A Sanctuary in the Clouds

            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.

Photo of clouds, just clouds and sky, in unearthly shades of blue with hints of white.

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.

Cloud photo with a bit of dark evergreen in one corner. The clouds are wispy, in the coral and soft yellow shades of sunset.

 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.

The sky is the deep blue of full day and the cumulus clouds are fluffy and white.

Light as air, the young cloud-dweller girls skipped from cloud to cloud without ever falling through or knowing the hard edges of earth.

Smaller fluffy clouds against dark blue, looking a little like cotton balls.

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.

There's more landscape in this sunset picture, with several trees and the tops of houses are barely visible. The clouds appear lit from behind.

 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.

Landscape along the river. Someone is walking along the path. Photo is mostly sky, though, in the evening, with just a few wispy clouds.
Focus is totally on the cloud, which is  a pale orange against blue sky.
Same clouds, but slightly later in the evening. Sky is darker, and the trees at the bottom of the photo seem black.

 Even as clouds and colors grow darker, there is no terror. Clouds draw closer, like a spiritual comforter, wrapping us round with inner warmth.

Quite dark photo of clouds that are almost black. The trees at the bottom and right hand side are black. But across the lower middle of the photo the slant of light leaves a few clouds white.

  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.

Photo taken in Grasslands National Park, and the lower third of the photo is prairie only, no trees, brown grass. The rest of the photo is simply sky, no clouds.

Depth of field, range of color, endless variation – all are heightened with clouds.

Sunset at Kathleen Lake in Yukon. The land is a dark band across the center of the photo, and the lake in the bottom half of the photo reflects the sky perfectly. Thin clouds hold the last of the light, in delicate pink.

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.

A very stormy sky picture, with ominous grey clouds.

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.

Early morning landscape with dark trees and lake. Sky is almost covered with clouds, fluffy white on top and dark grey underneath.
Another sunset picture with not many clouds this time and a clear moon. Just above the dark evergreens at the bottom of the photo, the few soft clouds are a deep orange.

“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)

Could We Please Make Some Anniversaries Unnecessary?

(begun December 6, 2019, completed just before International Women’s Day)

Today is the 30th anniversary of the massacre at the École Polytechnique in Montreal. That first mass shooting in Canada (it remains the deadliest). Every year on December 6th since then, there have been public remembrance services for the women who died that day and renewed calls for vigilance and for greater equality. Memorials have been set up in various cities across Canada.

photo of candles, two long-stemmed roses, and three teddy bears, arranged on church steps draped with a black cloth

Since then, mass shootings in North America have become more frequent and their targets more varied: children in schools, concert goers, Muslims, Jews, party-goers, journalists, women again. As if the fearful, the isolated, the helplessly angry know that education and music and diversity are agents of peace and freedom – or can be. Admittedly, artists and musicians can bring people together for nefarious purposes as well as for good ends. And partiers can dance for and with everyone, or band together to exclude.

One can pray for the death of enemies—and thus inevitably become more inclined to bring those prayers to fruition—or one can pray for strength and peace for all neighbours, regardless of skin color or ideology or accident of citizenship and inherited traditions.

still life photo of celtic cross, and two candles, on the base of draped white satin.

 In the end, we can choose to smolder in our house of hatred or throw open windows and doors to let the heart embrace beauty however it is embodied. We can choose to embrace the dignity and worth of every human being or recast some humans as enemies. Those choices are, admittedly, strongly shaped by those we happen to be in relationship with, not to mention surrounding circumstances that influence what worldview we find most compatible and safe. Yet, surely, at some point, we can reach for sufficient maturity to reflect on how we might play the cards that have been given us.  

still life with two different candles holders and a silver cross necklace.

What I fail to understand is how we as human beings dare to ascribe superiority and merit to those characteristics we can impossibly choose. Why should I as a woman be deemed unworthy of some privilege that men claim as a birthright? (For a detailed example of “birthright” privilege, read Price of Honour by Jan Goodwin)

I did not choose to be born as a woman any more than my brothers chose to be born as men. Neither I nor they are justified in levelling blame or in boasting about either bodily state. Nor did I earn my whiteness that I should have reason to be proud of it. Equally I should not accept reprimand for my pigmentation or lack thereof.

Now what I do with the current privilege (or disadvantage) of any of my birthrights is another matter. Part of acquiring wisdom and equanimity as we live through each day is learning how to differentiate between what we might be responsible for and what we’re not. Then follows the need for courage to act in ways that matter, according to values that have come to be recognized as universal—e.g. the preciousness of every human life, compassion, the right to have basic human needs met, etc.

More difficult is thinking through what others are responsible for. Our own circumstances we know and our own motives we can learn to understand if we take the time and effort. The circumstances and motives of others? Not so much. Let there be compassion and patience in abundance before we dare to judge.

A personal story: on December 6, 1989, the day that Marc Lepine entered the École Polytechnique and fatally shot 14 women, six of them in a mechanical engineering class, I was back in university, as a mature student. I no longer recall my reactions that day, or my reactions in the following year when the first anniversary of the shooting took place. Mostly I was preoccupied with trying to balance the demands of being a parent to teen-agers, a daughter to my elderly and increasingly ill parents, a wife to my husband, and a student in PhD studies.

In the midst of that stew of obligations, I met a fellow graduate student (J), likewise a mature student with many family demands, but from a very different cultural background and set of circumstances over which she had as little choice as I had over mine. She was Indigenous, and I had grown up in a milieu of unspoken and even unconscious prejudice, although during a few years on the board of MCC Saskatchewan, I had heard enough about the experiences of Indigenous peoples to provoke some serious re-thinking.

Nevertheless, I was still quite unprepared for J’s angry response to colonial attitudes in the literature we were reading, literature that I had grown up enjoying and even revering. I felt seared by J’s bitter resentment of white privilege and confused about our Canadian history.

Just what led to our choosing to have a long lunch together, I hardly know.  Perhaps it was the need to function together in a small graduate seminar class, or maybe, through class discussion, we had glimpsed the possibility of common ground. I don’t recall who offered the invitation. As it turned out, that luncheon was an eye-opener for us both.

I listened to her talk about her father, a runner of real prowess, who earned an Olympic medal which he was not allowed to keep—how was it that the Indian agent felt empowered to confiscate it? That seems like such an act of gratuitous humiliation. I heard bits of J’s personal story that moved me deeply. How had she been able to become a conscientious mother and diligent, brilliant graduate student? I gained a new respect for her courage in overcoming disadvantages that I could only dimly comprehend. I felt sure that I could not have done the same.

On the other hand, J was startled to realize that my background had not been unbroken privilege. She had not known that Mennonites also revered the land, although differently than Indigenous peoples, or that our history included the Russian Revolutions, violent fragmentation of families, and desperate flight to different countries. As I talked of my parents’ regret over the loss of what they considered their homeland and their struggle to adjust to a different country and a different culture, she sympathized.  

Did all misunderstandings disappear at once? No. Did I learn everything I needed to know in order to understand the lives of Indigenous peoples? Not even close. But I did learn to appreciate something of J’s viewpoint in subsequent classes and could hear her contributions without bristling inwardly. I have since followed her scholarly contributions with interest. 

Reflecting on that experience, now decades ago, as long ago as the massacre at École Polytechnique, I wonder how long we need to keep memorializing that tragic event. Could we balance the retelling of that awful day by celebrating some event, some occasion in which diverse people had come together in peace and laughter?

Photo of dining-room table covered with an Iranian cloth of intricate weave, with a table centerpiece of three clay women in a circle with a lit candle in the centre.
The table covering is a gift from an Iranian friend.

I know, our calendars are already full, what with holidays from several religious traditions, special days such as International Women’s Day, Vimy Ridge Day, Groundhog Day, National Tartan Day, and whatever label we use to make sure that we get a long weekend in February.

Anniversaries are meaningful, whether personal (that first real kiss, the death of a family member) or national or even international. And I do not wish to denigrate them. Furthermore some horrors are so dehumanizing that we must remember them lest we repeat them. That had been the intent of Remembrance Day. What I fear is that we foster antipathy to perceived enemies or somehow, unwittingly I hope, glorify violence. Perhaps what I wish for is a continued, daily awareness that the most basic, efficacious response to violence is learning to see the Other as friend.

            Let’s share tea and break bread (or muffins) together more often than we light candles.  

photo of same table but with a cheerful blue tablecloth made in Bangledesh, the three women-centrepiece with lit candle, two tea cups and a plate with two muffins.
Table ready for two. Tableclcoth made in Bangladesh.