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In Praise Of Puzzles

By Anne T. Donahue

When the first lockdown began sometime last March (time isn’t real anymore, so exact dates don’t interest me), I vowed to get into puzzles. Puzzles were all over my Instagram feed, all over my targeted ads, and seemed like a quick way to pass several days without having any idea it was happening.

So I bought a puzzle. A colourful, 1000-piece, forgettable puzzle that I dumped out on my bedroom floor because commitment is important to me, and not having any space to move or walk as a result of said puzzle would motivate me to finish it quickly so I could conquer another. (Or so I explained to my parents who asked me why I was making it impossible to walk or live without ruining my masterpiece.) I spent four days building that puzzle, ignoring all tasks and texts and back pain as I cursed this demonic hobby and the pointlessness of it all.

Which is why I then gave up. Puzzles were stupid, I had no table to work on, and I refused to hunch over my floor, looking for a cobblestone piece that matched any number of cobblestone pieces in a never-ending Amsterdam sidewalk that I will never walk on now based on principle. Fuck puzzles forever – I would rather just sit on the steps outside, staring directly into the sun.

But that was in March. And by August, I attempted the experiment again: desperate for any way to pass the time, I bought a new puzzle, a tiny table, and the delusion that I would rather build a puzzle than spend time in the sunshine with the neighbourhood cats. The moment lasted one episode of Hinterland and the refusal to field any questions from my mom and dad on how the new puzzle was going. Until just before Christmas, I dispelled the myth that I even knew what a puzzle was, let alone that I would willingly spend time with one.

Of course, Christmas is another story. At its best, Christmas is fine. At its worst, it’s whatever feeling you had this year while roaming around your house like Quentin Tarantino. And with the lockdown looming, I made a choice: I would stay inside, building a goddamn puzzle. I just couldn’t take any other pastime anymore.

Though this time, something shifted. Whether because I was sitting at the kitchen table like an adult person or because I liked the particular puzzle I was working on, I got lost and obsessed with trying to build a masterpiece, certain I was the only human on earth who had ever executed a task so quickly and brilliantly. I sat, unattached to my phone. Disinterested in scrolling through Instagram for long enough that I looked forward to seeing what my pals were up to again. I made tea, and I drank the tea, and then I made more tea. And then I kept working on it the next day, filled with a sense of accomplishment unlike anything I’d felt before (I mean, not really – but go with it) as I laid down that last piece and declared myself a god.

Granted, my cat was in another room and my parents weren’t listening to me when I exclaimed as much, but none of that matters because puzzles are my lifeblood now.

Which I was foolish to avoid becoming for so long. Puzzles are calming. They’re challenging in the same way not knowing what pizza topping to get is. But yet, they make every decision feel important; like you are laying the foundation for a piece of art so detailed in its demands that only you can complete it on time and flawlessly. Plus, they don’t demand any real attention. Outside of sifting through and organizing pieces, you can listen to a podcast or an audiobook or an episode of Married With Children and still manage to put together that godforsaken staircase that for some reason consists only of carpeting with the exact same design. You can take breaks, you can marathon several puzzles over the course of a week, you can feel the rush of winning a championship when you finish the outline. (I have never won a championship. Is that what it’s like?) They are a treasure left over from a time where smart phones and the internet did not exist. And while I do not want to go back to that time under any circumstances, I do want to learn how to separate myself from the need to be on all the time.

Often, I just stand above the kitchen table, overseeing my puzzle, completely disinterested in anything other than the blessed task before me. (Within reason. I am also often consumed with rage over having waited too long to eat and not knowing what to have as a result.) My phone is there, but it can’t help me. The world is just me and my puzzle and the fear the cat is going to jump on the table again and sit exactly where I don’t want him to. Nothing else remotely matters (except for everything that does). It’s the one thing I can tell myself I control. And it is a reprieve. Because for those 400-or-so hours I spend assembling the cast of The Golden Girls, I’m fixated only on a bunch of cardboard pieces that own me as much as I do them. As I am a puzzle bitch, and I am proud.

Need a little more Anne? Read more from Anne T. Donahue right here!

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