Sunday, July 31, 2011

The Importance of Jigsaw Puzzles in American Summer Houses

For a while now I have been pondering this cultural trope. It seems fairly obvious that the chief pleasure of a jigsaw puzzle is in creating (arbitrary) Order out of (contrived) Chaos. What could be more satisfying?
You start with an unsorted pile of oddly shaped bits of wood or cardboard.
Hesiod’s world also starts with Chaos, a shapeless, bundled, tangled and inchoate agglomeration of everything and nothing, neither truly solid nor fluid nor gaseous.
You empty the box onto a flat surface. Before you can do anything else you turn the pieces over onto their ‘correct’ side; the assumption of the existence of a ‘correct’ side already being a great leap away from Chaos.
Hesiod tells us how the earth(Gaea), the sky(Ether) and Eros(the creative force), separate and take on form and emerge from Chaos.
(In Book VII of Paradise Lost, Milton describes Chaos as: “… the vast immeasurable abyss. Outrageous as a sea, dark ,wasteful, wild.” It is the use of the word wasteful here that strikes me for its implied harsh judgment.)
Back in the American summer house, you sort through the turned-over pieces to find the Edges, because knowing the periphery of a thing is so helpful in defining it. Where we would be without Limits? Edges or Borders or Fences? (As you can see, we have already ventured far from a ‘simple’ jigsaw puzzle into some fairly ponderous questions.)
In Hesiod’s Theogony, the gods, the Titans and finally mankind develop on earth.
Your hands hover over the random pieces as your eye scans for matching colors and shapes; even so, your mind wanders. This puzzle featuring water birds of North America inexorably leads you to the skeleton of a Great Blue Heron that dangled from a rafter of the screened porch in Marshfield for many years. Your ex/late husband found this prize one day on the salt marsh at low tide. He strung it with fishing line and set it to spin above your heads as you dined and played Risk and painted pictures. When you last inhabited the house on the marsh, the delicate bird bones were already finely swaddled in dust and scented with marijuana and fish. Perhaps it hangs there still, witness to another decade of revelry and discord.
You return to the puzzle and discover that the blue-greenish underbelly of the avocet is similar in shade to a watery frond.
Each completed bird is created out of Chaos; each time the pieces smoothly interlock a small breath of Order enters the room.
All this, and it is only a rainy day in a musty house by a lake, where the loons sing duets in the mornings and the moose are always on the other side.

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