The Dark Season is here, and my dinner table is about to be given over to a 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle. I feel a bit sheepish about confessing the grandma-ness of this, but I haven’t had to write a resume for over a decade, so I am now liberated of having to impress anyone with my chosen hobbies.
Jigsaw puzzling through the deepest chunks of last winter gave me a way to be present with my family, but check out meditatively without resorting to swiping, scrolling or going down the device rabbit hole. It was a weird form of brain relaxation, and surprisingly addictive. I discovered, if I instagrammed about it, or stopped by the library to borrow one of their puzzles, that I was definitely not alone in my nerdy bliss.
Last year, I laboured for months over a $2 Re Use It Centre score – a brand new, still in the wrapper, Emily Carr puzzle that was damned near impossible. (I’d smugly thought myself the winner for having scored such a bargain. More likely, a pro-puzzler, far savvier than I, had abandoned the muted moody piece immediately upon identifying that it would be too hard to be enjoyable. The colours and brushstrokes were so blended that, for the last 100 pieces, I literally had to fill gaps by trial and error, trying to match one piece at a time, into an unfilled space, one hundred attempts in a row. It was painfully slow and infuriating.
I’d thought myself pretty handy with a jigsaw puzzle when my son was a toddler. I’d sort the pieces for him and then sit on my hands to restrain myself from slotting them into place, so he could work it out by himself. It would seem so obvious to me – that piece clearly goes there! How can you not see this!
Maybe the three year old brain can only see a puzzle piece in one of two ways – the art on top, or the piece shape – never both at the same time. If he was paying attention to the shapes, he’d miss the obvious picture match. He would turn the piece around, 360 degrees, to see if it fit, while I could glimpse from the image on top that there was an obvious match. The two ways of looking – shape or pattern – were mutually exclusive. My brain had most likely just become proficient, over time, at switching quickly from one way of seeing, to the other, at integrating the two divergent pieces of data. (At least, so I thought, until Emily Carr took me down.)
In Extraordinary Knowing: Science, Skepticism, and the Inexplicable Powers of the Human Mind, Dr Elizabeth Mayer, scientist, rationalist, skeptic, tries to make sense of an encounter she had with a psychic, who helped her locate her daughter’s stolen harp – without leaving his home 500 miles away. She spent the next 14 years uncovering reams of scientific evidence of paranormal experiences. In trying to come to grips with why science hasn’t been able to accommodate intuition better, she referred to psychology’s Gestalt theory. Gestalt theory (how the mind makes a sensible whole out of many parts of information or experience) is most familiar to us as those puzzling drawings that could be one of two things, depending on what your attention focuses on – a chalice or two faces in profile, a wine glass or a woman.
“The gestalt experiments show that we’re always dividing up the visual world this way,” writes Dr Mayer. “Whatever we perceive as foreground defines the picture we end up seeing. We spend our lives pulling foreground out of background to create coherent pictures of the world, and while we can become adept at changing the picture – at shifting from seeing profiles to chalice and back again – we can never see both at the same time. Chalice and profiles can’t both be foreground at once. No matter how useful we might find integrating whatever we’ve learned from seeing one way with whatever we’ve learned from seeing the other, we simply cannot organize our perceptual field so that we can see both ways simultaneously.”
More recently, Australian author and historian Bruce Pascoe has written a game-changing book, Dark Emu. Pascoe trawled through the journals of first colonial settlers and explorers in Australia excavating their first-contact impressions of Aboriginal culture – descriptions of sophisticated fish weirs, wells and irrigation systems, buildings, villages, pathways wide and well-trodden as roads, fields tilled and planted out in crops – evidence that utterly explodes the dangerous myth that the country was built on, that it had only been inhabited by unsophisticated hunter-gatherers and therefore, was ripe for the taking and colonizing and cultivating and civilizing.
The title, Dark Emu, refers Aboriginal astronomical knowledge of Dhinawan the emu, a shape that appears in the southern night sky in March and April. Dhinawan is not a constellation of stars, like the astrological signs we know, but a shape visible in the dark space between the stars’ glow, a shadow shape. Dhinawan is an invitation, in Pascoe’s hands, to try a different way of seeing, to let the background become foreground, to let ourselves see something that was there all along, and thus, complete the picture of this puzzling history, this puzzling narrative, this puzzling universe.
When I was 11, my grandfather became partly blind from a cataract that formed over one eye. He gamely stepped out to play table tennis with me, as he always had. I defeated him so easily, I lost my heart for playing, the victory soured by his brave decline, his wild swings that couldn’t connect with the ball. I hadn’t appreciated, until that moment, that we need two eyes to pinpoint a moving object in space – that light information bounces back to the brain from two separate angles to form a picture with enough richness and depth that we can truly step up and respond to it.
Too often, we’re just blindly batting at where we guess the ball is coming, based on too-narrow information. Or, we’re laboriously trying to test each piece for a fit, one mis-fit at a time, until time runs out.
Time is running out. What we need now is not two eyes, but two-eyed seeing. Imagine what meetings would be like, if leaders heard one take and then insisted – “Okay, give this to me from a completely different angle. Let’s build a richer picture.”
We need to learn to see the stars and the space between the stars. We need to be able to say “yes, and” instead of “no, but.” We need to stop trying to cancel each other out and discover the richer picture that emerges when all the pieces come together.