Jigsaw puzzles

We got a few jigsaws during July when the kids were on summer break and my husband was away on travel.  We chose a pair of 500 piece puzzles with cats eating cakes at a picnic and cats eating cakes at a teashop.  (We like cats and cake.)  We worked on the first one in spurts, coming back every few days, fitting in a few pieces, eventually stringing together a line of bunting, matching up calicos with cucumber sandwiches there, tortoise-shells with teacups there.

DSC05620 (600x800)As we poured over the puzzle, pushing and trading pieces, it occurred to me how much jigsaws are like learning:  Every piece matters, if not right away, then eventually. When you don’t know what to do, you can always sort edges and colors or even just turn all the pieces face-up.  This process, with its simple premise of getting the right pieces in the right places, demands a focus on detail and builds appreciation for small but essential differences.  Doing jigsaws with my kids gives me a window into how they think and approach problems. There’s no set time by when it should be done: we can walk away, come back later in the week, put in a few pieces, and carry on with something else. It’s still progress.

Four days and 499 pieces later, we finished!

DSC05625 (1024x768)

Later, we started the second one (cats eating cakes in a teashop).  There was less momentum on this one.  Maybe it was harder.  Maybe my husband came back and there were other things to do.  We got a good start on it, sorting by cat colour and cake shape. But after we put together the edges, it languished on a big wooden cutting board, stashed under a desk until last week.  On a night I had intended to write, I decided to finish the jigsaw instead. I wanted that mesmerizing, almost meditative state of mind that comes with doing a jigsaw.

I like it towards the end of the puzzle, when you reach that eerie stage where you pick up a piece and your hand knows where it goes before your mind can say ‘Oh yes, this is the left paw of the ginger cat sitting under the table and it should be oriented up.’  The mouth barely utters, ‘Oh yes,’ and your fingers, memory, and eyes have already put it in place and moved on to the next piece.

I think I read something about intuition being the mind subconsciously and instantaneously sorting through different past experiences, matching up an event with comparable occasions in the archive.  Thus intuition grows with experience.  This is the feeling in the final stretches of doing a jigsaw.   From the beginning, my eyes have taken in all those shades and lines and shapes and while I couldn’t name them all, something remembers them.  Moments (or months) later, when I pick up a matching piece, my finger and eye memory takes it to its mate before my mind can speak the similarities.  As is so often the case with making meaning, words come last.

I was revising a short story yesterday.  Like the puzzle, it had been sitting with its framework complete and some main parts finished for months.  I drafted it well over a year ago.  But yesterday was that final stretch, where I was moving sentences around, trying to fit them in the big picture.  Changing the order of paragraphs, changing the order of how I told the events.  Sometimes, a particular sentence was in the wrong place, but I didn’t know where the right place was.  I picked it up and started moving it around.


No, not quite.

Here, then?


Over here.  Surely it would work well here.

No, definitely not.

Wait.  What about….this?

Oh.  Yes.  Yes, that’s where it goes.  Yes, I see the edges matching up with the sentences that come before and go after.  Yes, it belongs in that paragraph, in that part of the story.


And so on, for a most pleasant afternoon.

This entry was posted in Kidstuff, Non-parabolic trajectory, teaching and learning, Writing. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Jigsaw puzzles

  1. Rory Green says:

    I haven’t done a jigsaw puzzle in years, Melissa! I might need to seek one out now! But I did use a very similar jigsaw puzzle metaphor this week in one of my workshops. I spoke of that process you describe so well, when you examine the pieces with curiosity – not yet quite knowing where they fit. In light of that, it was lovely to read your post and feel that familiar synchronicity with you. Also exciting to hear about the short story! 🙂


    • Melissa says:

      Rory – one of my favourite activities to do as a teacher was to put people in groups of 3-4 and give them a 100 piece puzzle and tell them they had one minute to solve it. But, they couldn’t talk and they could only use one hand. And then, after a minute, everyone switched puzzles and tried again. This time they could use both hands but still not talk. Finally, for the third go, they would change puzzles again, they could use both hands and could talk for the minute. Afterwards I asked what they thought the point was of that game. They always came up with really interesting insights. Try it out!

      As for my story – I’ve sent it to a few journals. Fingers crossed it will find a new home…

      Hope all is well with you! – M


  2. Pingback: On My Mind: 10.21.13

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