It’s been a slow winter. Before the major snowstorms we’ve encountered this month, the coast of Maine was a little blah this year. The landscape looked like the grey, brown and black scenes of my youth in Rhode Island, where winter meant fog, barren ground and an occasional spurt of ice skating on a neighbor’s pond during a cold snap. That might be why I resurrected a childhood habit this winter. I am working on completing my second jigsaw puzzle. 

You would be hard put to find a person who has never peered over a card table at a scattering of small curved cardboard pieces and pondered their arrangement. These time-wasters originated in the 1700s in England, where they were used primarily to teach geography to children. A gentleman named John Spilsbury, a London cartographer and engraver, mounted a map on a sheet of hardwood, then hand-cut the wood along the various countries’ boundaries. The result was called a “dissection,” not a particularly enticing name. Later, in the 1800s, wooden puzzles were hand-cut with a fretsaw. It wasn’t until the 20th century that the puzzles were produced mechanically, when machinery was developed to cut images printed on thick cardboard. According to Wikipedia, these cheap puzzles became popular during the Great Depression, a period when people might have had a lot of time but not a lot of money for entertainment. 

The puzzles I remember most vividly from childhood were wooden and made in Germany. They came in a small 8-by-4-inch rectangular box. Each puzzle piece had its own shape that related to the final image. A farm scene, for example, comprised perhaps 10 or 15 different puzzle pieces shaped like farm animals that all fit neatly together. The puzzle of a little village was made up of individual houses of all different sizes. Being made of wood, our little puzzles lasted for many years until my sister and I moved on to other, more transient items and the puzzles went to wherever forgotten toys go. 

This winter I have undertaken a 1,000-piece puzzle of a Maxfield Parrish painting. Parrish was known for his strong oranges and blues; in this case those colors are joined by myriad murky purples, greens and greys. I’m not too keen about murky purples, greens and greys. 



When first tumbled out of the box, those 1,000 pieces present a mess. What to do, where to start, how to make order out of chaos? Well. First, all the straight pieces go to one side. The brilliant blue pieces, which surely are the sky, go into separate piles, as do the strong yellow and orange pieces. The discernable colors are taken care of. And then I am left with ... subtlety. 

I peer at the remaining pieces carefully, to distinguish nuances of color and pattern. A piece I considered light lavender-colored is, placed against a different piece, clearly a grey-blue. What looks like a crackly piece of bark turns into the surface of a rock when I finally link it with its proper neighbors. There are a lot of similar surprises in the mess. I must look closely and take time to match the finest details. I cannot assume anything. 

Putting together a jigsaw puzzle requires a combination of concentrated effort and its opposite, happenstance. I look and look and look for that single piece I need to complete one corner until, frustrated and bug-eyed, I walk away 

from the table to do something a bit more productive. Some hours later I return, let my eyes wander over the strewn pieces and, without any effort on my part, spy the desired piece. If the piece is not the correct one, it may appear to 

fit into its neighbor, but the fit will be sloppy, without that snug, secure snap that indicates precision. Can there be 

any more intense satisfaction than reaching out one’s hand, finding the item needed, and setting it in its one and only place? 

Attention to detail and nuance, strategy, concentration combined with an enjoyment of happenstance: those are the qualities one must bring to the jigsaw puzzle. I’m just hoping I can bring them to other endeavors as well!