Forget toilet paper shortages. One of the earliest items to sell out during this siege was jigsaw puzzles. Finally, I am ahead of the trend! I didn’t need to worry about procuring any, because I try to keep a few 500-to-1,000-piece puzzles on deck.

It’s a habit I picked up from my kids. At first they scoffed, knowing that their mom has trouble sticking to tasks and completing them–not good characteristics for this particular challenge. But I was drawn in and eventually hooked.

When visitors used to come by, in those pre-coronavirus days, they would want to help but were perplexed when there was no box in sight. The kids came up with that rule: no picture allowed. But how do you put together a puzzle without the aid of the picture on the box?

It is most definitely a game changer. I estimate that it takes at least ten to twenty times as long to piece together a puzzle without seeing the picture. But it’s like the difference between painting by number or freehand. The goal is still to complete the puzzle, but it is the process that counts.

I begin with a general idea of what the picture is from a glance at the box–a car junkyard, a collection of candy wrappers, one of those ridiculous imagined scenes of wholesome American countryside, a Vincent van Gogh painting. But then the box is put away, and it’s just me and the pieces.

There are a few rules. First of all, the puzzle can’t be too easy or too hard. I would never try to follow in my daughter’s footsteps and attempt a 1,000-piece puzzle of scattered Reese’s Pieces, nor my son’s completion of a Marc Chagall painting, and certainly not another daughter’s Jackson Pollock. I need a lot of contrast in the puzzle, which is why that really mean gift of the Beatles’ White Album cover puzzle is still stuck in a closet somewhere.

The second rule is more motivation than rule: all puzzles are solvable, eventually. Speed doesn’t matter.

Rule number three: just dive in. I don’t like puzzles that don’t have a defined border (see rule one). So like most people, I start with the straight-edged pieces. After that, all bets are off; whatever colors call to me are where I start. I am not so good at sorting in an organized manner. Besides, when you can’t see the picture, you don’t know which shades of blue go together or just reoccur. If you want to truly learn a piece of art, try doing a puzzle of it and you will see how the artist composed the painting.

Rule number four: walk away from the table anytime. Fitting pieces together comes in bursts. You may get five or ten pieces joined and then be absolutely stuck. That’s okay. Come back, and it will jump out at you.

Rule number five: don’t be certain that all the pieces are there. I have a collection of pieces from old jigsaw puzzles. Most were found between sofa cushions or under a carpet or in a shoe. Even if you buy a brand-new puzzle, things happen.

Missing pieces are more likely if, like me, you buy your puzzles at yard sales or resale shops. I would regularly prowl through the Salvation Army, the PTO Thrift Shop, and the ReUse Center for puzzles. For fifty cents to $2 you can get a cool puzzle that would cost $10-$12 retail. Of course, you run the risk that the puzzle is incomplete.

And what if it isn’t? My son invented a custom of saving the last piece for me. I might come down in the morning and find that 999 pieces are all snuggled together, with the final piece waiting for mom. It was very touching.

But if even those last few pieces are not to be found, it doesn’t matter. That’s life. Are you going to focus on the 998 pieces you did manage to complete or mourn those missing two? Especially as we are reevaluating our priorities these days, 998 pieces is quite an accomplishment.

Final rule: break it apart. When the puzzle is as done as it’s going to be, I love passing my hands over the smoothness of the fitted pieces. It sits for a day, so I can bask in the glory, but then it must be broken up. It was a satisfying task, but when all is said and done, it is just a bunch of cardboard. I put the pieces back in the box and donate it so someone else can enjoy it.

“I don’t see the attraction,” my husband once commented. It’s true that it is ephemeral. Puzzle time is thinking time for me, where I can work on a problem at hand while mulling over more existential questions in the back of my mind.

Besides, there is joy in fitting pieces together. “Think about when you played basketball,” I answered my husband, “You know that feeling when you hit a swish, and the ball goes into the basket perfectly? That’s what it’s like when I connect.”