When I arrived in San Francisco, I was new. I had shed the skin of an old and tired chapter in my life, with nothing but adventure before me. Well, almost. For many months after moving to this beautiful city, I carried a burden of lost love. I wrote often during that time, as it was rich with drama and wonder, and writing is a necessary part of my soul. It is in these bold new moments that we encounter hallways within ourselves, paths that take us to memories of our future selves. These are memories we come to cherish throughout our lives, moments that become building blocks of our hearts. It is about such a moment that I write this today, after nearly a year traveling along a path that will serve as a central conduit of my future creative self.
(It may not be apparent yet, but I’m talking about how origami cranes changed my life. Stay with me. It’s worth the read. This story is about the evolution of self, annealed by hard work and tedious patience. It’s a story about love and dedication, to others and to oneself. And it’s about a whole lot of folded paper birds.)
Let’s start with scale
How many things can you honestly say you’ve done a hundred times? Sure, we talk about things as if we’ve done them many many times, but there are few things you’ve actually done a hundred times. Some of us (probably not even me) can say we’ve read 100 different books. That counts, right? Yes! What else? Think bigger.
At some point in the last year, I had a discussion with my cousin about things we’ve done a thousand times. Being a highly intelligent person, he immediately identified biological things, like breathing or heartbeats or pooping.
Fun fact: if you poop twice a day every day for 20yrs, that’s still less than 15k times. I was surprised, too.
If we eliminate things your body does (sometimes without your consent), we’re left with a slightly different approach: decisions. If we focus on choices we make actively, we’re left with a much more obvious set of things. As an example, I proposed that I may have pressed the clutch pedal in my Honda over a thousand times. While we don’t normally think of these things as choices, they are. As we expanded on the theme, things like toggling a light switch came into view. Maybe opening a refrigerator, or opening a beer. Some of us may be surprised at the number of beer bottles we opened in college. Others will be proud.
Still, if we reduce the scope just a bit further, we see things in an entirely different light. How many things have you done intentionally one thousand times? I can say with certainty that in my case, it is no less than one, but also probably not greater than one either. I know this because I set out to fold one thousand origami cranes, and I completed the task. I am proud that it took only a few months, and I’ve met others in the last year who have folded more cranes in less time. Still, it is an empowering achievement.
Those of you who follow my Twitter or Instagram feed will already know of my quest to assemble one thousand origami cranes into a tapestry to hang on my wall. What you might not know is the deeper story behind it all. As it turns out, this sort of thing requires a great deal of planning. One does not simply conjure up a tapestry made of paper cranes. It takes careful strategy and accounting (mostly that second thing). There were piles of cranes around my house, each representing an even hundred. They added up quickly.
It all actually started when I read an article about the senbazuru legend. Last year, for my grandfather’s 75th birthday, I gave him 75 cranes to celebrate his life and family. I made ten of each of five colors, representing his children, and 25 of a sixth color to represent my grandmother, who had died the previous year. They were divorced for many years, but we all saw the pain in his eyes at her funeral service. This experience sparked my interest in pursuing the thousand.
Traditionally, people assemble cranes onto strings and hang the strings to blow in the wind. It is an overwhelming experience to enter a room where hundreds of cranes hand from the ceiling. After my experience with my grandfather’s birthday gift, I came to consider some ideas about the idea of weaving the cranes together. My first attempt was simply to hang the strings together on a stick (sourced from my grandfather’s lumber pile). What I realized from this experience was that every crane moves independently – a lot. Simply hanging them will not be possible beyond a small number of strings. They would need to be woven together.
So Many Birds…
After the first dozen or so, I started to get into the groove. I found a good foil paper I really liked, and I set out to find all the great cafes in my neighborhood. A google search will reveal a disturbingly large number of cafes in SF. I set out to visit them all, spiraling outwards from my apartment, while folding cranes at each. Over the first month, I was visiting new places three or four times per week. The unfortunate thing about outward spirals is they take longer and longer with each subsequent attempt. I think at last count, I had visited 15 cafes before I finished folding all the cranes. Granted, that took three months, and I started folding more at home as the months went on. Still, it was a fascinating journey.
At one cafe, I met a young woman studying at a local university. She was working on a masters degree and had her face buried in a boring-looking book when I sat down across from her. One thing I’ve really grown to love about SF is the community feeling I get in a lot of cafes. The seating layouts inspire a sense of warmth and openness. Every time I’ve sat down at a table of strange people, I’ve made new friends. This new friend told me of a hazing ritual in her sorority, where they were forced to fold a lot of origami cranes in a short time as proof of their dedication to the group. I was in a competitive phase of my crane folding practice, and I asked her how quickly she could fold one. She stunned me with a casual recollection of once folding fifty (50) cranes in an hour, while sitting in a lecture. Even after folding a thousand, I am nowhere near a one minute bird. My personal best is 2mins 20secs.
When I first started, I put so much care into each fold, it would sometimes take 10mins to fold one bird. As I grew more and more familiar with the shape of the crane and the feeling of the paper in my fingers, I started to gain a sense of what was important. I found myself drawn to focus precisely on critical folds. For the rest, I could be sloppy, and it wouldn’t matter. Eventually, this became clear as a life lesson as well.
An Unexpectedly Spiritual Path
Knowing the different between what is important and what can be thrown together is a crucial component to success. After spending a few months folding cranes, I had my big beautiful pile of shiny cranes. I had kept track of them, meticulously counting them over and over, to make sure I had the correct number of each color. Initially, I had designed a shape that represented my partnership with a great love. I envisioned a clock shape, where the minute and second hands pointed to our birthdays. It was an ambitious project, and in many ways it mirrored my perspective on the relationship. Our lives diverged, and it took nearly a year to process what I thought was the loss of my greatest love.
I spent many hours folding cranes and reflecting on my experiences with her. I even sent her photos of the first 29 cranes, made in blue (her favorite color), a celebration of one of the clock hands, which would point at 7 and 29 (29 July, her birthday). I considered this to be a pinnacle of romantic gestures. She never spoke to me again. It would be many weeks before I finally came to realize that she had no interest in continuing a relationship with me. She became a ghost in my eyes.
I had spent all this energy focused on a life with her, but I never really put much thought into what I wanted. As I folded crane after crane, I endured strong emotions. I sometimes crushed a partially finished bird or ripped it apart and threw the pieces in the air, frustrated with my memory of her. Eventually, those thoughts faded, and I found serenity in the cranes once again. When I folded the last crane, I wrote my wish inside, to be lost in the thousand.
Japanese legend says the crane spirit will grant a wish to anyone who folds one thousand origami cranes.
It is unclear whether this wish is to be kept secret. I prefer to keep it secret here, sharing it with a precious few. What I will share is the journey along the path to my final wish.
The Unselfish Path
When seeking a wish from a presumed deity from a religion I do not follow, I had no real frame of reference. At first, I considered wishes like “world peace,” but that quickly became obviously broad and unrealistic. Also, I find that one especially ambiguous, as if “world” implies “the world we live in” and not some other planet. I also find the word “peace” especially concerning in this vague context, as it could easily be interpreted as “compliant in response to overwhelming oppression.” That seemed like a terrible end to bestow upon someone, certainly when intending to do something good for others.
So, world peace is out. Let’s aim smaller. The wish granted by the crane spirit is often described as general health of loved ones or specific prayers for one person. This part was the hardest. I began to wish vision and/or understanding upon a specific person, namely my lost great love. I was convinced that if she simply understood things more clearly, she would see the glory of a life with me. After meditating on this for a good long time (maybe 200 cranes worth; I began to think of them as meditation currency), I found that the universal benefit of wishing for anything like love was in this case exactly zero. After we’re both dead, any love we feel – for each other or otherwise – dies with us. That imparts exactly nothing to the greater good.
I can’t wish for a bigger television. I can’t wish for world peace. I can’t bring back the dead or make someone love me or anyone else. I can’t even wish that wishes were easier to choose! I need something bigger than myself, but not so big that it’s unrealistic. In the end, I settled on a mantra, something I can champion throughout my life and share with others who agree with the philosophy. In choosing a mantra as my wish, I gained an appreciation for the fallacy in the nature of reward.
I began this journey hoping to earn something, hoping to prove something. Now that I’ve completed it, I see that I earned nothing and proved nothing. And in the process I learned a little something about everything. It was never about my wish. It was never for love. It was about the devotion I invested into this one task, about taking an active role in my own future.
I now have this amazing tapestry on display in my home, woven from a thousand origami cranes. As it formed and changed, it was made stronger and more beautiful, annealed through the forge of time. I find it fitting that the tapestry’s final shape is a shield with two mirrored birds, flying through each other. To me, it represents the duality and independence of love, two fierce creatures seeking a balance between freedom and companionship.
Now, I share it with you on this anniversary of my birth. I hope it brings you as much joy as it has brought me, this year and for many years to come. 🎁