Puzzling It Out Together

Apr 14, 2020

I hadn’t done a puzzle since I was a kid — but it was vacation week, there was plenty of winter ahead, and they were free, so why not take one?

I chose a bird puzzle and casually dropped it on the table at home. I had no plan to actually do the puzzle. It was more the idea of it. But I mentioned to my husband that if he got around to it, perhaps he could get a piece of plywood from the basement we could spread it out on. 

Growing up, we often had a puzzle going. It made you feel like you were doing something while you were actually avoiding doing something, like school work.

My husband got right on it. The next thing I knew he had brought up two pieces of plywood — one for the boring blue pieces puzzle makers, save for last, and one for the puzzle itself.

He had separated out the key pieces with bits of bird bills and eyes. And he had begun putting together the border that itself was bird-shaped.

It was our first puzzle in 23 years together, and soon it became the focus of our evenings. We’re both news geeks and football fans, but the puzzle topped both. Rachel Maddow may be piecing together Trump’s relationship with Russia, but I had just pieced together a red-winged blackbird. Russell Wilson may have just connected with his tight end for a first down, but my husband had just connected two sections we’d been trying to join.

Our approaches were completely opposite. I searched based on color and image; he focused on outline —whether the pieces had innies or outies, as he called them, as if they were belly buttons. So while I looked for a piece that was part goldfinch and part thistle, he looked for a piece that was innie, innie, outie.

This makes sense given our chosen professions. As a writer and former biologist I am always looking for patterns. As a carpenter, my husband is always looking at wood shapes — sometimes crafting his own with a real jigsaw.

It was if we were two pieces of the puzzle working together to complete the puzzle, sitting on opposite sides. The picture itself didn’t matter. We already had that on the cover. What mattered was that we kept puzzling it out — how each of these thousand pieces united into a whole.

Susan Johnson teaches writing at UMass Amherst's Isenberg School of Business.