When she started to see peculiar-seeming clouds, it was only a matter of days before she began bumbling toward the conclusion of “Oh my God, it’s God!”
Her thinking about God was a mush-mash of recollected symbols and suggestions gleaned from experiences growing up in the everyday+everywhere Christian culture of south Georgia, the imagery and intonation of miscellaneous church services attended after spending Saturday night with a friend, going to church on Sunday, hot and mostly-boring-but-sometimes-with-singing.
She felt closer to God in sweet the relief of leaving when the services finally ended, stepping out into the heat and sun, the living day.
In the 9th grade, she spent a single semester at boarding school, where a van dropped her off Sunday morning at the Episcopal church in Clayton, Georgia right down the street from where there was a Klan rally one Saturday during the town-outing, which was usually a trip to a shopping center where there was a grocery store, a Papa’s Pizza and an Eckert’s drugstore stocked with Robitussin DM, gum, and cheez puffs.*
She didn’t entirely dislike going alone to the Episcopalian service in the little stone church building, dark and wood-filled, shining with color through the morning-lit windows above where the rhododendron outside had grown up over Jesus’ feet.
She felt peaceful there. Anonymous and peaceful, sitting alone.
However, she soon discovered that she liked it far more to lay on the nubby utilitarian carpet of her room, eating Kool-Aid and reading the yearbook for the 100th time after pressing her body against the wall under her roommate’s bunk and holding her breath during Sunday morning roomcheck so she didn’t have to go to church at all and there were no sounds except her own sounds and the building’s sounds, heat through vents.
*Circa 1991: Three senior girls walking in streetlight circle by the dorm’s side exit, tearfully protesting Operation Desert Storm and a Klan rally with full white robes walking down Main Street, right past the grocery store where she would buy ramen and microwave popcorn, 12 packs of Fresca.
The old man said hello to me as I started the walk back to my car from the Senior Opportunity Center, where I and a bunch of other people gave food to elders on Wednesday mornings, high-end packaged salads from grocery stores couldn’t afford to shop at, artisan breads packed into black garbage bags, crumb-dusted pastries, and dented cans of soups, expiring cereal.
He fell into step beside me, walking down the hill and talking about traffic on the I-26, and the accident he almost saw on Patton Avenue. “I was just standing there on the sidewalk, watching these two cars, and I was like, ‘This is crazy!”
“It sounds like you were paying attention.”
The man, tall and stooped around the shoulders, still handsome in the set of his cheeks and architecture of nose, the son of slaves and people who lived here long before I did, had the laboratory smell of a few straight days of drinking, the smell of old alcohol poorly metabolized.
He sat down on the small wall outside of the unemployment office and I sat down beside him. “Yes,” he said. “Yes, sister, I was paying attention. I pay attention.”
We sat there in the companionable silence of strangers, feeling the warm sun and paying attention.
He shifted toward me, leaned like he was about to invite me into a secret, and I understood that he would ask me for money, and I was okay with that.
He began his request, and I didn’t need him to go on about what he was looking for, held my hand up for him to stop speaking. There was no need for him to beg, to spin a story, to make an appeal. He did not have to charm me or convince me.
I opened up my bag, “Let me see if I have any paper money.”
I knew that I did. A crumple of two singles, and a secret 10 dollar bill. I pulled out the two dollars and pressed it into his hand.
The man nodded, almost solemn, squeezed my hand. “Thank you, my sister.”
I felt like God was watching us, sitting there on that wall. The woman wearing all black and the old man in the sun.
There was a pause, and I plucked the ten dollar bill out of the small zippered pocket inside of my bag, grasped the man’s hand, transferred the money.
His whooping surprised me, his jumping up and slapping his leg, pulling his hand into a fist that beat against his chest, solidly, once, twice. “My sister! Oh, yes, my sister!”
I stood up, pulling my bag back onto my shoulder.
He grabbed me, pulled me to him, his sweat and alcohol smell around me, his arms strong and knotted like wood across my back. I didn’t feel scared. I have hugged a lot strangers in my life and, besides, I have a social naivete that makes me almost oblivious to the possibility that some stranger will do me harm. The only people who have ever harmed me were people I know. I wasn’t scared of them at first, either.
He kissed my head, up by my hairline, and hugged me like I really was his sister that he hadn’t seen in a long time.
He began to utter the words, quiet, like a prayer, then broke away from me and shouted them, hollering them out to the street like he was calling down gods, exclaiming to the universe. He turned to me, and put his fist on his chest. “My sister…”
He stepped forward to embrace me again. “I love you, I love you…you, you are blessed person.”
He stepped back, took my hands in his, and nodded to me, then turned and started walking back up toward town, still saying those words, louder and then quiet, a chanting rise and fall. I watched him walk, and listened, said the words to myself, trying not to forget them.
He was almost back to where we’d begun walking together when I caught up to him. “Excuse me, sir, those words? What are those words?”
He put his face close to mine and repeated the words, whispering.
I said them back.
He corrected my pronunciation of the last syllable, and said it with me until I said it clearly, with some conviction.
“It means peace, and goodness, salvation.”
Walking back to my car, I said the phrase over and over again. In my car, I wrote down how I thought the sounds might be spelled, but I still don’t know what the words are, or where they came from.
I tried to Google what I thought the words sounded like, spelled out phonetically, with hyphens between the syllables, to remind myself of the intonation, the rhythm of the sounds.
I learned a little about Hebrew suffixes, and checked out an old Busta Rhymes song, Woo Hah!! Got You All In Check.
She waited for her friends to come pick her up. It was raining and they were late. The river was grey and brown, rough-textured with falling water and a steady wind from the east, from the ocean.
Sitting and waiting, nervously considering the possible explanations for her friends’ lateness, she wondered if they had gotten in an accident, and then involuntarily pictured the whole tragic scene – wet metal twisted, a tire still spinning, the underbelly of the vehicle exposed, hiss of rain on a hot engine quickly cooling. Frozen in a stricken sadness, she willed herself not to think about wrecks, and strained to hear the dogs bark, the sound of tires on the wet dirt road. When her friends arrived a few minutes later, she almost couldn’t believe they were okay. There had been no wreck. Nonetheless, the heavy sadness stayed with her, made her quiet and awkward riding in the backseat, still thinking about wrecks and how weird it was that her friends had no idea that she had been almost convinced that they’d been in an accident.
Ideas or imaginings that make her feel something are hard not believe, because they exist in her mind and in her body with the same detail and sensation as things that are real. Her feelings are her nervous system being scared, or excited, happy, calm, etc. The sensations she calls feelings are caused by her nervous system reacting to what she is experiencing.
She is a visual thinker. This means that she imagined the wreck that never happened, she saw the car crash, the slip of tires on pavement, crumpling metal, windshield buckled in like a spider’s web in wind, the sharp impact of a face against a dash board. Sometimes her nervous system doesn’t know that what she imagines isn’t real, and so her heart races, her blood vessels constrict, guts clench, and the chest constricts with a feeling of crying seizing in the throat.
It was of no importance that she’d never been in a car accident, that she had never seen – at least not up close – a bad wreck, had only glimpsed the mangled car bodies on the side of the interstate, in the closed lane.
She had seen plenty of wrecks on television, in movies.
Once, on the bus to the Catholic school, someone swore they saw a foot, a severed foot, laying in the road by a wrecked red car, but she didn’t see it, except in her mind.
For years before she’d ever been to New York, she could picture being in the city so thoroughly that she had to remind herself she’d never been there, pause a moment if anyone asked what cities she’d been to.
Her head is full of things she’d never experienced seeing – car wrecks, war zones, the devastation of floods, the anger of men in dark rooms, the creeping stalk of late night streets, cities lit at dawn, the tangled of interstates coming alive while people on the other side of the world bake under the midday sun, speaking different languages, living in refugee camps, steam rising from the earth, the stink of the slaughterhouse, quiet halls of rest homes, bombs going off, rivers always flowing, waterfalls plunging into the dark, mountains asleep as the edge of glacier falls heavy into the ocean, unseen and heard by anyone but the bears, blithe seals giving a brief shudder before sliding back into the water.
All of this is happening all at once, a rapid-reel flashing of scenes and thoughts running in the background, a sense of seeing, witnessing.
It’s made up though, her imaginings of these things she has never seen in real life. It’s all based on television and movies and pictures in books, stories she has read.
She stopped watching television in 2001, in the days immediately following the American event of 09/11/2001. Taking the dog for a walk around the NE Portland neighborhood she lived in, she found herself picturing the President’s face, the buildings falling again and again, the people and the smoke.
She could feel it in her body – terrible, stunned, and close – almost like she was there, like it was real to her beyond the news reports of what was happening several thousand miles away.
Some situations that end up being pivotal in our lives begin in ways that don’t initially seem important at all.
True, there are some stories that shift dramatically at evident turning points – a winning lottery ticket found crumpled on the sidewalk, a phone call in the dead of night, worry flashing across a doctor’s face as she looks over your test results, etc. A moment, people say, that they’ll remember forever as the moment their life changed.
This is not one of those stories; the moments that changed my life were not big, obvious moments – at least not at first.
Had I been presented all at once with the idea that slow-formed as the days dragged through June and July 2010, I might have lost my mind a lot sooner, or – alternately – resolutely clung to my ideas about what was what, what was real. I’d have dug in my heels and rolled my eyes at the idea, an idea that would surely have seemed dismissable, absurd – crazy!!! – had it been suddenly plunked down into the middle of a usual day.
I probably would have simply gone about my business, staring straight ahead and keeping my mind on the list of things to do, places to go and people to see, people to be.
If I had immediately known that what I saw would, in only a matter of months, create an enormous rift between me and the rest of the world, pulling the threads that held my reality together and supplanting the experiences of simple, everyday life with outlandish, urgent visions of a world that other people seemed unable to see, I would have had to think long and hard about even briefly entertaining the idea as it emerged.
Nobody could have told me that studying cloudforms would – ultimately – result in me sitting in the back seat of a police cruiser with my hands cuffed behind my back. I probably would have never looked up, had I known.
If you click here or on the image above you will be transported to a lengthy scrap of what I was thinking about 01/01/2010, and – from there – you can see what else was going on in 2010, a year that included numerous events that reconfigured my life as I knew it, up to and including the sadness, frustration, and shame of losing legal custody of my children due to concerns about my mental health and my ability to make good decisions.
Cloud-watching and fumbling around with different ways of thinking about the world, different ways of seeing the world, created huge (and probably avoidable) upheavals.
While I regret that my children had to endure a single moment of not being sure what was going on with their mom, not knowing if I was okay and if – by extension – if they were okay, if their little home-world was okay, I am still immeasurably grateful to have had the experience of genuinely believing – with a clarity that was more certain than any clarity I had ever felt, a clarity like truth – that I was witnessing some force like God drawing pictures in the clouds, trying to tell me something about how deeply, anciently alive and beautifully interconnected everything truly is.
In that way, I suppose my life did change in a moment, a moment that an external observer may have seen as a woman alone in her yard, aiming a camera at the sky and crying like she’d never cried before.
However, as much as I believed, I also couldn’t entirely believe. I didn’t know what I would be believing in if I did believe. I cried as much for not believing as I did for believing, for wanting to believe and finding myself again and again as the skeptical jerk who needed a stupid scientific explanation for awe-spurring wonders and mysteries.
Why can’t I just accept that it’s beautiful and that it’s a mystery and go about my life?
Why do I need to know how it works, how its possible, why I see what I see?
This is not a story of a person’s finding their way to God through spending contemplative time in nature, or anything like that.
This is the story of a naive and ignorant demi-genius with a mental health diagnosis who has a pretty solid track record of fucking up her life and letting people down despite trying very hard to do the ‘right’ thing and to be a decent human being, who – when in the midst of her life falling apart in new and unprecedented ways involving a not-great marriage, upset children, a dead dog and a lost job – happened to be spending a lot of time looking at the sky with her heart breaking all over the place.
She noticed something, and became curious, began to pay attention and wonder about the workings of things.
This is a story about questions, and about the circuitous path toward answers that may not even exist.
July 14, 5:04 AM
The day before was a tired day, a day that she woke up early, as usual, and then went back to sleep an hour later, her body dully aching with the need for more sleep. She didn’t feel badly about going back to bed, though there was a dim little pulse of awareness that her sleeping would be seen as ‘lazy,’ ever-so-slightly deserving of judgement. That her sleeping, though nobody knew she was going back to sleep, would be perceived as indulgent or spoiled in some way.
This was her socialization muttering to her when she woke up very early and worked for only an hour before falling back into the comfort of much needed sleep.
Yesterday, she felt uncertain about the validity – the worth – of her work again, though the doubt did not run too deep.
She had found, or – rather – had patiently created, a loop hole for herself over the years.
As she entered the 12th year of her note-taking, she could find refuge from any accusation of worthlessness in the sheer mass of it all.
Surely, anything that she had worked on so diligently for so long must be worth something, valid unto itself through sheer persistence if nothing else.
After a project has existed for long enough, it is no longer only a matter of its specific content being worthwhile, the fact of its being something that she had worked at – regardless of content – for over a decade became a worth in and of itself.
The validity of her commitment – whether misguided or not – held a worth of its own.
It mattered to her, if nothing else. Gave her something to be curious about, to be amazed by, a conundrum of experience and reality that has been wholly her own for a long, long time.
This work has very little to do with how I feel about it – the work. What it means to me, my relationship with it – these things don’t matter.
At this particular juncture in time, none of that – my neurotic navel-gazing and self-scrutiny about worth and validity – means anything in light of the fact that she feels directed to simply share it, compelled to share the work, as much for her own delight in potentially figuring out why the clouds look weird, and – more importantly – in that sharing this work might inspire people to see, connect with, and appreciation aspects of being briefly alive in the context of an ancient living and dying world that is unfolding in an infinite number of dynamic ways every fraction of every second, and over the millenia.
She doesn’t have to understand it. She doesn’t have to explain it. She doesn’t need to provide any further justification for her questions. She just has to show people why she has questions. Then maybe they will help her to answer those questions.
There is no possible way that this is going to be so simple as that.
She knows this.
She needs to make a note about the experience of going back through old posts in the effort to find the post about the clouds never looking the same, as that would be a satisfying media-stitch connecting this time to that time through archival artifacts that are pertinent to the story I am trying to tell in the present, the questions I am now asking about the questions I was asking then.
Speaking of questions: What can the shapes and forms in other configurations of natural phenomena in structures of aggregation and disaggregation, dissolution or fracturing, wearing, settling, and layering say about how there are triangle shapes, etc. in the sky?
What processes and perspectives can help me to neutrally and humbly explore the range of my apophenic and pareidolic capacities, which – by my casual estimation – are pretty astounding…and overwhelming, especially when linked with/informed by a belief (or emotional/cognitive investment and satisfaction in experiences reinforcing of an idea) that recognizable shapes and figures in the sky may represent an ancient universal force engaging in an act of communications delivered by exceedingly patient angels, or – also, interesting – that phenomena in atmospheric metaphysics manifest in cloudforms that mirror characteristics and attributes of other living things, the appearance of which may create an experience of recognition and relevance in human observers, a vestigial genetically-derived association of certain forms with meanings of general importance, an innately human seeing of the world as powerful, wise, and alive, a trait inherited from our ancient shared ancestry, humans who spent a lot of time looking at the sky and creating stories and culture around – in part – what they saw above them, their perception informed by the lives they lived on the ground in the cultures they were born into?
Is there a configuration of specific conditions for clouds to assume the metapatterns and micropatterns of many living things and human creations of what seem to be symbols, symbols that may reflect these patterns in a sort of reflexive echoing of form and meaning across time?
Are there ancient omnipresent metaphysical forces that have been known as God or gods for thousands of years of human history?
The debate in her head volleys reason and perceived evidence.
She considers the picture of the cloudform she saw the other night as the sun was going down. The one that looked very much like a book.
“Well, then,” she asks her skepticism, “what do you have to say about this?”
The volume is bursting with white-gold light, a hazy form like a candelabra rising from between the covers, textures like coral pressed into and rising from the bright trapezoidal form.
The part of her that wants to believe, that secretly does believe, entirely and with the whole of her heart, that she is witnessing some kind of display of holy wonders is can be extremely charismatic in perceiving possible miracles.
“This, as you can see, is not a naturally occurring form. It is a book, which is a device of humans. What about that then?”
She tucks her belief away and braces herself for the internal dismissal of the notion that she’d seen ‘a book’ as her skeptical mind, which is as much for protection as it is for any inherent value of rationality, begins to list all the cracks and lattices that can be easily observed in all manner of material. Stone and clay, lead paint – the natural process of material pulling away from itself, tightening and shrinking, making lines like the shape she saw as a book.
I see a lot because I look a lot. A lot.
I would not exactly say that I am ‘looking for,’ though I have ‘looked for’ before. I spent a fair amount of time in the Summer and Fall of 2010 staring at the sky in urgent prayer. “Please, show them, show them, show them. Show them what I see, make them see. Show them. Please show them.” I thought I had begged before – for permission from authorities, for kindness, for desired objects as a child – but, I had never begged something like God, even when I was deeply suffering and I longed for something to end my pain. I had never begged like a prayer for the world.
I look at the sky as soon as I go outside and if something seems to be interesting I pay attention. There is usually something interesting happening and the longer I pay attention, the more interesting it gets. What may have initially seemed like hints of an eye or a bird’s beak become – quite quickly – vast and slow-swirling assemblages that hold angles and patterns and near-perfect portraits, near-perfect lines.
I am compelled to continue to watch, against distraction and will, both of which fizzle to nothing in the state of total reverie I experience when I watch the clouds, which is as much about science as it is about God, as much about beauty as it is about anything and, perhaps, the miracle of everything.
Sometimes, she doesn’t want to look up, because she knows she will have to keep watching and although she loves the experience of close attention, sustained focus, awe and surprise, she has begun to notice an anxiety. The knowing she needs to tell someone, talk to someone about all this is persistent, nagging.
Take the dog on a walk to look at the clouds. It isn’t about taking the dog for a walk, it’s about looking to see what the clouds might be doing and momentarily inhabiting the reality in which the clouds could and would be doing anything at all other than simply being a cloud.
She doesn’t like the pressure of it. The pressure that is in her head, saying do this, don’t do that, but that also lives somewhere deeper in her, pushing out in a tingling, persistent thrum that feels like calling.
Prove God with clouds, but don’t sound too crazy. Keep it a secret, but keep doing it. Don’t keep it a secret. Tell people. Figure out how to tell people. But, first watch this freaky cloud. Yo. Hang on, almost done. You’re hungry? What if the sky displayed something impossible or really important and you miss it because you are being a slovenly human eating pasta in your bed and trying not to think about the sky, but staring at the same picture, taken 6 times, trying to find the instance when the details of the bird’s beak in the sky were especially precise?