Thursday, September 8, 2016

Meditations On Clouds


My kids don't understand my fascination with clouds. They are baffled why I want to take so many photos of the sky. "Another cloud picture?" Benjamin asks as he shakes his head in the same disapproving way a parent would a kid who's brought home another bad grade on his report card or like I'm bring home stray cats constantly. But I don't care because I love looking at clouds and watching the sky.  Doing so calms me just as watching fish does or meditating. In fact, I often find myself meditating or daydreaming as I watch them. Clouds have a ruminating and reflexive effect on me. I see clouds as introspective and almost dreamlike the way they are constantly changing  and evolving. 


Clouds inevitably remind me of Joni Mitchell's song "Both Sides Now" (my favorite version is the one she rerecorded in 2000 with a lush orchestra and was used in the film Love Actually). There is a mature self-awareness to the song as she sings:

I've looked at clouds from
both sides now
From up and down, and still somehow
It's clouds illusions I recall
I really don't know clouds at all

Love, like clouds, has two sides: one is of beauty and tranquility while the other is of storms or bad weather. At times, the song is a rumination on life and relationships, loss and loneliness. The song is beautiful in its vulnerability and its delicateness (much like a cloud itself).

The first time I ever heard this song, I was riding in the backseat of my mother's Carolina-blue VW Bug. I was staring out the window at the clouds and this beautiful, melancholy song came on the radio. I don't remember if it was Joni Mitchell or Judy Collins singing it. What I remember was my mother singing along and, as the song progressed, I could hear a sadness that I did not understand in her voice. When she got to the lines, "Tears and fears and feeling proud / To say "I love you" right out loud" her voice cracked and she stopped singing. From the rear view mirror, I could see a tear running down her cheek, but I didn't say anything, I didn't ask why she was crying. I just turned away and looked out the window at the clouds.


Listening to Mitchell's song or simply gazing at the clouds myself, I cannot help but see the mercurial nature of them as they fold and unfold, their shapes shifting, not in a harsh or sudden manner, but in slow and gradual way. Tenderly, almost. As children we played games guessing the shapes of the clouds. Seeing a turtle or a dog or a sheep. Clouds are a thing of wonder and hope. They are the subject of paintings. Of course, I cannot help but think of Bob Ross painting his "happy clouds." (Side note: I still watch reruns of his PBS show because it also helps to calm me whenever I'm stressed. All it takes is good old Bob talking about cadmium blue and a glass of wine and I'm good no matter how many times I hear the word "Papa" being repeated over and over by my kids). Another painter who loved them was Georgia O'Keefe wrote, "Tonight I walked into the sunset - to mail some  letters - the whole sky - and there is so much of it out here - was just blazing - and grey blue clouds were riding all through the holiness of it . . ."

There is a holiness to them. When one stops and truly looks at clouds in the sky, that, for that moment, is the whole world. If I allow myself to just stop and watch them, I am being. Not doing. Not busying about, but simply being. I am present to that moment and I'm not focusing on anything else. I forget my phone and the computer and social media. There is only this moment and all else falls away. Perhaps their impact is their transient and ephemeral nature. 


I'm clearly not the only one who appreciates them, however, as there is a Cloud Appreciation Society. No, I'm not making that up (Here's the link to their site: https://cloudappreciationsociety.org/).  I could easily become a member. Someone else who would join me, if he were alive today, was the English painter John Constable. He loved clouds so much that during a single summer in 1822 he painted fifty oil sketches of them, with notations on the backs of the sketches about atmospheric conditions, as well as the direction and speed of the wind. 


Constable was so proud of his cloud paintings that he boasted to Archdeacon John Fisher, a friend of his, "I am the man of clouds."  This was not an empty boast.


His paintings show his love of his elusive subjects, as does his letters and journals. He once wrote, "It would be difficult to name a class of landscape in which the sky is not the key note, the standard of scale, and the chief organ of sentiment." Constable even presented  his observations in lectures at the Royal Institution in 1836. He hoped to show his profession as "scientific as well as poetic" and that painting landscapes were as much a part of "natural philosophy" and that pictures were "experiments." Though not popular during his own lifetime, Constable's paintings would go on to influence Impressionistic painters like Claude Monet. 


Something else I learned is that the study of clouds and cloud formations is called nephology. It's described as a daydreamer's science, which may be one of the reasons I love it so much.

Another daydreamer who became known as the "father of modern meteorology" was an Englishman by the name of Luke Howard. He was a British manufacturing chemist who originally had an interest in botany, but by 1802, wrote to the poet Goethe to tell him about his "passion" for clouds. He began to study them more closely. so much so that he went from taking notes to sketching and painting the clouds he saw.


Soon he began to classify and it was he that first identified three principle types (cumulus, stratus, and cirrus). In December of 1802, he presented his findings in a paper entitled "On the modification of clouds" to the Askesian Socitey (a London debating club for scientific thinkers). In it, he said:

Clouds are subject to certain distinct modifications produced by the
general causes which affect all the variations of the atmosphere;
they are commonly as good visible indicators of the operation of
these causes, as is the countenance of the state of a person's mind
or body.

Howard was accurate as scientists are beginning to grasp the importance of clouds in understanding how the atmosphere behaves, as well as its effects on climate change and global warming. There was an article in the Scientific American by Umair Irfan in which he wrote:

Clouds are especially important in understanding how the atmosphere
behaves. They reflect sunlight back into space, trap heat and carry moisture,
all of which can have contradictory impacts. Varieties like puffy, cottony cumulus
clouds; wavy stratocumulus clouds; and tall, thundering cumulonimbus clouds behave
differently as well.

Luke Howard is responsible for this understanding in that it was he who identified seven cloud types (those would be expanded to ten by other scientists later on). Because of his studies of clouds, Howard was elected a fellow of the Royal Society on March 18, 1821 and joined the British Meteorological Society on May 7,1850. He would carry on a correspondence with the poet Goethe that would inspire that poet's interest in clouds, as well as the painter John Constable, the writings of John Ruskin and the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, who wrote his monumental poem "The Cloud" because of his reading Howard's work. (Here's a link to the poem: Shelley's The Cloud). 


As a child, I remember lying in tall, wild grass of the woods behind our house. It was summer and I was only wearing shorts, so I could feel the warmth of the sun on my skin. It felt like God's pleasure. I lay there, looking up at the sky and the clouds, with a sense of awe and wonder that I did not understand as pure theology. Then, as I'm lying there, it begins to rain. The sun is still out. The sky is blue, but the rain suddenly comes down on me. I delight in its coolness and get up with arms outstretched in gratitude for this momentary gift. Even now it gives me joy to think of this boyish delight.


The English poet Gerard Manly Hopkins wrote:

Summer ends now; now,
barbarous in beauty, the Stooks
arise Around; up above, what
wind-walks! what lovely behavior
Of silk-sack clouds! Has wilder,
wilful-waiver Meal-drift molded
ever and melted across skies?

Like Constable, Hopkins' journal shows his own fascination with clouds.


Clouds are ever changing, merging, rising, falling and spreading across the sky. When I truly stop and watch them, linear time falls away. In "De Profundis," Oscar Wilde wrote, "We think in eternity but we move slowly through time." I think of that line whenever I see clouds. During these moments all else slips away. They remind me: Living life is not in the hurrying.

A quietness settles over me. I am content. 


Upon seeing the painting "Nocturnes" by James McNeill Whistler, the French composer Claude Debussy began writing what would become known as his "Nocturnes." The first movement was entitled "Nuages" (Clouds). Of this piece, Debussy noted that the piece, "renders the immutable aspect of the sky and the slow, solemn motion of the clouds, fading away in grey tones lightly tinged with white."


One of my favorite times and places to reflect and watch clouds is in the car line at Cava's school. With the car turned off, I watch them shift and materialize into different forms before my eyes. Slow down, the clouds seem to say. I love them because they invite me in to silence and solitude. Watching them, I focus on being and not doing. I do not look for answers. I do not ask questions. I am at peace.


Certainly I agree with John Lubbock who wrote in The Use of Life, "Rest is not idleness, and to lie sometimes on the grass on a summer's day, listening to the murmur of water, or watching the clouds float across the sky, is by no means a waste of time."


As a child, I played t-ball. I can recall standing in the outfield with my attention more on the clouds than the action taking place around me (probably one of the many reasons I tended to be in outfield). Clouds allowed me to daydream. They were also the reason why teachers learned not to seat me near a window in school. How many report cards came home with the note "Prone to daydreaming" written on them by the teacher?

It's true.

To me, school was more like a prison, but the sky with its clouds offered freedom. They called to me to be outside, to be in nature, to walk in the woods. They never spoke of math or penmanship or diagramming sentences. The German philosopher Hans Georg Gadamer wrote, "A horizon is something toward which we journey, but it is also something that journeys along with us."

When I gaze up at the sky, I understand his words and I desire nothing more than to be a bird in flight. How I envy those hawks that soar overhead with such ease.


Our parents used to take us on a yearly Fall drive through the Blue Ridge Parkway to see the leaves changing in all of their autumnal glory. I remember how, as my father navigated the winding mountain roads, how my sister and I would roll down our windows to reach out our hands to grab the clouds. We would laugh as we did so, only to be disappointed to find our hands were empty and that the clouds always evaded our grasp.


"What can poor mortals say about clouds?" the naturalist John Muir wrote in My First Summer in the Sierra, "While a description of their huge glowing domes and ridges, shadowy gulfs and canons, and featheredged ravines is being tried, they vanish, leaving no visible ruins. Nevertheless, these fleeting sky mountains are as substantial and significant as the more lasting upheavals of granite beneath them. Both alike are built up and die, and in God's calendar difference of duration is nothing."


When my mother was dying of cancer, I would sometimes leave her room in the hospice wing, and go, not to the hospital's small chapel, but to somewhere I could be outside. I would just stand there in the cold of winter and stare up at the sky. I was heavy with the burden of her suffering and I needed to see those insubstantial clouds. The clouds were like prayers to me then. 

Towards the end, she told me she began to see bright colors - brighter than any on earth - the bluest sky with the most beautiful clouds she had ever seen. "They are like nothing you can imagine," she whispered. "And there is such light." 

Had the veil between this world and the next thinned so much for her that she had caught glimpses of it?

In that moment, all anxiety had been replaced with tranquility for her. She felt peace.

God, in His infinite tenderness, was giving my mother what she would need to make that journey.

That moment was sacred.

For me to be there felt like a sacrament. A holy gift. 

I looked outside her window at the clouds and the sky and tried to imagine the one she had just seen. Clouds are a reminder to me of just how close the eternal world is to our natural one.


So when I see clouds in the sky, my mind turns to what the poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote, "Higher yet and higher out of clouds and night, nearer yet and nearer rising to the to the light - light, serene and holy where my soul may rest, purified and lowly, sanctified and blest."


Hopefully you, too, now will look at clouds differently and with a greater appreciation. May you now stop to ponder this beautiful gift our Creator has given us and see how clouds, like ourselves, will continually be transfigured and transformed. All is grace.  




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