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Istock//Thomas Vogel

During my career, my colleagues would refer to our head office as “the puzzle factory.” I don’t think I need to elaborate; it remains a term that engenders a smile rather than a grimace.

We’ve been working with a lot of puzzles of all sorts lately, and so I was immediately drawn into Melanie McGrath’s article, “On the Consolatory pleasure of jigsaws when the world is in bits“. She begins:

When the call came to say my mother had died, I was working on a jigsaw of Joan Miró’s painting The Tilled Field (1923-24). Like many others, I turned to jigsaws at the start of the pandemic as a way to manage stress, and symbolically reimpose order on a chaotic world. We take our consolations where we can and, as I continued with the puzzle in the days after mum’s death, its tactile qualities, the spicy smell of ink and card, and the small satisfactions of placing each piece where it belonged, grounded me when the world was in bits – both outside and within.

You have likely attempted to solve your own puzzle, and you didn’t need to know that puzzle-makers noticed a 370% increase of sales year over year. Like so many products that found a unique surge during the pandemic (face masks, syringes, and cleaning fluid to name a few), if only I had bought stocks in puzzles!

How to Solve a Puzzle

There is something wistful and tender in McGrath’s words. There is something we share in common: trying to symbolically reimpose order on a chaotic world – a world in bits both outside and within.

When my wife and I started our latest 1000 piece puzzle, I dutifully began looking for the boarder pieces – the pieces with a flat edge to indicate where the boundary of the puzzle stops. As it turns out this is exactly where we start. We look for the edge of things. As I separated pieces by colour, I realized it was in the hopes that we could find the inner boundaries of images embedded in the puzzle.

First the outer edge, then finding a few fragments of something coherent, maybe some consistent colour or shape, then finding how a segment, shape, or colour interacts with others in the bigger picture, all the while carefully putting pieces together – not forcing them.

Concentration and light play a huge part, for at separate times through our waking hours, we each attempt to advance the big picture, only to find the next day that we might have forced pieces that were too subtle to notice did not fit. Now that we can see them in the brighter light of daylight, there are daily simple fixes.

Sometimes we get stuck. We are sure that a puzzle piece should fit in “this” area of the puzzle; it takes a lot of puzzling to convince us that the piece belongs somewhere else. Once we give up our stubborn insistence, this piece is fit into place. We wonder why we were so resistant to the options; wonder why it took so long?

Sometimes we do this together; often not. Sometimes we attempt chatter; often not. This is serious business. This requires attentiveness to the task. We stare at the image of the complete picture on the puzzle box to let it imprint on our retina – in our brain somewhere. We hold our breath without knowing; we let out a cleansing breath naturally. We hunch over the incomplete puzzle; we take our time; we do the work.

But puzzling also requires in-attentiveness; it requires stepping away from the puzzle. In essence: to solve a puzzle often you have to not be so intent on putting it together. It speaks to our natural need and inclination to ruminate without concentration – to contemplate the puzzle amidst the interaction of work and life and distraction. We return to the puzzle with renewed alertness.

Puzzle Solving and Map Making

I was not aware of how close the connection was between map making and puzzles until McGrath wrote:

“If maps are representations of a larger reality, then jigsaws are maps too. Indeed, they began life this way, as ‘dissected maps’. Invented by the British cartographer John Spilsbury in the 1760s, the earliest puzzles were designed to make geography lessons more fun for schoolchildren…

Like childhood itself, the early dissected maps arrived without any paper picture to act as a guide. The puzzle historian Anne Williams notes that, in 1908, Parker Bros changed the game by adding a print of the complete image to the box. With uncertainty about the destination reduced, the path grew more enticing. By the early 1930s, with the Great Depression beginning to bite, sales of jigsaws in the United States topped 10 million a week. Enthusiasts queued at newsagents for new deliveries, much as modern lockdown puzzlers scoured the internet and traded in secondhand puzzles.”

What is it about us that we are so drawn to solving mysteries and trading in enigmas? And it does not ever end. Not every puzzle must be hard, but it neither can it be too easy. What’s the fun in that? I was interested to find that the word “puzzle” somehow is mutated from the Old French word to mean “to beset by difficulties.” To bewilder, confound, contradict, and all round baffle. Such is our life span from beginning to end.

Emblematic of Aging

As McGrath observed: puzzling is emblematic of aging:

“It’s often said that old age is a second childhood. The similarity of the two states – the child immersed in their magic kingdom, the old person in their memory palace – isn’t lost on artists, scientists and thinkers. As the child emerges from the void, accumulating experience, making connections between things and people, so the old person divests themselves, or has taken from them, those same connections, before they return to the emptiness of nonexistence.

What has taken me this long to Find

Though aging is a process of divesting connections, nevertheless age gifts us with the accumulation of connections in the first place. In fine poetic fashion, the lyrics of Bruce Cockburn’s “One of the Best Ones” do not give up their meaning too easily – other than to hint at taking all the time of life to recognize mysteries profound:

Guess I’d get along without you
If I had no choice
It’s taken me this long to find you

Done a lot of getting ready for this
Some things we learn so slow
But look at you, you’ve got plenty behind you

There’s lots of ways to hit the ground
Not many answers to be found
We’re faced with mysteries profound
And this is one of the best ones

In the words of the writer of Ecclesiastes:

He has set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.

Though we cannot fully fathom the mysteries of God… it does not stop us from trying…

Welcome to more enigma than dogma.

For more read Rob Eastaway’s essay, “Puzzles Versus Maths Questions“.