On Learning to Love Puzzles




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Puzzles drive me crazy. I’ve never understood the draw of painstakingly matching pieces up in an effort to create some lame picture. I get frustrated, bored, and grumpy; my pieces never seem to mesh with anyone else’s. But sometimes, if you’re lucky, you work on a puzzle with the right group of people who are able to connect your rough edges perfectly with theirs.

It was one of my last nights working at summer camp. The moon reflected off the lake, the docked pontoon we’d commandeered rocked gently, the 2 am exhaustion of long, hard weeks lulled us into a sleepy fog, and I couldn’t believe just how well we fit together.

The past five weeks had been a rollercoaster. Growing up, I went to an amazing, well-organized summer camp every year, but somehow I’d found myself at 21, working not at the shiny, golden camp of my youth, but at its smaller, crumbling cousin where I knew only two other people. My coworkers had all grown up together and reminisced on shared memories of “their” camp while I stood awkwardly in the corner, an outsider looking in. I tried desperately to learn the nuances of this new group of people, anxious and fearful that my pieces wouldn’t fit into their established puzzle. But if there’s one thing that rings true about summer camp, it’s that you can’t stand in the corner alone for too long before someone takes you by the hand in a stirring rendition of Lean on Me and you find yourself completely swept up in the madness that is camp.

South Carolina in July is about as close to hell as I care to be, and while the heat was nearly unbearable, it served an important purpose. There is a certain kind of camaraderie that comes from mutually sweating buckets and my coined adage of “No one’s gross if we’re all gross” became the mantra for that summer. As a collective, disgusting mess, the staff bonded and I found myself in the middle of it all, embracing everything from made-up games like Candy Bar Kickball to ridiculous plays centered on “Danger Dan”, the most outrageous character guaranteed to illicit laughter from even the toughest teenager.

As the weeks went by, the campers stole my sleep and the camp stole my heart. On my last night off, two days before leaving camp, a ragtag crew of staff and I decided to make the best of it. We drove the hour to the nearest town to load up on Taco Bell and Sonic, then returned to camp after dark and roamed the grounds aimlessly, slipping into a warm, drowsy haze. The dozen or so of us eventually landed on the docked pontoon boat and sprawled out on the floor and seats, peeling shirts off in the sticky heat of the night. Lying there for hours under the glow of the moon, I traced the rough lines connecting our little group together. Sadie used to date Ken (who Lacey had been crushing on all summer) and Ralph, but Ralph still wasn’t over her. Turns out McKenzie knew my cousin, Ken and Jen were related somehow, and Fitz and Mike had gone to school together since kindergarten. Transcending all of those connections, though, was the unbreakable, magical bond of that moment. We would never be all together like that again and everyone seemed to sense just how precious that was.

Slowly and reluctantly, the group began to disband, sleep calling people back to their cabins. With just four of us left, a plan was hatched. When three a.m. hit, McKenzie, Lacey, Fitz and I would strip down to our underwear and jump off the dock into our faithful lake, a last goodbye to the beautiful, murky mess central to our lives for weeks. Giggling as I shimmied out of my shorts, I was far from the nervous, quiet girl I’d been when I first arrived at camp. That girl never would have been daring enough to break rules or comfortable enough to let her guard down. But good people are powerful and that tattered-on-the-edges, disorganized-most-days camp was full of good people.

We paddled around in the shallow waters of the lake for a few minutes while checking the shoreline for the elusive night watch man (who was definitely more concerned with snagging leftovers from the kitchen then with what four staff members were up to) before heaving ourselves back onto the dock and shaking the water off like a pack of wet dogs.

Dipping in the lake washed away the anxiety that I’d clung to for years, and as I walked back to my cabin by the light of the moon, I’d never felt more content with my uneven edges. Perfectly assembled, I was a part of a group of imperfect college kids with our jagged pieces fitting together to create a picture that only we could make. I learned to embrace puzzles that summer, smashed there in between strangers-turned-friends who had seen me at my sweatiest and decided to love me anyway.


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