The back of our house faces south west. When I practise Tai Chi outside in the garden before breakfast, dawn is breaking, and for the last few days there have been times when the clouds have parted, or lifted, or thinned in pale grey washes, and sometimes rippled across a clear background like waves of chiffon or melted towards the horizon like smoke.
I’m not much good at Tai Chi. I know very little and I’m clumsy and unbalanced – but looking across the back of the house towards the east I do Hands Waving Clouds, and feel for a moment as if I’m a part of the sky. Even if the clouds are too thick to catch a glimpse of sun, even if it’s raining, I can still sense a brightening, a sense of light, and it’s perhaps the best part of the day. If I can’t grab a camera quickly enough I do another sort of practice later with a brush and watercolour; a similar focus – just a different kind of immersion.
The side of the house and the top of the wooden fence make two sides of a rectangle framing the sky which makes it easier to focus on the clouds and the colours in isolation, and it makes me think of James Turrell’s Skyspace installations. It’s not the same – it can’t be – but in a small way it draws me in and fills me with something of the same sense of quiet wonder. I looked again at this short film about Turrell’s Skyspace in the Deer Shelter at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park and realised I’d never truly appreciated the subtle variation of the greys in English clouds, and never consciously thought of England as being an island at sea, and having a ‘maritime light’. (It’s taken someone from a larger continent to draw my attention to that).
I’m never more aware than when I’m watching clouds that peace and stillness come only from within, and that happiness has very little to do with what I have or don’t have, or my circumstances. I’m more and more aware that a deeper, more widespread peace can only come from my being at peace in myself, and from being able to let it spread out in small ripples wherever it can. This season of peace and goodwill I’m surrounded by people in a tearing hurry, pressed on all sides to do a thousand things to satisfy the Christmas spirit. Every now and then someone stops in their tracks to reflect on this, pauses for a moment to declare the need to remember-what-it’s-all-about (I’ve been doing the same thing myself) – and then jumps straight back into the race. It’s the way it is (though not always the way it was), or really needs to be. But to pause in the middle of a race is to feel the best of what it is to be still.
‘After sharp showers’ said Peace, ‘the sun shines brightest.
No weather is warmer than after watery clouds,
Nor any love dearer, or more loving friends
After war and woe, when Love and Peace are masters.
There was never war in this world or wickedness so keen,
That Love, if he liked, could not turn to laughter,
And Peace, through Patience, put an end to all perils’
William Langland (1332 – 1400)