Some of the best words in the world are old and rarely used. Unless you’re lapidicolous (given to living under a rock), you know that language is labile (unstable and given to change). Shakespeare’s “forsooth” and great-Grandma’s “tussy mussy” have disappeared from common speech, along with other archaic, old-fashioned and fussy words that help to trace the contours of an old-fashioned and fussier world.
Sometimes such words were meant to conceal as much as they revealed. Euphemisms, nice little words and phrases like “passed away”, “concrete overshoes” and “broad across the beam” always have served as a kind of verbal code for cautious or bashful conversationalists.
One of my favorite euphemisms is the word “smalls”. Where I grew up, when it came time to hang laundry on the outdoor clothes line mothers would say to their daughters, “Be sure to hang the smalls on the inside lines”. For speakers of both American and British English, “smalls” were underwear: the panties, bras and briefs not fit to display in public. Hanging them on the inside lines where sheets and towels shielded them from view saved self-conscious children embarassment and prevented nosy neighbors or passers-by from drawing conclusions about the owner of the “smalls” as they examined the lace, ribbon, patterns or color of the “unmentionables”.
But for mothers and children of the time, “smalls” also had another, quite different meaning. Those other smalls were an eclectic assortment of remnants, baubles and bits usually found in boxes or tins at the back of a closet. They were pretty things, frivolous things, things that could keep an engrossed child busy for hours as she pawed through them, sorting, selecting, re-arranging and admiring their glowing, intricate beauty. Snippets of lace, broken strings of beads, buttons and rhinestones, tatted flowers, bits of embroidery floss ~ they were as compelling as they were tiny.
Sometimes the women did re-use their lace to decorate lingerie. Just as often, it trimmed bed linens or Baptismal gowns. Tatted flowers went on doll clothes. Pearls, faceted glass beads and bits of jet were restrung into necklaces for dolls, or little girls. Buttons served as coins in a million play transactions, and as for the rhinestones ~ rhinestones became diamonds, harsh as moonlight on snow, brilliant as the stars, jewels embedded into a thousand childhood dreams.
Accustomed as we are to a bigger-is-better mentality, we tend to discount not only the “smalls” of that simpler world, but “small” in its every form. We equate small with insignificance. We assume small items to be less valuable, small plans unworthy of consideration and small events of little consequence.
In truth, we misunderstand the power of the small and the singular. Small treasures, distillations of beauty and elegance that fit into the palm of a hand as easily as sunlight lies across a meadow, are approachable rather than overwhelming. They speak with their own voice and teach their own lessons. They reveal their truths with a certain intimacy, enduring over time in a way the larger gifts of life cannot.
My own fascination with all things small began with the gift of a small sterling box, tucked into the toe of a Christmas stocking. I received a new bicycle that same year as my “big” present, and was more than satisfied. But at the urging of my parents, I went back to the stocking and discovered the box buried beneath a clutch of candy canes, chocolate Santas and colored pencils. Less than an inch across, heavily embossed and set with glittering glass jewels, it was padded and lined with burgundy silk. Hinged but without a clasp, it wasn’t suited to hold anything. It simply was.
Eventually and to my grief, the box disappeared, washed away by the great tide of life. But it was only the first of an assortment of cherished smalls that have fallen into my life. An elegant rhinestone bracelet, gold weights from Ghana, a bronze medicine pot, an intricately carved soapstone candle holder, a wooden fife, a pocket watch, a jangle of eight silver bracelets both bartered and bought – none of these treasures would fetch many dollars on the market, yet each is priceless. Exquisitely crafted, inherently beautiful, overlaid with the patina of memory and polished by decades of loving touch, they are my life, easily fitted into a suitcase or purse.
Just as our mothers and grandmothers hoarded their smalls, the lovely and fragile detritus of their lives, I continue to collect smalls, talismans and touchstones that help me remember what I have lived and the places from which I have come. Others find themselves intrigued by the challenge of creating smalls – painters and writers, musicians and sculptors who by accident or design find themselves scaling things down in order to maximize impact.
A wonderful example is the current exhibit showing at the West End Gallery in Corning, New York. Called “Little Gems”, it highlights the work of a variety of artists who may or may not work regularly in a smaller format. Martin Poole, whose large, luminous landscapes I find particularly appealing, is showing a number of small portraits, including this exquisite 8″ x 6″ Profile.
Artist GC Myers, whose thoughtful and interesting Redtree Times I read regularly, has an extraordinary style that translates beautifully to smaller-sized works. Night Entreaty, shown below in actual size, is remarkable proof that strong lines and bold color don’t have to depend on a large canvas for their effect.
As interpreted by this pair of artists, small is neither prissy nor precious. I suspect that, seen in person, their small canvases would do more effectively what they do well enough here: focus the eye, the attention and the heart in arresting and memorable ways.
Ribbons and lace, a scattering of beads. Sterling boxes gifted by love and silver bracelets discovered by chance. Washes of paint and smudges of charcoal arranged by an artist’s hand – each of these tiny treasures of life reminds in its own way that while bigger always is bigger, it isn’t necessarily better. In life as in art, even the small has its place.
In the ages-long struggle against adversity, the smallest gesture counts. In the midst of the world’s anonymous masses, the most insignificant and unnoticed person is worthy of infinite respect. The most hidden event may alter the course of history forever, and the larger forces pulsing through society and occasionally raging through the natural world are not the only harbingers of beauty and truth.
In the midst of the blizzard, each single snowflake counts. In the midst of the flood, a single rock stands firm. In a forest of doubt the straight tree of truth still rises up, and in the midst of every flock flies the small and solitary singer, lilting its heart to the sky.