Given the details the author gives on the particular puzzles that gave her such joy — wood, variety of pieces, and more — it’s a shame she couldn’t have mentioned the source.
When My World Fell Apart, I Turned to Puzzles
A woman found that when her life was unstable, jigsaw puzzles provided a reliable solution.
By Gabrielle SelzJune 23, 2021
When I was 26, I was in a motorcycle accident. I broke my left leg in three places and underwent two surgeries. I suffered a complication — the medical term was a “nonunion” — when my thigh bone stopped healing. For nearly a year, I was unable to walk and, because of pain and medication, unable to read.
My father, knowing that I needed something to do — that I abhorred boredom almost as much as he did — flew in from New York to my home in San Francisco with a package under his arm.
“What is this?” I said, ripping off the paper. “Chocolates?”
“It’s the ‘Mona Lisa,’” my father, an art historian, beamed.
I turned the box over. Sure enough, on the cover was a reproduction of da Vinci’s Renaissance masterpiece, in the form of a giant 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle. Except for the token elementary school activity, I’d never puzzled. I associated jigsaw puzzles with children and retirees.
Before my accident, I worked as an assistant producer for a food and wine festival. I zipped around the city on my bike, sampling quiche and Pinot Grigio at restaurants. Now, bedridden, I couldn’t even walk to the grocery store. I was fed up with lying in bed, angry that my life had stopped so abruptly in its tracks. Aghast, I asked my dad, “You brought me a game?”
My father nodded enthusiastically and opened the box. “Look at the sfumato.” He pronounced the word softly (sfoo-ma-toe). Pointing to Mona Lisa’s lips, hands, draped sleeves and even the idealized background behind her, he explained that sfumato was the term for the technique da Vinci used to harmonize the transition between all the elements in the painting. While my father focused on the gentle beauty and delicate gradients in the picture, I grumbled that all this subtle sfumato would make piecing the puzzle together very difficult.
He’d already opened the box and placed fragments on the table beside my bed. “Start with the edges,” he advised. “Work your way in.”
I picked up a tiny wooden piece. Hard, smooth and light as a feather, it was shaped like a paintbrush. Though some shapes were irregular, many were carved in the form of birds, flowers, easels, even a miniature man.
I laughed. The puzzle was hundreds of whimsical pictures inside a painting.
Turning a concave piece around in my fingers, I searched for the matching convex that would fill it. When that perfect fit happened — when the Mona Lisa’s mysterious smile snapped into focus — a surge of pleasure flooded my injured body.
I worked on that puzzle for over a month. Others followed: Claude Monet’s “Garden at Giverny” and Edgar Degas’s “Dance at the Paris Opera,” each one a meditative distraction with an image that propelled me outside the confines of my room.
Puzzling was absorbing, yes, but it also allowed me to be present and disconnected at the same time. Immersion in my puzzle meant an escape from my body when my body was in pain. While my medication knocked me out, piecing shapes together allowed me to remain awake, active and engaged — in a sense — with my life. Like da Vinci’s sfumato technique, which blurred hard lines, the edges of my days, weeks and months softened. Because time was occupied, I could endure its passage. Most important, puzzling felt like progress. Bit by bit, I was moving toward something, even if it was only the completion of a picture.
In the years following my accident, I was eager to resume a more active life. I wanted to go to my job. I wanted to walk. And I wanted to dance!
Though I never gave up puzzling, more often than not, I found myself puzzling alone. After I married, my husband did not share my obsession. He’d sometimes discover me bent over a puzzle in the wee hours of the morning. In one hand, I held our colicky baby. With the other, I sorted pieces.
Of course, puzzling is different from real life. A jigsaw puzzle always has a solution, a perfect fit. A puzzle is stable, while life is not.
Still, I sat at home, connecting one piece with another, as a flower, a star or a face emerged. Even if I couldn’t quite fathom what the final image would look like when it was completed, putting together jigsaw puzzles allowed me to trust that out of so much uncertainty, a new picture would form.
Puzzling has helped me through some dark times. It has quieted my mind and helped me see connections where I once saw none. It has helped me solve problems, even if the solution to a dilemma was dissolution. Midway through my divorce, when it felt as if my whole life was falling apart, I took on a challenge once given to Queen Elizabeth II of England: piece together a puzzle without looking at the picture as a guide.
I chose the Mona Lisa, a face I knew well, which made me feel like I was cheating somewhat. As I struggled to find the pieces, not forcing but examining each one, I had to trust that eventually I’d put her back together again.
Gabrielle Selz is a writer and an art critic. She is the author of the memoir “UnStill Life” and the forthcoming biography, “Light on Fire: The Art and Life of Sam Francis.”
Illustration by María Medem.