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Ode To The Crossword

By Anne T. Donahue

I can’t meditate. I can’t turn my brain off, I can’t stop thinking about how long I’ve been meditating for as I’m trying to do it, and when I hear the word “mindfulness” I want to curl up into a ball and perish, because my brain is not about that life.

I am, at my core, somebody who thinks too much about nothing that actually matters. If I’m confronted with mortality, illness, or any number of day-to-day horrors, I can figure it out and compartmentalize accordingly (before having a complete emotional and mental meltdown in a few weeks). But if I think too hard about whether I’ll fall asleep quickly at night? My thoughts will be consumed by this until I pass out from sheer exhaustion. Last night, I ate a granola bar in the middle of the night because I woke up and was hungry. Then, I spent at least half an hour worried that I dropped a chocolate chip in my new sheets and would awake to a horror film. This is my brain and my life. It is, quite obviously, very tragic.

Minus my crosswords. The new love(s) of my life.

As you know, we are living in hell. Now just a few weeks from the one-year anniversary of the first covid lockdown, we’ve morphed into versions of ourselves that are both better and worse, and have begun passing time in ways that would have mystified our former selves. Me, I began using the New York Times crossword app at some point in the last summer. And since then, it’s become an emotional balm that distracts me from this life just long enough recharge me.

Of course, a lot of people do crosswords. I know this, you know this, and the people who make and sell crosswords rely on this. But I never thought this hobby would descend on me. I didn’t download the app to become a crossword genius, and I certainly didn’t enable auto-check to ensure that each and every crossword I did was completed perfectly. Yet evidently, I’m also a person who likes to be proven wrong and then throw myself into showing everybody how smart I really am. Which is why I’ve taken so much comfort in these stupid little puzzles: I want any and all delusions I have about myself to be shattered, and then I want to figure out what a three-letter word for a slimy sea creature is. (It’s “eel”!)

Plus, more and more I’ve come to want out of my own head. I want to think about crossword themes and what words intersect, and not about my own neuroses anymore. To be honest, I’m tired of myself. And when I hunker down with an app that makes it feel like somebody’s going out of their way to best me, I feel like I’ve been gifted the type of company I haven’t had in a long, long time. (Mainly: someone running a trivia night who thinks they’re better than me. I hate those people. And I need them in my life to keep me motivated or even living.) I want to lose track of time, trying to make sense of the word-mess in front of me. I want to forget that I was worried about sleep or granola bars or how many Fruitopias I drank, and lose my mind over silent letters. I want to remember words like “drat” and “tots” as if they were ever ones I used. I want to hear only a little bit of the TV and none of anything else, only the sounds of my own frustration or sheer delight. At some point, the crossword has become my friend. And even now, writing this essay, I’m looking over at my crossword desk calendar and wishing I was finished so I could conquer “Thursday.”

Of course, this will likely change. In months, I’ll tell you that I live for playing Crash Bandicoot on the back deck, surrounded by pink flamingos and cats. In weeks, I’ll argue the case for walking with purpose to the Inception soundtrack because I love out of date pop culture references. But now, I cannot recommend enough: the crossword. Because even if you can’t solve it (and without auto-check, I absolutely cannot), you will give yourself a blessed reprieve from real life. Plus, you will learn roughly 259,285 ways to describe “eel.”

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

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