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Gabrielle Selz: Puzzling

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For Gabrielle Selz, working a jigsaw puzzle is about much more than whiling away time with an idle entertainment.

My father brought me my first jigsaw puzzle when I was in my 20s and bedridden from a motorcycle accident. It was a reproduction of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa in 1,000 irregularly shaped pieces. I’d never been exceptionally patient, but confined to bed, I was surprised to discover how much I enjoyed assembling it. When that perfect fit happened, when the Mona Lisa’s mysterious smile snapped into focus, a surge of pleasure flooded my injured body.

In the 30 years since my accident, assembling jigsaw puzzles has become a lifelong activity. The magic of working through a puzzle is that it facilitates escape through engagement. The process feels like progress. Bit by bit, I am moving towards something, even if it is only completing a picture.

During troubled, paralyzing times, any movement towards a goal — however small — provides a ray of hope. When the country spiraled into economic collapse during the Great Depression, jigsaw puzzle sales boomed. Mass‐produced cardboard puzzles provided cheap entertainment and escape. For the industrious, they were also lucrative. With $20, anyone could buy a scroll saw and cut puzzles at their kitchen table, selling them to neighbors.

This year, as the pandemic surged, my puzzling craze accelerated. For the last 10 months, I’ve had a jigsaw puzzle in progress on my coffee table. With so much separation, division and loss, engaging in an activity that requires assembly, flexibility and union, feels urgent to me.


As I sit at home, connecting one piece with another, I know I am creeping forward. I snap tiny fragments into place, and a flower or a face slowly emerges. Putting together a jigsaw puzzle allows me to trust that out of so much uncertainty, a new picture will form.

With a Perspective, I’m Gabrielle Selz.

Gabrielle Selz is an author living in Oakland.

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