Catharsis with a Thousand Cranes

pencil art of hand with origami crane
Catharsis with a Thousand Cranes: Part One

They say Helen of Troy had a face that launched a thousand ships. For me, quarantine had a feeling of malaise that launched a thousand cranes -- or at least the beginning of an attempt. 

According to an ancient Japanese legend, anyone who folds a thousand origami cranes is granted one wish. This legend was internationally popularized by the novel Thousand Cranes, which followed a young Japanese schoolgirl’s attempt at the undertaking after World War II in Hiroshima. Though she only folded 644 before her death from atomic radiation-induced leukemia, her school finished the rest in her memory. Since then, these cranes have come to symbolize peace in times of difficulty. 

When I came across this story at the beginning of April, something in me naturally vibed with the idea. With Covid-19 ravaging the world and upending the norms of daily life as we knew it, I viewed this project as both my tribute to the hardships people were universally facing (a way of spreading “hope” like in the book, I guess I could say) and as a personal passion project to keep me occupied.

And thus it began!

As a famous philosopher once said, the journey of a thousand cranes begins with a single hamburger fold — or something like that. 

So I followed an Instructables guide and learned to fold my first crane. I folded again and again. Folded some more. Took a few days of break, forgot the process, and shamefully returned back to Instructables. Folded again. 

origami crane with gum stick
My first crane! Stick of gum for size comparison
white origami cranes
More friends!

The first few days progressed in a similar fashion, and I happily watched the first season of Avatar while folding as well! But as I went through this repetitive process of folding, there was still a feeling of something missing. Yes, I was going through the physical motions of creasing, opening flaps, bending wings, but was I deriving anything more meaningful out of the process? I didn’t want to emerge from the other end of some 70, 80 hours with just some glorified paper. Plus, the current approach fulfilled neither of the goals I had outlined originally.  

After a few days, I wrote the following paragraph in my notebook: “To quickly summarize, I want to go beyond folding just a thousand cranes. Instead, I want to use it as somewhat of a reflective and cathartic outlook, whether it’s writing down random thoughts or reminiscing on some things that have influenced me a lot in life (maybe something like themed cranes?). I don’t exactly want to push myself to write something on every single crane, as it would defeat the purpose of using them as a self-reflective journey, but I do want to be cognizant and present in the moment to make the most out of the project.”

Let me better explain what I mean. 

Especially at the beginning of second semester of senior year, it felt like I was going through an identity crisis. Like all other high school seniors, I spent my entire fall semester desperately trying to boil myself down into a few paragraphs that would encapsulate my entire essence as a student and a person for college applications, and in the end, I emerged feeling like I knew myself less than ever. Everything was always go, go go, and there was rarely any time to sit down and process my emotions. 

My crane folding sessions, because of the empty time and space they allowed for my thoughts to wander, became the frontline of a never-ending internal commentary. Compounded with being cooped up in the house all day, my brain whirred into overdrive. Like many others left with too much time to overthink, I struggled to define my identity or purpose. Had I lost track of what was really important to me? If I had, how could I have a clear idea of what I wanted for my future? How could I contribute positively to society, or “spread hope,” if I didn’t even know myself?

So, the initial plan was to write any thoughts, literally anything that was passing through my brain at that exact moment, on the inside of the paper. Once the crane was folded, the writing would be safely cocooned inside the crane, like mini time capsules of sorts: little memories and remnants of me, Celina, at the transition between high school and college in 2020. The goal was just to acknowledge and word vomit out all the chaotic entropy churning around in my head.

And coming up in Part Two of this series, I’ll be featuring some of the sets of “themed cranes” that helped me better organize my thoughts!


Catharsis with a Thousand Cranes: Part Two

paper origami craneAs outlined in Part One, at the beginning of quarantine I challenged myself to the hefty project of folding one thousand cranes. 

A few examples out of many more sets:

Favorite memories with my family with this new change in lifestyle pace

colorful origami cranes

A quick noontime stroll in the neighborhood with blossoming flowers and a fresh spring breeze; an evening tug of war session with my puppy. During the school year, like many other families, our work and school schedules limited the amount of time all of us — dad, mom, younger sister, me, and our goldendoodle — were able to gather together. But since March, we’ve literally been together 24/7, and it’s resulted in a ton of wonderful family time!

How much I love and appreciate my friends!

pink and white origami cranes

I think this one is pretty self-explanatory. But I’m just so grateful for all of my friends. Maintaining regular contact can be tough during social distancing, but I haven’t gone a single day without FaceTiming or calling at least one friend. Even if the entire call consists of me living vicariously off of their Animal Crossing session because I’m too cheap to buy a Switch. 

Places that I’ve spent time in 

light blue origami cranes

Since we’re all stuck at home now, I thought it would be refreshing to mentally revisit all the locations I’ve been to before. For this collection, I listed any place I had spent more than a day in and my strongest associated memory with the location. Some were exceedingly positive, like being able to gorge my face with xiaolongbao in Shanghai. Others, less so, like that time in Germany when a bird pooped on my head. And, how fitting is it that my current home in Georgia was my 99th crane and Cambridge was my 100th?

Future life at MIT!

red/pink origami cranes

Of course I had to dedicate a collection to my school! This idea was born during CP*. During Zooms for campus tours or academic sessions, I’d multitask, listing out my impressions of campus life and what I hope to do during my four years in Cambridge. Making these cranes made me so happy and excited for the future.

These themed collections -- plus many, many more -- ended up serving as an excellent grounding mechanism. By synthesizing both past and present influences on my life and development, I was reminded of my core beliefs and values. My family has always been my support system; my mom and dad are the best role models. My friends are a source of joy, and even when we are physically separated, I know they’ll always be just a phone call away. The environments I’ve interacted with have left different impressions of culture and lifestyle. MIT is a door that I’m eager to open.

Reminding myself about these truths, combined with spilling out all the thoughts that had been clustering and colliding in my brain, was incredibly comforting. Over time, I had gotten bogged down by the sheer weight of all the insecurities and fears I had for the future. But once they were written on paper, it was obvious that those doubts were flimsy and unsupported — kind of like the “haha! gotcha” moment in Mulan where the scary dragon shadow turns out to just be the projection of tiny Mushu. 

I think this type of mental dump is useful for anyone to practice. When life gets too busy, it’s really easy to push worries and insecurities, which may not be as pressing as an upcoming deadline or task, to the recesses of your consciousness. But when they all pile up, it’s hard to remember what you’re working for and what you want to accomplish.

As for me, my name is Celina. This year, I’m eighteen years old. I want to spread hope: hope that anyone, regardless of their resources, are equally valued in society, whether that’s in access to healthcare, education, or socioeconomic opportunities. And this is what I will begin working towards during my time at MIT.

origami cranes in a box
A subset of the army

As you can probably tell from this post, I still don’t have a completely defined idea of what I want out of this project! Though I’m only on crane 342 and nowhere close to finishing the end goal of a thousand cranes, I’m not in a rush. Instead, I want to savor the process, enjoying every sliver of self-reflection time, and build a better version of myself. The feeling of limitless contemplation and freedom of thought is obsessively fulfilling.

And, I’m still not sure what I’ll do with the cranes when I’m done. Most likely, I’ll string them together and hang it up as decoration in my room somewhere, but that seems like a rather boring finale. I actually did try making earrings out of a few of my cranes once, but I mean, I can’t exactly have 500 sets of crane earrings, can I?

origami crane earrings
Have I sunk into the world of old lady interests? Cottagecore aesthetic?

Till then, please send recommendations for what I should do with the cranes!

Whether you decide on a similar quest to fold a thousand cranes or just want to fold one, Part Three will have helpful resources and tips that I’ve compiled to get you started on your journey!


Catharsis with a Thousand Cranes: Part Three

Suggestions for those interested in doing a similar project:

Whether you decide on a similar quest to fold a thousand cranes or just want to fold one, here are some helpful resources and tips that I’ve compiled to get you started on your journey!

Crane folding tutorials: 


You can save yourself HOURS of pain by investing in some origami paper at the beginning. Do not manually tear small squares out of thick construction paper like I did and end up spending three times as much time as necessary (although maybe the paper tearing process is another avenue for self-reflection, if you would like…)

Unfortunately, I can’t find the specific type of origami paper I ended up buying, but this Amazon link has pretty good reviews:

If you normally prefer to not buy from Amazon for personal or ethical reasons, feel free to search for any type of origami paper from smaller businesses; any paper will do the job.

Also, if your paper is relatively big (e.g. around 6 x 6 inches), you can also tear the paper into four smaller squares to maximize the number of cranes you can fold! (I ended up tearing my paper into small squares about 3x3 inches, which worked great) 

A step-by-step process of my crane time capsules:

1. Start with your square of paper! 

origami paper

2. If you would like, write something on the inside of the paper. This will be hidden once your crane is folded, like an enclosed time capsule.

origami paper with writing on it

3. Fold your crane. Refer to the above tutorials if needed!

4. Write the date on the bottom of one of the wings, so you can have a time reference of when you folded the crane!

origami paper crane

5. Here is your finished crane! Only 999 more to’ve got this! 

paper origami crane