The other night, I was flipping through the cable movie channels and happened upon the closing scene of A River Runs Through It. You may know it: An old man stands in a beautiful mountain stream, fly-fishing in golden evening light, as the narrator reads the final lines from Norman Maclean's novella of the same name:
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. I am haunted by waters.
I got moist-eyed, as I always do when I watch that scene or read those words. I don't know what that says about me or why those sentences move me so. But I'm sure we all have cultural artifacts — books, songs, paintings, poems — that have shaped who we are, that return to "haunt" us thoughout our days.
I have a pal who keeps a bound collection of Hemingway's Nick Adams stories on his bedside table, returning to them like an old lover, night after night. Another friend knows all the words to Bob Dylan's "Tangled Up in Blue" and can't tell you why, only that it's important. My brother listens to "Trouble" by Cat Stevens and gets emotional.
"Someday Soon" by Judy Collins always hits me in the heartstrings. I reread Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance every few years, and it never fails to resonate. There's a small Van Gogh painting of crows over a cornfield in the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh that I used to go stare at on my lunch hour. The artifacts of my life, I guess.
The truth is, the art that moves us also defines and reveals us, whether it's Puccini or Prince. So I wonder sometimes what my children's generation's artifacts will be. Is there a poignant and meaningful Jay-Z song out there? Is Garden State destined to be this generation's Casablanca? Probably not. My son gave me a DVD copy of director Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo for Christmas. He's probably trying to tell me something — whether he knows it or not.