During this election season I’ve been doing my part for America by folding brightly colored paper. I learned origami as a child back when you bought the paper, “read” the instructions, which were just drawings of paper folds with allegedly meaningful arrows, and went for it. Unsupervised was the name of my hobby game.
On my own I learned to make the usual suspects of birds, animals and stars. As I improved, my favorite shapes to create were the piano and the lobster, although as an adult I realize the latter was a shrimp. Again — back then iffy translations were part of the fun.
I kept myself occupied for many an hour with my origami and included my prized creations in cards and gifts for family and younger children.
But the most famous of all origami critters, the Japanese crane, eluded me. I followed the instructions and folded my little heart out, but at the same stage — no matter which instructions I followed, I became stuck. The drawing insisted it was simple enough: Something that looks like roof girders is folded up and pulled a bit until it looks briefly boat-ish and then you push down and have the wings.
I tried everything. I folded, poked, even blew in it to puff it out. Each time the fold would tear, smush, unfold or meet with some other decidedly uncranelike end.
The Japanese crane is a symbol of peace but that avian paper menace eventually made me throw tantrums and turn against my origami love. I took up sewing instead to regain some sort of equilibrium in my life.
Recently, after decades of abstention from the great art of Japanese paper folding, I decided to give it another go. I was giving a presentation for residents at an assisted living facility. The cranes fit my theme, and I thought a great way to end the talk would be to give each participant a peaceful crane.
In looking at the instructions with adult eyes I only gained an appreciation of my child self’s perseverance. No epiphanies on the mysterious fold came but the cursing returned. At least now I had an ace up my sleeve: As an adult I knew to ask for help.
I begged a meeting with a superb origami teacher who happens to work with my fiance. At a long table with her extra fancy origami paper she elegantly went through the first 10 folds with me and was kind enough not to swat me when I repeatedly said, “I know this one,” or “This part I got” at every step.
Then came the crucial moment. “So here’s the pocket fold,” she said. I held my breath, ready to see magic.
“Before you open the sides to make the wings, fold this top part of the kite forward and then back,” she said.
I made a 1-inch-long fold forward and back. I lifted the sides, and plop. The wings folded into place. Six more folds that I already knew and … voila. Japanese crane.
Peace failed to descend upon me yet again. I was unfathomably disappointed and scowled at my new, generous teacher.
She looked at me blandly, saying simply: “There are two kinds of folds in origami. The main ones that make the paper go in different positions and the other kind of fold which teaches the paper where to go later.”
I stared at her stunned.
“Wanna make another one?” she asked cheerily.
I’m well on my way to my first hundred cranes, but that isn’t nearly as important as that simple lesson: Sometimes we have to bend first to know where we need to go next.
When I started physical therapy to learn how to walk again after a recent multibone break, I gave my therapist an origami crane as both a peace offering and a recognition of the struggle we were about to undertake. I knew I wouldn’t be able to walk immediately. First we were going to have to work together to reteach my body where to go.
Before addressing a class full of law students on resilience I offered them an illustration of how to fold the crane. I explained my theory that those who have suffered trauma and those of us who work with them professionally need to be taught what healing looks like before we try to heal ourselves or others.
And now as extremely contentious elections in our city and our country are resolved I make crane after crane thinking about how we will move forward.
What flexibility do we need to learn that will help us come together in peace? What steps can we take that make seemingly impossible resolutions click into place? Who are the teachers whom we can trust to teach us how to bend? No matter our political stance we all need peaceful resolution now more than ever.
My daughter walked in as I was making the cranes for the assisted living facility presentation.
“Oh, are you making cranes?” she asked with more interest than usual in my odd habits.
“I am. How did you know?”
“I learned in fifth grade from my friend. She learned from YouTube. We made them all the time.” And with that my 11-year-old demonstrated a perfect pocket fold.
When I arrived at the facility with 25 cranes as gifts the residents were appreciative and enthusiastic. They were kind enough to gush which made the whole endeavor even more satisfying.
“Our activities director made these with us,” one resident shared. I was nearly crestfallen. “But there is one fold that we just could not do,” she shook her head in dismay.
“I think I know the one,” I replied. And we discussed learning to bend before you can fly. S
Alane Miles is an ordained minister, freelance teacher, writer, and grief and bereavement counselor.
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