A Short Story About the Inevitable Extinction of Connect-the-Dots Puzzles
I spent many of my childhood Saturday afternoons perched on industrial washing machines at laundromats with connect-the-dots puzzle books in my lap. Through the olfactory haze of chemical detergents and musky socks, I would steady my pencil against the thin paper and follow the numerical ascension connecting dots with a growing anticipation for the grand reveal. Would it be a smiling dolphin? A contented kitten? A laughing puppy?
These high reward early neural trainings dug deep and sensible paths into my brain and thus informed a functional way of life in which I would steady myself from a fixed point of departure and leap towards a fixed point of arrival: the expectation always being a happy outcome.
It is with this fixed point navigational acumen that in June I unfolded an actual paper map and began to dot the landscapes with arrival and departure points. When I pushed my pen across the map linking destination to destination, the form that emerged was a gaping mouth that stretched from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean and back again with its top lip curling towards the Canadian Rockies and its bottom lip drooping across the South Dakota plains.
I folded the map onto itself but not before I heard it snap at me, “What the hell do you think you are doing?” To be fair, I was proposing a 58 day road-trip, point-to-point, with my ten-year old son in tow. I pushed the map to the back of the glove compartment and began my summer travels.
I can’t tell you the exact moment they came, but it seemed to be around the third bag of gas station sunflower seeds that The Questions arrived.
What happens if you don’t complete the puzzle and the picture you are trying to create is forever incomplete?
What happens if you veer from the numerical order and drive curly cues off the page?
What if you take an extra long time getting from dot-to-dot and hammock somewhere in the inbetweens?
As a child with a connect-the-dots puzzle in front of me, I knew what would happen. The horse would become a unicorn. The puppy, a Dali puddle of melting time. The kitten, forever a cyclopes.
But, as an adult with the map - with the ascending order of things - with fixed points of departure and arrival - what was my responsibility to the connecting lines?
What did I do? I slowed it down. I divested interest in the main attractions. I pulled over to smell the air in the plainness of prairies. I pointed out that what we came for was this moment - the moment that the pheasant and her peachicks crossed our path and made us stop our car - such is the utter command of her maternal powers. I stayed longer at some places just to stretch a conversation with a stranger over two days instead of one. I skipped dots on the map all together - I lost money on reserved campsites just so that we could take a picture in front of the world’s largest moose statue.
I told myself that to decolonize my mind, I had to learn to focus on the beauty of an unfolding unknown. I told myself that the fear of letting go of the fixed points of arrival would dissipate if I just spent a little more time noticing what was in front of me. Finally, I understood that my car was not drawing a gaping mouth across country lines; it was drawing a rip in the paradigm of an outcome based life trajectory. The map was telling me that a life’s story is not about some plot climb towards a climax of achievement; nor is it about the cascading gravitational pull towards expected resolution. The map was teaching me - or maybe leading me - towards the creativity of presence.
Between Moose Jaw and Medicine Hat I found a non-place where I was free to be and to live and to hope. From this non-place, I had the true sense that I - that we - are fundamentally a creative species. We desire to live well. I touched “the knowing” that we will create something new. It’s probably not going to look like a cute smiling kitten, but nor will it look like doomsday, annihilation, or extinction as we’ve imagined it. It might just be a human story - one without the formulas or the dots or any straight lines.