Personal – Life is Like a Vintage Puzzle

pastime puzzle closeup

Puzzle cabinet

A few weeks back when I was in Upstate New York visiting my grandma, we spent some time putting together some of her vintage jigsaw puzzles.  These aren’t you’re standard “picture of a kitten with a ball of yarn printed onto cardboard” puzzles.  These are hand-cut wooden puzzles with all sorts of images fun images that range from art, to stylized painting to slice-of-life (think Norman Rockwell).  None of the pieces look like the standard puzzle piece that comes to mind.  While we put the puzzle together (it had 150 pieces, and took the two of us working together a couple hours), it got me thinking.  These puzzles were special and putting it and another one together made me think that these vintage puzzles are like life, and this is how:

You don’t know how difficult it will be – the number of pieces on the box is not a guarantee of how long it hard it will be to put things together, just that there are more pieces that need to be put together.  None of us know how difficult our lives will be, because nobody’s life comes with a label that says “easy” or “difficult”.  Instead, we may know that our lives will have more pieces that require putting together if we are not white, if we are not men, if we are not rich, if we are not straight, if we have a disability, if we do not speak the language of our country.  These are “more pieces” that are required to be put together.  It doesn’t mean that life is harder…just that it may take longer to figure out how things fit together in the bigger picture.

You might have more pieces than are on the box – in vintage puzzles, the number of pieces on the box is a guideline.  You’re not getting exactly 150 pieces – you’re getting at least 150 pieces.  None of us know how long our lives will be, how difficult things will be.  There are no guarantees on how long things will last.

Puzzle box

Things will be harder if you don’t know what the picture is at the beginning.  Very few of the vintage puzzles my grandmother has have pictures on the boxes.  Instead, we get a name – this is a clue to what our scene is.  But somehow, even though putting these puzzles together can be harder, it’s also more satisfying at the end.  Those of us who aren’t sure what the big picture of our lives will be will have a harder time putting the pieces of our lives together.  But when you do figure out what it is, there is a jolt of recognition – an “AHA!” moment where you say, “I see what I am supposed to do now!”  If you haven’t had that jolt yet, you keep working on what you can – putting together the pieces you have until things become apparent (which may not even be until the very end).

There might be missing pieces – but this doesn’t necessarily ruin the puzzle (and you can always get replacements).  There might be things missing in your life, but that doesn’t have to ruin your bigger picture.  It’s possible to put what’s left together and to still enjoy it and have fun.  And it’s also possible to have parts made to fit.  They may not be perfect, but if you’re looking for a more complete picture, this is a valid choice.  In life this may be people or experiences that you don’t have in your life, but it’s possible to have a full life without all of the things that are “normal” or “standard”.  If you can tell what your life is supposed to be, and you know that a piece is missing and that’s ok…then that’s ok.

Playing in the cellar

Vintage = character, but poor condition is just poor condition – some of the puzzles my grandmother has have slightly faded color, and the edges of the pieces are slightly rounded with love and use.  But they are still in good condition, and are still fun and wonderful puzzles.  The ones with water damage, that are broken, or sun-damaged…those are the ones that are less fun to put together.  I think of this as how you take care of yourself as you get older.  Because getting older doesn’t necessarily mean “getting worse” – if you care for yourself and your body, it’s possible to still be fantastic.  If you don’t take care of yourself, then old age is going to be miserable.

You might think pieces are missing, but that’s just panic about not seeing how things will fit together – with the vintage puzzles that do not have exact numbers of pieces, with irregularly shaped pieces, it’s hard to see exactly what’s left, and how things will fit together.  I will inevitably freak out in the last 20 minutes of putting a vintage puzzle together, convinced that I’m missing one or more pieces.  As your life comes together and you start to see the bigger picture, it’s possible you’ll panic about having a missing part of what you expected out of life (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing – see above), but remain calm.  Pieces that are missing will always be missing, but if you have everything, it will all fit together eventually.

A toast - vintage puzzle

You will be surprised at how things fit together – things that should be obvious aren’t, and sometimes things just click in your head.  I often find myself staring at pieces wondering how they could possibly fit into the puzzle.  And at other times, I put two pieces together practically without even looking at them.  Sometimes putting the pieces of our life together takes a long time.  Sometimes it comes easy.  We must trust that we have all that we need, and keep going.

Be strategic in your planning – it makes more sense to get the big picture (the edges), and organize by obvious categories and then attack the details.  It is difficult to plan the small pieces of our lives before we have the big things together.  If you have an idea of the size, shape, scope of your life, it’s a LOT easier to start fitting in the smaller details.  But if you do come across smaller pieces that fit together obviously, don’t ignore them.  Put together what you can as you come across it, while focusing on the important parts that make putting the rest of your life together easier.

It’s easier (and more fun!) with help.  But too much help is also not the answer.  If it’s not a big puzzle, having 10 pairs of hands involved is too many.  Know that in your life, it’s important to ask people for help.  If we are faced with a 300 piece puzzle by ourselves, it will feel impossible and overwhelming, the way that having a lot of difficulties and responsibilities and tasks can wear down on us in life.  Ask for help.  But if you have too many people “helping” at the same time, it’s hard for anyone to see the bigger picture.  Work together strategically.  Know when puzzle pieces you are working on fit together with those of your partner.  If you work or live with tunnel vision, it’s hard to see how parts of our lives are linked to those around us, when all we had to do was ask for help.

pastime puzzle whimsy

There will be fun surprises along the way, so use them to your advantage.  The best part of vintage puzzles are the whimsies – the pieces cut into familiar shapes that don’t look like they fit anywhere.  They can also make life easier by having recognizable shapes that make finding other pieces to fit specific places slightly easier.  If you have a special part of your life, or a fun moment, try to use it as a way to bring things together.  This can be immensely satisfying – pulling together the seemingly disparate, standard and boring parts of life, and fitting them in with the more enjoyable parts.

You are only done when you want to be done.  Yes, a particular puzzle may be complete, just as a chapter in your life can be completed.  But that doesn’t mean you have to be done with puzzles forever – you can take apart the puzzle and re-tackle it immediately, or you can bring in a new puzzle.  Maybe a more challenging one, something you haven’t done before.  We should never think of our lives as complete and static.  If we left a puzzle out on a table, finished forever, it is more likely to get knocked apart, to gather dust, to fade.  Our lives are meant to be lived continuously.  We should be proud of our accomplishments, but take on new challenges as long as we can, and never give up.

Ok – a few of those are sort of a stretch, but you get what I’m going for, right?  Has anyone else ever done a vintage puzzle, or just a really interesting jigsaw puzzle?  Want to come over and help me put together the one that my grandmother sent home with me?  Or do you hate puzzles?  What else is my grand “Life = Vintage Puzzles” theory missing?

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