Do a little word puzzle as the world burns

Like millions of Americans, I start my day with Wordle. Then I move on to spelling. I love the rhythm and pattern of the puzzle – a way to untangle my mind from the frantic dreams that haunt my sleep. I often dream that I am running through a forest with my children. I started having this dream in March 2020, during the first days of confinement. It’s night and I’m running from something, and even though they’re both now too big for me to wear, in my dream I’m wearing them. Sometimes the landscape changes. Sometimes we run on the roads or in suburban neighborhoods, but we always run away and I always wear them.

When I wake up, I pick up my phone and play a word game.

I started playing word games to stop reading the news first thing in the morning. The death tolls, the infection rates, the mass shootings, the disasters on our overheated planet, and what could I do about it all? I protested, voted and wrote. My writing helped relieve my city and uncover issues with statewide Covid testing; he warned against cultural forces that sought to rob us of our bodily autonomy and against the extremist politics of our leaders. And yet, it doesn’t seem to make a material difference. Or that’s what it feels like most of the time – throwing words into the unchanging void of history.

The violent politics of our times have also permeated my life. I write about politics for a living, yes. But I live them too. Every morning when I sit on my porch and drink my coffee, I listen to my neighbor listen to his right-wing talk shows, which often include Alex Jones. In June, I saw protesters hit by someone else’s vehicle in our city. And the fallout from that left me raw and nervous with my friends and neighbors. I also have to co-parent with someone who disagrees with me on everything, who bought cupcakes to celebrate the overthrow of Roe v. Wade. And dealing with these topics with our children in a loving and respectful way to them and our family unit is exhausting. This summer, I had to explain rising gas prices so many times that two weeks ago, I finally broke down. “Gas prices go up and down,” I said. “It happens in times of war. They were like that in 2007, and it will happen again. And I’m so sick of talking about it.

“We’re fed up too,” my 11-year-old daughter told me. “But we can’t escape it.”

I apologized to them. But it’s like that. Every day I feel like I’m tiptoeing through a land mine. I often don’t know why I walk on my tiptoes. Explosions happen no matter how careful I am.

So, every morning, I turn to puzzles. First I solve Wordle. Then I open the Spelling Bee. My goal is to find the pangram and all possible words before opening the New York Times app and reading the daily Spelling Bee article for clues. I go over the clues listed in the article, counting the number I found and comparing them to the number I have yet to find. That’s when I start guessing words I might not know, based on the alphabetical order the clues are listed in. This has led to many mornings on my porch mumbling the alphabet song as my coffee cools. It’s a little treasure hunt and the gems are words. And finding a word hidden in this circle of letters is a burst of enjoyment. And then, my brain exhausted, I open the comments at the bottom of the daily Spelling Bee article, where commentators list their own clues.

The New York Times Spelling Bee commentary is a world unto itself. They are often pedantic and sometimes exuberant and very often bitchy. “Why isn’t tittilate a word?” asks someone. “Try to spell it correctly,” replies another.

But the conversation is all about the words – a tedious melodrama of the lowest stakes. I imagine them as lonely retirees in Arizona, disgruntled teenagers, exhausted mothers sipping coffee at 4 a.m. with a baby in a bouncy seat. I imagine two people, a widower, a divorcee, meeting in the comments after arguing over whether “adit” should be accepted as a word in the puzzle, and then falling in love. A community of people seeking order in a world spiraling out of control.

Last week in the comments, someone with the username “Aha Delayed” thanked the Spelling Bee community. “Nine months ago,” they wrote, “my wife was diagnosed with cancer and suddenly our lives became very small and very simple, she fighting a big fight and I breastfeeding here while giving our son as much normality as possible. And within this hibernation, I discovered this bee and her hive, a sweet daily distraction from a long and painful hour. Now, although she feels weaker than ever, she has proven herself stronger than ever and (fingers firmly crossed) has beaten her. And with the antipodes spring, and health restored, and our doors opening to the world again, I’m going to put that game aside and return to past patterns. But before I do, a very big and sincere thank you to all those excellent scholarly regulars (Liz and Carol and Steve and Michael and many more) who have proven to be such a great continuity in a time of uncertainty. I wish you all well and with finding nene, offering clues and sharing wisdom (both verbal and mundane), and well done again. It really meant a lot.

“Continuity in a time of uncertainty.” Of course, someone drawn to word puzzles would express their power and meaning so perfectly.

In his book Vermeer in Bosnia, writes Lawrence Weschler about a judge in The Hague who, day after day, listened to accounts of the horrific atrocities perpetrated in Bosnia. When Westchler asks the judge how he is doing, the judge replies that as often as he can, he goes to the Mauritshuis museum and looks at the Vermeers.

Born in 1632, Johannes Vermeer lived in the Netherlands during a war-torn era. He died in 1675, deeply in debt and mostly unknown. He began his career painting extensive biblical scenes, but eventually painted only images of placid domestic life, brought to life by the contrast of light and shadow. He depicted mostly women in what would otherwise have been unsupervised times. Weschler writes: “For, of course, when Vermeer was painting these images, which have become for us the very emblem of peace and serenity, all of Europe was Bosnia (or had just been): submerged by incredibly vicious wars of religious persecution and proto-nationalist formation.

I discovered Weschler thanks to the beautiful book by Rebecca Solnit Orwell’s Roses, which is about author George Orwell’s concern for his garden. She writes of Weschler and Vermeers and war that “human beings need reinforcement and refuge, that pleasure does not necessarily take us away from the tasks at hand but can strengthen us. Pleasure which is beauty, beauty which is meaning, order, calm.

Solnit connects this to Orwell’s penchant for retreat into domestic spaces, where a messy world can be fixed by pruning, weeding, and washing.

I know a woman who was a politician. She, like Orwell, turned to roses. First during a turbulent re-election campaign, which she lost. And then, during a bitter primary. She lost again. These are frustrating losses, the kind that result from the scorched earth policy of our times. Losses that seemed inevitable and are somehow more devastating because of it. Because you know, no matter how good you are, how perfectly you perform, you will always fail. And in women, perfection is flawed and imperfection is unforgivable. I know this truth deep in my soul. But the natural world is more forgiving. Her roses are beautiful. Elegantly grown, meticulously maintained. She knows all their names and varieties and how to propagate them.

I once sent her Alexander Chee’s essay on roses, and she had a quote inscribed on two little plaques—one for her and one for me.

“Roses…the more they are cut, the faster they grow and the stronger they are. I understand, reading this, that I have found my role models.

Last month, my sister left the country. Due to a medical complication after being given the wrong blood type during emergency surgery, my sister is unsure if she can have children. It is likely that her body will reject the baby, with the new blood in her body turning against the blood type of the fetus. A war within her that could kill her. She aborted. When she called me to tell me about the abortion, I was relieved. I want my sister to live. And not just live, I want it to flourish. I don’t just want minimal survival for her. I want everything for her. I think about how this country is not a place where she can thrive. Where his body is in danger. She left the country last month, and now she drinks wine in Rome and sends me news of her exploits.

I think that’s what this fight is about. Not just to live a minimal existence, but how we all deserve wine in Rome. Anarchist and political activist Emma Goldman once said, “I want freedom, the right to self-expression, everyone’s right to radiant beautiful things.”

Some days I feel like I live and work so desperately. The world seems so perilous and loaded, and I’m meat and flesh and nerve endings trying to find a way through it all. And life, if it is worth living, is not all tirades and rage against the machine. It’s wine in Rome, it’s roses, it’s puzzles.

And so when I wake up, I make coffee and I sit on my porch, my dogs at my feet, and for a while I do my little puns and stare into a world where there’s order, and where, just for a moment, I can find the words to make it all right.


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