Some lessons from puzzle time

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My family and I self-isolated last week due to our infection of COVID-19. We had mild symptoms and incredible friends who brought dinner, books, board games and a 500-piece puzzle.

I’m not sure my 6-year-old son would have been interested in this puzzle except that it was Pokémon. He loves anything to do with this animated series and insisted that we dump out the pieces and get to work right away.

In the past, he and I have worked 100-piece puzzles on the dining room table and completed them fairly quickly. It was overly ambitious of me to think we could finish this larger puzzle by supper time. It would eventually take two days.

In terms of puzzle strategy, I’m a border-first guy — find the straight edges and complete the frame, then fill in the middle. But the most beloved Pokémon characters, Pikachu and Eevee, were in the middle of this puzzle. My son wanted to work on them right away!

It’s hard for me to learn patience, let alone teach it to a young child. Our technological culture has its advantages, but teaching patience is not one of them. He can watch a “Pokémon” episode on our tablet whenever he wants. (And truth be told, he watched far more shows than usual during our isolation.)

Speaking of borders and boundaries, it is my parental responsibility to set limits for my children. Last week, even though our symptoms were relatively mild, we still had to stay at home so that we would prevent contagious infection. This was not the way that my kids wanted to start their summer! But their mom and I held the line.

A border is also a frame, a perspective or way of looking at a particular experience, like being confined to our home. Working a puzzle allowed opportunities not only to slow down but to change our perspective. As writer Anne Lamott has said, “Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes, including you.”

I was less task-oriented and goal-directed than usual. My son and I took breaks from the Pokémon puzzle when we became tired or frustrated. I also learned about patience. There was no deadline for completing it; we had nowhere we had to go. Instead of the dining room table, we could eat our meals on the front porch!

The most valuable part of this experience was the process, not the result. I certainly wouldn’t wish COVID-19 or any sickness on anyone. But this time with my son was an unexpected piece of the puzzle that fit.

Late in the afternoon on the second day, my son put down the last piece almost exactly in the middle. We cheered and celebrated with popsicles!

The next morning, he came downstairs and we admired our finished product still on the dining room table. He looked at me with a twinkle in his eyes, “Dad, you want to take it apart and do it again?”

Andrew Taylor-Troutman is the pastor of Chapel in the Pines Presbyterian Church. His newly-published book is a collection of his columns for the Chatham News + Record titled “Hope Matters: Churchless Sermons.”

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