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Sunday, August 28, 2005

Puzzling Through Life

During a recent visit to a friend’s house, I stumbled across a half-assembled jigsaw puzzle. A pot of freshly melted cheese-fondue could not have entranced me more. Ignoring Darlene, I bee-lined for the puzzle and we spent the majority of our visit working on it.

I have loved jigsaw puzzles since I was knee-high to a grasshopper, but since becoming a mother, have steered away from them (if you’re wondering why, then you’re either very stupid or have no kids of your own).

Finding another puzzler is like finding fellow alcohol-drinkers at church: you have to be a little furtive, but when you’re successful, it feels like a gift.

As a result of that afternoon at Darlene’s, the first ever Puzzle Day was scheduled at the house of a mutual friend. Our hostess, Anne, a woman of many puzzles and much generosity, provided delicious appetizers, pizza with garden-fresh veggies, and way too much dessert for the four ladies who attended.

Like many seemingly innocuous events in life, I had an epiphany about myself that afternoon.

What happened was this: we had to pick out which puzzle to do. This was a good-sized effort even for only four women, because there were aesthetics to consider, not to mention difficulty and size issues. While the other three women were negotiating a deal, I took matters into my own hands, grabbing a 750-piece puzzle in a smallish box that sported a painting of killer whales. (Anything “whale” – like fondue, puzzles and books – tends to arrest my attention.) Possessively clutching the box to my chest, I stood aside while the others made THEIR selection.

Ah, the conundrum of compromise. In the end, our hostess, Anne, didn’t get to do either of her first two choices; Karen had to settle for smaller, harder-to-see pieces; and Darlene had to try and relax with the knowledge that her two daughters, whom she’d had to bring, were close-by, playing upstairs in Anne’s guestroom.

While the others worked things out among themselves, I cockily got down to business. I didn’t have to relinquish coveted puzzle-pieces to anyone. Nor did I have to exert effort to maintain my chosen puzzle-territory. The Orcas were mine to accomplish and enjoy. Sacrifice not necessary. YES! The ladies laughed at me, citing this was typical behavior for an INFP (introvert/intuitive/feeling/perceptive personality-type).

So there we were: they crowded at one end of the long dining-room table, and I dominating the other. THEY discussed which direction to face the puzzle and who would have to work it sideways, while I did MINE right-side-up. THEY dumped their pieces on the table and started sorting for edge-pieces, while I daintily fished through MY box, keeping the remainder contained and tidy. THEY set up the lid in order to see the picture, while I, refusing to “cheat,” kept MINE face down.

However, what I eventually noticed, after patting myself on the back for completing MY border, was THEIR laughing and giggling. They found pieces for each other, teased each other for stealing, and discussed which part of the puzzle each of them was working on. When one had great success, the others were quick with congratulations. Naturally, I was not part of the conversation. They were hardly even looking at me or acknowledging me. They were having a great time, working as a team, WITHOUT ME.

I started to feel a little left out. A rush of self-pity enveloped me, and I thought to myself, “This is SO typical of my WHOLE LIFE: always on the outside looking in; never quite fitting in; the odd-man out.”

Then, a very quiet voice whispered unexpectedly back: “You asked for it. YOU were the one who insisted on doing a puzzle ALONE.”

The self-pity vanished when I realized this was absolutely true. No question about it. The nagging feeling of isolation I often feel in groups was, during that particular gathering, largely self-inflicted. Perhaps it always had been. Could it be that what chair I sit it, where I stand, who I talk to, had all played a part in this lifelong experience of being the odd-man out, the wallflower?

A combination of awkward conversational skills, low self-esteem, painful shyness, and nothing-in-particular-to-say have always made inclusion really difficult. At times, overwhelmed by my surroundings, I would give up and beat a retreat.

During parties, instead of sitting down among others and patiently listening to their conversation, I would study the spines of books located in remote rooms. Instead of asking “magic” conversational questions – What do you do for a living? Tell me about your family. What do you do for recreation? – I would be hiding in a corner observing and studying seemingly intimidating people.

Over the years, I’ve improved (though I still have relapses of tongue-tiedness). Since college, in an effort to better myself and overcome my social anxieties, I have studied extroverts, and other socially adept people, for clues as to how they manage to make friends and win confidences. Nevertheless, it has been an uphill struggle.

Self-discovery is a puzzle in its own right. Like the cardboard jigsaws I so enjoy, understanding myself has, thus far, been a piece-by-piece endeavor, thus far, taking the better part of 35-years. With the puzzle-night epiphany – that I am largely responsible for my own self-isolation – another piece of self-awareness fit into place. If I continue to withdraw from others, I need to realize that not only will I be lonely, but that self-pity is an inappropriate response to that loneliness. The point of a Puzzle Party, or any other social gathering, is not to be the boss of my own jigsaw, but to rejoice at an opportunity for fellowship and community.

Even though I made my discovery right in the middle of our gathering, I refused to do anything about it right then and there. I could have abandoned my efforts, destroyed my work-in-progress, sweeping the pieces into the box, and joined my friends. But I didn’t. Instead, I resolved to do better in the future and endure the present. I was not willing to admit to myself or my friends that I was wrong.

Par normal, no sooner do I have an epiphany in one area of life, than I realize there is yet another area I need to work on: pride.


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