In praise of small projects

So I’ve got this really nice creative space to work in now, and…I’ve hardly stepped foot in it. Have I mentioned that I’ve got two high school seniors at home?

My daughter with a few of her admirers. We spent Saturday with Elks from all over Oregon.

My daughter with a few of her admirers. We spent Saturday with Elks from all over Oregon.

Spending time alone making things is good therapy for me. Focusing on creating keeps my brain from hamster-wheeling about things that do not benefit from pointless mind-spinning (Ack! I’ve got two seniors! How did that happen? What will their lives be like next fall? Where are the kids going to be living? How are we going to finance college? How did this happen so fast? What is my life going to look like now? What do I want it to look like? How did I get this old? Am I old?…), and time away from people recharges my batteries. (Learning about introversion changed my life. I suddenly understood why I felt exhausted so much of the time.) I’ve realized that when I don’t get any of this kind of time, I get really cranky.

The problem with getting only small bits of time for projects, of course, is that it can be hard to keep momentum going and to get anything finished, and that creates frustration. I get bugged because there are so many things I’d like to do, but I feel like I should limit myself to just one project (so that I can have hope of finishing something). Ideas for other things slip away from me before I can even capture them, creating a different kind of frustration. I start having difficulty choosing one to settle on, and fritter away what little time I have dinking around on nothing much of anything.

I'd really like to get back to this project, but it will take so long to finish and there are other things I want to do, too.

I’d really like to get back to this, but it will take so long and there are other things I want to do, too.

I’ve been realizing that it can be helpful to think of “create” in slightly different terms and to embrace the small project. There are a few I’ve done in the last few weeks that fall into this category.

Sewing Notions Holder

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Previously, my sewing notions have been both stuffed into a plastic bin with drawers and stashed in other places because the drawers weren’t big enough. As I put my studio together, I wanted something more functional. On a recent trip to The ReBuilding Center with Cane, I found a drawer with dividers in it. I saw an instant organizer for thread and pins and scissors and such:

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It was missing a knob, but I found a spare one in a box of knobs and handles in our garage. Not needed at all for function, but it’s cute.

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Normally I wouldn’t even think of this as a creative project, but it kinda was. I had to figure out where to put things. I found the mug for the fabric markers and decided how to use the spaces. I screwed the knob to the drawer just to make it a little more aesthetically pleasing. I was originally going to hang it on the wall, but then I decided I didn’t want to put more holes in it, and I like it resting as a shelf on top of my work table.

Nope, I didn’t do anything fancy or awesome. No tricky paint jobs or lining the back with decorative paper or anything, really, than propping it up on the table and filling it. But it’s now more functional and it’s visually pleasing (to me). Good enough.

Covered Notebooks

I wrote earlier about covering composition books, and last week I branched out to a different kind of notebook:

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I had some ideas for doing something more creative than simply affixing a piece of fabric to the cover, but I didn’t have time to play with any of those ideas. In the interest of getting something fiinished, I decided to let the fabric stand alone. Because, honestly? I like the fabric by itself just fine, especially on the back cover:

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I like that this playful unicorn is hiding out on the back cover. Too bad I chopped off his front hooves.

This fabric was a remnant from Bolt, a wonderful local fabric boutique. I bought it to cover a chair seat cushion, but it wasn’t right. So, now some of it is a notebook cover. I might play around with attaching a tie to it:

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But I might not. It’s really just fine the way it is.

I knocked this off on a day when I just needed a small win. I needed a little time in my studio by myself, puttering with fabric, and getting something to go right. I don’t even know what I’m going to do with this little notebook. It wasn’t really about the notebook–which is why I’m calling this one good just as it is.

Coffee cup Planters

I’ve got a bit of a problem with vintage kitchenware. I love old plates and bowls and mugs. I don’t have complete sets of anything because I could never settle on just one pattern. We have a random collection of things. Still, I don’t buy everything I love. (There’s too much!) What I do bring in has to be functional and fit with the other things we already have.

Over winter break, I found a sweet little trio of 70’s coffee cups. Normally, they are the kind of thing I would admire and then put back on the shelf. They are smaller than we like for coffee and tea. But they were just so cute, I decided I would get them and fill them with…something awesome.

…And they sat around our kitchen for well over a month with nothing awesome in them. Until I finally went out and got some little succulents for them:

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This is not the most original project. (Do a Google image search for “succulents in coffee cups” and you’ll see just what I mean.)

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It has also been a bit of a fail because one of them died almost immediately.

It went from this…

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…to this:

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So sad.

Nonetheless, I’m feeling inordinately pleased with these, despite the dead plant and lack of originality. Projects like these should count in our creative ledgers. I had to find time to get to the plant store, select the plants, and then get them into the little cups. Obviously, there’s some art to selecting the right plant (because one so clearly wasn’t).

I don’t have a good photo of these on my kitchen window sill (because the back light makes for a fairly terrible one), but that’s where they are. They fit perfectly there, and they please me every time I’m doing dishes. That’s definitely worth something.

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So, I got nothing ground-breaking or earth-shaking to share here today, other than perhaps this little bit of encouragement:

Maybe you’re doing more than you think you are.

Maybe you should give yourself more credit than you do. 

Maybe what you’re getting done is plenty. 

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27 thoughts on “In praise of small projects

  1. Sarah says:

    Oh, that last picture especially is lovely! It shows that these little things all add up. And, I can see the consistent aesthetic and sensibility behind all three projects.

    I think it’s funny that I’ve just written a post about my own super-small project. Great minds!

    I love your idea that “Projects like these should count in our creative ledgers.” They really should. For one thing, they build our creative muscles. For another, being able to see the creative possibilities in small everyday things is really a quite pleasant way to live.

    I’m kind of thinking of these projects as the creative equivalent of the brisk daily walk to the corner store. Maybe we’re in better shape overall if we incorporate these activities into our daily lives, rather than making Creativity or Exercise a separate thing.

    • Rita says:

      Yes, seeing the creative possibilities in small, everyday things really is a quite pleasant way to live. And I’d sure like to get to a place of seamlessly incorporating both exercise and creative play into my daily life. I’m sure the trick is to be both a little more intentional and a little more attentional (pretty sure that’s not a word, but it should be!).

  2. Gretchen says:

    oh, I love the succulent coffee cups! And I have had bad luck with exactly that variety of succulent, too, when I tried to transplant one. I love doing small projects; I always feel very accomplished about them….I have a hard time coming up with ideas for them, though, for some reason. All of my current project plans and ideas are of the totally overwhelming variety.

    • Rita says:

      Well, I’m glad to know it’s not just me! I think the succulents in cute little things craze is probably going to die out because I sense none of it looks good for long. I bought some last summer for other planters, and they’ve grown like crazy. Not sure how long mine are going to last, but they’re good for some winter cheer.

      As for the overwhelming variety, yeah, I get that. That’s partly what I was writing about here. I get frustrated because I can’t make the real progress I want to. I need to have some sense of finishing more quickly than I can get from the big projects (because not enough time to progress quickly). So, I’m trying to redefine “project” I guess.

  3. Stephanie says:

    HUZZAH for small projects! Goodness, they’ve kept me sane these past few years when the desire and energy to paint/write/take photos waned dangerously low. I’ve rearranged bookshelves, bought a new pillow to match a quilt that prompted the words “Looks like a clown puked in here!” from my husband, and created seasonal vignettes in the dining room display hutch. All small projects, all creative.

    I LOVE the succulents and though I’m sorry one of them died, those before & after photos did give me a much needed chuckle in my cubicle. So thank you for that. : )
    Stephanie recently posted…January: A Month of Insights and DelightsMy Profile

    • Rita says:

      Those are all creative projects, and as I’m reading your words I’m seeing that those are actually the kinds of things I often like best. Thank you for helping me see that more clearly.

      And anything I can do to make a cubicle brighter I’m happy to do! 🙂

  4. Lisa says:

    Little things add up to big things, but it feels like it takes so long to make progress (for me, anyhow). I keep thinking of the time confetti article. I just completed a pair of portrait paintings for my dining room, and it took me nearly two weeks of stolen moments to do them. Every moment that I was painting, my kids were watching tv.

    I love the fabric on the notebook, and the hidden unicorn on the back.
    Lisa recently posted…too many lemons, a chair I don’t needMy Profile

    • Rita says:

      Time confetti is exactly the issue. I’m drawn to small projects (just like I once wrote only poetry) because they don’t require big chunks of time. And the ones here don’t require big chunks of mental energy.

      I’m sure they were watching PBS, right? 🙂 Can’t wait to see your paintings.

  5. Marian says:

    I have to say, first off, that I LOVE your sewing notions drawer-turned-shelf (and the knob is absolutely perfect!). I don’t have a dedicated room/space for sewing, but have been toying with the idea of using a small (and slightly bizarre — it’s only accessible through my 17 year-old son’s bedroom) balcony area as a sewing/creative “room”. But I haven’t done anything towards doing this because of what I perceive to be the time sink involved in getting it all set up, and then I question whether or not I actually sew enough to make it all worthwhile. Sigh. As a fellow introvert I have to say I guard my time almost jealously — I used to do a phenomenal job of making the most of little bits of time for creative ends (in the “traditional” sense of creative), but lately I’ve felt more than just a bit at sea: I too am having trouble settling on “what to do” and feel I am frittering away my time more than I used to. I wonder if that’s a product of the age we’re at now? Are we really keenly feeling the preciousness of time these days and as a result putting too much pressure on ourselves to make sure we do “worthy” things? Which then almost becomes paralyzing? I really feel this is where I am!

    I really love your three bits of encouragement at the end of this post, Rita … and the fact that you’re broadening your definition of creativity. Personally, I have always felt that there’s an inherent creativity in all sorts of “domestic” chores, whether it’s cooking dinner or baking cookies or ironing clothes or taking care of plants or even (!) doing the dishes. All of these things take time, and they all translate into taking care of a family (which you’ve created) and a home (which you’ve also created) and while they may not be the big look-at-this-I-just-painted-an-abstract-landscape in-your-face type of creativity, I think they’re all part-and-parcel of the same thing.

    And — Congratulations to your daughter, Rita 🙂 .
    Marian recently posted…Soul-Sustaining Scenery Versus the TreadmillMy Profile

    • Rita says:

      Ah yes, I do think this stage of life has much to do with my sense that there’s not enough time. I never used to feel that way. I mean, there was never enough immediate time to do all I wanted, but I absolutely had the sense that there would be time enough down the road. The road’s looking considerably shorter than it used to! And some of the personal resources I count on are definitely diminishing, too. I’ve got another post on this starting to rattle around in my head. I’ll try to save my thoughts for a more coherent rambling.

      Also, I am definitely with you on thinking of home-making as a creative enterprise. My challenge is that those are not the creative outlets I’m much interested in now. (Maybe it’s part of that not-enough-time feeling?) I don’t like to cook, don’t much care about eating, and really wish I didn’t have to spend as much time as I do on that “creative” activity! While I will miss my kids like crazy when they leave me, I am looking forward to being able to call a grilled cheese sandwich “dinner.” 🙂

      And thank you for the congratulations. It’s so nice to see your kids get rewarded for all their hard work. We met some very nice and generous people this weekend.

  6. Kate says:

    We finished painting our bedroom & bathroom (HOORAY! The shower is finally finished and I will get to use it on Wednesday!) and all it proceeded to do was think of the million of other home projects (creative & otherwise) that I want to get done so my house feels like HOME.

    This post was such a great reminder today that the little things add up to big things. And that a little project – like straightening my yarn and putting away scrap paper for a later endeavor – can be just as satisfying when looked at in through the right lens.

    I’m starting to think that the universe is using blog entries like yours to bring home messages I really need to hear, which I know is quite woo-y but true none the less. 🙂

    (And I love that notebook – especially because of the unicorn).
    Kate recently posted…January LifeMy Profile

    • Rita says:

      I used to think the new book shelf at the library worked the same way for me. It seemed like it just kept having the books I needed to read. I didn’t *really* think it, but I was amazed at how the just-right books seemed to leap out at me, one after another.

      I didn’t include it in the post, but I did also spend time recently organizing my embroidery floss. Because I really am going to get back to the napkin project, but I couldn’t start until I had that thread under some control. Baby steps’ll get you there!

  7. Justine says:

    The drawer is so cute, the planters are so cute, the unicorn on the notebook is so cute, and YOU are too cute with your creative ventures. Love all of this. Well done, bravo and keep going. I love updates on small projects – easy to complete, makes the home happier. May your creative ledger be full with these projects your heart desires. YAY!

    • Rita says:

      Thank you! I generally tend to strive for fierce bad-ass (in a middle-aged mom sort of way), but today I’ll take cute and be thankful for it. 😉

    • Rita says:

      Dang, thanks. For me, home is about feeling at ease. Maybe that above just about anything else. That might be one of my biggest take-aways of the last two years.

      I won’t stop if you don’t. 🙂

  8. Deborah says:

    A wise and good friend of mine introduced me to the idea of ’10 minute jobs’ – those small things y can do on tiny snatches of time, that make a difference beyond the input of energy required. Like your sweet little plants in pretty cups, laying the table nicely, flowers in a jug,. And I’ve found her to be right.
    I remember walking with my then young son across a high alpine meadow and finding a fence and a gate dividing two pieces of land. The wooden gate had at its centre a beautifully cut heart shape. Totally unnecessary, and yet completely transforming this from something purely functional to a thing of beauty.

    • Rita says:

      I like this idea. Sometimes I get frustrated when I have days in row that allow only for 10-minute jobs–or have a day that seems to consist only of a very large number of 10-minute jobs–but this is a useful way to keep at the forefront the value they can carry.

      One of my favorite things are those such as your gate–when I see something that serves a very utilitarian purpose, with evidence that someone applied their artistry to it.

  9. Shannon says:

    I’m a little out of order in reading posts lately, but I wanted to comment even though this is from two weeks ago. I love this. The whole thing. The post. The projects. The drawer knob. All of it. There are a dozen things I could/would love to comment on in this post, but today is a day I recognize as a “limited energy” day for me, so I will have to keep it short. I will simply say, your writing, your site, is one of the few places on the web (or off the web, for that matter) where I feel completely at home. Every post you share has some element of making me feel comfortable in that “Rita totally *gets* me” way. I guess I can sum it up best by saying, I wish you lived next door to me, instead of across the country. And as an introvert who needs a TON of alone time, I do not say that lightly. haha! There are very few people that I would invite to live next door to me and actually be happy about it. You are one of those people, Rita. 🙂 Having read your post which has boosted my energy, I am now going to leave the internet to do off-liney things for awhile, lest somebody else come along and ruin this good mood you’ve managed to help me put myself into. 🙂
    Shannon recently posted…Ghost Of Information Enjoyment PastMy Profile

    • Rita says:

      Oh, man–I wish you lived next door to me, too! And I’m an introvert who needs a ton of alone time, too. We could hang out and do puzzles together. Hope you had a great day doing off-liney things–and thank you for bringing a big smile to mine. Your words gave me a lift today.

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