At the beginning of the year, I bought a New York Times games subscription. I already have a regular NYT *news* subscription, which I used to share with BVS volunteers around the world and recently re-upped to support journalism during the pandemic (I subscribed to my two local papers, too!). But in January, after reading a few people talk about how the crossword had become a soothing daily ritual, I subscribed to the GAMES.
That might have been some of the best $20 I’ve ever spent on myself. Every morning, I print out the NYT crossword, and after I walk the dog and pray I solve the puzzle with my coffee. It’s just challenging enough – not too many DUH clues, not too many obscenely obscure ones – that it keeps me coming back for more. (This is the opposite of my current monthly Move Your Body challenge: the impossible, expanding, more-than-one-minute PLANK challenge, which is about to do me in.)
The crossword is super satisfying: one clue per line, one letter per box, each box connects to another. Solving the puzzle is the purest hit of dopamine. The work I do is very rarely measured in task completion metrics: there is no way to assess with clarity whether or not a sermon hit home, if a pastoral conversation addressed deep needs, how following a hunch about the Holy Spirit’s leading for the life of a congregation is going to pan out. Can you imagine handing someone a satisfaction survey after you’ve prayed with them in the midst of great trauma or great joy?
The sure and certain crossword rules are such a relief. The thrill of *finishing* one is a delight.
Yesterday, my friend Carynne – who knows I’ve been in training toward becoming a cruciverbalist – sent me this article from the Washington Post about how the crossword industry is undergoing a reckoning. “What’s common knowledge,” the article asks, “and who gets to decide?” It turns out that when people other than white men create crosswords, people other than white men see themselves reflected in the puzzles. One crossword constructor, Brooke Husic, talked about how creators cue the word “bra”:
“To me, it’s so obvious when someone who doesn’t wear a bra and has never worn a bra includes bra.” She specifically cites past clues such as “It makes the torso more so” or any variation that includes “uplifting” and counters with a clue from one of her recent puzzles: “Item often not worn while working from home.”
In February, the NYT featured Black crossword constructors for Black History Month. I noticed the clues (about Marcus Garvey, John Lewis and Cardi B), and also felt the disconnect that some [white] players complained about. There is, it turns out, a lively crossword community of people whose interest in the puzzles borders on obsession, a community that the article’s author suggests might make for a good television show like The Queen’s Gambit. I will binge watch the heck out of that show.
And like so many other parts of our American society, white people got mad about being de-centered. In the crossword puzzle. They called the Black History Month puzzles full of “obscure” and “alienating” clues. White people sure are whiny, aren’t we?
Drew Hart talks about de-centering like this: imagine that we are all in a group together and whenever we meet, I stand on top of the table in the center of the room, while all the rest of you sit in chairs around the table. Every time we gather, I’m standing on top of the table in the center while everyone else is seated, down below. It happens every time, and we all sort of grow used to it, even though it is absurd, bizarre, and clearly involves seriously messed up power dynamics.
Now imagine if one day, someone in the group finally decided to ask me to come down from standing on top of the table and, instead, choose a seat here around it with the rest of you. Huh. Of course, to me it feels like being demoted or discriminated against: I have always been up here in the middle! But in reality, the move from the tabletop to the chair is just getting all of us on more equal ground. It is correcting what has been wrong for so long. It’s actually good for all of us for me to quit putting my dirty shoes on top of the table and take a seat there, next to you.
Without intentional attention and invitation to change it, whiteness is centered EVERYWHERE in America. Our nation is built on the premise of white supremacy. It’s not just in the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow, it is also in our classrooms, our congregations, and our hearts. It is even, it turns out, in our crossword puzzles.
I loved this article, because it made me examine a tiny little blip of awareness that I’d had when I solved those Black History Month puzzles. “Huh,” I thought. “This puzzle has a lot of sort of strange clues that I don’t know the answers to. I’ve heard the name Marcus Garvey but I don’t know anything about his headwear. They must have got a newbie in to create these puzzles if they’re too hard for me to solve. I don’t really like this one. I think I’ll take note of who made it and just be ready the next time I see their name to expect not to like the puzzle.”
All of that happened subconsciously, on a Sunday morning before I’d finished my coffee. I wasn’t even quite conscious of it as it happened inside my own head, but all of my assumptions about how I – a white crossword puzzle solver – should be centered, how the puzzle should cater to me, how my comfort was the most important part of this endeavor – were active and operational. Even though I barely noticed them.
This article made me pull out that barely conscious script and examine it. “OH! I was uncomfortable because I was being de-centered. In the crossword puzzle. Tricky! I was being asked, as I solved that puzzle, to get off the table and sit down where I belong, in a chair alongside everybody else.”
This is what de-centering feels like. It is uncomfortable. It often makes the formerly centered people SUPER MAD. Like, unbelievably mad. As in, mad enough to not just write an angry letter to the NYT crossword editor, but mad enough to pass violent laws, support torture, and drag decades old practices of hatefulness out from the dumpster to give them new life.
But the discomfort of getting de-centered is GOOD. It is something to lean into. It is worth holding up, examining, and learning about. It’s an opportunity to ask ourselves where the assumption that we should have been centered came from in the first place. It is an invitation to enter into more honest, more mutual, more equitable relationships.
And that invitation can come from anywhere – even the daily crossword puzzle.