The Terror and Wonder Of Clouds

Update: I published this not more than a few hours before hearing the news of the Oklahoma tornado. I considered pulling the whole post but instead I’ve edited the title and left the rest unchanged, hoping that it will offend no one and perhaps even offer comfort. Those of us who live in parts of the world untouched by sudden violent storms cannot hope fully to understand the terror and destruction such events bring, but my thoughts and prayers are with everyone who was in the path of this storm, all the injured, the bereaved, and everyone traumatised by this overwhelming event.

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If you had never seen clouds before, and suddenly you were looking at them for the first time, what would you think? Would you be fascinated, amazed, compelled to stand gazing at the sky in awe and wonder? Or would you be afraid of something so immense, so changeable, something that looks as if it might bring with it all kinds of magic, or hide within it all sorts of unknown forces?

I spent some time this morning so engrossed in clouds that I forgot everything else, and watched while they played out a slow, majestic performance above me, some billowing and inflating like great cloud-castles while others wafted past beneath them and then melted insubstantially or merged into each other before dividing again, disappearing towards the horizon. As I gazed up into this soft white billowing cloudscape a small aeroplane flew directly above me and passed beneath one cloudbank and then over another; I saw its shadow on the cloud below it as it flew on in a straight unwavering line before disappearing completely inside a foggy mass of grey.

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My mother is a member of The Cloud Appreciation Society which states in its manifesto, ‘We seek to remind people that clouds are expressions of the atmosphere’s moods, and can be read like those of a person’s countenance.’

The young son of a friend of mine developed a fear of clouds, a phobia that started when he was caught outside in a sudden autumn storm. That afternoon, dark clouds appeared as if from nowhere and a fierce wind whipped through the town like a small tornado hurling café chairs and tables to the ground and blowing them into the street. After that day whenever even the smallest cloud appeared in the sky he would become troubled and unable to concentrate; if it became overcast and grey he could not control his distress and his teacher would have to call his mother to come and take him home from school. He was never timid or nervous of anything before this and his family found it hard to deal with.

Storms can be beautiful, even exhilarating, but they can be terrifying, and if something triggers the memory of a fear we can slip in a moment straight back into the experience of that terror. Clouds hold no such memories for me; I love them, I can watch them and be at peace. But I understand the feeling that comes when the memory of fear is suddenly ignited, the panic that rises and then grips, and then spins you out of control. It’s not something to be taken lightly.

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We all fear different things, and sometimes these fears are not so easily understood. Sometimes it takes a lifetime to know what it is that frightens us and why, and then another lifetime (or so it seems) to learn that what heals fear is compassion. We all have our own journey to make, our own path of healing to find and to follow. But we can wave to each other as we meet on the road, smile and offer the occasional encouraging word, point at a signpost here and there. We are all of us finding our way through the clouds.

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