1000 Origami Paper Cranes

A Project for Dementia

1000 paper cranes

1000 paper cranes

I decided to do a 1000 cranes project for Lent this year. I’ve already given up meat, dairy, and gluten, so I was really running out of things to sacrifice. This just kind of came to me, and I’m glad. It’s been quite a challenge. Why dementia? Let me tell you.

The Backstory

When I was in maybe 6th grade, a friend of mine asked me to be her “campaign manager” while she ran for student council president. It was the very early 1970’s, and we probably looked a lot like Marsha and Jan from the Brady Bunch.

I had gotten an origami kit for Christmas/birthday the previous year, and had learned to fold paper cranes. We decided that instead of doing buttons, [remember, there were no copy machines back then] we would do origami cranes on strings with her name on them. As I remember, we spent the better part of a weekend folding cranes while her mother baked cookies, and we had a lot of fun. No, she didn’t win the election, and I believe she lost to a boy. [Figures.] Some things haven’t changed, although I am thankful that we no longer wear short skirts and knee socks.

Years passed, and we weren’t as close. I doubt I have seen “LydaAnn” since June, 1979, when we graduated from high school. We reconnected via Facebook, albeit not very closely until she began a second Facebook page.

“LydaAnn,” a pseudonym, had started writing a page about life with her husband, who has early onset dementia. She invited me to like her page, A New Kind of Normal. It’s funny and sad and very, very brave, and I feel such compassion for her and her situation. Please visit her page, I know she would be grateful for the support.

And so I was sitting in a meeting at church the day before Ash Wednesday, thinking about her and her husband and that, some 47 years ago, she had had enough faith in me to ask me to help her student council campaign at a time in my life that was pretty bleak. And I thought about the paper cranes.

The Story of 1000 Origami Cranes

1000 cranes from recycled paper

1000 cranes from recycled paper

The basic story of 1000 cranes [Senbazuru] follows a Japanese legend that cranes live to be 1000 years old. It is thought that if a cycle of folding 1000 paper cranes is completed within the span of a year, the folder is granted a wish. This also became part of the story of a young girl named Sadako Sasaki, who died at the age of 12 from leukemia, the result of having been extremely close to ground zero in Hiroshima at the dropping of the first atomic bomb. She began folding cranes in the hope of healing. You can read more here.

Hanging mobiles of 1000 paper cranes are often given to people who are very sick, and are hung outside temples in Tokyo and Hiroshima and allowed to slowly dissolve, releasing their wish slowly.
I really connect with that idea.

Getting it Done

I thought about dementia, how it robs a person of years, months, days, words, and memories. The idea that the cranes could be hung outside, and that their words would slowly melt away appealed to me, so I designed the sculpture to be entirely biodegradable. Paper, sticks, and hemp string are the only elements.

I used a variety of old papers for the cranes. The stuff of today - business reply mail, calendar pages, church bulletins, work presentations. The stuff of yesterday - pages of books and novels and notebooks, old McCalls and Playboy magazines [just the articles, because that’s why your father bought them, right?]. The stuff of history - pages from a German text and an English math book from the late 1700s. All covered with words. I felt like the myriad of papers would dissolve randomly, like memories, when exposed to the elements.

Papers, old and new, 100 of each size cut and stacked and ready to fold.

Papers, old and new, 100 of each size cut and stacked and ready to fold.

I considered how big to make the paper cranes, and did a little R&D to figure out the minimum realistic size I could fold. I started with a piece of paper 1” square, and started working up from there, concluding that a 2” square piece of paper would be the minimum comfortable size. Then I cut and folded 100 of these, cut and folded 100 at 2 1/8”, 2 1/4” and so forth up to 3 1/8,” making 1000 paper cranes.

If I had chosen to start at 1”, I’d probably have lost my mind.

If I had chosen to start at 1”, I’d probably have lost my mind.

I used a large needle and 20 lb. natural hemp cord to string together the cranes, knotting between each crane, and working from small to large on each strand. The 20 lb. hemp was the perfect weight and strength for this sculpture, being tight and willing to hang straight.

Here is a good instructional video on how to fold an origami paper crane.

Many Blessings

At 3-4 minutes per crane, that’s 50- 66 hours of just folding cranes. It didn’t really occur to me to time it out until I was about 300 cranes in, and just beginning to realize the commitment I had made.

At that point, you enter a certain struggle that requires you to summon forth a great deal of discipline. Add to that the very condensed time frame of Lent, and the number of cranes you need to fold every day is sizable. Persevering through a long, repetitive job, however, has its blessings. I felt a great sense of accomplishment in the end.

Behind empty bench.jpg

And now, I am going to ship a big box with a mobile containing 1000 hand folded paper cranes to a woman with whom I was friends over 40 years ago, who I barely know now. What will she think?

I know I was blessed that she had faith in me when we were kids. I hope she will be blessed in return now that we are older. And the wish I earned by completing the 1000 cranes task, I grant to LydaAnn.