By Catherine DiMercurio
Sometimes context helps us puzzle things out and find the substance behind the charm.
On the last day before taking my daughter back to college, after her short holiday visit home, we sat at the dining room table, she and my son and I, putting together a puzzle. It was a 500-piece nature scene, quite beautiful and moderately complex, and we laughed and chatted and worked silently, falling into a peace so easily we forgot about the various things we’d bickered about here and there. Tucked away, too, were the few weightier conversations we’d had, and the brief but powerful emotional storms that sweep through a household sometimes, when new transitions are on everyone’s horizons.
In the course of those few hours that we worked, on and off, we found ourselves each selecting a favorite puzzle piece. I was particularly drawn to one of the few which contained a recognizable image, a little vignette, or so it seemed to me. I liked it. It seemed to make sense on its own, independent of the bigger picture it was a part of. So little of life is like that; it so often doesn’t bother to make sense at all.
Speaking of bigger pictures, I often get the impression that my understanding of the “bigger picture” is flawed or misguided or not fully formed. But maybe, the problem is with the very notion of the bigger picture.
We blame our perception, our perspective, we question how our shortcomings keep us from seeing things clearly sometimes, keep us from understanding our lives, our place in the world. But maybe understanding is muddied because the thing we are trying to understand is a shifting, muddy thing itself.
It’s no wonder that we sometimes flounder, that we can’t grasp how all the pieces fit together, that we are at once puzzled, and puzzle.
The afternoon of the puzzle, I found it utterly impossible to snap puzzle pieces into place without becoming overwhelmed by metaphor and wonder. Sometimes I stared at pieces blankly while my brain scrambled up ideas about identity and purpose and meaning and connection and context. Sometimes I was amazed that we were able to fit any of the pieces together, particularly the ones that were part of a uniform background, the starry dawn sky, the rush of water over rocks. We hunted for pieces, each in our own way, seeking patterns in the shapes. I wondered what it would have been like to try and work that puzzle without the picture on the box as a map.
Life is built piece by piece without context, without a map. Instead, we fashion ideas of what it is supposed to look like, in general, and for us. We look for patterns, we seek partners. We create context. We are thirsty for shape, meaning, structure.
I think all of our endeavoring, this trying to see what fits together, is what connects us and binds us in a shifting world.
We create constants, foundations we hope will withstand the shifting muddiness.
When I look at the photo I took of that puzzle piece, I’m struck by how I romanticized the image. It’s a treetop. It appears to me now less like a self-contained scene, a story within a story, as it sits isolated against a dark background. Only in proximity to a sea of other puzzle pieces does the poetry of the little piece begin to hang together. You have to see it within the context of chaos to understand its clarity.
Throughout all of this reflection, which is so unlike an unmade puzzle itself, some things manage to become clear to me. I am growing comfortable with my tendency toward romanticizing things. It no longer seems a silly or naïve trait, now that I understand it within the larger context of myself. It used to be so much a part of me that I was unaware of it as a distinct characteristic but now, because I can usually see it, I can understand it is a part of me, but not so much so a part of me that I’m blind to its effects. That is to say, I do like to be charmed. I enjoy being able to see idealized versions of things, people. In a way, it is a gift. But, gradually, I have learned to see reality and substance more clearly, too. I have learned to see beyond and around charm more clearly now than I have been able to in the past, can more readily recognize, and subsequently respect, that which we call substance. This is not to say that I’ve perfected this move. Even a practiced self-awareness takes time to become a habit. But still.
When we begin to know ourselves more fully, the way the parts are related to the whole, it can be easier to make sense of things, and not just puzzle pieces.
For example, I recently began looking at houses, as I get ready to sell a house, buy a house, to move. I have been a bit afraid that my tendency toward romanticizing things, to be seduced by charm, would run amok. That my love of original glass doorknobs and built-ins and pretty little details would prevent me from seeing the enormous inconvenience of a too-small kitchen or cracks in a foundation. Happily though, while I did feel that swoonful delight in vintage details, I also witnessed myself being able to see the place as a whole – clearly – and to know it wasn’t right for me. (Happily, too, I find myself lovingly supported on this journey by someone who is not only charming – he has the best smile – but who is full of substance, and who is very much looking out for me. Thank you.)
To put it another way, that little puzzle piece, and my affection for it, make more sense when the piece is viewed not in isolation but within the context of the jumble of the unmade puzzle. Looking at it as a separate thing, I’ve wondered, why did it seem so significant? Sometimes trying to remember the sense we’ve made of something is as challenging as trying to remember song lyrics that we misheard the first time anyway.
But we can gain a new understanding of ourselves, and maybe even one another, through this effort of sense-seeking, even when the context is initially unclear. We recreate context when we return to the effort of the puzzle. And we can do the same in terms of our understanding of ourselves, of each other, of what connects us to one another.
It takes sustained effort, but we can and should create and recreate and build and strengthen the connections and foundations to withstand the muddiness of an ever-changing big picture. There is substance there, in that context and in those connections, and we should seek it, regardless of how dazzled we are by the charm in a detail — whether it be a puzzle piece, a vintage doorknob, or a warm smile.