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(De)puzzling me


Text by Andrea Mächler Bedoya (Freie Universität Berlin)


Take a look at the picture in the puzzle’s box: this is what you are aiming for.



The COVID-19 pandemic came and with it a bunch of requirements on how to live life. By doing a puzzle, I tried to take control of how I spent my time in an attempt to live up to those requirements and ended up riding a rollercoaster of emotions in the process. Nowadays, puzzling has become a care practice through which I aim for well-being and balance in a bewildering world.



At an Anthropology Seminar at the Freie Universität Berlin, we were asked to choose an object related to the COVID-19 pandemic and reflect on it based on two questions: “How does my object affect me today?” And “How will I affect my object today?” Quickly, my mind wandered to a specific jigsaw puzzle I did back home in Colombia during the first months following the pandemic. In order to think about how that puzzle and I had affected each other, I sat down to write what I remembered about that experience and began a small new puzzle. Through these two exercises, I analyzed the dynamic of my relationship with puzzling, taking a focus on affects and emotions, and realized it had become a powerful care practice that helped me balance my life.

According to Thomas Stodulka, Samia Dinkelaker and Ferdiansyah Thajib, “emotions are complex products that link affects – as bodily, sensory, inarticulate, nonconscious experience – with surrounding local worlds, by way of mutually shared modes of communication, articulation and feeling” (2019, 283). Using the writing process and the activity of doing a new puzzle, I was able to articulate and reconnect with the emotions that linked the affects of doing the puzzle back home with the local world I found myself in back then. A romanticized and somewhat exaggerated memory of doing that specific jigsaw puzzle, as well as the thoughts and emotions caused by reflecting on that experience, are conveyed in this essay.

It all began with the pandemic of COVID-19. The restrictions were very strict in Colombia: starting on March 13, 2020, Bogotá had a full quarantine until the end of September 2020. At first, my mom, my sister, my dog, my cat, and I lived in our small apartment, and we could only leave it one person at a time to shop for groceries or to take our dog out. In May, the Government allowed people to travel to their productive lands to take care of the crops; we took that chance and left for our coffee farm in the Colombian Coffee Region without knowing when we would return. There we met with my dad, who had been there since the pandemic started, and we spent the following months of quarantine surrounded by nature and away from other people, and thus, from much of the COVID-19 angst. 

Nevertheless, the emotional distress caused by the social pandemic crisis was still present: dread of the news, uncertainty about the future, and emotions of loneliness and uneasiness, to name just a few. Adding to that, during these months I felt pressured by society to follow specific normative notions to take advantage of my time. All over the internet, I saw recommendations to become an “overall better” human being: cook healthy recipes, try out something artistic, learn another language, exercise, meditate to find your inner self. The list went on and on, but my achievements did not. When the infection rates decreased, restrictions grew softer, and everything slowly started going “back to normal”. Thankfully, I could keep working from the farm, which allowed me to stay with my family, but also prolonged my distance from other people and activities.

Thus, the pressure of taking advantage of this slowed-down rate to do something productive and use my time wisely stayed with me and made me feel like I did not have a say over my life. So, in an attempt to take control of something, I decided to spend my time doing a puzzle. In Angela Cora García’s words, “[p]uzzling provides an opportunity to enjoy the experience of uncertainty and openness while also controlling how one deals with it” (2016, 176). I did not know it back then but I was about to experience it. Going down memory lane with my reflection process, the experience of doing the puzzle was as follows:

 

My heart was set on a 3.000 bright yellow Nickelodeon puzzle of my favorite cartoon characters. I sat down to open it and could hardly contain the excitement. It had been ages since I last did a puzzle, and the pieces felt strange to my touch. I focused my attention on filtering out the edges from inside the bag with all the pieces, but I needed to repeat the process a few times to get them all out. I started with baby steps, patiently separating each piece by its color. I focused on one piece at a time, my thoughts wandered off, and I sang along to the music coming from my computer. I kept separating, singing, separating. Time flew by and I invested all my attention in the puzzle. 

I suddenly found two matching pieces and a grin drew upon my face. I savored the sensation of warmth traveling throughout my whole body at the precise moment I softly pressed the piece into its place, giving me a feeling of fulfillment; it was addictive. I then started taking toddler steps, repeating the process of finding matching pieces many times. With patience and time, the puzzle started to come alive. I remember wanting to spend every possible second with puzzle pieces in my hands, but I had to pull myself away from the puzzle to fulfill other somewhat important activities, such as working or eating, which I started doing more productively and then went back to where I felt I belonged. Big chunks of pieces that fit perfectly into each other started filling the empty space between the matched edges. Time flew by and I felt like everything around me started to make sense.

 

Since the beginning, I felt that doing the puzzle was having an impact on me and I can now confirm, following García, that “puzzling provides opportunities for several types of learning” (2016, 176). Every small rewarding moment reminded me of the importance of acknowledging each step of the process, which helped me gain a wider perspective on complex situations in my life and taught me about patience and dedication. With every move forward, I also acknowledged that dedicating my attention to the puzzle strengthened my concentration. As such, in a local world that constantly tried to disperse my attention, I learned about setting things into perspective, patience, and focus, which are important aspects that give balance to my life.

 

I spent hours sitting in front of the pieces, staring at them, moving them. My smile faded away every time the accomplishments got lost in the sea of yet unmatched puzzle pieces left on the table. The separation by color was tricky at times and there were always a few pieces that, despite their specific physical constitution, liked to appear fluid and pretend they belonged somewhere they didn’t; other pieces absorbed all my attention and I was reluctant to let them go even though they didn’t have a clear place among the matched pieces yet. I felt impatience growing inside of me and I thought to myself that it should be getting easier at this point, but it didn’t. Then I remembered again: it was a 3.000-piece puzzle. After all, there is a reason why jigsaw puzzles are called “rompecabezas” in Spanish; they’re “brain breakers”. 

I felt overwhelmed with the new challenge I alone had gotten myself into. I faced my own judgmental and critical self; I waged a war against my mediocrity and my procrastination; I walked into a mind trap juggling with self-sabotage and following an unhealthy spiral of thought in which my expectations and those of my family, even on something as simple as a puzzle, started feeling like pressure. Then, I reminded myself that I had the time, the capacity, and the perfect opportunity to do the puzzle. Time flew by and I felt the puzzle speaking to me and telling me I only needed time and perseverance. 

 

Whoever says doing puzzles is easy is lying. I remember how sometimes I went through a rollercoaster of emotions while staring at the pieces. Any sense of control I was trying to gain slipped through my hands as anger and frustration came creeping in and made me face my insecurities. I did not give up, though, and those colored cardboard pieces accompanied me while I learned how to handle those emotions. Following Joanna Cook (2020), I realize that taking care of myself does not only mean pursuing positive emotions, but also doing the affective labor of recognizing my vulnerabilities and confronting negative emotions. With time, I have learned that I need to navigate both types of emotions carefully as part of my care practice and as such, “puzzling provides an opportunity for personal growth” (Cook 2020, 177).

 

“How’s the puzzle going?” my mother used to ask. Sometimes she, my dad, and my sister hung out with me and tried to match pieces themselves. They gave up fast; patience is not a trait that runs in the family. Sometimes they were lucky and found a matching piece, and as if looking at a mirror, I recognized the proud smile that appeared on their lips and shared the spark of joy in their eyes. “You’re welcome. I did half of the work for you” my dad once bluntly said to me after finding a match; humor is not a common trait in the family either. Time flew by and the puzzle showed me a new way of connecting with myself and others.  

With time, I started taking giant steps. Completed cartoon characters started staring back at me, some still missing parts of their bodies or of the objects they were drawn with, but they slowly came together in an 82 x 115 cm colored canvas with only a few blank spaces here and there. I felt relaxed; I knew I was going to make it. Excitement and anxiety arose as I saw the end come nearer and nearer until it arrived. I placed the final puzzle piece with a huge warm-felt smile on my lips. I ran out to share the good news with my family and they came to see the finished masterpiece. A fun game of naming the recognizable cartoon characters began and it was fueled by anyone who visited my room, where my 3.000-piece puzzle hung on the wall like a big prize. Time flew by and I recognized a new version of myself in the puzzle.

 

After this reflection exercise, I understand that puzzling was the individual coping mechanism I chose to navigate the pressure I felt of doing something worthwhile with my time during the pandemic and the “new normal” that came after. Those few cardboard pieces became a symbol of a learning process filled with warm sensations and happy feelings that feed my connection to myself; they became a third element that, by challenging me, powered the relationship between my present self and the better version of me I long for. Following García, “[m]aking the picture whole embodies and enacts the process of making oneself whole. And that is the most profound source of satisfaction that one gets from jigsaw puzzles, and from life” (2016, 176). When I started the 3.000-piece puzzle back then, I did not think it would bring me all the benefits described in this essay, but they all turned into tools to face life’s challenges in a more thoughtful and balanced way. Puzzles have become a material representation of the importance and necessity of working on my emotional and mental well-being, which is an important aspect of living a more balanced life. Just like the Colombian Government knew that the crops needed to be taken care of during the pandemic to survive, I knew I had to take care of myself and make myself whole to live in the post-pandemic’s “new normality”. 

Finally, another affirmation of García fits my experience: “Puzzling provides the puzzler with an embodied metaphor for life” (2016, 177). With puzzles, I learned that in an ever-changing world, I need to be patient and perseverant. Puzzling is a two-way process and a three-sided love-hate-love relationship: we only need each other and some time to transform into something new together. Oh! And what we’ve become.

 

Now, complete the puzzle and acknowledge what you learned in the process:



References

 

Cook, Joanna. 2020. “Unsettling Care: Intersubjective Embodiment in MBCT.” Anthropology and Humanism 45 (2): 184–193. https://doi.org/10.1111/anhu.12297

 

García, Angela Cora. 2016. “An explorer in a cardboard land: emotion, memory, and the embodied experience of doing jigsaw puzzles.” International Journal of Play 5 (2): 166–180. https://doi.org/10.1080/21594937.2016.1203916

 

Stodulka, Thomas, Dinkelaker, Samia, and Ferdiansyah Thajib. 2019. “Fieldwork, ethnography and the empirical affect montage.” In Analyzing Affective Societies, edited by Antje Kahl, 279–295. London: Routledge.



Solved puzzle:


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