Thinking small

For a long time, I never left home without my worn pocket edition of the Tao Te Ching tucked behind my wallet almost like a talisman. The possibility that the essence of an entire belief system can be transmitted in such a concise package was particularly compelling. It’s like the childhood delight of imagining an acorn clutched in a small grimy palm as the literal summary of an enormous oak tree and realizing that one could neatly bounce that entire potential oak tree off an unsuspecting sibling’s head—a perfect philosophical pleasure. In a time when novels are metastasizing into carbuncular paperbacks so bloated with filler that their overloaded bindings burst and spurt acid-soaked newsprint pages like spores into the wind, the compelling brevity of the best works of the form remind us how right the Buddhists were when the patiently told us that the best things in life are often the most fleeting.

Diminutive things hold a power over us thanks to the little voices built into our DNA over the last million years that whisper to us as we look at mewling, horrific babies, “Isn’t she just darling?” It’s a workable evolutionary strategy to keep us from eating our children when we get stressed, but like most genetic leftovers, its influence extends into new territories as we road the strange landscape of right here, right now. “That’s a cute car,” we exclaim, cooing over the new Mini, or we mutter “What a neat laptop,” looking over the newest product of the computer industry with a bemused smile we’d usually reserve for a particularly auspicious infant. Our delight tricks us into ignoring our cynicism and the result is occasionally a Lilliputian revolution—the sublime made palatable by the illusion of simplicity afforded by scale.

The notion that limitations are a form of freedom may be an Orwellian paradox, but there’s no disputing that reducing one’s options imposes a discipline of maximization almost by necessity. When my friend Mars Tokyo danced a tiny minuet with razor blades, gouache, and glue, and built the first in her persistent series of nearly microscopic theaters, I realized that I’d long been trying to do the same thing as an electronic musician, shedding the heavy baggage of endless gear and unlimited options in favor of mobility and an entirely bearable lightness of being. Yet I find I want for nothing. Freedom lies in little places.

© 2002 Joe Belknap Wall

Originally published in issue #1 of Radar Review Magazine.