Chapter One has arrived. This is a Christmas story, a story of a gift, a story of healing, and a story of growth. I’d love for you to give it a listen.
Podington Bear, “Up, Up, Up” and “Pounded Piano”
Julie Maxwell, “Labyrinth”
Frank Guerrero, “Fui Yo”
People Like Us, “Jingle Bells”
Beastly, “Pure Grease”
Dott, “This Christmas”
Sometime around October of 2016, I knew something was weird with my boyfriend.
We either live 200 miles apart or 2 minutes apart, depending on the season. During the school year he lives up in the Northern part of the state, and I live a bit further south. He has acres of farmland around him. I’m sandwiched between the forest and the ocean. I like feeling like I live at the edge of the world, standing with my toes in the great Pacific and imagining I can see all the way to Japan with my bare eyes.
I’ve always kind of enjoyed being in a long-distance relationship, at least for part of the year. I’ve always been independent and a fan of solitude. And we’re both busy people: he runs around all day working for a commercial real estate business, I fill my days with writing and teaching. The distance hardly ever feels overwhelming, because we’re not the kind of couple that needs to be together, we’ve always felt more like we choose to be together.
None of this is to say that we don’t enjoy our time spent together. In fact, I began to suspect something was going on due to our attempts to fill in the space between us, at least electronically. We’ve often wondered how wartime lovers did it back in the day, writing only a letter or two a month to maintain their connection. We can jabber on over a video call for hours on end, about anything and everything, when we have the time to spare.
(AUDIO CLIPS OF SETTING UP FACETIME)
I started noticing him being distracted, his hands cut out of frame, his answers a bit shorter and a bit more delayed.
“What are you working on?” I’d ask him persistently. I’m really not good at having secrets held from me. I’m far too nosey, or, more flatteringly, curious.
He’d always flatly reply the same thing, “Working on your Christmas present.”
Now see, this very nearly gave me a heart attack every time. Because who starts working on a Christmas present in October? I knew this couldn’t be good. I mean, it had to be really good. And that’s the problem.
(Ryan discusses my struggles of gift-giving)
I’m notoriously bad at gift-giving, which is really a blow to my self-perception of being a generally thoughtful person. I think my problem is overthinking things. I struggle to commit to one gift idea or another because what if a better idea comes along? I want a gift to be thoughtful, and personal, and definitely not just a gift card to a fast food restaurant or something. I mean, not that I’d turn down a gift card for a free meal. But, you know what I mean. There’s something special about receiving a gift that you can’t just waltz into a store and buy or order on Amazon in a single click. I represents the greatest gift of them all: their time.
For weeks, Ryan kept dropping hints about his dedication to crafting this mysterious gift while somehow managing to give me absolutely no solid clues on what it might be. I knew it must be something he was making with his hands, as he’d sit at his desk intently staring at something while his hands carefully moved about just out of frame while we chatted through the wonders of video calls. He’d tell me he was on a tight schedule, had deadlines and quotas he’d set for himself to complete this gift in time for Christmas.
(INTERVIEW CLIP W RYAN: HOW SCHEDULED HE WAS)
Eventually December rolled around. In a panic to meet the mysteriously high precedent Ryan had set with his clues and hints, I’d bought him the only thing I thought might be able to top it, or at least match it: a vacation to Mexico that summer. I frantically bought the tickets, scooped up a place to stay for a good deal on a probably-scammy travel site, and comforted myself with the idea that at any time I could whip out the tickets and say, “Aha, I care about you equally if not more so than your gift implies about your feelings towards myself.”
Okay, I know relationships aren’t a competition or anything. I promise.
(INTERVIEW CLIP W RYAN: HE GUESSED I WAS BUYING HIM THE TICKETS)
I’ve never really been a Christmas person. My family never went over-the-top with celebrations. We’d decorate the tree, hang some stockings, maybe bake a dozen cookies out of premade dough the night before, but none of us were “Christmas people.” We liked it well-enough, but by 11am Christmas morning, we were pretty over it and out of festive ideas.
Ryan’s family is different.
To be honest, before I starting dating Ryan, I’d never really believed that any family had the kind of Christmases you see on TV as a kid; the ones where all the aunts and uncles come by and everyone has stockings with their names on it and you eat prime rib and someone says grace. My family was spread out across many different states and regions, getting any amount of them took such a grand amount of metiuclous planning that it seemed to detract from the supposed joy of the season. The past few years, my family had quietly stayed home with our tiny tree we bought in front of Safeway, perfectly content to have it cleaned and packed away by lunchtime.
But then I was invited to Ryan’s Christmas. There was a mantle with twinkling lights and tinsel, there was a dog with a jingle bell collar running around, there were matching pajamas and mugs of hot apple cider. I wondered if this is what it would be like to live in Whoville.
(CLIP OF RYAN TALKING ABOUT HIS FAMILY’S CHRISTMAS EXCITEMENT)
Perhaps Ryan channeled this connection to the Christmas spirit to give me one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever received.
(CLIP OF ME ASKING RYAN WHAT HE THOUGHT BEFORE HE HANDED ME THE GIFT)
The gift came in a giant glass jar, not unlike a blown-up version of the kind you’d find a ship-in-a-bottle in. It was big enough for me to wrap my arms around in a hug, and surprisingly heavy considering the levity of what was contained inside. In it was a rainbow of paper cranes: each one impossibly tiny for the complexity of their creation. Every crease was crisp and precise, each one a different color. They were blue, green, orange, pink, yellow….carefully divided into their different shades and frozen in their new glass home.
I was afraid to touch the jar, as though I would shatter their pristine beauty or disrupt their calm existence. They embodied every bit of grace and solemnity that real cranes possess, and were just as beautiful as the nature that inspired them.
So of course, I cried.
(CLIP OF RYAN DESCRIBING MY REACTION)
Eventually, he handed me a tiny leather notebook. In it, he wrote a simple definition of what was inside:
Senbazuru is a group of one thousand origami paper cranes (折鶴 orizuru) held together by strings. An ancient Japanese legend promises that anyone who folds a thousand origami cranes will be granted a wish by the gods.
(MARIS: And you gave me your wish. RYAN: And I gave you my wish.)
The story of the thousand paper cranes is one that varies depending on who you ask. Some say you get one godly wish, others say you get a lifetime of good fortune. Still others say it will offer you healing from an illness or protection from a future one. Traditionally, they’re given as a wedding gift to the newly wed couple to bless their marriage, or given to a newborn baby for a lifetime of good luck. But still others will hang the thousand cranes in their home simply for the benevolence and beauty they bring.
Some temples display the cranes as a simple of fleeting beauty and the impermanence of life, allowing them to sit exposed to the elements and slowly withering as their wishes are granted.
In Japanese culture, it’s said that the crane lives for a thousand years, and are called “the bird of happiness.” It’s even said that the wings of the crane carry souls up to heaven, inspiring mothers to ask for the protection of the crane’s wings with a simple prayer:
“O flock of heavenly cranes,
Cover my child with your wings”
The magic of the cranes became popularized through the story of Sadako Sasaki, a Japanese girl who was two years old when she was exposed to radiation from the atomic bombing of Hiroshima during World War II.
When she was 12, Sadako developed leukemia. Inspired by the legend of Senbazuru, she began folding paper cranes from her hospital bed. As the story goes, somewhere around the 644th crane, Sadako’s disease made her too weak to continue folding. On October 25th, 1955, Sadako passed away.
To honor her memory, her classmates finished folding the remaining 356 cranes. In the Hiroshima Peace Park stands a statue of Sadako holding a crane, and every year on Obon day (Japanese Buddhist day of remembrance to honor the spirits of one’s ancestors), people leave cranes at the statue in the memory not only of Sadako herself, but of those they’ve lost in their own lives.
Another version of the legend says she survived to see her 1000th crane folded. But when her wish to be healed didn’t come true, she kept folding crane after crane until she succumbed to her disease.
It’s no surprise that the cranes supposedly symbolize such a grand gift. They’re delicate and complex. They’re intricate and yet mesmerizingly simplistic. And they’re definitely not easy to make.
(ASKING RYAN TO RECOUNT THE FRUSTRATION OF LEARNING HOW TO MAKE THE CRANES, TRYING TO SHOW ME HOW TO DO IT)
You can fold a paper crane in about 16 steps, each one a fold or a crease. They demand not so much raw talent but patience, persistence, and dedication. They ask not for fancy materials or tools: all you need is a square of paper.
I think there’s beauty in that: and a touch of magic. The idea that something as magnificent as a miracle or a wish can be born from something so simple and plain. Blank paper has always inspired magic, whether it becomes the canvas for the artist or the slate for the writer. The Japanese art of paper folding is only one way we transform the ordinary into the extraordinary.
There was a time in my life where I, too, laid in a bed like Sadako. But I was bedridden for a different reason, for an eating disorder I was struggling to come to terms with when I was only about 2 years older than she was in the story. I didn’t fold paper cranes, but I did paint butterflies.
(HOSPITAL BEEPING NOISES)
The hospital let me have paint (but no scissors or anything remotely sharp, of course), and for hours on end I’d paint butterflies. Day in and day out, butterflies. Purple, blue, green, with big black antennae and white spots. I must have painted dozens of them, on little canvases I’d stack around my room. I didn’t know what they meant, and had never felt compelled to paint butterflies before my hospitalization, but they were the only thing that kept me occupied. The only thing that kept me from focusing on the futility of my situation.
One day, my mother told me her friend was coming to visit. I knew this friend- in fact, I’d gone to visit her house only a week or two before I’d been hospitalized. Her name was Erica, and she was a tiny little redhead that couldn’t have been more elf-like if she tried. She called herself an energy healer, and my mother had taken me to her in one last-ditch attempt to try and save me from the diagnosis that ultimately came anyway. I remember sitting on her couch that afternoon, in the fading sunlight, and letting her wave her hands around me with her eyes tightly shut as she did whatever it is energy healers do. I didn’t understand it at the time, but I didn’t know enough to refute it. I remember her saying she sensed a great pain inside of me that was longing to be released, but I was too exhausted to care. My body was tired. My soul was tired. Nothing much mattered to me by then.
When Erica arrived at the hospital, as elven as usual with a skip in her step even in that sterile segment of hell, she came bearing a balloon shaped like a giant, purple butterfly and a tiny fern in a pot that looked like a tree stump. She’d brought with her a tiny sliver of nature, something that brightened my mood despite the emptiness I felt inside. She plopped herself down at the foot of my bed and smiled at me, before asking if she could offer me something to help speed up my healing.
With nothing to lose, I shrugged and said, “Okay.”
“You’re here because you’re imbalanced.” Erica said, brushing her fiery red hair out of her eyes as she smiled cheerily, “That’s safe to say, isn’t it? Your soul, your spirit. Your heart…literally and figuratively.”
“Uh, yeah,” I said hesitantly, “I guess.”
“So I was thinking you could do a meditation about the most balanced thing there is: nature. Nature moves in cycles, it ebbs and it flows.” She sat up a little taller, crossing her legs and closing her eyes. I took it as an invitation to do the same.
“Imagine a river, with water flowing through it. Nothing is stuck or clogged in the river, it’s all moving freely.” In my mind’s eye, I pictured a babbling brook, and quietly wondered if I was doing this “meditation” thing right. Throughout all the therapy I’d done and doctors I’d seen, I’d never been able to fully grasp the practice of it.
(BABBLING BROOK NOISES)
“And all around the river there’s green grass. It’s rooted in the earth, just like the trees that grow out of it. They’re rooted and grounded, they have a purpose.”
(SOFT SOUND OF WIND)
Laying there motionless in my bed, my eyes squeezed shut more effortfully than I thought meditation should be, I started to realize what Erica was doing. This visualization wasn’t just about being calm and thinking about nature, it was about what it all symbolized. It was about getting in touch with the elements- not just literally- of nature that were missing in my own life. Although every doctor in the hospital had tried to poke and prod an answer out of me as to why I’d ended up here, I’d never been able to find an answer. But perhaps Erica was giving me a place to begin.
Before the hospital, I was perhaps as far from the idyllic river scene she was describing as is possible. My heart and my soul were more akin to the rolling, barren landscape of Mars than a lush meadow. Unlike the flow of the river, I felt stuck. I was only 14, but the panic of not knowing what I wanted to do with my life had already begun to set in with a paralyzing fear I couldn’t shake. And unlike the rooted trees, I felt nothing tying me down to this earth. There was no great cause that allowed me a sense of purpose, no passion that made me feel like the earth needed my presence. As Erica continued her guidance, a fear tears snuck through my eyelids, running silently down my cheeks while she painted pictures of playful flowers in all their unique beauty, clouds changing shape gracefully, and stones being smoothed by the anger of the river over time.
That night when I went to sleep, I dreamed of the river. I dreamed about sitting on its banks, making daisy chains out of the flowers that sprouted out of it. I watched big, purple butterflies float about in the air, not scared of me at all. They’d land on my fingertips, my hair, my cheeks. I wasn’t scared of them, either, even in the presence of their beauty. The sense of calm I had in that reverie was the first breath of relief I’d experienced in all my time in the hospital, and perhaps the only one I had until the day I was told I could go home. It was, as Erica had described, the first time I felt the beauty of a life hung in balance, not pushed too far to one side or the other.
I carried that visualization with me over the rest of my hospital stay, which lasted for weeks. Although I wish I could say that visualization was the end of my healing, and that all it took was one great meditation to recover fully, it was only the beginning. The time after my release was nearly as painful as the hospitalization itself, only this time being confined in my own home instead of a ward of other sick girls.
There were long days of fights with my family, struggling against the rigid rules they’d put in place at the behest of my doctor: rigid mealtimes, increasing portion sizes, minimal physical movement.
I felt so confined by their smothering attention; but despite what the disorder in my head tried to convince me, I knew deep down inside that without these rules I’d continue to be my own worst enemy. No matter how much weight I gained back or how stable my heart rate became, the voice still remained telling me that the only way to feel in control would be to starve myself again. To limit my consumption. To limit my presence.
After months of this limbo state- of being torn between my disorder and the freedom from the hospital that pushed me towards recovery- I stumbled into something that would change my life forever: a yoga class.
I’d never practiced yoga before, and to be honest, I didn’t fully understand what it was. Was it a religion? Was it hippie mumbo jumbo? Was it like Jazzercise? A new studio opened in my area that offered a free practice to new students, and because yoga was the only form of exercise my doctor cleared me to do, I was determined to try it. I showed up to the quaint little studio clutching a cheap mat, a bottle of water, and a timid hopefulness that I’d enjoy myself. The months of isolation from my peers and the limit on my activities had begun to wear on me, and I thought that maybe, just maybe, if I found something I liked to do, I could begin to pull myself back out of the endless void of emptiness.
What I found in that first practice was unlike anything else I’d ever experienced. It was hot and sweaty. I felt like I was being tangled up into a pretzel. The music was loud. The teacher made us get up and dance halfway through. They spoke about love, compassion, self-care, and playfulness- all things my life had been completely devoid of for years. But perhaps most incredible about the experience was that I found myself doing something I didn’t think I was capable of anymore: smiling.
A real, genuine smile. A smile that filled my entire face and reached the corners of my eyes. The kind of smile that gives you wrinkles in old age, like memories of our most joyous times. I smiled until my cheeks hurt, and a laugh or two even escaped my lips as I stumbled through what probably appeared to be the most ungraceful yoga practice in history. I had never felt as unashamedly happy had I did in that first yoga practice of what would become a long journey in dedication to it. And while in the years after that smile would fade or be lost periodically, it was now not just a faraway dream- it was a possibility, something I now knew I was capable of, even worthy of.
The stacks of canvases covered in butterflies still sit in my garage, loaded up in dusty old boxes and hidden away from the world. They used to be nothing more to me than something I did to pass the time, to take my mind off the pain that plagued my everyday existence. But now in the butterflies I see something else, something that doesn’t just end with being caged. I see an emergence, an escape from something that once served as my prison into something that feels expansive and light. I feel as though that first yoga practice was a tearing away of the chrysalis that had kept me in the dark for so long, shielded me away from the wonders of the world.
The wings on my back cannot be contained anymore, I know that now. There’s something I’m meant to do, something I’m meant to create, that I couldn’t see before. And maybe, just maybe, it took that long darkness to allow them to grow.
Still, sometimes I wish I had been like Sadako. She had folded her cranes with a purpose. She knew exactly what she wanted and went after it, wasn’t afraid to ask the Universe for it. I painted and wrote and practiced only knowing I craved something different, something I’d never had before.
I wonder what I would have wished for if I’d folded 1000 paper cranes back then. I wonder if I could have taken that ordinary paper and created magic out of it, the way she did in the legend. Perhaps in a way I did, taking what seemed like the blankest state of my life and trying to fold it into something new. My life certainly is different now.
(RYAN: You never told me what you wished for with the cranes I gave you.)
I haven’t told anyone.
Because then it might not come true.
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