On one of my last long walks in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where I had spent six long years getting a Ph.D., I found a jigsaw puzzle on the street. It was in a sealed box, never opened, never made whole. The image was of a Van Gogh painting, not one of my favorites but a good one nonetheless. Grinning, I quickly picked up the box and found myself hugging it close—I couldn’t believe my luck. I had been so worried about missing Cambridge—physically, viscerally—when I moved, in a few days, all the way across the U.S. to Santa Barbara, California. I could immediately see how this puzzle would give my hands a way to work out the fear and loneliness that I had always known, now heightened by the impending change in circumstances. I didn’t know what to expect from my new job as a postdoctoral scholar in behavioral and evolutionary ecology, from a new city in a new state. And so I packed the puzzle into my suitcase, ensuring that I’d have it as soon as I reached, just in case I needed it. This gift from the streets of Cambridge, the city I’d reluctantly grown to love, would travel with me. It would be the bridge I needed, from the familiar to the less known.
Sometime later, after my move and after about a month of heartbreak, he and I entered our first of many movings apart and comings together. We’re in each other’s lives now, and our break was not an ending but an essential segment of apartness in our unusual growth together. And it was in this first apartness from my first love, so unmoored and slipping into yet another of the spirals that had dogged me since adolescence, that I opened the Van Gogh puzzle. Instead of trying endlessly to reposition the pieces of my life after the excision from it someone I had grown to love, I laid out the individual pieces carefully onto the kitchen table and worked on smaller challenges, like fitting together these rolling fields of yellowed straw or finding the perfect match to that particular piece of blue sky. Spending time with the puzzle between calls to therapists, I began to appreciate how it let me be silent, how it helped me be alone when I wouldn’t otherwise have chosen to keep myself company.
The puzzle lived in our kitchen for about a month, I think—had I guessed how long it would take to finish, I’d have balked at the inconvenience to my housemate, and may never have laid it out. But after just a few days, she too fell into little holes of puzzle-solving, mostly while I was asleep or out. She tackled the parts I’d dragged my feet on, and so this effort was no longer just a reflection of my sadness. Seeing our work grow through unplanned collaboration surprised and delighted me. We had found a way to share space in the slowly-solved puzzle.
When my housemate and I finished the Van Gogh puzzle, I wasn’t quite ready to break it apart, and so I framed it. I was amused at the idea of the “breakup puzzle” hanging up unbroken, in part because he and I were back in contact by then and in part because the puzzle was now more than just a symbol of a bad time. It was the start of a meditation, of finally seeking some kind of peace.
In a model of understanding the human condition called internal family systems, we think of ourselves as a family of parts. Some of these parts are protectors and other parts are exiles. The exiles have suffered some sort of trauma, and remain stuck in those moments of suffering. When faced with reminders of this trauma, the protectors try to save the exiles from getting hurt again. But in doing so, they also stop the exiles from healing, and from expressing themselves fully. In internal family systems therapy, you understand the limits, boundaries, and contours of your parts, helping them move out of their roles as protectors or exiles and into their more fully realized selves. In some ways, we are all our own puzzles, and what matters is finding ways for our pieces to fit together with ease.
Through this process of working with my parts in therapy—delving deeper into my fears and pains to uncover more and more of who my parts are, how they had been held back and how they can fit together once they are free—I have always come home to a jigsaw puzzle. I’ve distracted myself from the hardest parts of healing with the calm attention that is demanded by the tasks of pattern recognition and color matching, by becoming present in the reality of what and where these pieces are, and an irrefutable sense of where they need to be.
When you fit together two pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, there is no interesting explanation for why it is the right fit—it simply is. There is no way to arrive at a solution through understanding; one simply searches, notices, fits pieces together, and moves onward. I have come to realize that one does not solve jigsaw puzzles, one builds them.
In time I moved from Santa Barbara to Berkeley, and my new housemate was a quick convert to puzzling. She and I sometimes spent full days, in our sunshiny plant-filled home, working together on a puzzle in silence, growing consideration and trust between us. I bought a puzzle to do with him—an imagined drawing of oranges and metallic starlings, his favorite birds. He and I started the puzzle together, but my housemate and I carried it on. Some of her friends finished it when they came over to celebrate her birthday. It hangs in our living room now, unbroken. There are all kinds of community to be found in building a puzzle.
Two Christmases ago, he gave me an impossibly complex puzzle of the Earth—edgeless, unintuitive, and unending, it insists that I constantly find new ways to attend to it. More than any other, this puzzle feels like life. My life, too, is coming together with time.
Last Christmas, he gave me a puzzle that I found impossible to build, but it had the colors of a sunrise; this Christmas, a simple puzzle of a leafy fern that nearly fits in the palm of my hand.