The missing piece of the puzzle

Last night I packed away the 2000-piece jigsaw puzzle that had been taking up a large part of our dining room table for the past few weeks. As I finally neared the end, I realised that there was no way for me to complete the puzzle – not because I didn’t have the time, or the space, or the motivation but because I could clearly see that some of the pieces were missing! (That is the risk you run when you borrow a puzzle from your generous-hearted friends, who forget to mention that the puzzle is incomplete).

Ok, so I didn’t get the satisfaction of placing that very last piece, but the puzzle brought gifts of quiet contemplation that I had clearly been aching for. The hours spent searching and turning, matching, and joining the thousands of little cardboard pieces were not wasted; quite the opposite – they were relished and appreciated and so enjoyed.

With my mind settled and resting, I was able to think, properly, for the sake of thinking. My thoughts meandered through my childhood, through my different family homes, holidays here and there, and my workdays – reconnecting me to memories that had been forgotten and stirring up tender sentiments that had been sadly neglected, and inspiring new ideas and notions that were both a surprise and a wonder.

Those puzzle pieces prompted me to call on old friends, lonely aunts and childhood buddies, who have re-entered my days with affection and the true joy one experiences with being connected and truly loved. They also provided me with exciting notions and challenges to look forward to.

Today, coincidentally, I sat with two five-year-old girls trying to sort through four puzzles that had been tipped out onto a table – their pieces jumbled and muddled – a tricky job for anyone. Never mind, we agreed, we would sort the pieces out and put those puzzles back together again. One of the girls hummed quietly to herself, the other systematically ordering the pieces as she knew how. I paused and glanced up at them, saw the look of soft focused engagement, absorption in a task, their evident capacity to block out the noise and bustle that surrounded them. One of the girls felt my gaze and looked back at me and smiled – “I missed you Cathy,” she said. I nodded and shared that I had missed her, too.

I wondered then, what part of this experience the girls would keep saved up in their memory banks – and in addition to this, had we, in all our planning and designing, created spaces and places for our little children that would bring rewards later on – that would bubble up in years to come as a feeling, or a memory, or a discrete skill. Would these days ensure that they would have a life full of high cognitive functioning, curious, adventurous and flexible minds, abilities to connect and contemplate and collaborate, the safety to take some risks and the satisfaction of accomplishment?

I think the girls and I both knew it – we had joined in a meaningful way by doing something pretty ordinary. We had a sense, just then, that it was more about the feeling than anything else. It was about the rich reward of being together; and even if the task was nothing too remarkable, it was certainly something worth doing.

When parents share with me that they are concerned that their three-year-old or five-year-old child may be bored, I often turn to them and say, “let’s hope for that.” For it is when our minds are given the chance to be still, and decluttered, that our imaginations are let free, and our true thinking can begin. It is a gift, not a curse – it is an opportunity to grow, not a time to regress. Sometimes, all you need is an incomplete puzzle to be reminded of that.

cathyportraitAbout the author

Cathy Milwidsky is the Director of Early Learning and Development at Moriah College in Queens Park, NSW

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