Puzzle season is upon us! We are trading them amongst ourselves as we did last winter, and emailing each other images of which one we might buy this year. In our informal club each household seems willing to contribute one puzzle per winter. I borrowed this one from a friend none of us suspected had puzzles. “Netherlandish Proverbs,” a 16th century oil-on-oak painting by Pieter Breughel the Elder, depicts Dutch proverbs of the time.
Artifact Puzzles includes a key to 60 of the sayings, several of which (To cast pearls before swine) are familiar to me, and many brand new to me seem particularly relevant to our times, like To tie a flaxen beard to the face of Christ.
Our favored wooden jigsaw puzzle maker is Liberty Puzzles in Boulder, but Artifact will do in a pinch. I’ve only done two, and I don’t like them as well because they have fewer whimsy pieces, and the cut of their pieces isn’t as intricate or interesting.
Liberty puzzles trick you on the edges; Artifact puzzles differ in the nature of the deceit. While all of the edge pieces look like edge pieces, there were at least seven corner pieces in this puzzle, and numerous flat-edged pieces that are not edges, that abut each other various places in the center of the puzzle.
Last winter I sat at my table on a cold afternoon and a neighbor crept inside the front door without knocking, without calling first, without the dogs noticing his arrival. In the second after we all heard the front door squeak, they crashed open the door to the mudroom nearly smashing it into his face. “What are you up to?” he asked, then peered over my shoulder. “You’ve got too much time on your hands,” he said. I was alarmed by his entry and annoyed by his judgement.
These wooden jigsaw puzzles are a meditation for me. The mental agility required to assemble them gives several aspects of my brain good exercise, pattern recognition, color discernment, and memory top among them. Then the image itself offers another layer of awareness: is it a classic painting, like this one, or a Hiroshige waterfall? Or is it a contemporary image, is it an antique print (and of what? butterflies, or a historic locomotive?), does it conform to a rectangular shape or take the organic shape of a jaguar; and what thoughts does that image stir, what feelings, both when I first see it, and as I move through the pieces over time? There is never nothing to think about when working one of these beautiful puzzles, each a work of art in its own right.
And it affords, above all, the gift of concentration. For while my mind may roam pondering proverbs, or mulling mythology while assembling a mermaid, or considering the effects of climate change on the Netherlands, or the plight of jaguars; while a memory may be sparked by a porpoise-shaped whimsy piece or a prairie dog (or is that a meerkat?), the rest of the world falls away. The mind is given the exercise it loves, and the spirit is free to to untether and rest beyond thought, observing the layers the mind plies while it fits together cleverly cut pieces of wood and color.
The central proverb in this image is To be unable to see the sun shine on the water, meaning to be jealous of another’s success. The fellow above is throwing money into water, i.e., wasting it. To his left, the bottoms poking out a hole in the planks represent a couple of proverbs, one stated on the puzzle key, It hangs like a privy over a ditch: it is obvious; and one uncovered here, They both crap through the same hole, meaning they are inseparable comrades. Heehee! Under the privy (and the money) is Big fish eat little fish, meaning that whatever people say will be put in perspective according to their level of importance, or “Those in power have the power.” This makes me squirm a little as I consider the looming transfer of power in Our Nation’s Capital. Add to that the crumbling brick wall, A wall with cracks will soon collapse, or Anything poorly managed will soon fail…
“Netherlandish Proverbs” was a fast, fun and thought-provoking puzzle, however burdened with nincompoops. I’m glad to have passed it on. I look forward to the beauty, surprise, and complexity of the next puzzle, next year, something bright and wild and full of life.