A Puzzling Situation

Click. Clack. Click. 

“Hu’p?”

In Missy’s enunciation, that usually means “Help.” And in Missy’s room, with those sound effects, it usually means her favorite puzzle is once again underway. 

In more than 12 years as Missy’s guardians, Heather and I have watched her work a lot of children’s puzzles – ones with planets, dinosaurs, pirates and more. But nothing has equaled the popularity of the Llama Llama puzzle, where the pieces have been handled so many times that the colors are becoming more of a suggestion. 

It’s not that Missy’s a fan of the show. To my knowledge, she’s never watched a single episode. But the Llama Llama puzzle may be unique in the realm of board puzzles. Even by the forgiving standards of that field, its pieces are …. shall we say, highly adaptable? In fact, a given piece may have four or five different spots where it could easily fit without bringing the process to a halt. 

And so, it’s quite possible for Missy to work the puzzle for an hour or more without creating the same picture twice. Mind you, only one of those combinations creates an “actual” picture. The rest of them are a bit more surrealistic, with Llama Llama’s head oddly disconnected from the rest of his body, or a toy train beginning in one corner of the puzzle and continuing in another as though connected by some bizarre hyperspace tunnel. 

But in a way, it doesn’t really matter. One way or another, with or without help, Missy finds her way through. And the answers she finds are indisputably hers. 

That’s truly satisfying. To her. To me and Heather. And maybe to anyone who’s had to assemble a life experience from inconsistent parts. 

Plenty of people have advice on how your picture should look, of course. After all, they know the “right way” to do it. It worked for them, so it’ll work for you, right? 

Now, there’s nothing wrong with learning from the experience of others. That’s how we pick up a lot of things from parents, teachers, employers and even the occasional Muppet. (“Why, yes, Cookie *does* start with C!”) But there comes a point where someone else’s lessons can only go so far.

And sooner or later, we all have to wrestle with the puzzle pieces for ourselves. 

The result may look odd to someone else. Chaotic. Out of order. Certainly unconventional.  But they’re not you. We all start in different places, work through different perceptions, feel the call of different songs. Our lives don’t neatly fit the same box.  

If the picture you build isn’t hurting someone else, chances are you’re doing it right. If it’s removing pain and adding to the world’s beauty, you’re doing it very right indeed.

And if it’s a little weird in the process – well, I’m certainly not in a position to argue.

Llama Llama has now been reassembled for the 1,237th time. (Source: U.S. Department of Imaginary Figures.) His toy box is upside down. His hooves are far enough apart to require a map. But it’s still a scene of celebration.

An answer has been found. Tomorrow’s may be different. But with patience, creativity and a memory of where “edge pieces” go, it will be one that eventually works.

All is well.

No need for Llama drama.

I Want My Llama

Two hours beforehand, she’d been great. An hour before, she’d calmly gotten in the car, ready to go. But as we entered the office on D-is-for-Dentist Day, Missy finally decided she’d had enough.

“NO!”

We made promises. Offered hugs. Started up some favorite music.

“NO!”

The assistant made all the right moves. She admired Missy’s shoes, looked at her proudly offered comic book (a Darth Vader one), bantered with charm and patience. Missy liked her. Even responded a bit. But there was no way she was getting near that dentist’s chair or giving her new friend a long look inside her mouth.

“No!”

Finally, we took the Kenny Rogers route: know when to fold ‘em. But before the dentist began to discuss options and tactics for the next appointment, the assistant had one last card to play. After a moment’s departure, she stepped back in the room with someone new to meet … a white stuffed llama, complete with pink-and-white sparkles on its side.

Missy’s smile broadened. Her hands reached. And while it didn’t immediately turn defeat into victory like the final scene of a Star Wars movie, it planted a seed. Tension relaxed, nerves unclenched. The weird and scary became a little more normal and welcome – especially when it became clear that yes, the llama could go home in her overstuffed purse.

Today could only do so much. But tomorrow, just maybe, had gotten a little easier.

And if that isn’t a sum up of the last year or so, I don’t know what is.

Last week, when I bantered about Bernie memes, I mentioned how disrupting a familiar scene can make you see it with new eyes. But there’s a flip side to that, too. When many things are strange and unsettling, having even one “normal” touchpoint can ground you. The ordinary becomes a shield against the overwhelming.

It’s why stories of the fantastic, from King Arthur to Harry Potter, often begin with a hero who knows as little as we do.  They become our interpreter and our teacher, as we learn together about the bizarre new world that’s opening around us while sharing a common starting point of what’s supposed to be normal.

It’s why we reach for the familiar and soothing when a crisis hits – a favorite book or TV series, a friend who’s a good listener, or even a simple and mindless chore that can restore a feeling of control.

And it’s why, in a landscape like today’s, anything that gives a peek of the world before or after COVID-19 becomes a sign of hope.

It can be taken too far, of course. We all know that. Acting like everything’s normal in the midst of a wildfire or a flood or a worldwide pandemic is a good way to endanger yourself and everyone around you. So you take precautions, you learn the lessons, you adapt and survive and grow.

But survival includes the mind and the heart and the soul. If something comforts and restores you without causing harm – to yourself or someone else – that, too, can be an essential part of adapting. Not a leash to hold you back, but a bridge to carry you through.

Missy’s new friend has now joined the stuffed herd at home. Its softness still beckons, its sparkles still gleam. And while it won’t prevent the need for another dental visit, it can at least promise that there’s more than anxiety ahead.

The uncomfortable can’t be avoided. Not wholly. But with enough help, it can be endured.

Especially with a trauma llama close at hand.