Crane by Crane

June 15, 2020 § 23 Comments

Irene Hoge SmithBy Irene Hoge Smith

Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. . . he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds . . . Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird buddy. Just take it bird by bird.” ~ Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. 1994

Most readers of this blog remember Anne Lamott’s small assignments, one-inch picture frames, and shitty first drafts. Written a quarter-century ago, Bird by Bird remains an invaluable resource for writers at any stage who may founder on a bad day, and now maybe for all of us living in a pandemic and wishing for some instructions. Her most valuable reminder for me is the one referenced by her title—that a project of any size has to be approached one small piece at a time—and this may be especially true when we can’t know the duration and scope of an undertaking. None of us knows how long pandemic time will last, or what more we may be called upon to endure, and it’s already hard to pin down even when it started. (For me, it was in late February, when I decided not to go to San Antonio for AWP. That conference  turned out to be one of the last of such scale to go forward before indoor life began, and the decision was not without controversy.)

Time was an early casualty of the pandemic. Even now, every other day seems to be Confuseday, and as Emily VanDerWerff wrote for Vox, “March was 30 years long and April was 30 minutes long.” We have trouble keeping track of how long we’ve been locked up, like the characters in Ann Patchett’s  Bel Canto. In the novel (loosely based on an actual hostage crisis in Peru) captors and captives are confined together in a seemingly-endless stalemate. Finally compelled to find a way to record the span of time, the revolutionary general ignores the many glossy calendars in the mansion and chooses instead to mark each day on the expensive wallpaper with a blue crayon.

The second Thursday in March was the last day I met my psychotherapy patients face-to-face, explaining that we would have to do telephone or video sessions at least until the end of the month. Two days later I wrote the first entry in what has become a sporadic plague diary.

Saturday March 14, 2020.  Day #2. People are beginning to say “for the duration,” as if we are living in one of the great wars of the last century. At home, we are grateful to have each other. We are already getting on each other’s nerves.

During the first weeks of lockdown I found myself too distracted to write, and couldn’t concentrate on a book I was supposed to review. My telephone sessions with patients in various states of fear about the virus (and outrage about the president), left me exhausted, and on some afternoons I found myself noodling around online, scaring myself silly. A better option sometimes was to start dinner early, or go for a walk, or, on a rainy day, listen to a recorded book while doing something with my hands.

That’s how I came to fold the first paper crane. My poet mother, who gave me my first book of origami when I was ten years old, was a paper-folder throughout her long life. I taught my own children, and still have a sizable stash of brightly-colored paper squares. The art of Japanese paper folding called origami—combining words oru (to fold) and kami (paper)—goes back to the invention of paper in China almost two thousand years ago. After World War II it was taken up in the United States, often by people like my mother (lefties, peaceniks, people who didn’t like Ike and hated McCarthy.)

It took me about five-and-a-half careful minutes to fold one paper crane, a meditative process that gradually calmed the overactive fight-flight part of my tired brain. Perhaps, I thought, I might make an origami crane for each day of the lockdown. I printed “March 13” (the first day after the last day I saw my office) on one paper wing of that first orange crane. By the beginning of April, twenty cranes hung on a thread in my window.

Friday April 10, 2020. Day #29. Another gorgeous day—chilly, blustery, full of sun. CNN says the peak level of infection will be this weekend. The last paper crane I made was a week ago.

We’re living an experience for which we can find no comparisons. At my age I find it startling, as Fran Lebowitz said in a New Yorker interview, to “have something happen that doesn’t remind you of anything else.”  We can’t grasp the big picture, we’re pretty sure nothing will ever be the same, and we can’t think about that. We don’t necessarily have a report due tomorrow like Anne Lamott’s paralyzed brother, but we’re terrified much of the time anyway.

Friday May 8, 2020. Day #? I don’t care what day it is. Wildly contradictory messages emerge from different sources; no consensus and no leadership. Today it seems entirely plausible that our president is trying to kill us.

The answer to getting through a long project is sometimes “very short assignments,” as Lamott advises of writing. Something small enough to see “through a one-inch picture frame.” So I sweep the floor, have a phone session with a patient who is finally recovering from the virus, clear off my desk, and make one origami bird, writing on its little wing: “Sunday May 31.”

Irene Hoge Smith lives, writes, and practices psychotherapy near Washington D.C. Her essays have appeared in various tiny venues, and she is toiling away, bird by bird, on a memoir about her lost-and-found poet mother francEyE.


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