Have you ever worked a puzzle? I’m talking about a 1,000-piece monster puzzle that gets dumped out onto a table in a zealous, “let’s have fun moment”. First of all, let me just tell you: that’s insane! There is no planning or strategy in that dumping action. It may be fun at that moment, but it doesn’t take long to know you are in trouble. A large puzzle simply cannot be worked in one sitting. Sooner than you think, all the pieces start looking exactly the same. If, for the love, you dump said puzzle out onto the only table you own, I can tell you right from the start you are in jeopardy of failure! 

Here’s what I’ve learned about puzzles: first off, pick one that has separate and distinct images. If your 1,000 puzzle image is a herd of zebras drinking water from a lake that mirrors their reflection, then stop right there. Put that puzzle back, or buy another table! I’d also recommend skipping the 3-D and the non-interlocking varieties. These bring me to the edge of sanity, which is the polar opposite of the plan to “have fun”. When you’d rather be outside picking weeds from an overgrown garden or cleaning out a refrigerator, you may be in too deep of water with your “toy’.

I’ll also add – and this here is free advice, so you’re welcome – never buy a puzzle from a thrift store or yard sale. Nope, just move on past the temptation of the low prices and walk yourself into a story to purchase a wrapped puzzle from a retail outlet. Trust me, you will thank me in the end when you are actually able to place the final piece instead of coming up short. (Have I mentioned my OCD tendencies yet?)

Keeping in mind these exceptions about picking a puzzle, the next step is preparing to work it. After dumping out the pieces, the first thing I do is display the box top at a central point on the table for quick reference. This gives me my color and graphic pattern to follow. Then, I sort outside pieces from inside pieces. This is a relatively quick step that I am convinced saves hours of frustration. My plan is to build the frame first, then add on from there. After the frame is built, the project hits the tedious phase. Man, it’s hard here. None of it makes any sense. Nothing you try fits together. Everyone who started this puzzle with you has already left the table. However, there you sit shoving random edges together, trying to force the picture to come to life. It shouldn’t be this hard! I just wanted to have fun! It’s at this phase when you want to gather up all the pieces and shove them in the box again.

But, if you push through the frustration and the disconnection parts, if you allow your eyes to focus on each particular part, something begins to change. One piece fits together, then another, then another. It’s not that you still don’t go down frustrating paths that are annoying and difficult, but it’s not as bad as it was in the beginning. You are learning to lean into the tedious process of putting together the puzzle. And to your quiet surprise, find joy with each and every piece that does come together. This is the point where you start to identify patterns and build onto the story, to slowly begin to pull together the restored image from the scattered pieces. 

It all gets exciting and oddly fulfilling when you discover how a whole bunch of these odd and random pieces come together in the picture that made no sense to you a little further back in the process. The process moves from piece-by-piece building to chunk-by-chunk building. This is the part of the process where it gets good! You gain confidence, you start feeling happy and accomplished heading into the finish line of this activity. There is such a sense of satisfaction when the picture is nearly complete and there are only a few dozen pieces to place. It’s right in this space that I always have someone who wants to step in and “help” me finish the puzzle (Little Red Hen anyone?) But, it’s okay because I know this is my puzzle. I showed this puzzle who was boss. I’ve moved through this process to the other side. The picture is no longer incomplete scattered all over the table, and possibly the floor, during the painstaking and slow beginning. It’s coming together and is almost done. I can exhale. I can relax. I can start “having fun”. This is a piece-by-piece journey that I made it through. I discovered out of 1,000 small pieces emerged a complete picture.