In a world that seems woven through with disasters, pending or ongoing; when each day’s news brings fresh horrors that were surely preventable; when values we once considered untouchable and self-evident are repeatedly stomped into uselessness; when disillusionment competes with fear for our emotional attention, and incidents of heroism are overshadowed by stories of outrageous greed; when personal fears of illness and mortality have been raised to national levels so that the whole world draws nearer to apocalyptic undoing—platitudes are too thin to offer comfort. Maybe even words themselves, regardless of how well chosen and beautifully arranged, are not enough.
Life is too complicated to deal with only in words. If you can only deal with stuff that’s simple enough to put into words, you’re not going far enough. And that’s where God is – in the complicated places.
What holds my attention and my heart these days is clouds. Yes, clouds.
On evening walks, I have had to be careful not to trip on uneven sidewalks because I’m looking up. The solidity of the cement beneath my feet, like rock-hard news items of political malfeasance, failures to estimate medical needs, short-sightedness in all manner of public choices, vanishes out of my perception, lost in wisps of white against sapphire blue, the streaks of cirrus tinged with coral. My very soul is drawn upward into nothingness, into Emptiness.
Once upon a long-gone time, my childish self discovered how to use a narrative imagination to block out confusing, frightening information, dropped by adults moved mysteriously by fears too incompletely voiced to make any kind of sense (perhaps even to themselves). My world didn’t feel safe? Well, then. Make up an entirely new one and guide its characters through innocent and brave adventures that always end happily. Create a family constellation that’s balanced just right with girls and boys—I think I chose twin girls and twin boys, the boys sufficiently older to be quite out of the way.
My imaginary family lived on the clouds, great big cumulous clouds with just enough darkness across the bottom to lend solidity.
Light as air, the young cloud-dweller girls skipped from cloud to cloud without ever falling through or knowing the hard edges of earth.
At night, snuggled against their always kind, sympathetic mother, they listened to her stories, knew the light of stars up close, celebrated the moon that drifted right through their domain, applauded occasional displays of Northern Lights. Possibly they even danced on their evanescent cloud floors, although I wouldn’t then have dared to use the word “dance.” The cloud-girls just whirled and leaped and bowed to songs that had no words.
Something of that desire to leave the earth and live in air alone possesses me these days. My longing seems more than just desperate escapism. Like Denise Levertov in “The Avowal,” I yearn for the “freefall” of trust into “Creator Spirit’s deep embrace,” so the heaviness of worry can be dissipated in a realm where nothing is solid or impermeable. All is breath and spirit. Change is not to be feared: it is but a shifting of shape and color into ever more loveliness.
Even as clouds and colors grow darker, there is no terror. Clouds draw closer, like a spiritual comforter, wrapping us round with inner warmth.
Back in those childhood days, when I imagined my ongoing saga of the cloud-dwellers, I also attended school where studies were fine and recess-times were sometimes not too bad. In our music hour, we sang old favorites like “Home on the Range.” That that world of cattle and cowboys was utterly remote from our small Mennonite community was beside the point. I liked the melody, liked the hopefulness of the chorus:
Home, home on the range
Where the deer and the antelope play,
Where seldom is heard a discouraging word,
And the skies are not cloudy all day.
Apparently, I never noticed the sheer impossibility of a place where discouraging words were never heard. Well, nostalgia often does create impossible scenes that never actually were. But never a cloud in the sky? The assumption being that clouds are bad? Really?
In these days of compulsive cloud-gazing, and hunting through folders of photos for the cloud pictures that I seem to have always taken, I am faced with a stark knowledge: without clouds, the skies are not nearly as lovely.
Depth of field, range of color, endless variation – all are heightened with clouds.
Even the wildest storms, with their terrifying black clouds—and I do not wish to minimize their sometimes devastating consequences—have a terrible beauty of their own.
Is there a moral here? Perhaps. It does not seem to me that we have any choice about whether there are clouds, of whatever sort, in our lives or not. Environmentalists and meteorologists would dispute that assertion, and rightly so. The world we live in, indeed, the wider universe, is so intricately connected in infinite webs that surely we do influence the presence and kind of real clouds and metaphorical ones. This is why listening to the news is so disturbing; at the grimmest level – and the most hope-filled one – we are in this together and our choices matter.
For this moment, at this stage of my journey (accompanied as I am by people whom I know and whom I don’t know), the beyond past the clouds draws my spirit, even as my eyes rest in their ethereal beauty here and now.
“Still, what I want in my life
is to be willing
to be dazzled—
to cast aside the weight of facts
and maybe even
to float a little
above this difficult world.” (Mary Oliver)