I’m a habitual person.

Maybe all of us are, even if we don’t want to admit it and have it be seen that habitual equals boring.

I like routines.

They give me the illusion of efficiency. Unlike in college, I’ve liked getting up early for the last twenty years because I love mornings. I love being there as the world wakes up. When I lived in Red Lodge, I would often start work at 6:30. Walking into the coffee shop, ordering a then-new-to-my-world latte, walking out into the sleepily awakening town … it was a joy to watch it unfold and come alive with its varied daily activities.

Now morning comes at 5:30, one of us turns the coffee pot on and crawls back into bed as we listen to it gurgle and steam its way to done. In the glory of spring and summer, I open the sliding glass door in the dining room. Alex opens a living room window. We have coffee on the couch as we listen to the birds wake up and watch the crazed squirrels scoot up and down the maple tree.

I love my habits.

But I love changing them too. My anti-mantra is: We’ve always done it this way, then let’s change it!

But I resisted Sudoku. Part of it was pure stubbornness. Because the whole world was doing it, I didn’t want to. Back in the eighties, the whole world watched ET and Star Wars, I still haven’t. Pure obstinance then, lack of interest now. Intelligent friends were doing Sudoku and loving it. I couldn’t fathom why.

Post-college, Mom got me a subscription to a puzzle magazine. It was the best gift for a newly living alone person without a TV. It was also something for Mom and me to have in common—important for two people with little between us. I have always loved words.

From writing those first childhood stories through today, I love learning new words and how to use them.

It was on the long flight to Italy with Seester that she convinced me to give Sudoku a spin. Until then, I always looked forward to the in-flight magazine with the crossword puzzle in the back. Puzzle co-completed (or mostly), Seester whipped out her Sudoku book and proceeded to undertake teaching it to me.

“But what’s the point?” I asked. I mean, come on, doing crosswords taught me what an “epee” is used for and gave me strange words to use in Scrabble when playing against the Queen of the Game: our Mom. But Sudoku? It’s numbers. The same nine numbers in nine squares over and over again. To me, it was gibberish and some strange self-inflicted solo tic-tac-toe. Why would anyone do it?

Sudoku puzzle

Sudoku puzzle

“It works your brain,” Seester answered.

Uh huh. Like someone with a whirling mind needs more work? But she’s my Older Sister and I listened to her. She ripped out a puzzle, handed me a pencil and set me to work on the easiest puzzles in the book.

What a lame-brain I was! It took forever for me to get the hang of thinking horizontally, vertically, and squarely. You would think Scrabble would have helped with some of that.

My on/off again relationship with Sudoku lasted a year. I don’t recall when I purchased my first book. Maybe when I learned that brother Wojo was doing them, too. In ink. Show off.

I started to buzz through the easy ones like water through a sieve. I moved on to medium; harder work, but I could do it.

Eventually, I got into the mode of seeing what wasn’t there. Wojo taught me to discern what could/could not go into certain spaces so that you could avoid random guessing.

I discovered that Sudoku concentrates my random, flitting thoughts.

Because numbers don’t come as easily to me as words, it takes a great deal of effort to focus. It’s good training for writing novels and short stories. I said before that I’m not patient most of the time. That might be a disservice to myself, although I’d probably have to poll family and friends to get a real answer.

When I’m writing, my patience abounds. I’ve completed four novels. The first very elementary, but I did it and blindly sent it to agents fifteen years ago. (Thank you, Michael Seidman, for the hand-written rejection letter. It meant a lot!) Two very good chick-lit books in need of some tightening rework after agent rejections and contest-judge-comments. The fourth …. Ah, the fourth. I love the two chick-lit novels. They are great stories about the strength of women and their friendships. However, the fourth novel, while about two women and their friends, is set in Pittsburgh and is a complex mystery. I love this book. Love it! I cannot wait to do my rewrites and get it agent-submittal-ready.

Sudoku is like novel writing.

I concentrate and lose myself in the complexity of the numbers or the words and time passes and the outside world disappears from my view. It works much of the time. You put a puzzle down, pick it up and suddenly you see it again. You stop writing in the middle of a scene, open the document again and, Poof! You’ve discovered exactly where you need to go from there.

During Mom’s last ten days of fighting lung cancer, we were consumed by both being with her and trying not to think about losing her. Sitting beside Mom’s bed or on the floor in front of where she lay on the couch, Sudoku was an easy way to disconnect my brain from everything around me, concentrating on conquering the puzzle, and yet to be in the present where she needed me to be.

I was doing Sudoku when she stopped breathing.

As Dad’s ALS got worse, each night we would use the suction machine to help with the saliva that would pool in his throat. I’d crawl into bed in the room next door and do Sudoku as I listened intently to the sounds of him trying to breathe, trying to sleep, trying to swallow. My eyes and brain would be on the puzzles, trying to pay attention to what I was seeing; to win. But my ears were totally tuned to Dad. I’d know, just like my siblings would when they were the ones spending the night, when to run to help him with the suction machine. To maybe sit a bit beside the bed and hold his good hand.

Back in bed and trying once more to get Sudoku to take my brain away from Dad’s pain.

It would focus my otherwise zinging thoughts and sometimes that helped me get tired enough to sleep.

After Dad passed, I couldn’t do the puzzles anymore. They were too closely tied to the deaths of my parents. When I finally re-started, graduating to the medium to hard books, I first had to break through those associations and train my brain to separate the work of the puzzles from the work of being a daughter losing her parents.

Change.

Now I use the puzzles to concentrate my brain. With morning coffee, they help me wake up and get my mind going. In the evenings, after I shut the computer off, but I’m watching TV with Alex, they help me survive the commercials that drone on for way too long.

Lately, though, I’ve had a big urge to do Crossword puzzles and now there’s a new book on my desk.

Mary & Gilbert 1951

Mary & Gilbert 1951 (rarely so serious)

How do you escape stress when you physically cannot leave it behind?