The Sadako Effect
I spent a year of my life folding paper cranes in class. I have no idea exactly how many I folded, but it felt like an infinite amount. If each crane were to be gathered up lovingly and counted perhaps it would be far more than I imagine, or perhaps it would be less, or perhaps it would be both at the same time. My life has always been ruled by these kinds of inconsistencies. If you were to ask each crane its name would they answer “Metaphysics,” or “The Ontological Argument for the Existence of God,” or “Confirmation Bias?” Would they remember my fingers carefully smoothing down the edges and then, after a little while, setting them free? People derive meaning out of everything or nothing; priests or nihilists, with nothing in between, always moving forward in time at the same velocity. This was my reality.
In order to fold a perfect paper crane, you must begin with the most perfect shape: the square. If your paper square is skewed to the right, you crane will be. If your square is more of a rectangle your crane’s wings will end up misshapen. I created my origami materials by folding and ripping graph paper, six or nine boxes across. My notebook was full of slips of paper of varying sizes, like Fibonacci squares; the smallest crane I ever folded was three-squares-by-three-squares. This became my ritual during class: fold the paper in half, carefully crimp the edges, line each corner up, and smooth everything down with my fingernail. From scraps of paper, through careful but mindless action, create something out of nothing.
Sadako Sasaki is unique in that she is the only little girl named Sadako Sasaki that history remembers. She is not unique in that she is just like the millions of other Japanese girls who lived in Hiroshima, Japan, on August 6, 1945, and who flung their wishes at the sky. Sadako Sasaki grows up listening to stories from her parents, about Urashima Taro, the Tongue-Cut Sparrow and her favorite—Momotaro, the peach boy, who made friends with all the creatures he met along the way by sharing his dumplings with them. All these wonderful, fantastic stories about underwater kingdoms, talking sparrows, and boys who sprung from peaches, and one old, old legend about a thousand paper cranes. This is Sadako Sasaki’s reality.
Google Sadako Sasaki. “A Story About Children and World Peace” is the third result. When I was in high school folding all those paper cranes, someone compared me to Sadako Sasaki, only I didn’t know her name then. She was described to me as “The Little Girl Who Had Cancer and Tried to Fold a Thousand Paper Cranes.” Her whole infinitely complex life, boiled down to fourteen words, and missing the most important one, because “A Story About Children and World Peace” sounds a lot better than “Two-Year-Old Victim of War She Was Too Young to Remember.”
In Japanese mythology cranes represent youth and longevity. They supposedly lived for a thousand years, and an old legend says that if you fold a thousand paper cranes you’ll be granted a wish. There’s another Japanese legend, about a fisherman named Urashima Taro. Urashima Taro lived in a small coastal village with his parents, and every day he rowed out in his small wooden boat to catch fish. One day, after Urashima had been fishing for many hours, he was walking along the beach on his way home when he came upon a group of children standing in a tight circle. As he stepped closer he could see they were tormenting a sea turtle, throwing stones at it and poking at its soft underbelly with sticks. Urashima was full of sorrow when he saw what the children were doing to the turtle, so he ran at them waving his arms so that they scattered, running back to their homes. He went to the turtle and cradled it in his arms. The crane lives for a thousand years, you see, but the wise tortoise lives ten times that. Urashima took the turtle and gently placed it into the surf, and watched until it swam out to safety.
The next day Urashima took his little boat out to sea like always, to catch as many fish as he could. He was rocking gently in the waves when he heard a voice like the ocean itself calling his name, “Urashima! Urashima!” He looked over the side of his little boat and saw that it was the same turtle that he had rescued the day before. “I have come to thank you for your kindness,” said the turtle, “and offer you a reward. I would like to take you to see the palace of the Dragon King of the Sea, deep underneath these waves. Well, do you want to come?” Urashima said he would very much like to come, and so the turtle led him down beneath the waves to the Dragon King’s palace. When they arrived the turtle transformed into a beautiful woman, a goddess of the sea. She was the Dragon King’s daughter, and the king was so grateful to Urashima for rescuing her that he offered Urashima her hand in marriage, if Urashima would stay there under the sea with them.
Urashima and the Dragon Princess lived happily for many years in the king’s palace of wonders, until one day Urashima Taro became homesick, and longed to see his parents and his village and his beloved little fishing boat. “It’s possible,” said the Princess, “if you want to see your parents again, but you can only return to the surface for one day.”
“Okay,” said Urashima, so the Princess gave him a box made of coral and beautiful shells, tied with a soft pink ribbon, to take with him
“This box will allow you to walk on land again,” said the Princess, “but you must not open it. Promise me you won’t open it.” Urashima promised, and the Princess lead him back up to the surface and set him sailing towards the shore in his little fishing boat. As the village came into view on the horizon Urashima began to grow more and more upset—he could not recognize anything about his village. The lay of the land was the same, but the buildings and people were unfamiliar to him. He stepped out of his boat and made his way to his parents’ house, his feet picking their way along the path by instinct alone, but when he arrived the house was no longer standing, replaced by miles and miles of rice fields. Urashima went back to the village and inquired around about his parents, but no one knew them. Finally he found an old woman selling rice cakes in the market who remembered his parents. She told Urashima that his parents and all his family had been dead for a thousand years. When Urashima heard this he was so upset that he fell to his knees. There was nothing for him to do but leave, but how? He did not know the way back. Then he remembered the box his beautiful wife had given him, so he took it and untied the ribbon. When he opened the box a strange mist rose up out of the box and surrounded him, and then something horrible happened. Urashima’s hair began to grow long and white. His skin became wrinkled and aged, and he began to stoop over, his back too weak to support him. His body kept aging until all that was left was a sad, pale wisp, and then Urashima fell down on the beach where he found the turtle all those thousands of years ago, and died. Cranes live for a thousand years, tortoises for ten thousand, but men? Men must always answer to time.
I didn’t learn I had ADHD until my senior year of high school. My official “diagnosis” was prompted by my own research at home; I had felt for some time that there was something strange about the way my brain worked. When you’re seventeen, though, you’re supposed to feel like there’s something strange about the way your brain works, or so I was told repeatedly. My parents were convinced I was making it up. My doctor prescribed me Adderall, no questions asked. She was straightforward like that. If I was having a problem, she’d tell me how to fix it, and I’d listen to her.
I hated Adderall. When I remember the first part of my senior year of high school it has a hazy, dreamlike quality. I think I slipped right out of time and into some kind of limbo where it didn’t exist anymore. Even now, as I struggle to remember anything specific about what it felt like, I wonder if that part of my life will be lost in that in-between place forever. I had to stop taking the drugs, and re-enter time.
“I don’t know how to help you if you won’t accept it,” my mother said to me one day, back Before Adderall, before a prescription made my problems Real and Not Made Up. I remember distinctly the way the leather seat of my mom’s Volkswagen minivan felt under my legs, sticky and uncomfortable in the ever-present heat of the desert; the way the recycled air smelled as it blasted through the AC vents into my eyes, watery from rubbing eyeliner into them all day long. I can even recall which stretch of the road we were driving down when I finally told my mother how much I hated living in my own head. I wish the solution had been as simple as a small, oval, pink pill that tasted strange on my tongue. It was not. I wish the solution had been as simple as creating something out of nothing. It was not.
There is something magical about the act of creating something out of nothing, of folding a paper crane, something that goes beyond culturally appropriative mysticism and New Age philosophy. Something about the liminality of the paper crane, about the way it rests in between so many different planes. A paper crane is history, philosophy, mythology, art, all at the same time; it is this perpetual combination and re-combination in which the power of the paper crane resides. So many unlike things in the same space, so many like things in the same space. It is ritual and religion: consecrate the Holy Materials, perform the Sacred Act of Folding, recite the Wish, lay the Crane upon your Altar of Choice. Amen.
Maybe this connects me to the millions of other human beings throughout history who have folded paper cranes and flung their wishes at the sky in hope that somehow, this meaningless act will become meaningful for them. Fold a thousand paper cranes and you get a wish. What would you wish for?
Here is a myth about Sadako Sasaki.
There once was a little girl out of time. One day, the girl and her mother were in the garden, planting seeds in the ground. They were full of hope for what the seeds would become. There were strange creatures flying overhead; big, loud, metal birds that screamed at one another. The little girl thought her mother looked tired from working in the sun, so she went into the house to fetch her a drink of cool, fresh water. Suddenly, the little girl heard a sound like the roaring of the sea. It was so loud that it knocked her through the open window she was standing next to. When she woke up her mother took her hand and dragged her along; the sky was full of black rain, falling down all around her, so thick she could hardly see in front of her, soaking her dress and her little white shoes and staining them black as the night. They went to live with her relatives and Sadako was glad that her mother was okay.
Ten years passed, and Sadako’s mother told her the story of Momotaro the peach boy every night before she went to sleep. Sadako became ill after a while, and had to go to the hospital to be poisoned, in hope that the new poison would kill the old poison and she might survive. Sadako’s mother was so sad, and Sadako wanted to cheer her up; she overheard her neighbor in the hospital talking about an old, old Japanese legend. Fold a thousand paper cranes and you get a wish. Sadako thought long and hard about what she might wish for, as she carefully folded crane after crane, out of any scraps of paper she could get her hands on. This one was named Sakura, after the cherry blossoms patterning her beautiful kimono, that one Momo, after her beloved peach boy. Still she could not decide what to wish for. She did not want to be selfish, you see, and wish for herself, and besides, she could hear the doctors whispering with her parents about how she was out of time, and she did not want to wish for something too impossible. So she decided that her wish would be this: Let there be peace for all the children of the world. After that Sadako felt a great spiritual peace come over her. She kept folding cranes until one day she closed her eyes and saw black rain again, falling all around her, only this time it did not stain her checked hospital gown. This is how Sadako died, and after she passed away a beautiful memorial was built so that all the suffering children of the world for the rest of time could remember her wish, and all the war-hungry men of the world could remember it too.
In many ways I am a girl out of time. I do not obey its rules and regulations. Anyone with ADHD will tell you that, more often than not, time loses all meaning. Minutes turn into hours, days into seconds, and suddenly it makes total sense to set aside an entire day for washing the dishes, or doing laundry, or reading a chapter of Statistics. It’s easy to get lost in time when you have ADHD. Psychologists call it hyper-focus, I call it time-traveling. Sit down to read a book and time melts away; maybe you read for twenty minutes, and maybe you read for six hours, for so long the sun has begun to set and you’ve been squinting by its dying light for—well, the point is that you don’t know how long. Or maybe you’ve re-read the same line twelve times in the past twenty minutes, only it feels like years have gathered all around you in the shadows that have only advanced a small amount. When you emerge from this suspension, will the world look the same?
I wonder if all these accumulated years will ever catch up with me, if one day I will begin to age like Urashima Taro until I fade away completely, against the background of a world that has moved on without me. Sometimes this timelessness causes me to choke. Fold a thousand paper cranes, make them fly. What would you wish for?
I think about Sadako Sasaki a lot, trying to imagine what her life was like, what she was thinking those eight months she spent in the hospital being treated for acute malignant lymph gland leukemia. What a sad place that must have been, done up in grays and whites like the photograph on Sadako Sasaki’s Wikipedia page. The air must have been clogged with all the thousands of wishes, so thick you could hardly see. I wonder how anyone could breathe through it all. Some accounts say Sadako didn’t even have real origami paper to fold her cranes with, because everything was so scarce during the US occupation of Japan after the war. Even the very nature of her illness screams of scarcity—less than a year after she first started showing symptoms, Sadako had already died of an illness caused by a bomb dropped by my country on a town full of innocent Japanese people. She is said to have folded over fourteen hundred cranes by the time she passed away. She probably really wished to live. I am old of mind and spirit after all this timelessness, though not of body, but Sadako was young, and she deserved to live.
I imagine when she died she looked impossibly young, younger than her twelve years, not like Urashima Taro at all. If I really could time travel I would fold a million paper cranes, and fling a thousand paper wishes at the sky for Sadako Sasaki, remembered and forgotten girl, queen of the thousand cranes, inside and outside time like every good legend. I would wish for her to live, as many times as it would take, but then I am much more nihilist than priest. We are two girls out of time, Sadako Sasaki and I. Ask the cranes if they remember us.