Monday, April 11, 2011

being concise

Over the weekend (when I should have been grading about a million essays, projects, tests, and other assignments as our school's quarter came to a close at 8am this morning), I re-watched A River Runs Through It with my boyfriend. Early on in the film, there is a scene where Norman is being home-schooled by his strict, though deeply loving, Presbyterian minister father. Time and again, Norman appears in his father's office with his literary composition. Marking it up generously with red, Norman's father repeatedly hands back his paper while directing Norman back to his room to make the composition "half as long." And this led me to consider being concise, the art of thrift.. and even more broadly, those words and things that are ungraceful, unnecessary... and by implication, the beauty of the unspoken evoked by the whisper of the just barely suggested, the scarcely but sufficiently enough.

And so I wonder, in saying less, are we really saying more?

To paint with a broad brushstoke, I found that most quotes related to thrift suggest that it enhances character. Why? Is the cultivation of thrift about efficiency? Or self-restraint?

If the latter, then we come to the question of why restraining oneself is a strong and desirable personality trait. Clearly, there are times when this is the obvious case -- restraining oneself from particular desires which (if acted upon) would hurt others and damage relationships; or restraining oneself from a simple thing like whipping through a red light when no one seems to be around (i.e. selfishly creating dangerous situations.)

Restraint structures the practice of many a religion. The reasoning behind fasting, observing silence, or extended meditation is that self-control actually frees one from being controlled by our senses, our emotions, the randomness of our thoughts, etc. Restraint thereby opens up more space, less "me"-filled space and more openness.. the openness that restraint (and its cousin, letting go) ultimately allows.

But what about this notion of the thrift of language, of being concise... which is where we began. When I think about young Norman, I think about the challenges of revising what you have to say with fewer words at hand. It would force you to make choices. Which words are the most appropriate? Which phrases and ideas are, in fact, central to your point? More broadly, what exactly is your point? This sort of thrift would also force you, as Norman suggests, towards seeing and valuing language in a way that only strict structure affords. And it would force you to recognize that so much can be said by what is not said, by what is absent, missing, by space itself.

In A River Runs Through It, Norman admires the fly-fishing precision and grace developed over the years by his brother, Paul. He comes to see how they are related -- measured, careful motions and a sort of grace that grazes perfection. What is Paul's perfection? It comes from the deep understanding of knowing when to move, even a millimeter, and when not to. It comes from the rhythm one develops through this focused, physical articulation of conciseness, brevity... transcience. And in this moment which is as close to the "exact" as we can get, we distance from ourselves... self-discipline leading to selflessness, the grace of just being.

One of life's quiet excitements is to stand somewhat apart from yourself and watch yourself softly becoming the author of something beautiful, even if it is only a floating ash.

I sat there and forgot and forgot, until what remained was the river that went by and I who watched. On the river the heat mirages danced with each other and then they danced through each other and then they joined hands and danced around each other. Eventually the watcher joined the river, and there was only one of us. I believe it was the river.

Like many fly fishermen in western Montana where the summer days are almost Arctic in length, I often do not start fishing until the cool of the evening. Then in the Arctic half-light of the canyon, all existence fades to a being with my soul and memories and the sounds of the Big Blackfoot River and a four-count rhythm and the hope that a fish will rise...

Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world's great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.

All of the above are pieces, spaces, unspoken thrifts from Norman Maclean's A River Runs Through It. And I wonder if somehow, the ability to "love completely without complete understanding" results from fostering, or at least consciously recognizing, the beauty, grace, temperance and spare honesty of the concise.

No comments:

Post a Comment