"It's as if a great bird lives inside the stone of our days and since no sculptor can free it, it has to wait for the elements to wear us down, till it is free to fly." Mark Nepo

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Finding Solutions

For as long as I can remember, I've loved word puzzles. My mom did, too, and always had half-finished books laying around the house. Although money was so tight we couldn't afford a washer and drier, she managed to find a way to add the latest edition of Dell puzzles to the shopping cart on the Saturday grocery and laundromat trip. And when I was home sick, which was often, she'd allow me to pass the time working puzzles she wasn't interested in.

I would start at the beginning of a book and work my way page by page through it, solving those she hadn't as I went. If a puzzle was too easy or too hard, I'd leave it after a bit and move on. The diagramless puzzles were beyond my ability or patience. I loved word searches and word mazes, but crosswords were always my favorites, especially if there was a theme or a puzzle hidden within.

When we moved Mom to assisted living and I was clearing out her house, I found dozens of partially finished books, mostly word searches. Even there evidence of her decline showed in the shakiness of the lines circling found words. Tempted to take the books home and finish them, the smell of old cigarettes and mildew was too much to overcome, and I tossed them as I'd had to do with so much of her stuff.

In my early adulthood I followed her pattern, and always found a way to throw the latest issues of Dell puzzles (always Dell, never the other kinds, like it always had to be Best Foods) into my grocery cart. I graduated to logic puzzles for a while, then moved to Sudoku.

I don't remember when I first discovered the NY Times crosswords in the paper. I'd read about them and assumed those puzzles were way beyond my solving ability. After the first one, it didn't take long for me to be hooked, although it took a David Sedaris story for me to understand about the increasing level of difficulty. Monday's puzzle is the easiest. Saturday's is the hardest.

I don't do Monday or  Tuesday (too easy), work steadily and happily through Wednesday and Thursday (both of which usually have the extra kick of an inner puzzle), and sometimes take days to complete Friday and Saturday. Once in a while there will be a Saturday puzzle that I can't crack, so I turn to Google and Rex Parker for help. Admitting defeat is hard, and doesn't come easily, but not knowing the answers is nearly unbearable. I need to understand how a clue and an answer fit together.

Some weeks I'm willing to allow a puzzle to unravel in my subconscious for a while. If I leave and come back, answers that weren't there before, appear almost magically. Some weeks, I just need the answers any way I can get them, and concede defeat after a couple of hours of trying to solve on my own.

This morning as I breezed my way through Thursday, pleased with myself for solving the inner puzzle fairly quickly, I realized that my relationship with crosswords is the same as my relationship with most of my life.

I need answers, and as long as things make sense, I'm fine. I'm generally impatient, but allow myself the satisfaction of challenging that urgency from time to time. When I can't seem to solve life's bigger problems, my ability to solve crosswords gives me at least the illusion of power and comforts me.

Words delight me in a way little else in my life does, and word play tickles my soul like a stroking hand elicits purrs from a cat.

Even when I'm frustrated at my inability to find a solution on my own steam, or get to the core of a certain challenge without help, eventually I find a way to acquire answers. And always, I'm happy to sit with a fresh puzzle and my favorite pen, looking for just the right word to fit into a defined space with nothing more to go on than some obscure and tricky clue.

I wonder if it was the same for my mom.


Donna said...

We have one person at work who is really a faithful puzzler too. She is intelligent and dedicated to solving them. My take on it is that it takes someone very intelligent and dedicated to do them. "They" say that it improves your mind to do puzzles and staves off Alzheimers, reason enough to do them.
I am a Monday-Tuesday puzzler and by Wednesday...forget it! Once it gets thought provoking, I'm a quitter. I know that sounds like a coward's way out and it is.
Therefore....I admire your tenacity!!!!

Desiree said...

My Mother has also always enjoyed crosswords and other puzzles but unfortunately, it skipped me and my sister took up the tradition. I know it would be good for my brain but I think I'm cast from the 'L for laziness' mould as someone put it so cleverly, recently.

I love the way you've expressed yourself, here. Your talent with words is truly remarkable. Clearly, all that playing around with them for most of your life and your deeply intuitive feel for each one allows you to know precisely what to say, perfectly, at precisely the right time! I envy your talent, but it's clear it has come from years and years of honing and fine-tuning your skill. You are a true crafts(man), Deb! :)

Charlene: the Polarblogger said...

Thanks for sharing your fondness of puzzles, which you beautifully outlined. I like your analogy of the puzzle game and yourself.
I also like solving crossword puzzles in English. I used to collect puzzles from our newspapers back in the Philippines. And yes, I felt a sense of victory each time I cracked all the words. But, unlike you, I seldom solved the whole diagram.

Wanda said...

Always Dell--only Dell. Always Best Foods...only Best Foods.

Wanda..... said...

Such intricate lines of thought you always manage to weave together, into one outstanding read, Deb. Your posts are like thought puzzles you put together. Puzzles are fun...I enjoy logic and Sudoku puzzles and my mother often worke the word search ones, while my daughter likes the cryptograms!

deb colarossi said...

oh, this was so so good, Deb.
I did crosswords and word finds for a time, but not any more. One of my children only seems to have that way..
I have many memories of my mother sitting with coffee and cigarettes and Dell books, or puzzles, or a game of solitaire going . I do think it has something to do with a sense of control , a calming private treasure hunt.

Sandi Babbitt said...

Hey Deb! I'm catching up today, reading the last several posts of yours that I missed! I've never attempted to do any "hard" crossword puzzles, just the easy ones in the local daily. They scare me! But, I love solitaire, and see a glimmer of something like what you speak of, though I don't play nearly often enough to win much anymore!
You make me want to take up crossword puzzles, but, I can't imagine where I'd find the time to do them! Maybe this summer while I'm recuperating from surgery!

Linda Myers said...

I do a Sudoku online every morning (level 8 out of a possible 10). I used to do the crossword puzzle and Sudoku in the Seattle Times every day, but my husband gets up earlier than I do so he has the first shot. He works the crossword in ink, then gives it to me to finish. I start out by figuring out what he's gotten wrong. It's a nice duet of a habit.

Out of My Mind said...

I have to comment on this phrase:

"Words delight me in a way little else in my life does, and word play tickles my soul like a stroking hand elicits purrs from a cat."

Wow! that is what I call a well turned phrase! kt

DJan said...

What a wonderfully written and interesting post, Deb. I have never ever appreciated crossword puzzles and wonder why. I also love words and word play, but puzzles frustrate me instead of giving me pleasure. I'm so glad they work for you. Must be something about the difference in the way our minds work.

kario said...

I love the fact that your mother shared her puzzles with you when you were home sick as a girl. It adds another layer to your relationship. I, too, wonder what it was that drew her to these games.


Katie Gates said...

My mother and I also share the puzzle gene, and she's quite intimidating (I mean, impressive). When I lived in NYC, I did the NY Times Sunday puzzle religiously. These days, with the LA Times puzzle, I feel like I'm slumming a bit... Still, I agree that it's nice to take on a task that has absolute solutions!

Barb said...

I like the way you begin and end with your Mother in this piece. Possibly, she is the answer to all your puzzles. The Sunday NYTimes puzzle is one I try not to tackle unless my good friend is willing to do it with me. Together, we struggle and sometimes are victorious. (She's coming to visit soon, so I'll sharpen a couple of pencils.) I read once that Bill Clinton likes to do the Sunday puzzle in ink. Who can do that?

yaya said...

Word search I love...crossword..not at all, but hubby does. Everyone to their own love and talent I say! It's suppose to help the brain and stimulate the gray matter, so I guess I'm doomed to the Alzheimer unit someday..at least hubby will have something to keep him busy during the visits! Love your writing and use of words. I can see why they are your soul's comfort.

Hold my hand: a social worker's blog said...

I've given you the Kreativ Blogger Award!


#1Nana said...

As usual, great writing. I love the little details...the stuff smelling of smoke, and how you used the puzzles as a metaphor for how you lead your life. Nice!

I'm going to see David Sedaris at the end of the month in Austin. He's my favorite author. Don't you love his word choices?

Wsprsweetly Of Cottages said...

I have never been good at crosswords. I go blank...and I just don't retain info. My sweet husband, Patrick, who passed away in at just 63, loved crosswords and worked every single one each morning when the paper came. I would try it..but would just impatient. He tried to tell me how much you learn etc...and he was right..and I did try.

Pat would have loved reading this post...and it reminded me much of him..you expressed it all so perfectly. Yep...he would have liked you.

the wanderer said...

what a great memory woven into self-awareness. i enjoy reading your pieces on life's mirror.

LauraX said...

I was always a seek and find person...I think because I'm very visual...but my Mom and oldest sister loved crosswords...they still do. It is good to find those connections, not just to words but to our family traditions...whatever they happen to be.

Lavi said...

Word games and puzzles are interesting and challenging, because the vocabulary offers us so many nuances and double meanings. It's like working your way out of a dark and thick forest.

I remember my dad used to get very difficult crossword puzzles for when we went on holiday. I was fascinated by them, but wasn't able to solve much.

I guess it is the challenge that makes us try and the harder it is, the sweeter the victory.

Anonymous said...

I always want answers as well. I need to understand the why.

Janna Qualman said...

This is really a lovely tribute, Deb. To your mom, to words, and also to life.

I always love what you have to say. Thank you for sharing this with us.

Pam said...

An added dimension to you and your Mum. Thanks for sharing this Deb. I am definitely not a puzzle or playing cards person, and unlike my mother-in-law don't like jigsaw puzzles,of which she can never get enough. I think I may be in for it in their later years of assisted care - helping search(as I do now)for that hidden word or puzzle piece. Will do so with good grace, the activity being a focus point I guess, but oh my!

Amber said...

Keeps the brain healthy.
Do you play Words with Friends on your smart phone? My user name is 'Amber-gler', if you want to play a game with me...


Hold my hand: a social worker's blog said...

I see a lot of my nursing home residents solving crosswords and puzzles, and now that I read your post, it makes more sense to me. They do enjoy it, and I know it helps to maintain their minds active. Yet I see beyond that now. It's their own challenge, there is something they are trying to have control on, which they may not have it over other areas, i.e. physically.

Great post, beautifully written.