At this time when so very much really big stuff is happening that causes me much anxiety, I have broken away from that anxiety to read about other topics, and discovered the benefits of sweating the small stuff, and sending my curiosity far away to unusual places.
Sweat the small stuff.
One way is to sweat the small stuff. I offer this oasis to you, and even though it deals mainly with wood working (exclusively with hand tools myself) and writing, I suspect that you can broaden the philosophy to other areas of life.
52 Boxes in 52 Weeks, by Matt Kenney, sets the theme early in the book: he advises selecting wood for its grain, with particular attention to tight grain for small boxes, while considering all proportions of the box (see also By Hand and Eye, by George R. Walker and Jim Tolpin, referenced in earlier posts). I have made many boxes, but always first searched for wood that I liked for itself, admiring the rings, swirls, burls, colour, and so forth. I would say to myself, “This is a beautiful piece of wood. I shall make something with it.” I know much about stains, lacquers, and other techniques to make wood prettier or bring out its natural beauty. But this book has given me a different perspective: include the tightness of grain when considering proportions of small things, and do it at the very beginning of the project. This may not be new to my readers, but is to me.
The other book which encourages sweating the small stuff is First You Write a Sentence: the Elements of Reading, Writing…and Life, by Joe Moran (also referenced earlier). His advice is to first plan each sentence by itself for itself – use verbs more than nouns or even participles or gerunds, choose carefully the first and last words in the sentence, keep the sentence short, plain, and clear, but also leave room for fun and whimsy in it. Only then do you move onto another sentence, and eventually to paragraphs, and then even bigger things. But you start with the sentence.
I have for many, many years written things to be read but mostly things to be spoken. I usually composed speeches first in my head with a view to oral rhetoric — hooking the audience with the first three or four words; paying attention to the sounds and timbre of individual words; seeking alliterative phrases, cadence, and words which complete each thought with resounding prominence; and conceptualized the whole oratorical experience before checking for facts, quotes, undue emphases, etc.. To begin with deep thought about a single sentence is new to me. Following his advice when writing for the reader has slowed my work. (I have not spoken in public for a while now, and am comfortable with writing for the reader more than for the hearer.) So I can appreciate this new and different discipline. It pleases me that Moran encourages writing some sentences so as to provoke guessing about the fuller meaning which might be in the sentence. It evokes my inner and outer storyteller.
I believe that telling a story, together with hearing another’s story, is the most satisfying, and probably the clearest way to communicate information, a particular message, and, of course, feeling. A book I have been reading which has an unexpected bearing on this is Alex Marland’s Whipped: Party Discipline in Canada. In lengthy and detailed discussion of messaging in politics, he cites messagers who emphasize that making a pitch, scripted by central staff, into a local story is the best form of communicating. Were I a politician, I’m sure I could have fun doing that. (An irony: I remember a seminar being offered at a Storytellers of Canada convention entitled “If you’re only going to tell the truth, why bother telling the story?” Perfect for politics.)
After working my way through Moran, and looking at the photos in Kenney, I can see the quality of the result from sweating the small stuff. Just as importantly, I can feel the benefit in my body — easing the mind’s eye’s labours of seeing the big pictures all the time, the giant arcs of history, the dotted lines which connect far-flung events, peering deeply into the shadows and behind the barriers. The mind and body relax. Sweating the small stuff in writing and in creating wood things, eases the mind, body, and spirit.
Send your mind far away.
I find this respite also by letting my enquiries head off to matters which connect to almost nothing else in my life. The COVID pandemic has halted most live performance of music by groups, but Tafelmusik (tafelmusik.org) has been producing concerts on-line. This group features music of the Baroque era, playing with period instruments and reproductions, in keys peculiar to particular places and times. Fascinating is one instrument in particular, the theorbo (http://www.theorbo.com/theorboinformation/theorboinformation/about.html. The theorbo was an adaptation of the lute in this way: the lute was originally a musical instrument meant to accompany speeches in classic Greek theatre. Later, as opera became popular throughout Europe, a louder instrument was needed to make notes sharply and suddenly, and accompany greater vocal ranges. The result was the theorbo, which has a much longer, straight fret board and many more strings, some of which are mounted alongside the fret board, not on it. Do you not feel yourself relaxing as your imagination wanders, not down a rabbit hole, but along a path which takes you past only pleasantries? Perhaps not sweating small stuff, this, but definitely not dealing with the Big Picture, either.
If you would like to take a less physical, more intellectual hiatus, you may benefit from reading Judith Flanders’ A Place for Everything: the Curious History of Alphabetical Order. It’s not the history of the alphabet, but the history of how things were organized using the alphabet, and not using it.
All this involves reconsidering. Herein lies a wholly different idea of informed consent, (the theme which runs through all my posts) because you learn about your own sense of aesthetics, and consent to them by applying them as you make something – a box, or a sentence – really worthwhile. You may even take up the theorbo.