After a starting a new job, finishing another year of grad school, landing a literary agent, and being named a finalist for a grant, Rachel and I decided it was time for a little R & R at the Gunflint Lodge, a northern Minnesota lake resort. Last weekend we drove a few hundred miles north from Minneapolis, up through our home town of Duluth, and further up Highway 61 (during Bob Dylan’s birthday weekend, no less) to the Gunflint Trail, just outside Grand Marais. We pulled into the Lodge on a beautiful Friday evening, dirtied our flip-flopped feet on the trail from the lodge to our cabin, and unloaded our physical and mental burdens for a brief time and embraced exhaustion.
We planned on cribbage. We didn’t plan on Van Gogh.
Our cabin was on the lakefront, a large, high-ceiling rectangle of cedar and pine, the walls scored with knots and signs of Minnesota all around: a tattered Duluth Pack hung on the wall (a green canvas bag crossed with brass-and-leather straps), a rusted logger’s longsaw rested above the door frame, and the coffee table, crafted from discarded parts of snowshoes, matched the varnished wood of the old armchairs. Nothing else smells like a cabin, especially one during the summer with the windows open; the sharp intoxicating aroma of all that wood invites deep breaths and easy sleep. We emptied our bags, poured some wine, and settled in for a little cribbage. That’s when we noticed something under the coffee table.
It was a puzzle, Van Gogh’s “Starry Night.” 1,000 pieces of A3 Difficulty, at least according to the manufacturers. Growing up, I had some difficult puzzles–some headache-inducing mind-storm puzzles–but nothing like this. Between hands we found ourselves searching for the edge pieces, forgetting whose deal it was. After a few minutes we finished cribbage altogether, swept the board aside and focused on that swirling masterpiece. What struck me wasn’t the immediate problem of locking together almost 100 edge pieces the size of my pinky nail in a puzzle we had no hope of solving in just one weekend. What struck me was how much that puzzle made me appreciate Van Gogh.
Though just a glossy puzzle, every little shade, every nuance and hint of dusk and twilight, was acutely visible to the puzzlers. “Starry Night” in miniature forced us to admire “Starry Night” in macro. Have you ever actually studied that painting–even a high-res photo–for more than a passing moment? Its beauty is devastating. When you’re forced to consider how every conceivable shade of darkness connects to every other conceivable shade of darkness, you begin to note the differences in that zooming darkness. Bruise. Jet. Ash. Noire. These are some of the ways we described the pieces to one another.
But it wasn’t all puzzling. We read, and ate, and read and ate some more, and that was pretty much the weekend. Like any good Minnesota resort, the main cabin had a huge cribbage board, a rolling wooden logger’s truck with the bed as the board. It was sanded smooth and crafted well. It’s no “Starry Night” of woodworking, but Vincent might approve. “Happiness,” he said, “lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort.” That’s what cribbage is, or at least can be–a two-person creative endeavor. The palette is the board, the colors the cards, mixing and matching our hands for the whole. I suspect that’s why we’re drawn to great art (and great games). It’s not the beauty of the puzzle. It’s the puzzle of the beauty.