“We keep our vigil that clouds may live.” – Mark Strand in 89 Clouds
My mother’s illness was long. It gave her some time to prepare for death. Being a bit young(er) and healthier that’s hard for me to understand. I can’t imagine being ready to die. Hearing her say she had seen and done everything she wanted to and that she was ready to die, I recoiled. I didn’t believe her. I didn’t want to believe her. I wanted her to fight for her life. I didn’t want her to give up and I seriously doubted she’d really seen everything she wanted.
She may have accepted her fate but I could not.
That night Portland had a thunderstorm unlike most thunderstorms it gets. The Pacific Northwest is not a hot bed of violent thunder and lightning, but this night was a tremendous exception. The build-up to the show was spectacular. Arriving early evening before sunset, the clouds turned the sky to fire as the sun’s rays highlighted the crazy cumulus anvils and puffs with colors and shape beyond my imagination. I remember sitting on the roof watching the clouds in a constant state of awe. I’m quite sure some audible “ohs” and “ahs” escaped my mouth. As darkness set in so did the lightning and torrents of rain. Buckets in minutes syncopated with bolts of light. Now definitely “OHS” and “AHS” and “WHOAS” from the peanut gallery. No one does a light show better than Mother Nature.
I recall thinking, “Mom has not seen anything like this, not a chance.” Sadly, she probably didn’t see it. She died that night inside a care facility thirty miles away. And, indeed she had not seen everything. Those few moments – where the sky was an unfamiliar sky, where tropical rain fell in this temperate zone, where the best thing to do was be in the moment with the power of nature – she had not done that. Not that unique night. Those kinds of moments are never the same. Those kind of moments seem worth living to experience. I couldn’t fathom what kind of pain, physical or emotional, could override the desire to experience more storms like this.
They say snowflakes are unique, and so too are thunderstorms. Constantly morphing cloud configurations, random lightning strikes, unpredictable rain and hail, all create a singular occurrence. Of course every person’s life experience is unique too and who am I to judge when another person is ready to move on. I have enough difficulty interpreting the things I experience.
For example, when I close my eyes, I sometimes have a cloud show of my own. On the back of my eyelids dance constantly changing cloud-like shapes. At different times I see different colors, but the shapes are just like wispy cirrus clouds. I look at them and try to make sense of their shape but as soon as I look they’ve changed their shape or disappeared only to return and make me start all over in trying to understanding what I see. At one time in my life I believed that the shapes and colors were a message from my body. If I could only interpret what they meant I could figure out how to be healthy, happy, and whole.
I also pondered the idea of whether there was a corollary between my eye clouds and the
clouds in the sky. Were the cirrus and nimbus shapes actually messages from the planet or some all-powerful being? Did we just need to understand the meaning of the cloud’s messages to unlock the path leading to health for the earth? If we could get the message, could we live differently and not risk extinction of the thousands of lifeforms our planet supports? Ah, but that’s crazy talk.
I never broke the code. In fact, I stopped trying to; it diminished the experience of closing my eyes. Have you ever been to a place or event where you spent so much time trying to take pictures that you missed the real experience? It was like that. So, the clouds still float in my eyelids, but I peacefully watch the show rather than dissect each element for meaning. Same too with the clouds in the atmosphere. I don’t try to put meaning where it may not be. Instead, I’ve turned to cloud collecting.
I have a brilliant cousin, insightful enough to pick perfect gifts for me. On my last birthday she gave me a collection of books. Most of them about birds, but one was about clouds: “The Cloud Collector’s Handbook ” by Gavin Pretor-Pinney. I’d never told her about the message-bearing clouds but she somehow knew I’d like this book. And that’s an understatement. It hatched an obsession with clouds.
This little book outlines the different cloud categories and types and encourages you to go out and collect them, find them somewhere in the sky, somewhere in the world. Observe. Take notes. Take pictures.
I didn’t need too much prodding, I started collecting right away. When every cloud I see is a potential addition to my collection, each cloud is now noticed, studied, appreciated. I’m noticing shapes and details on even the most common clouds as if I’d never seen a cloud before. It’s not quite as extreme as the awe of that thunderstorm but it’s added little moments of joy to my commute and other travels. Every day I see a cloud that makes we wonder, “Have I seen that before?” And, every day I’m aware, I really have not. Just one more reminder that I have so much more to see in the sky, among the all of my clouds and elsewhere, before I die.