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If you take care of the small things

Updated: May 10, 2023

Yes, that's the first part of American poet Emily Dickinson's famous quote ... We'll deal with the later part - in relation to writing - next week. To begin, Robert Carrick, a member of SSOA's Tuesday evening group finds himself perched at a cafe table struggling with some minutae decision-making, Will I use these words, or some others? While Janet Coward thinks back to her grandmother's advice.

A tremendous decision

No, it’s a minor decision, I think.

I could write, ‘He watched as the woman gripped the top of a stanchion and swung her legs over the lifeline.’

Or alternatively, ‘He watched the woman grip the top of a stanchion and swing her legs over the lifeline.’

The difference between the two sentences is almost imperceptible, and they both seem to make sense.

Perhaps it doesn’t matter, or maybe it does, is the way my mind tussles with the dilemma.

I pick up my espresso and sip it as I scroll through the thousand or so words which I've just written and which had come easily. I’m tempted to move on and revisit my little problem later, but then again, this sentence is in the opening paragraph so it sets up the entire chapter.

I place a tiny yellow ceramic cup containing the dregs of my coffee back on its saucer and cast my eyes across the rusting cast-iron decor of the Blacksmith Cafe in Surry Hills. I wonder whether either of the two young baristas behind the counter who are preoccupied by the coffee machine might advise me. They are oblivious to my deliberations as they take orders from the tradies and early risers like me who are looking for a heart-starter after forty laps of Prince Alfred Park pool.

But I know they wouldn’t have the answer, anyway. Wouldn't know or care. They have their own small yet crucial decisions to make. This is a decision I must make alone and decide I must, for as Emily Dickinson once said, ‘If you take care of the small things, the big things take care of themselves.’

I pick up my phone, reopen Google Docs and mouth the passages under my breath. I could go either way, but now I know what I must do ...

Robert Carrick

If you take care of the small things ...

My grandmother would use the phrase, 'a stitch in time saves nine', which essentially extolls the virtue of taking care of, and dealing with, what we casually categorise as the small things in our lives.

The saying promotes taking appropriate and decisive action on just about everything. It's an expedient phrase in a way, and I think there is some truth to it.

The virtue of handling things quickly and thoroughly tends to bring about an easier life. Organised people know where they want to go and have at least some sort of an idea or plan to get there, so 'the big things take care of themselves'. Generally they lay the groundwork of their lives by acting quickly in regard to just about everything: they pay bills on time, they think ahead, they plan for what they want, and they are generally well thought of and liked, as they have fewer 'issues'.

Those people who end up having to sew 'nine stitches' tend to be those who don't identify or act on matters that need to be attended to within an appropriate time-frame. So they're setting themselves up for a difficult life, at least according to the holier than thou.

Yet it's important to acknowledge that a large percentage of the population does not take care of the small things. So, these people often end up having to deal with problems brought about by their own lack of attention and reluctance to act.

While these phrases are quaint and an obvious tool belonging to a very different world, their meaning will always be salient. We don't tend to use mini-homilies as generally accepted sayings any more, as we speak more directly.

'A stitch in time saves nine' and 'If you take care of the small things, the big things will take care of themselves', carry universally wise advice, but many people would not understand their meaning now. One reason is that most people in the wealthy West don't have much of a view beyond their own small 'first word problems', and have never had to think about what a stitch is or does, let alone stoop to sewing. They are all, in accord with the fate of the sayings, victims of a changing world.

Janet Coward

Copyright: texts from the authors cited above; photos: Wix.

Posts on this SSOA blog are published to showcase the work of emerging writers who meet weekly to workshop stories. The posts comprise just some of the responses written in just 10 minutes as a warm up to the meetings.

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