Public Media Arts Hub

Author David Leavitt on crossword puzzles, grief and ritual


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Amna Nawaz: Well, sometimes, it is the little things that get us through hard times.

Right after the attack on Pearl Harbor, a crossword enthusiast named Margaret Farrar wrote to The New York Times publisher. She wrote: "I don't think I have to sell you on the increased demand for this type of pastime in an increasingly worried world. You can't think of your troubles while solving a crossword."

Farrar then became New York Times' first crossword puzzle editor in 1942. The crossword has likely met a similar need for millions of fans in 2020.

So, tonight, author David Leavitt shares his Humble Opinion on the importance of this daily memento.

David Leavitt: Every morning, after I have had some coffee, I do the New York Times crossword.

I can't say that this is always or even usually a pleasure, because it isn't. Yet the need -- one might even call it the compulsion -- to get the crossword out of the way never abates. Even on Election Day, I did the crossword. Even when I was in the hospital recovering from an emergency appendectomy, I did the crossword.

The question I want to pose now, as much to myself as to other crossword junkies, is why. In my case, the answer to this question, like the answer to most questions, is my mother.

Where the Times crossword was concerned, she was both an aficionado and an intellectual athlete. For example, she could do the crossword in pen. She rarely had to erase anything and, on occasion, without looking at the down clues.

I have enshrined an image of my mother sitting at our kitchen table in California, The Times open before her, calmly entering letters into the grid.

In 1985, my mother died, a sudden death, when we expected a slow one, for she had been fighting cancer for many years. When my family and I returned from the hospital, I found the crossword on which she must have been working. It was half-finished. I finished it for her.

The rituals by which we memorialize the dead can be peculiar, so much so that we may not even recognize them as rituals, for grief itself has no solution. It has no answer key. It doesn't matter if you use a pencil or a pen or a computer. It will never be finished.

Grief, in other words, is not a crossword. Rather, it's one of those 5,000 piece jigsaws that are circular and solid white, impossible.

I think my mother understood this. Indeed, especially since the pandemic started, I have found myself wondering -- and I say this with full cognizance that you may regard it as wishful thinking -- if she might not have left behind the half-finished crossword on purpose, as if to say, no, you will never solve the mystery of grief. Don't even try. Instead, solve this. Solve this.

Amna Nawaz: Beautiful words to end on tonight.

Support Canvas

Sustain our coverage of culture, arts and literature.

Send Us Your Ideas
Let us know what you'd like to see on ArtsCanvas. Your thoughts and opinions matter.