Wednesday, December 28, 2011


I do two or three jigsaw puzzles a year: one in January when we go to the coast for a weekend with my parents and my brother and his family, and another one (maybe two) over winter break or during the summer. This break, I've been putting together a 1000-piece puzzle of the Mona Lisa.   

I don't usually buy "great art" puzzles--I tend more toward landscapes or, honoring my children's interests, marine life--but my husband bought several at a bookstore liquidation last summer, and my son lured me in with the siren song of parent-child collaboration. Of course, my collaborator is long gone, and the card table has been commandeered for an epic game of Talisman, so my puzzle--on its floppily recycled corrugated board--has been relegated to the family room floor, where I hunker over it obsessively, inviting paralysis, or at least a bad back. 
I enjoy the momentary triumphs (ha! the hairline is complete!), the undisciplined  hum of just-one-more-piece-and-then-I'll-quit, the time to muse. 

Spread across five or six small pieces, the famous smile is indeed enigmatic. It took a while even to identify the partial, blurry curves as lips. The puzzle also has a higher than average incidence of false positives--those pieces that definitely fit, until you realize they don't. Pieces that seem to fit for a long time, throwing the rest of the project off.

It's completely cheesy to commune with great art through a cardboard puzzle mass produced in China, sold for cheap by a failing bookstore, stored on a shelf cluttered with board games and kids' books and weird crafts sets no one will admit to having purchased or requested. But I do find myself thinking about that smile, and the blend of colors, and the expression in her eyes. And the aged, cracked paint, reproduced here as a network of tiny amber lines or smears that interweave and distort and return. Brand new and glossy in all its antique fragility--memory and stories and play-time, oh my!

What would Leonardo think? What would any of them think, the composers whose most famous concertos litter the universe of ringtones and commercial jingles, the painters sold and resold on umbrellas and coffee mugs? I imagine a dialogue or perhaps a debate (like the dreadful film we watched in AP history, with James Madison and Alexander Hamilton reanimated off marble slabs to declaim the Federalist Papers) between two much-marketed artists on the merits of this particular flavor of immortality. Is it always better to be remembered? Sitting in a café in Mendoza in November, the kids and I had worked out half a story along those lines, the composer back to life and hearing his music in the oddest places, distorted, digitized but, hey, still audible.

When I was in Rosario, one of my treats was the Sunday free showing at Cine el Cairo, a public theater that offered Argentine films to an enthusiastic, all ages crowd on Sunday afternoons. I wasn't able to go that often--weekend trips began to intervene--but one of the films I saw was Rompecabezas, a film about a woman who discovers she has a gift for jigsaw puzzles. It's what's often called a "quiet" film; I found it absorbing. None of my local acquaintances had heard of it, so I also had the pleasure of seeming to be in the know as I described it to them. The protagonist's choice at the end wasn't entirely clear, but I've kept thinking about her, and the way the patient organization of fragmented images--the puzzle-building process--was reflected in the structure of the film. 

The movements of her hands, the way she surveyed the jumble of pieces as she began a puzzle and then arranged and understood them, also seems an apt representation of the way one might organize a story. In particular, I like the tactile sense of those pieces--weighed, removed, shifted, stacked. The way a story might be built, as if with lumber or stone. Or bits of cardboard.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Solstice Moon

I got up at 6:15 this morning, a dark Northwest winter morning heading for the solstice, and the moonlight across the back deck was so bright, I thought the neighbors' porch light was on. I opened the door to look, I called my daughter so she could look, too. It was read-by moonlight, and if it hadn't been so cold, I might have taken the paper outside.

The last bright, bright patch of moonlight I enjoyed was late at night, camped in a high desert oasis last summer, light so bright that, yes, we woke the children, scampered around the sagebrush, watched, awed, as the moon rose above the cliffs that defined our narrow canyon. 

No, that wasn't it--we kept our son up later than he wanted, because we were watching the moon rise, and rise; finally the poor kid surrendered and just went to bed.

This morning it's cold, below freezing (and it doesn't freeze that often here) but entirely dark except for the moonlight, which makes it feel late, not early. Time to go back to bed, not brew a cup of tea. Time for the year to flip and the days to start getting longer again. 

Until the middle of last week, I was enjoying sunshine, warm breezes; some days, I was whining about the heat and humidity. It was getting dark around eight o'clock--dark quickly, no long twilight. We watched the sun rise over the Atlantic at 5:30 or so.

We're home now, straight into a cold snap. All week, even as the jet lag has faded, I 've had the feeling of "late" in the evening. It's four or five o'clock and I'll be feeling like the day must be pretty well over, whatever I'm likely to accomplish has been completed and isn't it time for bed? Even the days I wasn't asleep on my feet well before bedtime, it still felt late.

And this morning, it doesn't quite feel early, even though the first pre-sunrise glow is visible opposite the moon. The stars are still out. It's too cold to stand barefoot on the deck very long (which is why I run inside to write) but it feels like a kind of bounty, so much illumination at once: fresh, reflected, returning, unexpected.