The Exquisite Art of Procrastination
Never put off till tomorrow what you can do today.
The wisdom of Thomas Jefferson! I grew up frequently reminded by teachers and parents that I should diligently commit to doing the things I could do each day, and especially where homework was concerned – never to put off until tomorrow what could be done today. The quote was never attributed to anyone. It was just a nagging reminder, that like it or not, I grew up to know this was really to way to live. Perhaps hearing this all the time helped me to become the self-disciplined person that I am. Perhaps having absorbed this way of thinking contributed to my obsessive compulsive issues. Who knows?
I have procrastinated lately as far as my writing is concerned. In November I wrote 50,001 words. I had hoped to maintain this momentum, but alas, life truly got in the way. I nursed my sick daughter after surgery. I prepared for Christmas. I became obsessed with tidying my office, sorting out files and papers I had been avoiding for years. I know I need to find some way to control my environment as stress at the amount of things I need to do escalate. My office is almost in order now. I still have a lot to do. My writing and research files are almost rationalized. I can’t believe the number of notebooks I have. I keep all my writing note-books. You never know when an idea you came up with 10 years ago will suddenly find its way into a new piece you are working on.
I decided I needed to get back to Big Sur once my daughter had recovered from her surgery. I set off with the intention of having ten blissful days of uninterrupted writing. I wouldn’t have to come down from the mountain perhaps more than once. It turned out that I went down the mountain once for an eighty mile return trip to town. It was an efficient trip. I decided I needed to plant six more trees. I don’t have room in my car for these, so my friend Dale took me to town in his truck. I wanted to get the trees planted during the rainy season, so they would get established before the drought filled months of summer ahead. Would you believe it but the weather turned? There hasn’t been any rain during these last few weeks, and there isn’t any in the forecast either. Instead we’ve had sunshine and temperatures ranging from the mid-seventies to low eighties. Wonderful, I know, but not good for newly planted trees. Planting the trees was to be my reward for chunks of writing. I would take a break every couple of hours and plant a tree, or try to get on with some of the winter work that involves taming the rapidly growing wilderness around the barn house.
It is so difficult to stay indoors and write when the sun is shining. The low tide invites walks on the beach to enjoy the silence interrupted only by the familiar and comforting crashing waves that relax me so much. Before long I realized that writing had taken a slight back-stage position to spending time out-doors. I could justify tree planting for the sake of it, not just as a reward. Guilt set in. Random justifications for my procrastination grew.
In all of the delight of putting off today what I decided could in fact be done tomorrow or the next day, I had forgotten how I wrote prior to the November challenge. I am a writer who writes a lot in my head. I think about things, muse on the characters and the story or essay I am writing. After periods of this deep thought and meditation times, I can often sit down at my computer and write, almost ready to print, what I have already written in my head.
What I had lost sight of in all of the guilt of my procrastination was that procrastination as I was defining it during this time was not really procrastination. I’ve decided to use the term procrastination while writing this Blog entry, as this is what we writers seem to nag ourselves with and beat up on ourselves about, frequently to the detriment of our writing.
My dear friends on my ridge, Sue and Jean, frequently hold what I call Lady’s night, or movie night, depending on whether we just want to chat and have fun, or watch a movie together. I love these evenings. Sue is a great cook and insists on feeding us sumptuously. Jean is a gentle and fun host. She is a brick I look to for balanced opinions and advice. Last week I got it into my head that I wanted to make dinner and take it with me to our lady’s night. Besides, having to cook dinner would mean that I had to take significant time out of writing.
I started the dinner preparations the night before. I love baking bread. Sometimes I make Irish Soda Bread. Other times I make a loaf of bread that virtually makes itself over night. On this occasion I made the simple over-night bread. I decided to make two loaves of bread. One was a simple rustic loaf, and the other was a roasted garlic and rosemary loaf.
I started with a sunset trip to the garden to pick rosemary. With enough rosemary to cook with and to fill my favorite flower vase, I headed back to kitchen as the red glow of the setting sun blanketed the sky in hues of comfort. I stood for a while observing the rose-washed kitchen light and I felt overcome with gratitude for the magnificence of Sur, and my home in particular. I began the process of preparing garlic to roast and caramelize.
I gently crushed the cloves beneath the heel of my hand. The crinkly wafers of the silken skin fell away opening the cloves to the promise of flavorful bread and memories of a time when as a child I learned to cook in France.
There is nothing quite like the taste of caramelized garlic. My cast iron skillet is one hundred and eight years old. Every time I use it I am conscious of the fact that I am only one of many people to have coaxed the flavor from raw ingredients to provide a delicious repast for people. I wonder about the hands that have held the skillet, about the thoughts of the cooks who watched the food and stirred it and flipped meat over in the pan. I wonder about the lives of my fellow cooks. Were they happy people? Were they servants preparing food for their employers? When was the skillet released from servitude to become the property of a modern-day cook? What were the stories of the skillet keepers’ lives? (Note to self, scribbled on writing notepad always kept on kitchen counter-top – The Skillet keeper, or The Skillet, or Journey of a Skillet, or Story of a Skillet, or just write a short story about the cast-iron skillet and find the title later.) I can muse about how the skillet travelled and how it passed from one person to another before winding up in the second-hand kitchen equipment shop in San Francisco where I bought it. (Add these questions and brief notes on musings to the idea bank you’ve just started on kitchen note-pad.)
I drizzle the olive oil into the already warmed skillet. I don’t measure anything. I just feel what the right amounts of things are. Maybe it is a tablespoon-ish of the Italian cold-pressed olive oil. Can you imagine what it takes for a small independent grower to pick all of those olives and prepare them for crushing? Is the oil in the skillet a product of a long line of garlic growers? Is the warming oil I smell as the flavorful scent opens up released from its previously bottled confinement the product of a family business? Is it the product of a business where some of the family strives, sometimes against the economic odds to keep the business in the family, while perhaps a brother or sister wants to sell the business and free themselves of the pungent perfume that has defined their lives up until this point? (Note to self – The Olive Tree – possible short story, or an essay – could research a family olive business etc.)
I’m careful to caramelize the garlic cloves slowly. While they sizzle softly on the stove I get out the flour, yeast, Kosher Salt and water I will need for the bread. I will make one large amount of dough, then, divide it in half setting half aside for the garlic and rosemary addition. I strip the rosemary wood of the spikes. I like to do this. I like to strip herbs from their stalks. Forget the modern herb stripper things you can buy in the kitchen shop. I play instead. Holding the rosemary stalk firmly in one hand I recite the childhood verse. Tree in summer, tree in winter, bunch of flowers, April showers. I remember the joke and stripping the blades from the stalks of plants when I was a child. I remember thinking how gullible my victims were as they stared at what looked like a miniature bunch of flowers held tightly between my fingertips, and I remember the sometimes laughter and sometimes anger as I tipped the torn-off Autumn ‘flowers’ over the head of my victim as I announced April showers. My Rosemary shower is now laid out on my chopping board. When the bread dough is ready I will work the thin blades of Rosemary into the dough along with the garlic.
The kitchen is filled with the scent of the golden garlic and the fresh Rosemary. When I was fourteen years old I went to France to stay with a family for a month. There were three children, two girls and a boy. We had fun. The family didn’t speak any English and so I spoke French, struggling to get to grips with all the new words. The children loved to play outside and I learned to play all sorts of games I hadn’t played before. My favorite activity though, was hanging out in the kitchen with the mother, Madam Lavaud. The other kids avoided the kitchen other than to raid the pantry for cookies and chocolate. I wanted to be in the kitchen whenever the mother was in there. I longed to help her prepare meals. I wanted to learn as much from her as I could about cooking. This worked well for both of us. Madam Lavaud enjoyed my company and my interest. She loved how I wanted to help and was eager to learn. We chatted a lot about all sorts of things. I think I learned a lot about family values from her. She was one of the most beautiful and loving people I would ever meet in my life. I decided one day as I made my first vinaigrette under the close supervision of Madam, that when I grew up my kitchen would exude the scent of fresh herbs, garlic and lemons.
The caramelized garlic is cooling. I don’t want to add the garlic to the dough hot as it is. It could interfere with the rising process. I’ve poured the flour, dry yeast, and salt into the mixing bowl. I stir it around gently using my right hand. I add the water encompassing the dry ingredients into a ball. At the first sign of drying I add more water to the dough and keep doing that until I am satisfied that the dough is the right consistency. The dough clings to my hand and I love the sensation of the stickiness that I eventually remove from my hand one finger at a time. It mustn’t be too dry, it is important to strike the balance between sticky and dry. It’s better to be more sticky than dry though. My left hand is still clean and free of flour so I use it to add the garlic and rosemary. I incorporate them into the dough with my right hand. With heavy sticky hand, fingers joined in doughy-ness, I turn the garlic-rosemary dough ball out onto a floured countertop. This bread recipe doesn’t require much kneading. I am careful not to over work the dough. I fold the dough in half over itself. I quarter turn the dough and fold again. I do this four times gently. This dough is made with love. I am careful not to stretch the dough and ruin the effect of the gluten. I nurture this magic cushion of dough beneath the heels of my hands. Placing the dough back in the bowl I cover it with cling-film, leaving it to rise uninterrupted for 14 hours.
I’m at the kitchen sink now. The sun has set and I have lit candles and switched on the soft lamp that sits on the Welsh Dresser. Grace, the cat, is snuggled on the top of the sofa turning her head to blink at me periodically. I have brushed her several times today and am on reprieve from the blue brush. I wash some dishes and wipe out the skillet. I’m careful to allow the garlic to add to the flavor bank and patina of the skillet. I wonder what Madam Lavaud would have thought of my bread baking. When I was with her we would go to the bakery every morning around 7am to buy fresh baguettes and croissants. Driving home with madam Lavaud, whether it as after a grocery shopping trip, an afternoon at the beach with all of us kids, or a trip to the farm raised crab and langoustine ponds to pick up dinner which we would kill and cook, it was an adventure. Suddenly Madam Lavaud would jam her foot on the accelerator and we would be taken on a rough and swerving ride. Slamming on the brakes abruptly, leaving us kids with a touch of whip-lash, madam would jump out of the car and bring back her trophy – rabbit for dinner tomorrow night. (Another note to self on the kitchen writing notebook – France for a month, a 14 year olds perspective, Rabbits and Truffles, mustn’t forget our truffle hunting with the useless dog. Cooking lessons. Can’t think of a title right now, but I could write a short story about this, but it also needs to be included in the memoir piece I’m writing now.)
Reading in the meadow overlooking the south coast. Photo taken by Dale.
I have a little time to read and so I head for my favorite reading spot in the garden. I’m reading as part of my research for Kippers and Bombs. I’ve cleaned up the kitchen. I can’t help but peek at the rising bread to see the bubbles develop. Tomorrow I will prepare the Bolognese sauce I will use in the lasagna. I will make the béchamel sauce stirring stories into it and making notes as I go along.
Lasagne, baked and ready to go.
I will bake Karleen’s favorite chocolate cake, and I will take it all to share with my friends.
Procrastination dinner, a few books, and the notes I have jotted down.
I am certain there will be another few notes-to-self on the kitchen counter, and another writing timetable to include all of these new ideas. I am sure I will work my reading allowance into the day also. For now, after such an exquisite day, I will put on some music, Cello, at this time of the evening. I’ll sip a glass of red wine, expand a little on the notes I have jotted down while cooking, and make a timetable for working on these essay and story ideas starting tomorrow morning at 5am. I’ll take Grace with me and we’ll snuggle down for an early night.
Grace has had enough of my distraction. It is time to fuss over her.
There is a lot of writing to be done tomorrow, as well as tree planting and cooking before dinner with the ladies of the ridge. I’ve procrastinated enough for one day, don’t you think?
Back to work tomorrow - making sure to stay focussed.