puzzle 1

We can’t seem to stop with the puzzles around here. They started during our staycation and have remained as the go-to boredom reliever du jour. Last year it was Mexican Trains. I’m not sure which I like better.

So when I’m-Bored tickled my ears the other day, I suggested a puzzle. Toy Story 3 150-piece Foil-Puzzle won. Don’t be fooled by the title or number of pieces. It was brutal – each of the three times we did it. (I still don’t understand Jack’s make, break and make again thing.) The foil finish, with all its weird psychedelic colors, added an unwanted twist to the challenge.  Well, that and the fact that several pieces were exactly the same size and shape.

Mid-puzzle, my 24-year-old niece stopped by for a chat. She’s amazing. She’s just finished nursing school and has a terrific job helping people in one of Baylor Medical Center’s ICUs. She paid her way through school. Starting unconventionally at one of community colleges, making ends meet with lots of baby-sitting. Then she full-scholarshipped from there, graduating at the top of her class.

As we searched for pieces, we started talking about life – what we think it will look like and all the twists and turns to get there – the changes, the ups/downs and unexpecteds. Often things don’t go the way we planned, or thought or hoped they would. Not always bad or good, just different.

Struggling through that foil-finish puzzle, I couldn’t help but see similarities.

Like a puzzle, our planned life looks great, promising, defined and whole as we look at the cover of the box. When we’re young and in different phases we envision and plan. Then pick which puzzle to build. And, like Jack often does, we think that fingers snap and a complete picture appears from the stack of pieces.

But I forget things – like time. It takes time to build a puzzle. Some of the time is exciting, especially when  on a streak of finding and putting together pieces that unveil a picture. Some of it is mind-numbing, like the time it takes to turn over every single piece, or to sort the edge pieces from the center ones, or to find logical places to start. And I forget how challenging puzzles can be.

Looking all the pieces strewn about the table is overwhelming. When our family starts a puzzle, the excitement quickly wanes and everyone leaves … literally. I’m left to flip and sort. Pieces in a pile, some upright, some face down, all mixed together don’t look appealing – or anything like the picture on the box. 150 pieces multiply and take on the appearance of a much more daunting 500-piece puzzle. And I want to quit.

Like the puzzle, in life – I forget about the time, all the pieces, the schedules, the bosses, the co-workers, the coaches, the teams, achievements, the failures, the mundane, the exciting … so different than an instant box-cover moment.

I find myself distracted before too long. And, I try to shortcut. I search for and grab the few pieces that came already connected from the factory so I can feel like I accomplished something. And I drudge through the process, inspired here and there as the portions of the box-cover picture start to appear.

“This puzzle is so much like life,” I tell my niece. “I can’t help but think about all the phases. Where you are at a new job, after finishing the school puzzle. Where I am – with all the kids, their different ages, stages of building. It seems so dreamy at the onset – but so challenging in the moment.”  I thought through my own puzzles. From the education to the work force to the kids to whatever is next. Box covers are great – exciting. But significant effort, stamina, determination – along with a lot of fun – work together to get us there.

Should I go further and admit that I can have hardest time not looking at someone else’s box cover – especially someone living life alongside me. I might be wishing their puzzle to be mine. I can’t help but notice their seemingly simple design, the number of pieces, the size of the pieces. And I find it unfair. They don’t have to deal with the insanity of foil-colors or identical pieces, many of which are so small I can barely pick them up. Plus, I like their picture better than mine. To top it all off, they finish faster since theirs is, in fact, easier. They’re onto their next stage, while I’m stuck. Literally stuck, sifting through the mind-numbing iterations and piles of pieces that just won’t fit.

Does anyone see me struggling over. Does anyone care?! Lost in focus on me, I lose sight of the fact that we are far from alone in the struggle. That everyone has to turn over pieces, sort, organize and build. Maybe they get overwhelmed, too.

I watch Jack searching for a piece. Beginning to get frustrated, he force-fit a close match. Somehow the right piece caught my eye and I handed it to him.

“How did you find that?” he asked. “I’ve been looking for that.” Which he had been.

“It was right there,” I point right in front of him. So funny, he just couldn’t see it in the midst of all the other pieces.

“That’s life too, isn’t it,” I said to my niece. “I’m so glad to not go it alone. We need each other to help redirect when we get lost in all the pieces and can’t see what’s hiding in plain sight. It’s easy to sail through the fun connects. So much harder to struggle through the challenges- remember the sky on that Mario puzzle? There must have been at least twenty pieces of the exact same color.”

At this point I shut my mouth. I could go on. How the pieces work together for good, how the Lord knows (and never loses) all the pieces, and so much more. But, we kept building. And as is always the case, the end was a blast. With only a few pieces left, a puzzle zooms. It’s fun to look at the finished produce. Instantly, I forget about all struggle to get there. And I’m ready to start another one. Which is what we do, as we live travel through life’s different stages.

For me, I loved the reminders: to remember the big picture, to have friends nearby who can help me see the “missing” piece right in front of me, to do more than endure all the work that goes into the preparation of building a puzzle, to be mindful of and keep in check my expectations. 150 pieces that seemed to promise an easy road might come with the surprise foil-finish. But, challenges can produce perseverance, if I stay the course, and often a different outcome than I might have thought.

Here’s to enjoying life’s puzzles at every stage. With guarded anticipation, I look forward to opening and dumping whatever our next box might be. With college just around our corner, I need to gear up. Ever grateful that I don’t walk it alone.


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