My husband, Paul, and I gave each other different “New Yorker” cover jigsaw puzzles for Christmas. This was not intentional, but it was amusing.

We quickly set to work on my puzzle, which was “Winter Garden,” by artist Tom Gauld. It is a depiction of a wondrous indoor garden, complete with a parrot and a cat. A woman in a nightgown and slippers is watering a plant. Through a window is a gray city scene; it is sleeting.

The cover was for the Feb. 4, 2019 issue, but it sure is a metaphor for life during the pandemic.

I estimate there were 10 different shades of green in that puzzle. And several tree trunks that were the same amber color of honey. Assembling the puzzle was a maddening process. It was also an illuminating one.

We are living in confusing, unsettling times. It is satisfying to click 500 pieces into place. To see a unified whole. And to recognize that the skills needed to achieve this goal — the ability to be patient, to notice details and to see the big picture — are just the ones we need right now.

In the 2018 movie, “Puzzle,” Agnes has an unfulfilling existence. When she receives a jigsaw puzzle for her birthday, she is immediately absorbed, and adroitly puts the 1,000 pieces together. Agnes has a talent, and eventually jigsaw puzzles lead her to a new life.

I enjoyed the film when I saw it, but now I think I have a deeper understanding of Agnes’s journey. When I’m working on a puzzle, part of my brain is reflecting on the part that is trying to figure out where the confounding piece I’m grasping belongs. I may be holding it upside down. It may go into place at a slight angle.

I stare at the completed puzzle on the front of the box and realize that I have been trying to fit the piece in the wrong place. It really belongs on the other side of the image.

What else in my life have I perceived incorrectly?

Jigsaw puzzles, along with board games and home exercise equipment, are enjoying a surge in popularity, because we are forced to stay home more and have been denied many of our usual modes of entertainment. But the puzzle, in particular, is more than just a way to pass the time. It is a literal antidote to the pandemic we are facing — an escape — but also a figurative one.

There is no way to complete a jigsaw puzzle without patience. Paul and I work on our puzzles on weekend afternoons. One Saturday I was on fire, slotting pieces in place like a puzzle champion. The next day, it took me half an hour before I was successful with a single piece.

I am usually in a hurry, even if there’s no need to be. But, really, if I’m off work and the grocery shopping is complete and my workout is done, I’ve got nowhere to go.

Patience is certainly a virtue when it comes to waiting out this pandemic. One of the explanations for recent upticks in COVID-19 cases is that people are tired of social distancing. Patience, people.

An ability to identify details is another helpful skill for completing jigsaw puzzles. Here are all the pieces with small ecru flowers on them. Of course, that’s sheer optimism, because once I fit all of those pieces together there’s one missing and I don’t find it until there are only five pieces left. But still, when faced with the specter of 500 unconnected pieces, I realized the details led to patterns, and that was both reassuring and satisfying. The patterns I find might be just pieces of the same color at first, but then I realize, “Hey, that dot is one of those blue blossoms!”

It is some comfort to me to understand that the pandemic has a pattern of transmission, one that can be reduced by mask wearing, social distancing and handwashing.

But it’s also important to look at the big picture when completing a jigsaw puzzle. If I didn’t look at the picture on the box, how would I know where the window goes? Or that all of the solid black pieces formed the left border?

I see the big picture of the pandemic; that is, that transmission becomes exponential. I understand it’s not a personal choice to follow the rules. It’s a public health issue.

When Paul and I completed the entire border of the puzzle, we realized there was one piece missing on the right edge. It was shorter than the left side. Sometimes the pieces seem to fit together when they really don’t — and isn’t that just like real life too?

After fruitlessly searching several times for the missing piece, I said, “You know what? It’s going to turn up when there are only a few pieces left.”

It did. That’s the jigsaw puzzler’s equivalent of “go with the universe,” which is the mantra that’s gotten me through the last 10 months. Hopefully it won’t let me down in the months to come. We’re going to need patience, people.

Liz Soares welcomes email at [email protected].


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: