… WOULDN’T IT BE BEST TO BE TOGETHER, THEN? … WITH A CROSSWORD ON OUR MINDS
The Wonder Show of the World sees the lone wolf figure of Will Oldham’s earlier work struggling to adjust to newfound domesticity.
It documents a kind of culture shock in settling down; the struggle to adapt to a wholesome home for a man who, at the record’s start, cannot keep away from Troublesome Houses.
It’s not a life he had ever imagined for himself: “I never thought the sun would rise in the east and set in the west. I figured I owned just a dark sky, and that darkness fit me best.” It’s as if a narrowed horizon is too orthodox, too restrictive. And yet – to his own surprise – he finds himself enjoying some of the small, simple pleasures of settled life. One moment our protagonist is warning “don’t go indoors if the walls that are waiting have a way of hindering healing laughter in your chest.” The next, he lilts wistfully “I ain’t hemmed in, I ain’t walled up. I am free.”
His confinement at home seems to have been forced upon him, and yet he oscillates between railing against his captivity and enjoying the slower pace of life.
It’s a record for our times.
For end times.
I’m lucky enough that the major problem facing me in this COVID-19 lockdown is, essentially, time management.
I am anxious and creatively blocked like never before, but healthy. Our home is rented, but safe. Small, but comfortable. Without children here, we now have more time than we are used to. Too much time. Staving off stress, anxiety and cabin fever means finding ways to spend the time that distract from the chaos outside while also not demanding too much from our over-taxed brains.
And in this respect, I share something with the figure at the heart of The Wonder Show of the World: a love of puzzles.
Specifically, cryptic crosswords.
I’ve written before about why I love cryptic crosswords so much, but in these circumstances the puzzles have taken on a new importance.
Each crossword consists of just a few hundred words’ worth of clues and (usually) a 14×14 grid. Yet each one contains such a depth of wordplay, cultural references, anagrams, and trickery that it can – and should – take hours to solve.
It allows the time to pass almost instantaneously, without feeling like it has been wasted. It’s intensive yet relaxed. It requires focus, but the stakes are low. It’s difficult, but not unfair. Once you understand the principles of a cryptic crossword, no good clue should ever be out of your grasp – so long as you’re prepared to put in the work.
It’s almost like a form of meditation: blocking out outside thoughts and distractions and dedicating all of your focus to one small thing you can control.
And in such strange, confusing times, that’s something to cling to.
If you’re finding yourself at a loose end, then crosswords are my gift to you.
Above is a crossword I made for Issue 2 of Creative Rehab, alongside some tips on how to approach unpicking cryptic clues. Feel free to print it out or save it and scribble on it digitally.
You can also find loads of crosswords online at The Guardian. Their quiptic puzzles are a particularly good entry point to cryptic crosswords for beginners. If you can get your hands on a physical newspaper, The i Paper has the best puzzle section, for my money, but you might find some gems in your local paper too.
Domestic ditties and locked down lyrics.
For more thoughts on the end of the world, try Parquet Courts – Wide Awake or Father John Misty – I Love You, Honeybear