"Bows and flows of angel hair
and ice cream castles in the air;
and feather canyons everywhere,
I've looked at clouds that way.
But now they only block the sun,
they rain and snow on everyone.
So many things I would have done
but clouds got in my way.
I've looked at clouds from both sides now,
from up and down, and still somehow,
it's cloud illusions I recall.
I really don't know clouds at all."
Bows and flows of angel hair...does anyone say it better than Joni? Looking at clouds, love, and life from "Both Sides Now" is a concept that I have waited over 40 years to understand. But, I think I caught a glimpse of something recently. An insight that holds so much promise, so much hope, for me, that I almost dare not speak it...
Memories...we love them, we don't...we love them, we don't. They define us, they haunt us. They seem to hang on to us, like the fangs of a snake one minute, and we hang on to them like a loved talisman the next. Our relationship to memories, are as complicated and convoluted as sibling rivalry, or passive-aggressive behavior...we wonder if we are actually going crazy when we experience their subjectivity.
But there is a way of thinking about memories that frees us from the twisted insanity of their haunting. There is a way of experiencing our remembered moments that is as full of joy and sweetness as a breath of spring.
Alan Lightman, in his small, but profoundly thought-provoking book, Einstein's Dreams, allegorically explains how Einstein may have explored various models of time, as he penned his "theory of time." He walks us through time that meanders, time as a locality, time as a sensory experience, and time as memory. In a chapter titled, "27 June 1905," Lightman sets up the memory-based model of time with this story:
"Every Tuesday, a middle-aged man brings stones from the quarry east of Berne to the masonry of Hodlerstrasse. As he passes people on the street, his eyes are on the ground. Some people know him, try to catch his eye or say hello. He mumbles and walks on. Even when he delivers his stones, he cannot look the mason in the eye. Instead he looks aside, he talks to the wall in answer to the mason's friendly chatter, he stands in a corner while his stones are weighed.
"Forty years ago in school, one afternoon in March, he urinated in class. He could not hold it in. Afterwards he tried to stay in his chair, but the other boys saw the puddle and made him walk around the room, round and round. They pointed at the wet spot on his pants and howled. That day the sunlight looked like streams of milk as it poured whitely through the windows and spilled onto the floorboards of the room. Two dozen jackets hung from the hooks beside the door. Chalk marks stretched across the blackboard, the names of Europe's capitals. The desks had swivel tops and drawers. His had "Johann" carved in the upper right. The air was moist from the steam pipes. A clock with big red hands read 2:15. And the boys hooted at him, hooted at him as they chased him around the room, with the wet spot on his pants. They hooted and called him, "bladder baby, bladder baby, bladder baby."
"That memory has become his life. When he wakes up in the morning, he is the boy who urinated in his pants. When he passes people on the streets, he knows they see the wet spot on his pants. He glances at his pants and looks away....
"But what is the past? Could it be, the firmness of the past is just an illusion? Could the past be a kaleidoscope, a pattern of images, that shift with each disturbance of a sudden breeze, a laugh, a thought?
"In a world of shifting past, one morning the quarry man awakes and is no more the boy who could not hold it in."
Oh my goodness. Do you know how it felt to read this for the first time? It was like glimpsing the very moment when a golden ray of sunlight breaks through heavy black storm clouds, and arcs the sky with a rainbow of colors so new, so surprising, that they have yet to be named.
Lightman then reflects:
"In a world of shifting past, memories are like wheat in the wind, fleeting dreams, shapes in clouds. Events, once they have happened, lose reality, alter with a glance, a storm, a night. In time, the past never happened. But who could know? Who could know that the past is not as solid as this instant..."
This was a deeply forgiving paradigm shift for me.
As most of you are well-aware, I have a photographic memory. How else could I recall the minutiae of detail from my own life's stories with so much specificity in this blog. But, and this is a big but, this same level of recall has also felt like a curse at time. Besides having a photographic memory, I also have a very visceral emotional memory. When I remember life events...big and small...I not only recall the details of color, smell, and taste, but the deep emotions experienced as well. It is sometimes as if a wave of memories is crashing over my present, and pulling me out to a roiling sea of sorrow in its undertow.
At other times, these memories seem to "set up" my present and future experiences in a way that undermine any opportunity to "be new" in Christ. Much like the stonecutter in Lightman's story I have lived my life as a prisoner of past events. When I would see my present through the lens of a mistake, accident, life-transforming, or compelling event, I couldn't look up into the eyes of my future with even a modicum hope that genuine innocence, or forgiveness, could ever be mine.
But, when I look at my life through this new lens of "shifting cloud" images, experience that take shape for a moment...dark and lowering in one instant, fluffy and childlike the next...I am able to benefit from the filtered sunlight, cooling shade, bright rays that ripen tomatoes, and gentle rains upon the tender herb...each in their moment of appearing. By allowing these "clouds" to shift into the next blessing, without letting them define my past, present, or future...or anyone else's, for that matter...I can live with wonder, and stand in awe of God's ever-evolving creation of individual and collective good.
In this space of "shifting clouds," the shapes that are a delightful bunny one moment, or a fire-breathing dragon the next, inform rather than define, what I experience. I am able to see that those shifting moments are as subjective as the "eye of the beholder" and that my "eye" can always be in synch with the heart of Christ which is always focused on God's face.
In their biography of Mary Baker Eddy, Christian Healer, Yvonne von Fettweiss and Robert Warnack write that Eddy once offered her "household worker," Adelaide Still, a glimpse through this lens of Spirit. Still shares:
"On several occasions I saw Mrs. Eddy dispel a storm; the first time was on August 3, 1907, in the late afternoon.
"The sky was overcast and it was very dark. Mrs. Eddy sat in her chair in the tower corner of her study, watching the clouds with a smile and a rapt expression on her face. She seemed to be seeing something beyond her present surroundings, and I do not think that she was conscious of my presence.
"In a few moments the clouds broke and flecked, and the storm was dissolved into its native nothingness. About have an hour later I took her supper tray to her, and she said to me, "Ada, did you see the sky?" I replied, "Yes, Mrs. Eddy." The she said, "It (meaning the cloud) never was; God's face was never clouded."
"This agrees with what another student has recorded as having been said by Mrs. Eddy, namely, "When I wanted to dispel a storm. I did not say, 'there is no thunder, and no lightning.' But I said, 'God's face is here, and I do see it.'"
Through the lens of shifting memory-clouds, we can let the flash of anger pale, the thunder of pride die away, and the clouds--that would hide the face of God in one another--fleck and dissolve. And in this light, we find ourselves, and others, innocent, beautiful, pure, and free.
"Bows and flows of angel hair
And ice cream castles in the air
and feathered canyons everywhere..."
- Joni Mitchell
Ahhh, Joni you were not just the poet laureate of our time, but a gentle shepherd, a friend who took my hand on a very special journey through the poetry of your song.
Kate Robertson, CS
[photo credit: Forrest Wilder 2009]