The Joy of Working Crossword Puzzles

by Melannie Svoboda SND on January 6, 2014

I love doing crossword puzzles. Do you? If so, then you may know that this past December 21 was the 100th birthday of the crossword puzzle. It’s history is interesting.

During the 19th Century in England word puzzles had been printed in newspapers, but the invention of the actual crossword puzzle is attributed to Arthur Wynne, a Brit from Liverpool who was a writer for the New York World. On December 21, 1913 he ran his first puzzle (which was called a “word-cross” puzzle back then) and it was an instant success. People from all walks of life began working this new kind of puzzle.

Not everyone, however, was enamored with the puzzle. Some said it was a “passing fad” and would die out in a week or two. A New York Times editorial man and puzzlecalled crosswords “a waste of time.” They said,  solvers get nothing out of working these puzzles “except a primitive form of mental exercise.”

I work a crossword puzzle virtually every day–usually the one in the daily newspaper. I always use ink, but if I am unsure of an answer, I’ll write it in very lightly. When I travel, I always take a stash of puzzles with me and do them while I’m waiting for my plane or in the evening after a day of giving talks and interacting with people. I enjoy working crosswords alone. But I also enjoy asking the people around me questions like, “What’s an old Chevy model, five letters, and begins with P.” (Prizm) Or “What do you call someone who pillages—six letters, 4th one is k?” (sacker)

Why do I enjoy crossword puzzles so much? First, they’re all about words and I love words. I love the way one word, like run, can have a zillion meanings. I like the way new words come into our language–like supersize, ringtone, and selfie. And how old words take on new meanings–like surf and drone. I enjoy a clue that is a play on words: grateful? The answer is ashes because a grate might be full of them! When I work crosswords I’m always learning new words or new facts. I find that enriching and fun.

My good friend, Sr. Mary Fran Taymans who lives in Maryland, child and puzzlesends me the puzzles from The Washington Post Magazine regularly. (I am eternally grateful to her for this gift!) Often these puzzles have themes. I worked one recently entitled “On the iPod Menu.” The long answers were all songs with food in their title: “Cotton Candy” (Al Hirt), “Honey Pie”  (Beatles). Or performers whose names were associated with food: Bread, Meatloaf, The Platters.

One puzzler, Kathleen Clary Miller, said, “Like my mother before me, my self-worth is entirely dependent on successful completion of the daily crossword puzzle.” Maybe that’s a little exaggerated, but I know I get great satisfaction when I complete an entire puzzle–even if I had to resort to a dictionary or the internet to get a few of the answers: the name of a 17th Century French novelist (d’Urfe) or the element with the atomic number 52 (tellurium). For the record, consulting references while doing a crossword puzzle is NOT cheating. You can use whatever resources you want. But the real pros don’t have to consult anyone or anything. That’s why they can finish a puzzle within minutes. Crossword puzzle tournaments are timed.

I’ve always wondered if I inherited my love for crosswords from my mother. She loved working them. And she said when she was growing up she saw her aunt (who raised her) working them all the time. In fact, her aunt once remarked, “Every time I see  a crossword puzzle, my right hand begins to itch for a pen.”

Recently there’s been a claim that working crosswords can deter the development of dog and puzzleAlzheimer’s. A new study suggests that people who read, write, play challenging games, or work crossword puzzles were a lot less likely to develop brain plaques that are associated with Alzheimer’s.

A final reason I like doing crossword puzzles was expressed by composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim: “The nice thing about doing a crossword is, you know there is a solution.” Crosswords are a refreshing interlude from our daily life, where sometimes the challenges we face don’t have ready solutions.

Janet Stuart, a Religious of the Sacred Heart who lived from 1857-1914 (and is one of my favorite writers) wrote this to a friend who was struggling: “…you trust God utterly and don’t mind things being weird and unaccountable, do you? Because you know that God knows all about it, and will make it all right in the end. All crooked things will go right, and the word will come into the riddle, and the key into the puzzle, and we shall be delighted to think that it was right all along and that we trusted God when things were darkest and most incomprehensible.” Working crosswords reminds me of this great truth.

Do you like to work crossword puzzles? If so, why?

PS: On January 1 in “Living with Christ” I wrote about the Mary statue in our provincial house chapel in Chardon. I said it was unique because Mary is not standing, but she is sitting comfortably on a rock. She wears no veil and her hair hangs loosely down her back. Her hands are resting on her lap; her feet are bare. Her facial expression exudes peace. We always have a chair or two nearby. This invites people to pull up a chair, sit with Mary, and pray. Several individuals have asked if I would post a picture of that statue. Her she is:

Photo by Sister Patricia Pasek, SND

Photo by Sister Patricia Pasek, SND

{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

Shauna Bankemper January 6, 2014 at 4:29 am

Hi, Melannie!

Nice blog on crossword puzzles and you! I read so much of how you deal with life in how you work crossword puzzles. Life is as mysterious as the word puzzles and you bring intrigue to both.

Shauna

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Melannie Svoboda SND January 6, 2014 at 11:31 am

Hi, Shauna, You are always one of the first to read my blog each week because you live in Rome–an earlier time zone! Thanks for writing! Melannie

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Tara January 6, 2014 at 9:17 am

Good Morning!

Sr. Melannie, do you know if I can purchase a small Mary sitting statue?
Sitting and praying with Mary sounds like a something I would like to do.

Your posts are my way of starting each week. A good feeling is a great way to begin.

Thanks,
Tara

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Melannie Svoboda SND January 6, 2014 at 11:29 am

Dear Tara, I’m sorry but I don’t know where you might get a small statue of Mary sitting….But maybe one of my readers can point you in the right direction. Thank you for writing! Sr. Melannie

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Annie January 6, 2014 at 8:45 pm

Dear Tara,
I was on our chapel committee and we wanted a seated statue like the Mary of the Garden but with some differences. Here is a link to that statue: http://www.ministryofthearts.org/servlet/the-945/Mary-of-the-Garden/Detail
(Scroll down for prices.)
Note: there are two sizes. Here is the larger one: http://www.ministryofthearts.org/servlet/Categories

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Suzanne Sayer January 6, 2014 at 9:23 am

I love crossword puzzles, too! At first I doubted myself when I was filling in answers, but I gained more confidence over the years; I still use a pencil, though–writing in pen makes me insecure! I especially like your idea that there is always a solution–so unlike life sometimes. But, of course, in life there IS a solution–we just have to let The Lord solve our life puzzles for us. My 85-year-old mother works her daily newspaper puzzle every day–I know it is helping her stay sharp (along with her numerous bridge games!). I am also happy to see the picture of your Mary statue. I enjoyed that reflection. It is so nice to be reading a daily reflection and see that you have written it: I think to myself, “I know her!” Blessings!

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Melannie Svoboda SND January 6, 2014 at 11:27 am

Dear Suzanne, Yes the more crosswords you do, the better you get at doing them. Some clues are repeated often–like “Needle case” (etui) or “First name of humorist of family life” (Erma as in Bombeck). And kudos to your 85-year-old Mom for working crosswords and playing bridge!…And thank you for your kind words about my writing! I hope wherever you live you are staying warm! Melannie

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Suzanne Sayer January 6, 2014 at 12:21 pm

I remember the first time the answer was “etui.” I didn’t think it was a real word!

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Jean Shott January 6, 2014 at 11:14 am

First, that is a good picture and invitation to just sit a bit and maybe take a little time to meditate.
Second, how do you feel about Sudoku puzzles? I have to admit that I don’t enjoy crossword puzzles but I enjoy the logic challenge of the number puzzles. I “need” to do a couple to unwind at the end of my day. “There is a time and place (for each number) for every season”!

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Melannie Svoboda SND January 6, 2014 at 11:22 am

Dear Jean, I’m glad you liked the Mary statue. Yes, her posture invites sitting and pausing to pray. And yes, I love Sudokus too! I find they are a good balance to the words in crosswords. I always bring a stash of Sudokus with me when I travel. And often I’ll work one during the evening news. Cousin Dolly

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Sr. Carol Dikovitsky January 6, 2014 at 11:29 am

I, too, work the daily crossword puzzle–a treat I give myself most days. I always say that when I can no longer do the Monday puzzles, I’ll know that it’s time to retire! I do hope the crosswords will keep me sharp for a long time! I appreciate your finding a spiritual meaning behind the fun!

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Melannie Svoboda SND January 6, 2014 at 1:21 pm

Dear Carol, I’m glad you treat yourself to a crossword puzzle each day. I like the way the puzzles get harder as the week progresses. Monday’s are relatively easy. But those Saturday ones are the “killers.” Thanks for writing! Melannie

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Peggy Svoboda January 6, 2014 at 11:43 am

I love both crossword and sudoku puzzles! We grew up with Dad working the daily crossword from the Plain Dealer (in ink, like you do). Jean introduced me to sudoku puzzles. I’ve also heard that puzzles are good exercise for the brain, so it’s nice to think that I’m getting extra benefit from something I enjoy doing. It’s interesting to consider that they always have a solution, while life’s challenges don’t always have one that’s so immediate. I love reading your blogs — they always give me a new way to look at things!

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Melannie Svoboda SND January 6, 2014 at 1:25 pm

Dear Peggy, I can just see you and your Dad working the daily crossword puzzle together. I bet he enjoyed that too! I like what you said about it’s nice getting extra benefit for your brain from something you enjoy doing! Amen to that! Thanks for responding–and for reading my blog so faithfully! Cousin Dolly

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Nancy Duke January 6, 2014 at 12:11 pm

Hello Melanie: I never could get into puzzles. Anything that takes patience has been difficult for me. It takes time to find the answers, fit the pieces, and when making mistakes you don’t see it until you have ruined other answers or picked the wrong answer. Each life is a puzzle. I so want to see the whole picture. Perhaps I should start doing them so I may learn patience and trust in God and in myself.
PS I do love Sudoku puzzles though! Does that count?

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Melannie Svoboda SND January 6, 2014 at 4:01 pm

Hi Nancy, I agree that patience is a hard lesson to learn–no matter the situation. And, as you wisely said, patience goes hand in hand with trust in God. If you work sudokus, you must be practicing patience. They can be really tough! And one wrong number messes up the whole puzzle. I’ve been known to scrunch up a partially filled-in sudoku and toss it in the paper recyling bin! Thanks for writing! Melannie

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Sister Dolores Marie Sambuco January 6, 2014 at 3:10 pm

Hi Melannie!

Thank you for posting the picture of the statue of Mary. I have already printed it out and I am sure it will provide me with many meditative prayers.

Thank you, too, for all your good books and meditations in “Sunflower Seeds”.

I am looking forward to your August retreat in Aston, PA.

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Melannie Svoboda SND January 6, 2014 at 3:55 pm

Dear Dolores, I’m glad you could copy the picture of the Mary statue…And I look forward to meeting you in August in Aston, PA! Melannie

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Sister Janet Deaett, SNDdeN January 6, 2014 at 8:38 pm

Hi Melanie,
I, too, do a daily crossword puzzle, the one from the Boston Globe, except I don’t do it alone or with a pen. Another sister in my community usually starts it and I get the pleasure of finishing it. I, too, love words and my Mom always did crossword puzzles. A big challenge was to try to beat her at Scrabble which took years to do. I was always amazed at the words she knew. She is now 91 and in a nursing home and has some cognitive issues because of a stroke 10 years ago. But when I do crossword puzzles and ask her for help she still can come up with some surprising answers. So, my Notre Dame cousin, I can understand and appreciate your love of crossword puzzles and the joy of finding the solution! And I especially like having to think “outside the box” when putting the letters “in the box”.

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Melannie Svoboda SND January 6, 2014 at 9:22 pm

Dear Janet, I bet the Boston Globe crosswords are really challenging…How nice that you can still work on the crosswords with your dear mother’s input. That touched me…And I also love Scrabble….Maybe that will be a topic for a future blog…Thanks for writing. It’s especially good hearing from a member of that other “branch” of the Notre Dame family! Melannie

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Bozo January 7, 2014 at 7:14 pm

I too love to do crossword puzzles and find value in trying to solve them almost daily…and I liked your comments about you know there is a solution where some things in life just don’t have a solution.
Thanks so much for your great blogs.

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Melannie Svoboda SND January 8, 2014 at 1:11 pm

And thank you for your beautiful response! Melannie

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Deb January 10, 2014 at 8:44 pm

Sr. Melannie,
I look forward to your posts each week. I do love crossword puzzles. As I thought about why, besides the challenge, I like to escape out of my day, getting lost in the words. I don’t always finish them, but have allowed myself that it is okay to do what I know and I think I have learned to let that satisfy me. I also love Sudoku puzzles. When my kids were at home, we would do jigsaw puzzles. It was so fun to sit next to them and find the pieces, especially one that everyone had been searching for. We started a tradition of leaving the last piece for the next person to put in. I would always smile when I return to the puzzle and find one piece left that was waiting for me to finish. I miss it. I may have to get one out and start it myself. Thanks for sharing you writing, your thoughts, a part of your heart each time. Blessings!

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