Paper Cranes

© Stefan Hengst. All rights reserved.


The summer my marriage was on the rocks, I told my little sister that I planned to start the school year wearing nothing but white and gray, like the character of Olivia Pope on ABC’s “Scandal.” I had been binge-watching episodes, on her recommendation, for about a week. All Jackie O, I texted to her, classic and sleek.

A few minutes later a photo appeared, black-and-white pic of a woman in a round-buttoned coat, pushing her hair back with one gloved hand, pill-box hat atop her head. And my face superimposed where Jackie’s should have been. Little sis had paid $3.99 for a face-swapping app. “At one time I questioned whether that was too much,” she wrote. “But I no longer question.”

“Can’t wait to show up at my first department meeting rocking the elegant despair,” I texted back, and waited impatiently as the seconds passed. (My sister does not inevitably reply.) Then my phone pinged.

“Nothing says ‘go fuck yourself, stupid man,’” I read, “like lilac wool.”


When I was a girl, my father taught me many things. Some were less remarkable than others: how to swim, ride a bike, play tennis and guitar. How to cook and use chopsticks. How to do math in my head. How to plant daffodil bulbs in the bed beside the patio he also showed me how to make, laying the bricks carefully onto sand and tamping them down with a level. But also: how to crochet, how to be hypnotized.

My father did not show me how to fold origami cranes. I learned this on my own, after a trip to Hiroshima, where garlands of brightly colored cranes are piled at the base of monuments to symbolize peace and hope. I brought home thick packets of origami paper—two-inch squares of gilded reds and blues, pinks and greens—and folded tiny cranes with a strange determination to produce a string of a thousand before the year was up, because according to legend, anyone who folds a thousand cranes will be granted one wish. I confess I faltered after a hundred or less, but I have them still, a purple glass bowl of baby cranes afloat on the living room table, in recognition of courage, a beauty in the face of devastation, that I had never witnessed before. Something about that kind of belief I wanted—not just to preserve, but to imitate.

Perhaps that is why, a decade later, planning for my marriage to a man who would one day break my heart, a year after I nearly lost my father to injury, I started folding cranes again. Bigger ones this time, in raucous animal prints and metallics and pastel diamond squares and a crayon palette of solid color. I cannot say where the impulse came from, only that it struck me with a curious inevitability, an obviousness, as if cranes had been nesting in my imagination, ready to bloom, year after year. I wanted them as table decorations along with fresh-cut flowers we would arrange ourselves. Symbols of fidelity, some say, because cranes mate for life, and their lives (as bird lives go) are relatively long.

At first I thought I’d fold as many cranes as we expected guests at the wedding, but the process of making them—choosing the paper, creasing the seams with my fingernail, breathing a little air into the pocket that would become their bodies—was too captivating to relinquish after only so few. I folded crane after crane, one hundred, two hundred, a wicker basket full of them and then more than the basket could hold, until the cats could not be stopped from stalking their paper prey, and I had to store the overflowing hundreds of cranes on a shelf high in a closet. Even now I do not know quite what they meant, only that every crane whose tail I stretched, whose head I formed, seemed a demonstration of will; delicate, miniature monuments to grace. Just like a marriage, according to tradition. An effort of perseverance, of time and trust.

And yet it surprises me, the seriousness with which the cranes were watched over on the day I got married. My older sister lay cloth napkins over them on their tables so they wouldn’t blow away in the wind. Photographs were taken of them by every friend who documented the event. And several of them ended up at others’ houses, party favors we hadn’t intended. When I came upon them at dinner parties months after the fact, unexpected gaggles I made myself of color and shape, it was as if something of the joy of that day had literally taken flight.


My love coming unraveled—I had never felt such ruin.


For months after my husband and I separated, I kept messages from him on my phone, long after others had been archived or erased, so that my email inbox read like a ladder formed of his name, a ladder going down like Dante’s descent into hell, then up, up, up toward apology and rage, a quickly sedimenting history of love/life gone awry.

I did not open a book for months. This presented a peculiar problem for a college professor of English. Or: I would open a book, stare without understanding at the words, close it again. I knew people for whom books of poetry had offered solace in times of shattering grief; I looked at poems as if they were maps of foreign countries I’d never heard of, a badly translated set of instructions for reassembling an appliance that had never worked in the first place. At last, one night, I read Letters to a Young Poet in its entirety, leaning forward on the couch to propel my searching for some kind of revelation, recognition. I had not remembered how much of that slim volume concerns the agonies of solitude and Rilke’s faith in a future in which women might redefine the very contours of love.

“Most experiences are unsayable,” writes Rilke to his correspondent Franz Kappus; “they happen in a space that no word has ever entered.” This is why, after my husband and I separated, I watched the same TV episodes obsessively, over and over, until I could recite the dialogue at the same time that I could not for the life of me remember their plots. Narrative had stopped making sense. Shape as episteme had no logic. I could not bear the presence of my wedding dresses hanging like deflated mannequins in bags in the closet and within the first two months produced 40 single-spaced pages that hyperventilated hysterically around the same three or four points.

I discovered my husband’s affair while he moaned and writhed in the emergency room with a gall bladder attack He’d had triple bypass surgery only two weeks before. They had him so marinated on dilaudid and morphine that I wondered what other revelations I could elicit from him about the six years of our marriage. In a waiting room for over-wrought family members, I copied love language not to me on the back of a piece of paper on which I had typed up all the medications he was on. At some point, I don’t know how, I walked away from him, sat down opposite a bank of elevators, and burst into tears. When I heard a woman say, “I’m so sorry for whatever you’re going through,” I knew she’d assumed my loved one just got a death sentence. In a sense, I thought, I had. My husband had survived heart surgery; he would live through gall bladder disease. He would live.

But we lost the shape of things altogether.


Our parents, it is said, are our first loves, and our first loves are also those of our parents. Which is a way of saying that desire is inherited, imitated, borrowed. What is selfhood, after all, but maneuvering into position to fulfill the other’s desire, only then to resent the fact that, as Lacan poignantly if awkwardly put it (it is so much more elegant in French), you never look at me from the position from which I look at you. The awkward, poignant complaint of love. Is that not what inflects it with a bittersweet trace of belatedness, the always-already of childhood, of apprenticeship and afterthought? Isn’t that why we so often feel there’s someone else in the room, in the bed, in your husband’s heart, even when there isn’t?

When I was young, I thought that growing up guaranteed substance. Now I understand that time unweaves us, pulling out the stitches like a seamstress unsatisfied with the precision of her hems. I want to find out, I want to say, how it happened. To ask: how do we know what we know? Is it possible to unknow, to find shape from a scrap of paper, when all we know of possibility is surface? Where do we find the patience to fold two hundred cranes?


Senbazuru: a string of a thousand cranes.


When the Chinese first brought origami to Japan, paper was expensive and the art could only be practiced by the rich. Colors and shapes took on special meaning, indicating family name and status, perhaps even emotion. Some say the intricacy of paper-folding made it an especially useful vehicle for passing love notes, because it is difficult to refold a crane without leaving behind the traces of your interception. Discovery would be swift.

For many years there were no written instructions for origami; the technique was passed from generation to generation by practitioners of the art, by demonstration, by apprenticeship and a desire to perfect the craft. The first written guide appeared in the late 1700s: How To Fold 1,000 Cranes. According to legend, folding a thousand cranes would ensure the granting of your greatest desire. Any diligent reader could make a wish come true, because only the most persistent would endure. Cranes had long been associated with nobility and respect. The Chinese believed them to have the dignity of a gentleman and a privileged status as messengers to the ancient immortals. To be described as “a figure extolled by the crane” was high praise indeed. To be likened to a crane was to be honored as “exceptionally honest and morally upright.”

(Do I need to tell you that I rifled through my husband’s things, desperate for evidence of a love he had not shared with me? A letter, a card, anything to document—in a form I could take hold of—the unimaginable thing that had made my life unrecognizable? Should I say that the day after I found out my husband was having an affair, I went to the hospital with a Valentine’s Day card I’d given him in sweeter, hopeful times, found stored in a sock drawer, and tore it in front of him into ragged pieces that fluttered to the tray-table next to the incentive spirometer and a plastic jug of water, as he looked on with an expression on his face I thought even at the time was mournfully beautiful, lying in a hospital bed in a green gown that offset the cornflower blue of his eyes?)

Origami figures are comprised of angles and rectangles and squares, from the simplest box to the most complicated spiraling creatures, which means that mathematicians are fascinated by origami and that paper-folding is not infrequently used to teach geometry to schoolchildren. For example, Kawasaki’s theorem says that the sum of every other angle measurement around a particular point on an unfolded origami shape—discernible according to what is called the crease pattern—will always be 180 degrees. I once knew a nuclear engineer from Mauritius who wrote equations like this with the same tenderness as the notes in French he would sometimes tuck into my book bag, like the unfolding of a love story, gorgeous and inevitable and true.


How it happened no one is exactly sure. It was a chilled, wet morning in the Texas hills, the Sunday after Thanksgiving. My father went out to feed four horses, entering the paddock—as was his practice—with buckets of oats and flakes of hay, in the cowboy boots well scuffed at the heel and slick as ice on muddy ground. The rest is conjecture. He managed to come in from the yard through a rear door to the master bathroom, where my stepmother found him. His right cheekbone was smashed, and a deep, bleeding cut extended from just below his eyelashes to the hairline above his right ear. Somehow, the injury had missed his eye. Somehow he was conscious. I did something stupid, he said.

It may be that sad, illogical apology, repeated many times from the ambulance and ER, to me on the phone and to my sisters clustered around him, that still seems to me the saddest part of my father getting hurt—the culpability he felt, the deep-seated conviction of having done so many things wrong. Only later did we understand how dangerous a habit he’d formed in feeding the horses from within the paddock, when hunger would set off a jostling contest for dominance, one horse chasing another off of a bucket of feed. A man unsteady on his feet could easily be shoved aside, knocked down by those massive, urgent bodies. He could hit his head on a rock. He could just be struggling to right himself in the mud when a horse, spooked or nipped by another, might clip him in the face with a sluggish hoof, ten pounds of pure steel nailed in place and swinging like a miniature wrecking ball.

No good can come of a phone call before nine a.m. on the Sunday after Thanksgiving unless someone you know is expecting a baby, which no one I knew was, and I remember distinctly wondering how anyone could decide that such a call was a sane thing to do, and then a wash of inchoate foreboding. When I heard my big sister’s voice, crying into her cell phone, I knew the news was bad. I felt my body brace itself; I got quiet and waited. I knew that whatever came next would forever mark the moment that everything changed.

I would like to record her precise words, the teary, frightened précis of one sister who is also a surgeon, but I can’t recall them. She had been summoned to the master bath or my father had staggered to the kitchen where they all seem to have collected—father, stepmother, sister and younger half-sisters—in a gruesome perversion of the meals they would have had there in the preceding several days. My sister could discern the collapsed fragments of bone beneath the folds of skin. She saw that he was not in danger of losing his eye and also that there was little she could do; he needed a surgeon, but not his daughter, not at home. One of my little sisters threw up in the sink. Another sat with my father in the back seat of the car, pressing a towel to the smashed side of his face, while her mother sped to the hospital.

The day my father fell down in the mud, I hadn’t spoken to him for an entire year. Only now, under this extremity of condition, my heart beating wildly, did I finally pick up the phone. I’m so sorry, I did a stupid thing, he said from a stretcher in an emergency room in Texas, awaiting surgery, where they wouldn’t give him anything for the pain because you don’t give narcotics to a man with head injury. Clichéd, and yet true: true as I lived it. The day my father got hurt, everything changed.

I married a man because my father nearly died and nothing remained as it was.


A long time ago, when I was struggling to comprehend my own unhappiness, my mother sent me a card that said, “Into every life, a little crane must fall.” Tender irony was always her best recipe against unquiet and malaise. A tiny stick pin crane was taped inside, a green-and-blue badge of courage you could wear out into the world.

I found the stick pin crane many years later, at the bottom of a box, as I made space in a closet of boxes for my new husband’s things, artifact of a time in my life when I often felt unmoored and adrift. I hadn’t known—or hadn’t remembered—this presence of cranes as an icon of humor and solace. And something else, too, about what befalls a life, what we can ask of each other by way of comfort when circumstances seem to elude our ability to understand or to change.

Into every life a little crane must fall. What did it mean, the crane that rhymed with rain, that should have been rain? Do we not grow up insistently ourselves, if only because it never occurs to us we could be anything but? How I honed the person I had become within the stories of my life, poetry and psychotherapy and memories of childhood I burnished to a gleaming luster of melancholic sadness! I was like a clay figurine taking shape under my own wet hands, like a worked and reworked paragraph. I say all this because we talk about identity in terms of plot and scripts, in which even the interruption of forward movement by the catastrophic—into every life—pursues its own structural obviousness, the narrative of sudden change, the watershed moments from which what happened next cascades with purposiveness and force.

Which is to say, as if overnight I unlearned years of knowing myself as the daughter of a complicated man. One day I was that girl (I wore it like a mantle) who hadn’t spoken to her father for a year. The next day I said I loved him, and waited by the phone when he went into surgery to reconstruct his face, and I spoke to him the day after that, and then again, every day for six months at least. So it was that my father fell down in the mud and got clipped by a horse’s shoe (his beloved Tennessee Walker of the lazy hooves), came up from the ground with a face in pieces, and everything in and around him reorganized: bones, flesh, daughters, alignments of desire and priorities of love.


Parting, according to Emily Dickinson, who loved her sister-in-law with a trembling intensity, is “all we need of hell.”

That night on the couch, motoring through Letters, I felt embarrassed for Rilke. His nearly uncontainable need. “Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.” So wrote the melancholy German who addressed his acolyte poet as if he were a younger version of himself—a lonesome, aching, sensitive boy at military school. All that desperate isolation comes out in the letters—pleas to himself to tolerate the solitude, to celebrate the solitude … these words, immortalized on bookmarks and refrigerator magnets—the script to every disoriented anxious yearning soul … We are frantic for resolution, for answers, equation. Oru: to fold. Kami: paper.

Rilke understood that for two people to truly love one another, each must be fully formed. He implored his young friend to “love your solitude, and try to sing out with the pain it causes you.” “Loving,” he writes, is solitude, “a heightened and deepened kind of aloneness for the person who loves.” When the future I’d imagined crumpled up like the fourth draft of an undergraduate entry for fiction workshop, I held fast to certain continuities, friendship and sisterhood, to my father and the scar that was his face in pieces, to the faint outlines of folds on squares of paper held out to me in dreams in which all the colors were inside-out and torqued two degrees to the left on the color wheel, saying, mountain folds back, valley folds forward.


The December after my July wedding, I sent crane ornaments to the friends who’d helped us achieve that glorious day. I hoped they’d believe, when they saw their birds swinging there, in a window over a sink, on a Christmas tree, from a filament of fishing line strung from the ceiling, that into every life enchantment might fall. How many still dangle there, origins unremembered? If I’m to fold my senbazuru, I’ll have start afresh. A paper crane bears the mark of its own making. Creases down the centers of each wing, through the middle of the head, the tail, like the scars of birth, finger whorls of how it began in two dimensions. I am trying to remember how to breathe life into a square-shaped space formed by the edges of a thing. Flat expanse of color and pattern folded into the shape of abstractions—like forgiveness, like hope—by my own hands.

Susannah B. Mintz is a professor of English at Skidmore College. She has published extensively as a writer of creative nonfiction, with essays in American Literary Review, The Writer’s Chronicle, Epiphany, Ninth Letter, Michigan Quarterly Review, and elsewhere. She was the winner of the 2014 South Loop National Essay Prize and a finalist for the 2010 William Allen nonfiction prize, the Epiphany chapbook contest in 2015, and the 2019 Cagibi Macaron Prize. Her work has received special mention from Best American Essays 2010 and the Pushcart Prize Anthology 2018. A short memoir titled “Match Dot Comedy” appeared as a Kindle Single in 2013. A specialist in disability studies and scholar of autobiography, she is also the author of four monographs, and co-editor of three critical volumes. Current projects include a collection of personal essays called Love Affair in the Garden of Milton.

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