April 17, 2010 – Folding Origami Cranes after a Death
In the last two months I have folded maybe 100 origami cranes--not counting, not aiming for that thousand-crane good fortune, just enjoying the calming effect. It seems to be a kind of therapy, a mindfulness practice or meditation tool no different than painting a thangka or saying the rosary. I give them away and make more. There is always a little flock on the table near the front door, its number changing daily. One will go inside the urn of ashes. When the Greek god Apollo visited the mortal world, he came disguised as a crane.
Walking out earlier this evening for a stroll, hoping, in fact, to see a migrating crane near the river, a family stopped me asking for restaurant recommendations. There were two women, a man, and four kids around age 10 or 12. The exchange went something like this:
One woman does all the talking. She is curious, a little nervous…what was the building I just came out of, did I work there? No, we live here, it’s condos. Really?
I continue answering her questions in the plural, haven’t yet broken the habit of saying “we” even though the we is now just I—we've lived downtown for about 11 years…we lived in Sequoyah Hills before…we rarely drive west...we have only one car...we love to walk out the door, eat dinner a block away, and see several friends in route. It’s the community we never had in the ‘burbs. She’s fascinated, I ramble on…we felt isolated in the suburbs, people lived in their cars there, we hardly knew our neighbors. She nods, staring at me as if I have said something she has felt but never articulated.
They are downtown because of the sidewalk chalk art competition. Vote for us, the cute boy who looks like her says, we’re #63, the tree frog. They all huddle close, following me like a pond bubble attached to a water strider.
Do you come down often, I ask. Just for big things, the Fantasy of Trees, the Nutcracker, just in and out…we just now discovered that the garage is free on the weekends. I could tell this was a big hurdle for her. Parking is always uppermost in the minds of suburbanites, not just for the convenience, although there is that, too, but mainly because of their fear of being mugged, or worse. I think a lot of suburban fear comes from Fox TV—if you Google each news source plus the word fear, Fox gets twice as many hits as the next highest. But nevermind, my statistical skills are subpar.
By now, she is caught up in my enthusiasm for the place…French crepes, gelato, organic pizza…Really? But, she asks, her face serious, can you tell me where are the unsafe places, where crime…I laugh, interrupting her, watch the lines relax between her brows. Actually, we have very little crime, mostly homeless people who are mostly harmless, most just in need of meds; I often walk downtown alone at night and feel perfectly safe. Really?? Oh, I’m so glad we ran into you, thank you, she says, shaking my hand, what’s your name? Judy. I’m…and she gives me all their names. Suddenly, we’re all friends, we share a magic town, we’re safe.
There it is, I say, pointing to the French Market, yes, it’s still open. They are already starting across the street, the kids pointing out the Tennessee Theater, the Riviera. So many lights and people, strolling and sitting at outdoor café tables, it must have felt like the carnival used to feel to me when I was a kid. No big thing, when I look back on it; but back then, foreign, exotic, exhilerating. Thank you again, she waves.
The turquoise sky is sprayed with clotted clouds like tire tracks in snow, denser near the sunset like splats of mango and vanilla gelato. In fifteen minutes it will be charcoal smudges on gray, the moon a catclaw. From light to dark in under thirty minutes. Seems pretty fast until you consider that in as few as two minutes, a brain without oxygen will die. Not fast like a light going out, as someone who survived a ventricular fibrillation episode described it, more like a slow spiraling down.
I think about the family caught temporarily in my memory, how the episode is also likely being permanently filed away in one of these kid’s memories; how it might resurface one day, looking more golden than it really was. He may come back, searching for that old feeling, but nothing will be the same. James Agee did that once, walking up the hill on Laurel Avenue and looking back over a changed landscape. Only the train tracks looked the same, but even they were changed, no longer taking people anywhere, the magic drained out of them by time, by that wonderful American rallying cry "progress."
Passing the convention center, I spot an odd scene in the empty amphitheater—on the bare stage, two couples in evening attire are seated at a wooden table with a white tablecloth and candles, eating what looks like a formal dinner. Are they boycotting the prom inside the convention center or just fans of F. Scott Fitzgerald or forties films and a lost elegance? Further on, a clutch of prom-goers are posing for pics beside the faux dam. The white, strapless gown will be the last thing to disappear in the deepening twilight. Medical texts say that when the brain dies, the eyes dilate to the outer edges, an impenetrable blackness.
Down at the river, I can barely see the osprey on her old nest on the train trestle, this her fourth or fifth year. There are ducks in Second Creek but no cranes yet, and the wisteria along the train tracks is almost past picking, the purple blooms falling as soon as I touch them. The certitude of nature is comforting--seasons in queue, the swallows returning to Capistrano, the monarchs to Mexico, the cranes to the Tennessee River. Even if they are not the same swallow, the same crane, the illusion of consistency in nature is reassuring. With climate change and increasing environmental chaos, I fear for the human psyche. We may have to reinstate the old concept of sanatoriums, imposed isolation for psychic rest.
What a nice idea: Someone handing me a key and saying, I have this small room in a sanatorium just like the one in Davos, Switzerland, which Thomas Mann made into Magic Mountain. Go, stay as long as you like…nothing to do but sit in the amazing library, or sunbathe on the terrace, or walk along the mountain ridges. Or fold origami cranes. You don’t have to speak, not even in the dining room, just slip a note to the maître d' with your diet preferences. The daydream is interrupted by the sudden thought of how difficult it must have been for him, those four days of imposed silence in the monastery at Gethsemani, him with a thousand questions and time running out. Sherwin Nuland, in his book How We Die, says the Type A personality with its driving impetuosity and aggressiveness is the most likely candidate for sudden heart failure and least likely to survive an episode of ventricular fibrillation.
Sadly, the rest cure has gone the way of passenger trains. Too old-fashioned. Now you can just take a drug and keep busy. Of all the things people have done for me, this has meant the most: an offer to be there for the hard things I have to do, even if it’s just sitting with me quietly in the evening, reading. No offer of lunch or a movie or a coming attraction, just an offer to go with me down into the darkness, to sink into the heaviness until it no longer feels heavy. It reminded me of those ancient Zen aphorisms: Ride your horse along the edge of the sword. Hide yourself in the middle of flames.And my favorite: If you don’t get it from yourself, where do you go for it??
Zen master Suzuki said the Western term ‘to pass away’ is not adequate for death; ‘to pass on’ more accurate. I don't know if it's more accurate; I think it may be only more easeful. Gone from sight but not obliterated. Not here, not coming back, but going, nevertheless, somewhere. It's the reason myths are created, how gods don't completely die but return to earth disguised as cranes. Still, it's the only means we have of forgiving ourselves for that inexorable human frailty, of never being able, no matter how long the love has endured, to find words befitting it. In this sense, we all live in a kind of exile. So we light candles, or lay flowers, or fold origami cranes.