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GENERATIONS: Sue Bruns: Dealing with imperfection and unfinished business

With the first cold snap in November, I set up the card table and unpack a used puzzle from the Red Door, kicking off Puzzle Season. It’s a picture of folded quilts -- each unique and colorful. I peel the tape from the box top and dump out the pieces. First, I sort for straight-edged pieces to form the parameter.  

This puzzle has randomly shaped pieces -- some resembling Gumby, like most puzzles, but others with almost straight sides (easy to confuse with border pieces). Some have long skinny necks or multiple humps and bumps. I filter them through my fingers looking for readily identifiable edge pieces, which I set to one side of the card table. Non-edge pieces I drop into the empty box for the second sorting.

The frame starts coming together, but obvious gaps appear; it’s time for the second sorting. I pull out a rimmed cookie sheet from the kitchen and dump pieces onto it. I group them by color, pattern, unique details.

Some of the used puzzles I’ve purchased have had huge pieces of the completed puzzle intact; in one box, the puzzle’s 550 pieces were conveniently stored in four quart-sized zip lock bags and labeled: Left bottom, left top, right top, right bottom. I don’t need a head start, although I appreciate someone’s effort to give the next puzzle-doer one. A few used puzzles come with hand written reviews, like: “This one was really fun, but some of the pieces are almost interchangeable.” A puzzle with a review comes with a personality.  

The quilt puzzle didn’t come with a review, but it has its own personality -- colorful and just challenging enough. Sometimes I feel badly about big chunks of sky or plain colors in a puzzle.  Those parts almost always are the last to be completed. It’s not their fault. Those plain pieces are every bit as critical to the puzzle as any other. They become a metaphor for life: The unique stand out; the ordinary are ignored or set aside until we have no choice but to include them.

Completing a puzzle is strangely satisfying. It’s not as if you don’t know what it’s going to look like until you put in the last piece -- you’ve got the puzzle box top to refer to throughout the process. And it’s not a creative process, although the attention to detail you give to the pieces might make you appreciate the original photo or painting and the creativity that went into it.

Puzzle putting-together is actually somewhat unproductive. I could write a book about the books I haven’t written because I’ve been putting together puzzles. Yet, I feel a sense of completion, if not accomplishment, when the last piece is in place. Although I haven’t created something, I have taken random pieces and have helped them to become part of something bigger, like stepping into a chaotic situation and organizing it so that it makes a certain kind of sense.  

In a few days the quilt puzzle is almost complete, but one piece in the lower left quadrant is missing. I hope it appears as the puzzle comes together, but with fewer than 45 pieces to go, it becomes obvious that the organized-by-color piles do not include that piece. I check the floor, look under nearby furniture, on the dog bed in case Sofie or Shadow happened to find the candy-colored piece and chewed its edges. I even pull out the vacuum cleaner and carefully empty the dust canister, looking for the missing piece.

Maybe the piece was missing before I started, but if that were the case, the previous owner should have said so. Or maybe I am the guilty one; maybe I have lost the piece and doomed the puzzle to incompletion forever.  

A missing piece is disconcerting. The puzzle will never look exactly like the picture on the box. My eye is drawn to the empty space, the imperfection. I feel as if the artwork that became a puzzle has been diminished. The sense of satisfaction isn’t there. Unfinished business is disturbing -- especially that which can never be finished. Despite my efforts to take random pieces and organize them into a completed picture, I have a puzzle with a missing piece.

I take a picture of the puzzle and write a note to whomever might pick it up next, although a puzzle with a missing piece might never be done again. I review it: “A fun, colorful puzzle with uniquely shaped pieces. Please forgive the missing piece.”

I hope someone else will accept its imperfection and assemble the puzzle.  

It’s not the puzzle’s fault.