolved from being “not a puzzler” to being someone excited about ultimately completing a daunting project. I would practice patience. Things were coming together, quite literally. And I was hooked.

But why almost? I’ll get to that in a future chapter. Suffice it to say I was convinced my brand-new puzzle was missing three edge pieces!

Throughout history, people have praised the practice of patience. Take Titus Maccius Plautus (what a great name for a superhero), who lived in a time significantly Before Coronavirus. He is credited with saying, “Patience is the best remedy for every trouble.” I don’t imagine he owned a jigsaw puzzle back in 254-184 B.C., but I’m certain he was faced with challenges far greater.

“What’s for dinner, dear?” he’d ask Mrs. Plautus.

“Deer? Did you bring me a deer?” she’d ask.  “That’ll be ready after he’s hung and harvested, salted and dried. There’s leftover porridge in the pot. Now, be a love and fill up the water trough so we can bathe this month. Oh, and I’ll need more wood for the fire if you want that porridge hot.”

It’s good to put things into perspective when we become impatient.

A more contemporary source, Shakespeare, expresses the following notion of patience through his character Iago: “How poor are they that have not patience! What wound did ever heal but by degrees?” Sure, Iago is the bad guy in this play, but his words are sensible. And for those wondering about how patience relates to difficult situations between people, these same words apply.

Have you ever been wounded or hurt by another? I have. Ever want to pull out your hair or run away from unpleasant or chaotic situations with others? Oh, yes. Did you take time to breathe before responding? Well, not always. 

Some wounds may never heal, I know, and some chaotic situations may seem unbearable (holiday dinners with the in-laws?), but I’ve noticed if I allow some time to pass, practice patience, and make an effort not to become annoyed—expert guidance Nadine has offered to me more than once throughout our friendship—I’ve been surprised by the healing that happens, by degrees, while I wait. 

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

Advice is always easy to give, but less easy to receive, and for every word of advice offered, there will be a contradictory suggestion. Welcome to the world of Homo sapiens, though contrary to what our scientific name would imply, we are not all the same. But we all must face daunting challenges every year of our lives, and sometimes every day. Practicing patience helps not only to face those challenges but to overcome them. 

When I’ve overcome past challenges—whether they were physical, emotional, or intellectual—I felt stronger, happier, more self-assured. I learned things about myself. I grew.

My experience with almost completing the edge pieces of my puzzle presents me with a perfect segue into the idea of persistence, which reflects elements in common with patience. Again, I like the Cambridge Online Dictionary definition of the word persist:

to continue to exist past the usual time, or to continue to do something in a determined way even when facing difficulties or opposition.

Past the usual time. Difficulty. Opposition. Yuck. Can’t we just run away when things become difficult? Well, if it’s a jigsaw puzzle, then sure. Sweep the pieces back into the box and donate it to your local thrift shop. If it’s a job requirement, probably not. Jobs require persistence for those who wish to remain employed.

I like the idea of doing something in a determined way. Once I made the decision to practice patience, I perceived my puzzle time as a time for quieting the noise in the world. One Zen proverb suggests, “You should sit and meditate for 20 minutes, unless you’re too busy, then you should sit and meditate for an hour.” 

Puzzling became a Zen-like practice for me, and the more I stopped craving the finish line, so to speak, the happier I was with my decision to persist each day, enjoying each tiny accomplishment.

The practice of patience over time naturally translates into an exercise in persistence, and persistence pays off. Lao Tzu asks, “Do you have the patience to wait until your mud settles and the water is clear?” If you don’t, you might choke on that first sip. The flavor will certainly be unpleasant. Or if you’re wading to the other side, things unseen in your muddy water may trip you up, trap you, bite you. You could drown. You don’t want to drown.

Learn how to wait, and the best way to learn is to do. My 89-year-old Aunt Phyllis recently confessed she’s still working on being more patient. I suppose her comment might discourage some people, but I look at her continued efforts as inspirational. Despite growing challenges with her vision and hearing, she never complains. She sees them as sources for continuing practice in patience. Clearly, she has mastered the art of persistence by now.

If we’re patient and persistent—“past the usual time”—I believe we will discover that mud settles, we will see things more clearly, we will notice the elephant has many parts, we will quiet the chaos in our minds, and we will find the next one-in-two-thousand-piece puzzle link. We might even sleep more peacefully at night.

But where, oh where were those three missing edge pieces? And the bigger question: Could I be satisfied with completing this project if the final result would be flawed?

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Nadine’s Reflections

How many times in an average day are you required to call upon patience and persistence? If you are like me, it would probably be more than you can count using all your fingers and toes combined. We live in an “I Need It Now” society fueled by constantly advancing technology. Waiting on anything or anyone these days is difficult. 

Even though technology aids in making our work and lives easier in many ways, there are still things over which we have no control. This feeling of not being in control is most generally the trigger of our impatience. 

The other factor that adds to the equation is unrealistic expectations. If we can learn to accept the things we cannot change and to develop realistic expectations, we will grow in patience and experience dramatically less anxiety and anger. 

The act of developing patience asks us to flex our persistence muscle. Persistence requires that we continue to push through adversity, determined to reach a goal. 

With these thoughts in mind, reflect on the following questions:

  • What types of things test your patience? 
  • Is your impatience due to a lack of control in a situation, unrealistic expectations, or something else? 
  • How can you look at the situation differently in order to change how you feel and respond?
  • When you are faced with an elephant-size task, how do you handle it? Do you break it down into bite-size pieces? Do you allow yourself to be flexible in your approach?
  • Are you patient with yourself and others who may be involved in completing the task? Do you have realistic expectations?

Laurel McHargue, a 1983 graduate of West Point, is the author of books in multiple genres, including the award-winning fantasy trilogy “Waterwight,” and the host of the podcast “Alligator Preserves.” A former Army officer and public school teacher, she now lives and laughs and publishes and podcasts in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, where she also raises ducks for eggs and entertainment.

Nadine Collier is a licensed professional counselor (LPC) and has been practicing for over 20 years. She lives in western Michigan with her husband, where they spend most of their summers boating and soaking in the sun on the beach. During the cold months, Nadine can be found reading, baking, and, of course, puzzling.


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