August 9, 2010


I was amazed. I admit it. I’d never paid much attention to the art of origami before, but after seeing the film “Between the Folds,” I experienced a revelation.

Of course, I’d seen women at the Japanese Garden fold birds or flowers from a single sheet of paper. The craft was interesting but not compelling. “Between the Folds,” brought a different level of appreciation. I discovered how the art evolved and learned how its techniques grew into greater complexity so that even the most intricate designs, the most detailed dragons and figures and porcupines could be depicted as they appear in life. My eyes were amazed; my imagination stunned. Initially, I refused to believe so much multiplicity could be derived by the folding paper. 

As the film progressed, I noted that a number of modern practitioners had begun to turn away from intricate detail to simpler lines. The newer shapes were to the past what Mondrian’s paintings were to classical art. Mondrian would reduce an accurate rendition of a vase with flowers to a grid of colors and shapes. To ask the question, “Which painting is better,” is meaningless for though Mondrian’s work derives from the classical, his goal isn’t describe flowers as they appear in nature but to capture the simplicity of their lines and color. To get a clearer view, he subtracts what he considers non-essential. The simplicity that emerges is like a meditation.  

Science, too, knows the virtue of stripping an event its core. A scientific theory or a mathematical formula is considered elegant when its solution is simple.

Language follows the same path. Over time, the rules of punctuation and grammar become less fussy. Today, the sentences “If I were king,” or “If I was king?” are interchangeable to all but a rigid grammarian. The spelling of words is simplified — nite for night — and don’t get me started on text messaging. And as to the need to write in complete sentences? Talk to James Joyce about that.

Why the origami program made me catch my breath is the insight it provided: The same principle of moving from the complex to simple applies as we grow old. At 73, I need less baggage than I did when I was 43. A friend who had recently turned 70 said she was afraid of becoming irrelevant even though she respected the need to let the younger generation take charge of the world. I told her I took a different view. One doesn’t become irrelevant. One changes one’s view of what’s important. Being old means not having to multitask, not having to raise a family and work and keep up with the Jones at the same time. With age irrelevancy means the freedom to focus, the ability to think deeply without distraction, the way an infant focuses on the petals of a flower when seeing it for the first time.

Wordsworth wrote, “The Child is father of the Man.” We’re meant to understand that if we are lucky, we come to an age when we can look upon the world with childlike wonder. My 70 year-old friend is in no danger of becoming irrelevant. At 70, she is free to define what relevancy is. 

Like the trend in origami, there is a time in one’s life when we are invited to see the essential rather than the complex. We discover a single sheet of paper has the potential to contain much beauty and much peace.