The small details of the canvas (or zooming in and out again)

There are many days right now where my creative brain seems to be on pause, or simply, to use a phrase I’ve been hearing from government employees lately, redeployed. Redeployed, for example, puzzling over complex instructions on how much and how often to feed a sourdough starter, the newest member of our family, snuggled in beside the large jars of kombucha on the tiny kichen counter. When I texted my sister excitedly last weekend that I had acquired some sourdough starter plus a couple of packages of yeast, she sent me a comic about the pandemic being a sneaky form of colonization of humans by yeast. Yeasts in league with viruses  – it has an elegant logic, as far as conspiracy theories go. All these tiny organisms looking for territorial expansion might as well team up.

My rebellion against baking is over. I’m a convert. Or simply rolling with the zeitgeist of the times. Or perhaps I’ve avoided sourdough all these years because I know how attached I get to things. The sourdough starter needs to be divided and fed every day if I keep it on the counter, and since I can’t bring myself to discard the “discard,” some form of baking now happens daily.  I’m grateful learning that I can ignore the complex instructions and that a well-established starter is forgiving. Good thing, because it’s all the precision that has always turned me off baking. I’m a cook, not a baker, and a one-pot cook at that, with my joy directed to improvising with ingredients in large pots simmering over the stove, ideally using ingredients that I already have in my fridge and cupboards, thinking about what flavours might belong together. Soup, stew, chili, curry, stir-fry – that’s my territory. Rarely more than one large pot, with occasionally another small one for a grain accompaniment. My husband’s meals, on the other hand, seem to use every single pot and baking pan we own, spreading wildly all across the kitchen. Meat and fish, and many individual sides, that’s his specialty.

Teens and preteens are always hungry, especially when they have nowhere to go. About once an hour, my younger son turns to me and asks “Anything to eat?” I don’t know where they put all the food, being all pointy knees and elbows, but since one of them looms over me and the other will soon catch up to me in height, I guess it currently goes into vertical growth. They usually manage their own breakfast and take turns making “pizza toast” or scrambled eggs for each other for lunch. Every snack we can think of, they eat, and as our grocery period runs out, the snacks get stranger and more creative.

We’ve restricted ourselves to shopping only once every two weeks. Once, but at two or three different stores, each time dragging as much home as we can on foot. Each time the planning and execution seems to swallow a full day. I miss stopping by my favourite stores every other day, but I get a certain satisfaction from the restriction, especially for my husband, who grew up buying specialized ingredients for specific recipes, often letting the remainder languish in the fridge until it was too far gone to use. Now we use my method, buying a wide range of basics, and then using all of them until they’re completely done, making substitutions as much as needed. I thrive with this cooking method. An onion, a can of tomatoes, and some grain… great! Tortilla bread, beans, and sweet potatoes… great! Some stock and some frozen peas… great! I’d wait longer to shop so we could challenge our creativity further, but my husband gets antsy when we run out of staples. And, to be honest, having some reserves feels important right now.

There’s a new sense of normalcy about this small life we’re leading now. A sense of living in an eternal present. Like we’ve entered a portal in a fairy tale, and when we come back, we’ll find that no matter how many months or years we were away, no time has passed. There’s some part of me that believes this, I think, and right now I’m not arguing with my brain’s survival strategies. Every day is a variation on the day before, and yet, there is always something small to look forward to, some small sense of momentum, something to be grateful for. There’s a great deal of privilege in the monotony of isolation, the luxury of turning one’s back on the world for an unknown period, the slowing down of time. Not turning one’s back exactly, but interacting from a distance, helping from a distance, loving from a distance. The scale of everything shifts, and if we are working on a smaller detail of the canvas, it’s highly magnified, so it takes up all the space it always did. Life takes up the normal twenty-four hours. Each day, in a tight household of four, feels full, although each is similar to the one before and the one after. The days pass quickly. Or slowly? Or both.

I started drawing again this week. Again, my canvas is small, not much past my backyard. I suspect I will be spending a lot of time in this small backyard the next few months. At this point, this year’s LUNA art project would have been well underway in High Park, all of us taking turns to meet and draw, partnering this time with the High Park Nature Centre, which, like everything else, is closed. When I think too far past my home and neighbourhood, I can feel the sadness. When I look at photographs, think about cancelled plans, notice the physical distance between people, I feel it. When I make those connections, I notice what is missing and not what is. What is is life around me, plants and birds to draw, warming weather for working outdoors, neighbourhoods to explore by bike. A riot of tree blossoms. A garden to plant and tend. My new symbiotic relationship with the sourdough to nurture (today’s bread, half white half rye, was amazing). There are poems to write, stories to tell, meals to make. I won’t push, but will surrender, actively surrender to what is here and what is possible. I will let myself be guided and pulled by curiousity, attention, love.

A few days after I wrote this, there is more and more talk about “opening up.” I am hopeful, but am also anticipating a rise in anxiety as that happens. And I think about the people who have not been able to hit pause in any way, who are busier than ever while also least sheltered and most at risk. A few days after this slightly idyllic reflection, I am zooming outward again,  feeling moments of rage as I read about the anticipated rise in car traffic from people continuing to avoid public transit, frustration about the still-scant infrastructure for cyclists and pedestrians in my city and North America in general, moments of judgment and despair when I wonder whether there will be any lasting positive changes that come out of this crisis, whether we can even agree on what we would want those changes to be (and all that’s just from looking locally). It’s too early to tell, I keep telling myself. It’s too early to tell.  And I remind myself how much all strong emotions teach me about what I value and where I need to direct my energy and attention. 

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5 thoughts on “The small details of the canvas (or zooming in and out again)

  1. You’ve captured me. Thank you. Open attenition to the scent of sourdough, the enigmatic passage of time, the brain’s way of lighting a fire under scarcity, abundance and adaption. More than this though my sense of bending toward the truth that our world is forever changed. I’m appreciating your reflections.

  2. I loved your last paragraph. I think it’s so important for us to be still and connect with our surroundings; the simple pleasures that otherwise get overlooked.

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