Anatomy of a Jigsaw Puzzle

After church, our pastor offered Sunboy a jigsaw puzzle to take home. He had used the puzzles as a visual metaphor during the children’s story that day. Our pastor said that in a jigsaw puzzle, the most important piece is the one you don’t have. All pieces matter. In our church, everyone including the children are important, as are the pieces that make up the world. Without diversity there would be no harmony; ask any musician. Nice metaphor.

He asked Sunboy which puzzle he wanted. “The most difficult one,” he said. Let me tell you that this proud mama beamed. Sunboy is a whiz with jigsaw puzzles. When we got home, Sunboy ran upstairs to clean his play table as a working surface for the puzzle. Tulip fields, 500 pieces. We decided to work on the puzzle for a little while each night before bed.

Day 1:  Sunboy and I excitedly gathered around the pieces, an energized puzzling team. My husband saw us and joined in after Flowergirl fell asleep. We decided to finish the puzzle border the first night.

My son said, “None of my friends would believe it!”

“Believe what?” I asked.

“That my family all joined in to do a puzzle together.” The idea of family jigsaw puzzling being uncommon made me feel sad, and I wondered if it was true.

Day 2: Border finished, horizon completed, tulip pieces arranged by color and size. We’re organized now, ready to tackle the rest. Sunboy gives up and rejoins the effort at least once during the puzzling session.

Day 3: In his haste and frustration, Sunboy occasionally jams a piece in the wrong place. He has yet to learn respect for the process of a large, complicated puzzle. Jigsaw puzzles – like any life goal – are all about stamina.

I showed Sunboy how the puzzle was manufactured in a pattern: thin-tall pieces alternate with wide-short pieces. I explained that we can use this pattern to help identify the piece that will fit at each position.

In bed later, he asked if the thin-tall and the wide-short pieces had “the same amount of stuff in them”. “The same area, do you mean? Yes, I think they would need to have about the same area so the pieces can fit into even columns and rows.” I told him thinking about these things was called Geometry. It’s amazing what topics arise while puzzling.

Day 4: We are at a jigsaw puzzle impasse. Our ability to fit new pieces has slowed significantly.  I decide to try a trick that I taught Sunboy when he was a toddler: turn the pieces over and work by shape alone. Color can be distracting with a difficult puzzle. Simplify if you can. As a toddler, Sunboy loved doing simple jigsaw puzzles this way. This proved to be just the thing we needed to break from the rut of all those similar-looking tulips.

Day 5: My family has abandoned the project. It’s now up to me to see us through. I finish the yellow tulips thanks to the strides made by upside-down puzzling. Now it’s a matter of getting the puzzle to the point where my family sees the possibility of success. They forget that success is certain if we don’t give up. It’s just a matter of how long it takes. I half-heartedly tell Sunboy, “We’re doing a great job! We’ve come a long way!” as he reads a book across the room.

Day 6: I am obsessed with the puzzle. I have become philosophical about the puzzle. I sneak into Sunboy’s room and work on the pink tulips when he’s not there. I feel moments of becoming one with the puzzle. I see glimpses of its logic. There’s a limited area for each piece within the puzzle based on color, type of piece and relative tulip size. The very nature of the puzzle gives the address of each piece. So why aren’t we finished yet?

That night, I tell Sunboy that there is a finite number of pieces and we know they will fit together to make a picture of tulip fields. We know we have all of the pieces. We know they will fit. We know what the result will be. A jigsaw puzzle is easier than many things in life.

I remind him that if only one piece were snapped into place each day, the puzzle would eventually be finished. The only way to fail is to stop trying. All it takes is stamina. He all but rolls his eyes at me.

The red tulips will be the hardest part of the puzzle and are still ahead of us.

Stupid tulips.

At this point, the puzzle is no longer measured in days or formal puzzling sessions, however short. The puzzle becomes a piece of interactive furniture or kinetic sculpture, only I am the only one interacting with it. I tell Sunboy that I am driving the puzzle cart. He protests my self-appointed title of puzzle cart driver but still won’t help. I see that it’s up to me to get it through this seemingly hopeless stage.

At this point, I had been trying different tactics to get beyond the threshold, including:

– systematically going through every piece then setting it aside.

– focusing on only the wide-short pieces and then switching to focus only on the thin-tall pieces.

– letting go in an almost Tao-like manner to let the puzzle do itself (this works as well as anything).

Finally, I have assembled the red tulip fields to a critical mass whereby Sunboy sees that completion is inevitable. He says, “Now, I am driving the puzzle cart!” as he nudges me aside.

We reach the end of the puzzle, with two pieces missing. “The most important pieces,” Sunboy says solemnly. He dives under the table and finds them, exclaiming “I am the master of finding lost pieces!” We all have our individual roles. The roles may not be equivalent, but are equally important.

Although I was thrilled with Sunboy’s renewed interest, I was admittedly hesitant to share again at such a late stage. The Prodigal Son. I quickly reminded myself that puzzles are best shared and we complete it together. The joy on his face was priceless as he snapped the last red tulip piece in place.

For those inclined to introspection over the simplest of things, any project can  yield insights. It’s one of the fun things about projects like puzzles: the time to think, a little boredom and stretching the mind in a new way. So what have we learned?

A jigsaw puzzle – like any life goal – is all about stamina.

Simplify what you can.

Success is certain if we don’t give up. It’s just a matter of how long it takes.

Identifying all of the pieces and knowing that they will fit together to yield a given result makes a task immeasurably simpler. This is not a scenario often encountered in life.

The only way to fail is to stop trying.

It’s good to have a partner to help drive the puzzle cart. Each has their own role. The important thing is to finish together as a team.

3 thoughts on “Anatomy of a Jigsaw Puzzle

  1. I love puzzles!

    They remind me to be mindful as they force you to be in the moment, because if your distracted about anything, you really are not going to get it put together.

    1. That’s what I love about puzzles too. They transport you into another world where all that matters is shape and color. :)

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