Pieces, Puzzles, Books, and Death

Today’s puzzle.

Always begin with the straight-edges . . . that’s our family way.  Sort through that entire box of pieces until you find everyone. Then, you can begin to put together the rest of the puzzle, section by section, sorting out the pieces again and again.


You must resist the common urge toward the comforting narrative of divine law, toward fairy tales that imply some irrepressible justice. The enslaved were not bricks in your road, and their lives were not chapters in your redemptive history. They were people turned to fuel for the American machine. Enslavement was not destined to end, and it is wrong to claim our present circumstance—no matter how improved—as the redemption for the lives of people who never asked for the posthumous, untouchable glory of dying for their children. Our triumphs can never compensate for this. — Ta-Nehisi Coates


My mother died five years ago today. 1,825 days ago. 43,804 hours ago. I was not with her when she took her last breath.  I was asleep on the couch, in my clothes, dreams of that documentary series about earth spinning wild behind my eyelids.  I knew her end was coming, and I chose not to be there.  I am still okay with that choice.


I have sat with Coates’ book for the last few days, let his words pour over me like a waterfall. . . or maybe a log-strewn, house-carrying torrent would be a better metaphor.  I’m listening to him read his own words, listening to his pronunciation of “ask” as “ax,” and celebrating the power and truth of accent and experience.  The control he exerts over language, even as he expresses the flood of American-made violence that takes away his control over his own body and the body of his son.  To say I am changed by his words . . . I don’t even have words to say except to say my own body has been shaped by the language he is forming with his synapses and his tongue.


The last puzzle I remember doing with Mom was a big fairy tale scape, gnomes and maidens, a whip in a forest.  Mythical. Mystical . . . and really really hard. We sat as a family around this same table where I type . . . the first Thanksgiving after my first husband left.  How to do a holiday back again with my first family as my focus. . . I didn’t know what I was doing.

So we sat and put together the border first. Then, an area at a time. For days.

After that holiday, I would role that puzzle up and finally finish it three years later when I was selling the house and needed to clear it off the basement desk where I kept it so I could slide a piece in from time to time, when I wasn’t too busy being busy and helpful.


I cannot tell you why I need to write all these things together. . . except to say that today is the anniversary of my mother’s death, I am reading Coates’ book, and I am working on my second puzzle in a week.

I believe in congruities, the way parts of our life make up mosaic and mosaic is the only way of story.

So these things piece together . . . except, of course, there are no strait edges.


I would not have you descend into your own dream. I would have you be a conscious citizen of this terrible and beautiful world. – Ta-Nehisi Coates

If you have not yet read Coates’ work Between the World and Me, I urge you to do so.  Yesterday, after nearing the end of the audio version, I stepped into a bookstore and bought a print copy.  This is a book I need to keep near, to underline, to run ragged with my fingers and my study.  I need to see it every day.