Minute Particulars

Remembering “living life at the level of the little,” that thought from a post a few weeks ago (here), I’m thinking about short posts that linked together might make a narrative about noticing the little.

Before my much younger brother was born, my father lived in a household of women, my sister, mother, and me, and he always complained about our dinner table conversation for being laden with what he called “facetious minutiae.”

The dictionary defines facetious as “tongue in cheek, trying to be funny,” but in my childhood, I thought he  meant unimportant. Now it is too late to ask, but I wish I had – he might simply have enjoyed challenging us with the sound of strange words.

In the life of family and friends, I’m particularly aware of how hard it is to share the little details at a distance. We aren’t so good as the Victorians at those rich-with-detail letters. Waiting for eventful news to relate, an awkwardness of being out of touch develops and the small stuff doesn’t seem worthy. Years ago, my best friend in high school said (in letter writing college days), “I want to write a be-all letter but there isn’t time.”

I don’t know the answer to this. There is power in paying attention, but also a level and presentation of minutiae that is irritating, some details that are truly not worthy. Maybe by paying attention I sort out the differences.

The dictionary defines minutiae as “small or relatively unimportant details.” A reader recently reminded me (because she found it useful) of this William Morris quote (an organizing principle for “Her spirits rose…”): “A true source of human happiness lies in taking a genuine interest in all the details of daily life and elevating them by art.”

A few minutes of focusing on the bottoms of worn out favorite socks, for example, with needle and thread, a patch from another pair of worn out socks, and a little yogurt container stuck in the sock as a darning egg – details of a small but comforting triumph!

Focaccia, Saint Francis, and Old Friends to Dinner

According to a note I made on my calendar, a week ago Saturday marked the festival of Saint Francis and also, perhaps not related, the International Day of Older Persons. Sounded like a night to have our oldest friends to dinner – but then I forgot to even mention these special events!

Oh well – along with black beans we had treats from the farmer’s market – fresh corn picked the day before in Eastern Washington, a new potato and leek gratin, pepperonata with yellow-green sweet peppers, a big salad with fresh tomatoes, and – celebrating Italy yet again – focaccia.

In “Everyday in Tuscany,” Frances Mayes shares a recipe for focaccia describing “simplicity of preparation, small number of ingredients.” She writes of making it often with her grandchild (that sounds like fun).

I’ve made it five times since we came home – with different results each time (is that the living nature of yeast and flour and weather?). It’s always good, even on the summer day when we went to town with guests leaving the dough to rise nicely and collapse into the bowl. Now that autumn is here, I need to pay more attention to warming cold bowls and pre-heating the oven a bit to make a warm place for rising.

Following Mayes’s recipe you put two packages of yeast into two cups of warm water in a big bowl and let it stand for 10 minutes. Add four cups of flour (Mayes doesn’t specify – I used three of white and one of wheat – and mix well. Then knead the dough for 10-15 minutes on a floured surface (each time I have added at least another cup of flour while kneading). Focaccia has texture – little air spaces – that must come from the kneading (I set the timer so I’d keep it up). The goal is smooth and elastic dough.

In an oiled bowl, put the dough to rise in a warm place for an hour, covered by a tea towel. It will double. Punch down, then on a baking sheet (covered with parchment paper) shape into a flat rectangle.

Allow the dough to rise for another 45 minutes under a tea towel. Then make dimples with fingertips all over the dough and sprinkle olive oil (I used about a tablespoon and a half and tried to get it widely dispersed). Sprinkle coarse salt and about a third-cup just-minced rosemary on top.

Baked in a 400° oven for 25 minutes, focaccia turns a beautiful golden brown – and is fragrant, chewy, and substantial. At the table we passed extra-virgin olive oil (last of the Italy stash) and balsamic vinegar for dipping.

Rain was in the forecast if not yet on the roof or on the bald pate of Saint Francis out in the garden, as we sat by the first fire of the season and enjoyed the last of our farmer’s strawberries with ice cream.

A fitting celebration of Saint Francis, and a small feast for the older persons!

The Postcard Project

For nearly three years my young friend, who lives in Alaska and is now 12 years old, and I have painted or drawn postcards to exchange. The project began as a Christmas present challenge – me to her – “let’s send a postcard to each other each month,” and I sent her 12 blank postcards. The next Christmas she delighted me by sending another pack of blank postcards and writing on the cover: “This was so much fun – you know what to do!” Last Christmas we re-upped with an added challenge – we would focus on cats.

It’s always a treat to find my young friend’s cards in the mailbox, and they cover a corner of a wall in my workroom. Each of us sometimes gets behind, and once she made up three months by stretching a drawing of a cat across three postcards. This year she drew a card representing a cell phone screen with a text message as written by her cat Syncro – “do u c paws?” –a drawing of paws edges the card. This summer, a detailed black-and-white pen drawing of Syncro revealed her real facility.

It’s my turn to be behind now. This summer she pointed out that I was stalled at May! So I decided to apply the rules that get art done (rules that get a lot of things done) to the postcard project.

Time, intention, attention, focus, concentration, all the elements in place, a deadline: one hour, a constraint: do four cards, a subject: the same photo of Frances. The inspiration, the impetus, and materials to hand, I only needed the will to begin.

I began, but could hear all the Sirens of avoidance – oh I’d like a cup of tea, these won’t be good, I could do this later – but I pushed past these voices and pulled out four blank post cards. First a line drawing of Frances in her favorite corner, then without too much thinking I sketched lines to guide a watercolor on another card, wet the paints, and painted black fur.

I squeezed dabs of acrylic on the lid of a yogurt container, and while considering the differences between watercolor and acrylic, leaving white paper or using white paint to make her tuxedo outfit, I drew Frances again, bigger this time. Time was up.

Still short a post card, and thinking a paper Frances would be fun, I came back in the evening (an after-dinner energy bonus from a project well-begun), eager to see how bits of paper could become Frances. The next morning I added her freckle to her feet on all four pictures.

Now I’m caught up!

Books and Cat

“Books are everywhere; and always the same sense of adventure fills us. Second hand books are wild books, homeless books; they have come together in vast flocks of variegated feather, and have a charm which the domesticated volumes of the library lack. Besides, in this random miscellaneous company we might rub against some complete stranger who will, with all luck, turn into the best friend we have in the world…”

Virginia Woolf            Street Haunting


Books and Desk

“Dr. Johnson advised me today to have as many books about me as I could; that I might read upon any subject upon which I had a desire for instruction at the time. ‘What you read then (said he,) you will remember; but if you have not a book immediately ready, and the subject moulds in your mind, it is a chance if you again have a desire to study it.’”

James Boswell The Life of Johnson

Books and Workroom

“Even more than other writers themselves, their work is our guide; seen that way, the books on our shelves are volumes of an enormous atlas. Particular landscapes and routes through them are illustrated in exacting detail. Countless poems, stories, and novels have been based on or influenced by Homer’s Odyssey, including works by writers who, like Dante, never had the opportunity to read it. That epic poem has been an extraordinarily useful guide. Yet in the Odyssey, our hero often receives partial assistance: Get back on your boat, steer over there, but beware that singing; come ashore, you’re welcome here, but hands off the cattle, or else. This is the sort of guidance we can expect from other writers and their work. Precisely what to make of it, and how to make the best of it, is left to us.”

Peter Turchi Maps of the Imagination: The Writer as Cartographer