If I close my eyes, get very quiet and still, and work to slow my breath—matching the length of each inhale and exhale, I can faintly remember what my life was like before COVID. Before the masks and the constant hand sanitizing; before others didn’t look at me suspiciously as though I too may be ‘infected’ everywhere I went; before I didn’t need to answer a lengthy series of questions in order to send my kids to school; before human contact and connection held a much higher value in our society; before we were all indoctrinated to believe we need to live in a constant state of fear for our lives; before I knew what is was like to never be alone. If you told me one year ago how much our lives could change in the blink of an eye, I would not have believed you.
For those who do not know me very well, I am both an introvert and a homebody. And while it may not seem like a big deal, the adjustments of our family’s ‘new normal’ meant sharing my precious personal time and space, with little to no reprieve—EVER. My husband took over my home office as his satellite workplace one year ago and our two kids have completed two lengthy rounds of home schooling in the past 12 months, making our kitchen their classroom. On top of the additional stress the pandemic has brought to us all as a collective, these factors have been extremely challenging for me. Public health restrictions encouraging people to stay at home, except for essentials, only further aggravated my difficulty, leaving daily dog walks as my only escape from the constant barrage of chaos and noise in my environment.
Not long after the first round of stay-at-home orders were introduced in Alberta last spring, I turned to puzzle making, both as a way to pass the seemingly endless hours I suddenly had available, as well as to disassociate myself from the sensory overload I was experiencing. I am extremely sensitive to sound, and with the accoustics in our home taking noise levels to an all-time high, I needed something to keep me from jumping out of my own skin. Looking back on those early days of lockdown, puzzle making was much more than a distraction or time waster, though. It was an attempt to control at least one thing in my life in a time when absolutely everything seemed wildly out of control. Puzzle making became my escape and therapy.
Since building approximately 15 puzzles over the past year, I’ve come to expect a certain level of comfort in the formulaic predictability of the process. I always start by separating the edge pieces from the others, subsequently creating piles to group like colours together. Next, I work on completing the frame because it makes sense to my brain to have this predictable framework from which to build the remainder of the puzzle.
Time after time and puzzle after puzzle, I carefully and methodically joined the oddly shaped pieces together to create some sort of order from chaos, both internal and external. I would get lost in a flow state for hours. Channeling my time, energy, and attention into finding where each piece fit, knowing there was only one correct answer and one definitive solution, 1,000 piece puzzles became my drug of choice for combatting anger, frustration, boredom, and powerlessness.
Then something strange happened…
After experiencing the euphoric delight of completing the first few puzzles, I became so attached to the notion of completing these beautiful pictures that the universe thought it best to throw me a giant curveball that made me reconsider my entire approach to not just puzzling, but also to life.
Thanks to several missing puzzle pieces, mostly compliments of a mischievous puppy who will chew and eat anything he can get in his mouth, I had no choice but to come face to face with my fixation on perfection, completion, totality and wholeness; the belief my worth is directly tied to my ability to uphold these impossible standards and, conversely, my worth erodes dramatically when I fail. My mind became a warzone of constant worry and self-judgment after investing countless hours into these creations only to repeatedly learn they would never be entirely whole and fully complete. I remember so clearly the all-consuming awful feelings of anxiety I was not only creating, but also fully participating in by allowing myself to get pulled back into this vicious loop of lies, time and time again. The activity of puzzling, which I had come to enjoy so deeply, was also taunting me and wreaking havoc on my psyche. The pattern of lost and damaged pieces was repeated several times with each subsequent puzzle, and each time my habitual negative response was a slap in the face that stung more and left a deeper pinkish-red mark. I died 1,000 deaths every time I came to the end of the puzzle I was working on only to realize I would never have the satisfaction of truly completing it, or it was otherwise tainted by one or more damaged pieces.
I’ve been thinking about writing this post for a while—teetering on the brink of nearly 11 months, but I’ve come to see how I wasn’t ready until now. I hadn’t assimilated the lessons puzzling so graciously offered: the subtle shift of allowing versus controlling, the distinct advantage of going with the flow, and the decision to stay present to whatever your current reality may be, regardless of weather you perceive what’s happening as good or bad.
I suppose there is something to be said for sitting with what is uncomfortable, rather than numbing out, distracting oneself, or engaging in spiritual bypassing. The seemingly simple action of letting oneself steep in discomfort is integral to the ability to see life clearly and to building the capacity to experience life fully, including the huge range of ups and downs. It is in this process of steeping that the seeds of change begin to bear fruit.
With some time and distance in between—more steeping than time, really, I’ve come back down to earth to remember who I am and why I am here. Puzzling reminded me about how identifying too strongly with the ego never leads to anything good, how excessive attachment to objects of desire or specific outcomes can be very detrimental to one’s wellbeing, and even how aversion or avoidance of what you don’t want leads to tremendous suffering.
Having been an active participant in perpetuating my own suffering for so long has been quite a puzzling experience, but I am eternally grateful to have stumbled upon these clues that pointed me toward finding my peace in all the pieces.