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Aug. 10, 2022, 10:34 a.m.
Audience & Social

Doing a little word puzzle as the world burns

“I started playing word games as a way to stop reading the news first thing in the morning.”

A Nieman Lab twofer: Pair this one with Luke Winkie’s “‘Puzzles pair well with reading the news’: Why news outlets are getting into games (again).” — LHO

Like millions of Americans, I start my day with Wordle. Then, I move on to the Spelling Bee. I love the rhythm and the pattern of the puzzle — a way to untangle my mind from the frantic dreams that haunt my sleep. I often dream I’m running in a forest with my children. I began having this dream in March of 2020, during the early days of lockdown. It’s nighttime and I’m running from something, and even though they are both now too big for me to carry, in my dream I carry them. Sometimes the landscape changes. Sometimes we run on roads or through suburban neighborhoods, but we are always fleeing and I’m always carrying them.

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

I started playing word games as a way to stop reading the news first thing in the morning. Death counts, infection rates, mass shootings, disasters on our overheating planet, and what could I do about it all? I’ve protested, voted, and written. My writing helped bring relief to my city and uncover trouble with state-wide Covid testing; it warned about the cultural forces that sought to take our bodily autonomy away and about the extremist politics of our leaders. And yet, it doesn’t seem to make a material difference. Or that’s how it feels most days — tossing words into the unchanging void of history.

The violent politics of our time have also permeated my life. I write about politics for a living, yes. But I also live them. Every morning, when I sit on my porch and drink my coffee, I listen to my neighbor listening to his right-wing talk shows, which often include Alex Jones. In June, I witnessed protesters hit by the vehicle of someone else in our town. And the fallout from that has left me raw and on edge with friends and neighbors. I also have to co-parent with a person who disagrees with me on everything, who bought cupcakes to celebrate the reversal of Roe v. Wade. And handling those topics with our children in a way that is loving and respectful 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 snapped. “Gas prices rise and fall,” I said. “It happens in times of war. They were like this in 2007, and it will happen again. And I’m so freaking sick of talking about it.”

“We are sick of it 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 as if I am tiptoeing across a land mine. I often don’t know why I tiptoe. The explosions happen no matter how careful I am.

So, every morning, I turn to the puzzles. First, I solve Wordle. Then, I open up the Spelling Bee. My goal is to find the pangram and every possible word I can before I open up the New York Times app and read the daily Spelling Bee article for the hints. I go through the hints listed in the article, counting how many I’ve found and comparing them to how many I have yet to find. This is when I start guessing at words I might not know, based on the alphabetical order the hints are listed in. This has led to many mornings on my porch muttering the alphabet song as my coffee gets cold. It’s a tiny treasure hunt and the gems are words. And finding a hidden word in that circle of letters is a jolt of jouissance. And then, my brain exhausted, I open up the comments at the bottom of the daily Spelling Bee article, where commenters list their own hints.

The comments of the New York Times Spelling Bee are a world unto themselves. They are often pedantic and sometimes exuberant and very often bitchy. “Why isn’t tittilate a word?” someone asks. “Try spelling it correctly,” another replies.

But the conversation is all about words — a fastidious melodrama of the lowest stakes. I imagine them as lonely retirees in Arizona, disaffected teens, exhausted mothers sipping coffee at 4 a.m. with a baby in a bouncy seat. I imagine two people, one widower, one divorcée, meeting in the comments after fighting about whether “adit” should be accepted as a word in the puzzle and then falling in love. A community of people looking for order in a world spinning out of control.

Last week in the comments, someone with the user name “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, her fighting a great fight and me nursing here while giving our son as much normalcy as possible. And within that hibernation, I discovered this bee and its hive, a gentle daily distraction at a large and harrowing time. Now, despite feeling weaker than ever, she has proven stronger than ever and (fingers firmly crossed) beaten it. And with antipodean springtime afoot, and health returned, and our doors opening to the world again, I’ll set this game aside and return to past patterns. But before I do, a very large and sincere thanks to all those excellent erudite regulars (Liz and Carol and Steve and Michael and many more besides) who’ve proven to be so nice a continuity in a time of uncertainties. Wishing you all well and with the nene-finding and clue-offering and wisdom (both wordy and worldly) sharing, and cheers again. It really has meant a lot.”

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

In his book Vermeer in Bosnia, Lawrence Weschler writes of a judge at The Hague who, day after day, listened to accounts of the horrific atrocities perpetrated in Bosnia. When Weschler asks the judge how he copes, the judge replies that as often as he could, he would go to the Mauritshuis museum and look 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 vast biblical scenes but eventually painted pictures only of placid domestic life, made alive through the contrast of light and shadow. He depicted mostly women in what would have otherwise been unattended moments. Weschler writes, “For, of course, when Vermeer was painting those images, which for us have become the very emblem of peacefulness and serenity, all Europe was Bosnia (or had only just been): awash in incredibly vicious wars of religious persecution and proto-nationalist formation.”

I learned about Weschler through Rebecca Solnit’s beautiful book Orwell’s Roses, which is about the author George Orwell’s preoccupation with his garden. She writes of Weschler and Vermeers and war that “human beings need reinforcement and refuge, that pleasure does not necessarily seduce us from the tasks at hand but can fortify us. The pleasure that is beauty, the beauty that is meaning, order, calm.”

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

I know a woman who used to be a politician. She, like Orwell, has turned to roses. At first during a fraught re-election campaign, which she lost. And then, during a bitter primary. She lost again. They were frustrating losses, the kind that comes from the scorched-earth politics of our era. Losses that felt inevitable and are somehow more devastating because of that. Because you know, no matter how good you are, how perfectly you perform, you will still fail. And in women, perfection is faulty and imperfection is unforgivable. I know this truth deep in my soul. But the natural world is more forgiving. Her roses are beautiful. Elegantly cultivated, meticulously cared for. 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 from it inscribed on two small plaques — one for her and one for me.

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

Last month, my sister left the country. Because of a medical complication that arose from receiving the wrong blood type during emergency surgery, my sister isn’t sure if she can have children. It’s likely her body will reject the baby, the new blood in her body turning against the blood type of the fetus. A war within her that could kill her. She’s had an abortion. When she called to tell me about the abortion, I was relieved. I want my sister to live. And not just live, I want her to thrive. I don’t just want minimal survival for her. I want everything for her. I think about how this country is not a place she can thrive. Where her body is at risk. She left the country last month, and now she’s drinking wine in Rome and sending me updates about her exploits.

I think that’s what this fight is all about. Not just about eking out 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, everybody’s right to beautiful radiant things.”

Some days, I feel as if I am living and working so desperately. The world seems so perilous and fraught, and I’m meat and flesh and nerve endings trying to find a way through it all. And life, if it is worth living, isn’t 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 moment, I do my little word puzzles and stare into a world where there is order, and where, just for a moment, I can find the words to make everything right.

Lyz Lenz is a former columnist for The Cedar Rapids Gazette and the author of Belabored: A Vindication of the Rights of Pregnant Women and God Land: A Story of Faith, Loss and Renewal in Middle America. She lives in Iowa and her writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, The Washington Post, and The New York Times. You can subscribe to her newsletter “Men Yell at Me” — where this post originally ran — here.

POSTED     Aug. 10, 2022, 10:34 a.m.
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