the five stages of jigsaw puzzling

The five stages of jigsaw puzzling

James and I have survived five months of sheltering in place and spending 24 hours a day together, minus trips to the grocery store and solo hikes. Five months. But will our relationship survive attempting to complete a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle over a long weekend? Let’s see!

The inciting incident.
I’ve seen a few social media posts of the beautiful jigsaw puzzles my friends have assembled during the great pause/reopening/nope, just kidding, we’re closed again. The posts feature the completed puzzle with a caption that modestly shares the puzzler’s sense of accomplishment. But I focus more on the cozy atmosphere. I picture a well-worn, much-loved cabin on a lake. It’s late fall, and the air is crisp. The puzzler is sitting cross-legged on the floor wearing thick fuzzy socks and soft clothes as they slowly build the puzzle, one tiny visual and tactile victory at a time, on top of a coffee table that smells of orange oil. There’s a lazy dog nearby and something simmering on the stove. The happy murmur of people in another room occasionally wafts over.

Of course, the reality is, it’s summer in the midst of a pandemic and on the precipice of social collapse. But social media is founded on lies, so, nevertheless, the fantasy, she persists.

James and I get a puzzle with a vibrant image of Italy and prepare the dining table to play host. It smells of orange oil.

It’ll be fun! Or at least fine. It’ll be fine.
I’m excited to complete my first jigsaw puzzle! This is going to be great, and it’ll keep me from staring at my laptop 12 hours a day like usual. Is 1,000 pieces a lot? Let’s dump them out on the table. Man, these are way smaller than I anticipated. Might need to bring an extra light in here.

It’ll be fine. Sam & Dave is playing. I’ve got a nice glass of wine. Ripley is chewing on a toy and leaving us alone for a minute. James is enthusiastic for this endeavor.

I bet we’re going to have those conversations that only happen when people share a meditative experience. Like long car trips when your mind starts to free-associate and you reach these points of introspection and illumination and–wait, is this piece in the right place? It doesn’t line up perfectly on this side. I mean, it kind of fits but WHAT IS RIPLEY EATING? Shit, that looks like a piece of cardboard.

From a jigsaw puzzle.


Tiny tortures.
It’s day two of puzzle assembly. Things are going slower than expected. After three hours of work last night, we only got the border done. Maybe that’s the hardest part?

James has begun narrating his moves sotto voce. Every time he quietly says, “This doesn’t fit,” I proclaim, “Then you must acquit!” He doesn’t find this funny for some reason. We continue staring at the puzzle and not each other and trying to make a connection between puzzle pieces and not each other.

Somehow, the puzzle has given us a little space even though we’re sitting inches apart.

Maybe we needed this.

We’re finishing this thing, even if it kills us.
Though we haven’t said it out loud, we’re both ride or die on completing the puzzle. Day three dawns with me already at the puzzle table–its status as the dining table having faded into the background–and it seems we’re making decent progress. But I swear we’re missing at least one piece. There’s a really distinct design for this particular spot and…oh yeah. Ripley.

Any frustration we feel when searching for specific pieces is quickly banished by discovery. As anticipated, tiny victories are satisfying. And they’re starting to add up as we get better at this. The mood has shifted and we’re talking again. Laughing, even. We shall be victorious on multiple fronts.

Booyah, bitch!
Day four, or maybe it’s day five. We’re close enough now that we can estimate how many pieces we still need to place. And we can see that we don’t have that many pieces left. Though we can blame one missing piece on the dog, she can’t be responsible for four or five of them.

We’re on hands and knees searching. Moving the couch. Lifting the corners of the rug. As if the pieces grew legs and hid from us. No luck. I hop on my neglected-for-the-weekend laptop and read a few reviews of the puzzle, only to find multiple people reporting they were missing two, five or even a dozen pieces of their puzzle. What kind of sadist sells 1,000-piece puzzles with 993 pieces included?

We make an important decision at this point: It doesn’t matter.

We’re not going to shellac the puzzle and hang it on the wall. We’re never going to pull the box out of the closet and assemble this puzzle again. It’s missing a few pieces, and that’s okay. It has been a satisfying analogue experience, a mental break from…everything and provided a few running jokes we can take with us.

Just like life, this has been about the journey.

Now let’s throw this thing away.

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