Nearly five months since I’ve worked a jigsaw puzzle. For me, this is a long time. I finished a thousand-piece Americana illustration packed with old-fashioned houses, people, and animals during a slow week between shows at the very beginning of March.
My parents liked puzzles of international sites: View-Master-style images of chateaus nestled in the Swiss Alps, the Eiffel Tower, the Parthenon, Capri…pictures with plenty of flora but no fauna or people. After I became a parent I turned to jigsaw puzzles as a way to relieve stress after especially draining times. Even though the meaning is different, the puzzle piece as a symbol of autism resonates with me because working jigsaws feels like a reset of my brain. The sensory details stimulate and comfort: unsealing the edges of the puzzle box, combing through the bright jumbled colors of the puzzle pieces, snapping the pieces into their rows, even stirring the soft gray dust in the bottom of the box. Even more satisfying is assembling a whole from fragments.
During March and April my Facebook feed was flooded with posts about jigsaw puzzles. We had none in the house, and our finances were uncertain. Also I was busy and had just discharged with a puzzle not long before, so puzzles weren’t a concern. By May, though, things had stabilized a bit and I was starting to miss this comfort. I kept on the lookout, but there weren’t puzzles in stores. Online, Buffalo Games was closed. Sellers of dubious provenance were offering some of my favorite lines at three to four times the standard retail price. I was too cautious and cheap to buy.
This week, the end of July—I happened upon a Charles Wysocki in a store. Wysockies are my most guilty pleasure of all puzzle lines. The puzzle was a thousand pieces, normal price, so I bought it. At the end of the work week, after teaching my last lesson, I pried open the box and started fishing out edge pieces. Then occurred pleasant surprise number one: my husband Dave brought me a glass of wine. (It was a surprise because that morning there had been no wine in the house.) Then surprise number two: I checked out Netflix for the first time in several weeks and found two new seasons of my favorite docu-series.
This tripling of treats produced pure joy that lasted for many minutes, dulling over an hour or so to a normal soothing feeling. Joy is fleeting and can’t be scheduled. It bursts from some activity that I already enjoy, flushed by the unexpected: rounding a corner on a morning walk to find a family of deer, being one voice in a rare, perfectly tuned, shimmering chord… The hard part is enjoying the walk or rehearsal the next time when things go back to normal.
Joy’s opposite is also short, although despair rushes out of the undergrowth more readily. The pandemic and the US president’s mishandling of it (and everything else that he’s touched) are constants, but every day brings fresh dread surprises. In misery’s case I’m glad for the transience, but I try to remember the joys fondly. I try to have confidence that over time, I can piece the puzzle together.