I got the best Valentine’s Day gift over the weekend and I’m not sure my friends knew they were even gifting it to me.
On Saturdays my girlfriends and I send around a text to see who is up for walking. Because we are all empty nesters now – we have no fixed schedules so it’s catch as catch can.
Inevitably there are a few friends to walk with and we’re grateful for that. About six plus years ago, a new ritual was added to the walk and coffee routine. Saturdays are now celebrated with the Sunday New York Times magazine crossword puzzle.
New York Times subscribers actually get the Sunday magazine section delivered a day early so crossword puzzling became the new post-walk obsession.
But this activity was not for me.
The Saturday morning walk was full of laughs and group therapy, planning and catching up. I’m sure we could have invented Fitbit if we’d stopped talking long enough. We knew when 5 miles were up – at least our feet did but our mouths never stopped moving.
Settling in for a coffee and more chitchat we were like a little buzzing hive.
Then one Saturday – out came the Sunday puzzle. I’m not sure when it first happened but once it did – there was no turning back. It almost seemed that over time – the walk became the warm-up for the crossword puzzling activity rather than the other way around. The girls were obsessed, but I was not. I tried to get into it but after a few minutes – I would excuse myself.
They barely looked up – just waved me off and went back to their task. Once into the first clue, they were in their puzzling bubble.
I didn’t want to sit there for another hour. I didn’t have the patience for it after having walked an hour and hanging out for another 30 minutes. At least, that’s what I told myself.
The truth is, as I listened to the clues being thrown around – trying to follow the thread of the theme — it all seemed obtuse. Frankly, it made me feel dumb to watch this blank puzzle being rapidly filled in as I tried to make sense of the last clue they’d just gleefully solved.
Over the years, I would try from time to time to join in but it was becoming clear – they were getting better and better. In fact, I believe they were becoming masters–if you could even be a “master puzzler.” I was feeling dumber and dumber and like an outsider in my own “playgroup.” Whose fault was that? Moi!
So, I decided to face my fears and with pencil and eraser, I began to work on the Monday puzzle… and even Tuesday’s, and build up my confidence. Earlier in the week the puzzles are easier (that’s what I was told) and the truth is, I was having a bit of success.
So, just a few weeks ago I asked my friend Meg if she could coach me on the Sunday puzzle. She loves to teach and is patient and non-judgmental beyond imagination. She also thinks I’m smart. Let’s just say I felt safe under her tutelage.
She would bring her puzzle and talk me through some of the clues and I would have a bit of success, but not much. I was beginning to think that maybe my brain would never grasp this.
I would jump in with my first thought, and if it fit, I would stay committed to my wrong answer and even build wrong answers around it. One week I filled in an entire section of wrong answers — some in French!
But, I didn’t want to give up. I knew that everything about communal crossword puzzling was good for me. Firstly, time with friends is not only fun – it has been scientifically proven to be the ticket to “happiness.” Secondly, our aging brains can be sharpened by brainteasers, puzzles and memory jogging games.
My Mom who is 84, has been a bridge player since she was in her 50’s and just learned to play Canasta last year. She has a steel-trap memory and has always been a great game player, which I believe has helped keep her sharp. As a single woman, these games not only challenge her – they provide her with constant social interaction and her dance card is full with plenty of game time with friends.
This past weekend I went walking with my friends Meg and Fran. I was committed to working on the puzzle with them and happy to keep up with their pace of play and contribute when needed.
And shockingly – I had a crossword puzzle breakthrough. It may never happen again – but this time I was an equal participant. I held my own – my friends were pleased and supportive every time I landed an answer and I felt like I’d finally crossed the threshold into the game. No more spoon-feeding. I was on equal ground and plugging along with the girls. It was so much fun. I loved it.
Appropriately, the puzzle’s theme was Valentine’s Day with a heart blocked out as its centerpiece.
It was all about love and that’s what was happening for me. I was feeling the love of friends tucked in on a below zero day at a coffee shop playing together.
I tried to thank my friends for this great morning –but I’m not sure they knew how much it really meant to me. It wasn’t just about keeping up with them – or having something else we can share together – it was a confidence booster.
This was the best Valentine’s Day gift ever. This old dog can indeed learn new tricks.