Tuesday, August 24, 2021

Solving for X

The summer before I entered high school, I picked up an algebra book from our overflowing bookshelves in my childhood home, always a wonderful place to forage for something of interest. With its red, faded and worn cover, it must have been one of my father’s old textbooks. In the back of the book were the answers to the equations it posed. My curiosity piqued, I spent the summer working my way through that book of puzzles, much the way other people might do crossword puzzles. I was thoroughly absorbed with my ability to successfully solve for x. Geometry never thrilled me the way algebra did. I loved the clarity it offered and the way it aligned with the way my brain worked. I realize in hindsight that was the beginning of my fascination with puzzles.

Do you have a theme that defines your life? Perhaps a cluster of themes that interrelate? I think we all have them and as we get older we can begin to recognize the patterns that recur. My themes often revolve around solving puzzles and telling stories. A friend once pointed out that in some instances those two things were linked in a sequence. In genealogy for example, first I often had to solve a puzzle to be able to tell the story. My artwork which focuses on a larger story often shares that quality. We all have a need to find meaning in our world, the function of story, and making sense of our world is a way to feel a sense of control, even if largely illusionary in nature. When the pieces fit tightly together, I feel a satisfying sense of mastery over my small piece of the universe.

These days, artwork and genealogy are my primary vehicles to explore those central themes of puzzles and story and have forced me to learn some new skills. I am learning how to live in a space of not knowing, a creative space where first we must allow for many possibilities and feel our way, often with moments of uncertainty, all part of a creative process where we start with the unknown and solve for x in its many guises. When not immersed in artwork or genealogy, you will likely find me playing word games, yet another permutation on puzzles that offers a microcosm of life lessons. Now I’ve written of this topic before in Fun and Games, suggesting some of the lessons that I’ve learned from games. Lately I’ve been recognizing within those games, the need for a skill that I am still working on, the ability to quickly respond to change when things go awry, to regroup and redirect. No “deer in the headlights” moment permitted. Instead we need to swiftly look for the opportunity created by that disruption.

Have you ever had a fabulous word and a spot for it worth many points? Horrified, you watch as your opponent takes that space. What do you do? In a timed game, you need to quickly find an alternative and not bemoan the one that no longer exists. One of the things that I do immediately after identifying that perfect location is to look for a second choice so I can move quickly in the moment if necessary, that moment when I would otherwise be frozen in dismay. Now, I may never need my second choice because I get that perfect spot, or more often because the word that my opponent puts down in my spot frequently opens up a more desirable opportunity than my plan B. If I can shift gears quickly, I can take advantage of it.

We can become so attached to that one outcome, that we are unable to quickly abandon it and shift course.  And we miss other opportunities because we have forfeited our agility in accepting change. In my banking days we called it a sunk cost. It's done, can't be undone and is irrelevant to what happens next.  When we focus on what is lost, we miss what is in front of us. It's a concept that is not just monetary in nature. When my mother began to lose memory, part of me wanted to mourn the person she had been. In that moment it was irrelevant. She was who she was in that moment and I needed to be in that moment as well. 

I often find similar blind spots in genealogy, when I make assumptions that close doors prematurely or in artwork when I decide where I’m going and force a direction rather than letting it evolve. Those actions come from an anxiety to find closure and certainty. I am still learning to hold that door open a little longer, to fumble a bit in the dark along my journey and to embrace what lies ahead.Those themes of puzzles and story have expressed themselves in the paths I chose in the world. In turn they become the vehicle by which I learn some very necessary lessons.

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