A Few Ill-Placed Pieces

Sometimes life feels like a puzzle to me. A series of small thoughts, shapes, and configurations that are shaped more or less like the pieces of other people’s lives and puzzles, but the ones that go to my picture are also uniquely mine. That one day, with enough work and patience, my puzzle will come together as beautifully as anything I can possibly imagine, and I’ll have a finished tableau that I can be proud of.

Life has a weird way about its puzzle, though. Not everyone works with the same size, or the same complexity. Some puzzles are suitable for all ages and are easy to assemble, others are almost entirely white and have tens of thousands of pieces. Sometimes one person’s puzzle seems to come together effortlessly, other times the process is hard earned through hours of careful deliberation that strains the mind and eyes but offers little progress.

Over the course of some lives, puzzles pieces are lost or destroyed. Much like an ambitious-if-hungry dog or the fifth in a long string of packed and moved houses, sometimes puzzle pieces go places they can’t be recovered. Sometimes the pieces disappear mysteriously, and one never notices until years or decades later. Sometimes, the puzzle comes apart overnight, and progress that was once made is unmade. In the case of a ravenous dog, sometimes it’s unmade permanently.

Sometimes the puzzles come incomplete. The pieces that should be there, or everyone else expects to be there, aren’t. These puzzles are perfectly fine, and even have an artistry of their own that many will never appreciate, but they’ll never be the same shape as the other puzzles. Pieces that come broken from the start, or produce uneven edges or wildly unique shapes, or maybe just a puzzle that was imagined as if at random, but make a sort of sense all put together.

My puzzle isn’t the same shape as the one I started with. It’s taken some thrashing over the years. Pieces that should very well be here aren’t anymore, and I’ll never get them back. Sometimes, some days, I just have to stare at my puzzle and think about it for a while. Those days stop me cold, take away my ability to handle anything else, I just have to look at the missing pieces transfixed until I can pry my attention away from the holes that shouldn’t be there, but are. Some days I’m stuck. Static. Frozen. These moments keep me from everything else, and I am as broken as my puzzle.

Some of the missing pieces are shaped an awful lot like my mother.

In Earthbound, Ness faces a journey that sees him putting together a collage of life experiences in places he never imagined he’d go, with people he’d never met, all in service of saving the world from something he never understands. He isn’t responsible for everything that’s gone wrong, but the gravity of the whole world rests on his shoulders.

And sometimes, he starts missing the same pieces I do.

In battle, Ness can often fall short, and find himself losing focus on the conflict to instead reminisce about a home he left behind in order to save the world. Entire turns can be lost to remembering different days back home at Onett. “Homesick,” as the game coins it, is an enigma among game status ailments. It’s not poison, or stunned, or paralyzed, or under the weather. It’s a fond longing for an older life, an inevitable reality from someone so many miles and so many weeks from last seeing or hearing from their mother. Sometimes, mom can be a reminder of a quieter times, full of nostalgic memories.

Homesickness represents a side of illness rarely seen outside of the psychopathy and sociopathy in games’ villains. Homesickness illustrates a mental issue that is outwardly invisible, inwardly focused, and entirely normalized. Ness isn’t several chicks short of a coop, he’s just a kid who misses home from time to time. Sometimes, missing home means he can falter and stop, even when things are at their most critical. Sometimes the invisible illnesses are the hardest to shake without help, and all it takes is a dollar, a payphone, and a few moments with the soft sounds of a familiar voice.

Things like down moods, lingering uncertainty, and homesickness are exactly the sort of mental maladies that are never really addressed in grand adventures. Sometimes, it’s okay to acknowledge that a strong body doesn’t guarantee a strong mind, and sometimes the gremlins that infect the thoughts and feelings can be make someone just as sick as when they’ve been given poison or been hit with a sudden shock. Sometimes, it’s okay to acknowledge the invisible illness that lives in the mind.

Much like the front desk of the hotel has a phone that can call out, my personal resolution for that feeling of homesickness is more complicated. However, the very act of joining Ness on his journeys, getting his experiences, and helping guide him to calling back home once in a while is enough to make my missing pieces feel less absent.

In a way, it almost feels like I’m making my own pieces to fill in for the absent ones. They’re not as gorgeous—cut crudely into shape using cardstock, crafting glue, colored pencils, and fine-tipped pens—but I’m still putting the puzzle back together a little bit at a time. Having the option to take part in Ness’s healing is also doing something for my own, too. Even if it’s just one piece at a time, it helps.

Eventually, my puzzle will be whole again, even if it’s a little more amateur and hand-crafted than when I started. I will, undoubtedly, still get a little homesick sometimes. It’s alright, though, there’s an easy enough solution. All I need is a dollar, a payphone, and the soft sounds of a familiar game.

Written for Critical Distance‘s Blogs of the Round Table under the “Illness” theme. If this is up your alley, go give the other pieces a read.


Rotary phone image sourced from Flickr user Robert Huffstutter.


Taylor Hidalgo is a freelance writer, a hobbyist reader, and person enthusiast. He would love to help put his puzzle together with good company. Good company can find him on Twitter or read more of his works on this site.

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A Few Ill-Placed Pieces

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