These Clouds That Lie

         I wrote this one in college, but I still kinda dig it…
          It’s a chilly March afternoon, and the clouds seem to have settled into the piece of sky outside this library window.  They do not want to leave.  They are weary from travel and deem this a fine spot to rest their airy bones, so they have stopped and now hang in stillness over the city.  The wind has made them thin against the sky, carrying away the weaker members and leaving the most defiant ones to nap where they are.  The clouds have halted time, forbidding it to march on it its typical, pitiless manner, and this disturbs me.    It bothers me because it cannot be true.  As much as I long for a pause in the passage of time, a period to inhale and exhale at a casual speed, knowing I will end up right where I left off, i know that it cannot happen.  Time never stops, not even for a moment.  That is the reality.  These clouds are liars.
          I much prefer the honest, cumulous clouds–the fat, white billows of precipitation that grow and expand as they move.  They carry sunlight on their backs, and their bellies bulge with the possibility of rain.  These clouds tell the truth about time.  As they travel across the stratosphere, they depict the way life moves, constantly changing, looking lighter one moment and darker the next, depending on the atmospheric pressure and their position in the sky.  I respect their honesty.  When I was a child, I had a tendency to restrict my imagination to what I perceived to be “real life.”  When playing house with my brother, I denied his request to be a magician by trade, as that did not qualify as a real job.  And the few times that I convinced him to play Barbies with me, I fumed when he prompted them to do triple flips off my Barbie mansion, because that would not happen in the real world.  Perhaps this stole some of the fun of pretending out of my childhood, and from my brother’s as well, but perhaps it also prepared me for growing up and watching clouds, and knowing the difference between those that lie and those that tell the truth.
          A friend of mine who studied meteorology in college once educated me about clouds.  We lay on the grass near the pond on campus and he explained the different types.  I failed to retain the information, save that of the cumulous clouds I admire so much.  They are the clouds we watched that day, the ones that traveled over our heads slowly and put us in a nostalgic mood.  The end of another academic year approached, and we were relishing an afternoon in the slightly warm sun, avoiding our homework and loving it.  The clouds were alive and on the move.  They held the promise of the future in their gleaming crowns and the melancholy of another year gone in their dark tummies.  We knew time, and life, were passing as we watched the clouds leave.
          Today the clouds deceive.  They appear to have quit their journey, but in reality they have crept through the sky all along.  I took my eyes away for a few minutes, and now a completely different pattern covers the sky.  A moment ago there was a gap in the blanket of white to the far right side, but now that gap sits far off to the left, its shape contorted from what it was before.  The persistence of the wind has made the clouds look like the thinning, grey hair on an old man’s head.  A new portrait has been painted and I missed the process.  Time passed, but the clouds pretended it stopped.  This is their duplicity.
          My problem, then, is not the passage of time itself, but the tricks that time plays on us who live, to make us believe that life is not slipping away.  My heart stops when I think of how much older my grandparents seem now than they did five years ago, and how I didn’t notice their decline.  I hate that when I was ten I thought twenty would never come, and now I know that forty will come before I know it.  I ran through the sprinkler in summer with bare feet while cumulous clouds dotted the sky overhead.  I didn’t notice them then.  I knew only the cool washing on a hot day, when time was measured by supper and when the pool opened.  Now, suddenly, I am twenty-three, about to face “real life” and wondering where the time has gone.
          That’s what I despise about time — that it sneaks up on you.  Living in a place without seasons would be awful for me.  In Kansas you know when spring and fall have arrived, by the look of the trees and the feel of the air.  But in a seasonless place, like Honolulu or L.A., the years can slip by without a hint of their travel, and you are fooled into thinking that everything is the same.  The lazy clouds outside this library window enjoy their lies.  They crawl so slowly that you don’t recognize they’ve moved until the scene has changed.
          I have watched clouds from many windows.  I remember the sunsets I could see from my dorm room, coloring the clouds with flaming pinks and reds from dust.  I have gazed out of car windows at low, brooding clouds just before a storm in the western ends of Kansas.  Clouds of all sorts roll over the tops of the trees in my back yard, revealing the weather forecast to me before the rest of the city knows, and surprising me with their mood swings.  And now I sit in the library, surveying these flat, deceitful clouds and wishing they would be honest and hurry up.
          In two months I will have a college degree.  It will feel good to be finished after all the papers, and tests, and the mononucleosis.  But it seems that I just moved into my freshman-year dorm room, with the pink walls and the heater that knew no moderation.  I was just getting used to the lay of the campus, and mid-afternoon naps, and the blessing of late-night pizza delivery.  The college experience was mine, and it seemed timeless, wrapped in a protective saran from reality.  But now I am sitting before a wide-open range of possibilities, none of which include naps, and I am bewildered that five years have passed and I didn’t think to prepare myself for what comes next.
          I blame time with its quiet speed.  It blindsided me.  I should have learned from the clouds I saw that day with my friend.  They warned us.  But time’s deceit made me a fool.  I suppose all we can hope for in the passage of time is to find some sort of comfort in the steady hands of reality.  And when we look at clouds such as the liars in the sky today, we can call their bluff and anticipate that life will move and change, like fat, bright cumulous clouds that tell it like it is.

A Thud or a Blast

          I read E.B. White’s short essay The Thud of Ideas today, printed in the The New Yorker 9/23/1950, and holy smokes was it relevant.  Eerily so.  It is about the freedom of expression we have here, that other countries, such as Russia (yep), don’t.  About the letters-to-the-editor page of the New York Times, he writes,
                    …it…is one of the chief adornments of the society we love and seek to
                    clarify for the world.  The privilege of writing to the editor is basic; the
                    product is the hot dish of scrambled eggs that is America.
Even more so today – lots of ingredients have been thrown into the scramble since the mid-1900s – but we have retained the right to voice our opinions.
          White’s essay was a great read after such horrific events in Boston last week.  My initial response to the bombing was of course, sadness and anger.  There are some who can immediately move on to the big picture when a tragedy occurs – America can’t be terrorized, we the people will carry on, Bostonians are tough as nails.  But I have to say it takes me a while.  I’m stuck in the grief of the situation, the unsolved mystery of who’s responsible, the sorrow over violence in our world.  All gloom and doom for a day or so.  Eventually my hopefulness kicks in and I’m pointed toward heaven again.
          Then I can see the big picture.  I can recall that not all people want to kill everyone who disagrees with them, or even those who hate them.  That Martin Luther King Jr. made his point in peace.  That E.B. White highlights what makes America great: “We can safely leave Truth to the Kremlin, and can broadcast instead the splendid fact of difference of opinion, the thud of ideas in collision.”  I was hanging out with friends yesterday, talking a bit about politics.  We didn’t get too deep, but I know we don’t all agree on every political topic.  And that makes this place great – I can sit in a group and say what I want, knowing someone disagrees and that’s okay.  No one will arrest me for my opinions, no one them for theirs.  The men who apparently dropped the bomb-filled backpacks at the end of the Boston Marathon route, inspired by hate and malice, didn’t appreciate this.  A thud wasn’t strong enough – they used a blast to let the world know they had something to say.
          White’s essay begins “Americans are willing to go to enormous trouble and expense defending their principles with arms, very little trouble and expense advocating them with words.”  How true this rings today, sixty-three years later.  Same country, same problem.  I suppose you could read that and feel hopeless, thinking of how little progress we’ve made on the issue of violence.  But people are a stubborn, slow-to-learn group.  We have wars, tell lies, oppress others, act grouchy to our families, eat too many Christmas cookies, think that today we will be ready for work on time even though we hit the snooze button six times.  History repeats itself because, for all our intelligence – we’ve explored outer space, figured out how to replace a heart with a machine, learned that high fructose corn syrup is bad for you –  humans are dense.  But.  Sometimes something sticks.  Sometimes we make changes.  Sometimes we emancipate slaves. Sometimes we’re kinder to our spouses.  Sometimes we only hit snooze three times, and a chosen few learn to avoid the button altogether.
          In light of the hate that was demonstrated last week, I’m glad to have read this essay today.  White finishes with mention of Korea and Russia; the correlation between his world and ours is profound.  He writes that “…neither can unsettle this land whose citizens’ torments and hopes, big and little, are aired daily in the press.”  No matter the contempt that some feel for our freedoms, I’m thankful for the one that gives words power, and us the power to use them.  I choose the thud.  What a calm and lovely sound.
Thank you for this one, E.B.
Thank you for this one, E.B.

Deep Dark River

Written January, 2013
         This morning I felt a familiar weight bear down on me, like an unwelcome blanket in the heat of summer.  I woke up with it and knew today would be a fight.  The cloudy brain, the anger at tiny annoyances, the ridiculous outlook on life that makes no rational sense but feels so real.  Maybe it’s my hormones, maybe it’s because we’ve all been sick and stuck inside for a week, maybe it’s the winter blues, or maybe it’s a perfect storm of all three.  No matter, it sucks.
          “There’s a deep, dark river rising on the inside.”  I heard that in a Matthew Perryman Jones song today and nodded my head.  Yes.  I could feel the river rising, I was trying to swim for the banks, but my arms and legs were useless in the cold water.  I was sad, I was mean, I was the ugly version of me and I hated every second of it, but I couldn’t make it stop.  I had to leave the house – my sweet family – and try to regroup.  It frightens me when I feel like this.  When I can’t reason my way out of a downer, can’t swing my arms fast enough at the moving target of my sinking emotions.  When I feel so close to falling off the cliff.
          I hate feeling depressed.  Because you don’t know when relief will come, or if things will get worse before it does, or if every day after will be full of deep sorrow.  The minutes drag on and hopelessness sets in.  I have yet to lose a close friend or family member, so I’m sure I haven’t scratched the surface of true sadness, but I’ve felt enough of it to know I despise depression and fear it more than most things in this world.
          The only good I see from sorrow (unwelcome, even so) is the wisdom a person can gain.  I’ve witnessed it soften the hard-hearted, strengthen the weak, fill the judgmental with grace – mostly when the light at the end of the tunnel is somewhat visible.  But many don’t make it that far.  Some people become bitter or mean, and some get swallowed whole and never see the light at all.  I’ve seen that, too, and I don’t want to end up there.  If I have to suffer sadness, wisdom sounds like a better ending.
          Once in Hawaii – yes, Hawaii of all places – I felt the weight of true depression for the first time.  Marc and I were on vacation in Kauai.  This was before kids and in-between a job change within the non-profit I worked for in L.A.  It should have been a joyful trip, a mix of exciting discovery and welcome relaxation, but it followed a year of increasing sadness inside me.  My funk reached it’s climax while I was in paradise.  Terribly bad timing.  It felt strange driving around in such beauty, the top of our rented convertible down, balmy breezes blowing through our hair, knowing I should be happy.  But I wasn’t.  I was sadder than any rational thinking could explain.  A hole had slowly been dug in my heart for months and was now hitting bottom.  In freaking Hawaii.  I touched a hot plate at dinner one night and burst into tears that didn’t stop for fifteen minutes.  We drove through Waimea Canyon one afternoon – like a smaller version of the Grand Canyon, full of color and astounding views – and I cried the entire time.  My whole body hurt.  My brain felt cloudy.  At times I couldn’t imagine not being sad.
          I don’t remember when I started the climb back up to normal after our trip, but the worst was over.  I remember that.  Starting my new job was wonderful.  I felt purpose again and was surrounded by co-workers instead of being isolated off-site.  But it didn’t explain the total rebound I experienced.  Maybe my hormones were out of whack.  Maybe I needed a good cry over a hot plate.  But whatever the reason for the descent and eventual return, I don’t want to go back.  I have not worked through this one yet.  I would be glad to never experience that hopelessness again, no matter what it teaches me or the great artistic material it provides.
          I know that’s an impossibility, though.  Like today’s weird state of mind, I will find myself in the dumps occasionally.  Possibly for an extended period of time.  But the good news is that each new day is exactly that.  New.  Thank goodness.
          So really, this new year is full of promise.  The light of it might be a tiny speck in the distance, but it is there.  I may have to squint to make it out.  I may have to pray and reach beyond my own brain for help.  And I may need a few hours away from my sweet but loud children to write, ingest caffeine, and be alone.  Today, they would all agree.  I will certainly face a day like this one again, and I hate that.  But at least I can remember that when my strength and reason and serotonin are gone, hope is not.  As my mother and grandmother always say, “This too shall pass.”  That’s wisdom gained from years of the same hard, sad stuff of life.  The longer I live, the more I understand it’s quiet strength.

Rightly Considered

 

Written March 24th, 2013
          We just returned from a week-long trip to San Diego and Los Angeles for spring break and went from 75 degrees and sunshine to 35 degrees and snow.  Our bodies had started to think it truly was spring and relished the welcomed warmth on our skin.  And then, this morning, I scraped ice off the windshield for ten minutes.  Blech.  An hour later I read an essay by G.K. Chesterton about re-thinking inconveniences.  The best quote, which I’ll be writing on a sticky pad and placing on my kitchen window to glance at as I do the dishes, is this: “An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered.  And inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered.”  From a flood in his neighborhood in London to chasing a hat, he turns each annoyance on it’s head and looks at it from the other side.  From the perspective of a child at one point…
                    For instance, we often hear grown-up people complaining of having to hang about a railway
                    station and wait for a train.  Did you ever hear a small boy complain of having to hang about a
                    railway station and wait for a train?  No; for to him to be inside a railway station is to be inside a
                    cavern of wonder and a palace of poetical pleasures.  Because to him the red light and the green
                    light on the signal are like a new sun and a new moon.  Because to him when the wooden arm of
                    the signal falls down suddenly, it is as if a great king had thrown down his staff as a signal and
                    started a shrieking tournament of trains.  I myself am of the little boys’ habit in this matter. (On
                    Running After One’s Hat)

          Marc and I should have read this essay before we left.  We could have used the kids’ perspective in two long days at Legoland, or in our five-hour rush-hour trip from San Diego to Pasadena, or when Mae puked all over herself just before we reached our friends’ house but after we’d eaten at In-N-Out.  Actually, I’m not sure how to make that an adventure.  She was miserable and thrown-up hamburger is just gross.
          Marc and I are pretty good at going with the flow.  We deal well with the inevitable craziness and not-as-we-planned-it ways of a family vacation.  And of life in general.  After three kids, we let most inconveniences roll off our backs, but I can’t say we’ve actually reached the point that we enjoy them.  That we look at what would generally be frustrating events as adventures.  We can get over them quickly, but things like leaving our very expensive train passes on the Shinkansen in Japan, or losing Marc’s wedding ring in central California, or getting lost from one another at an enormous outdoor market in Bangkok (and me trying to plan how I would get home to America without my presumedly dead husband) – these things did not fill us with child-like wonder.  They made us argue.  And freak out.
          I remember driving through a blizzard to my grandparents’ house at Thanksgiving when I was five or six years old.  We got stuck in a snow drift at nightfall, and my dad had to walk to the nearest house (not so near in rural Nebraska) for help.  My brother and I were understandably nervous, snuggled up in a blanket with Mom.  “This is an adventure!” she said with enthusiasm.  “Oh,” I thought.  “I guess it is.”  And then it was.  I don’t remember it as scary.  I remember it as exciting.  I’m sure we got cold, I don’t remember how we got out, and my poor dad probably didn’t think it was thrilling, but it sticks in my mind as a fun experience from childhood.  Because my mom knew to make it that way.
          When we were getting ready to leave L.A. Luke said he wanted to live in California.  Legoland had a great deal to do with it, but also the weather, the excitement of being somewhere new, the ocean, our friends’ kids he met, and seeing the place he was born.  The whole thing was an adventure for him.  Southern California is an inconvenient place – the traffic, the smog, the amount of people, the cost of living, the traffic.  But he didn’t see those things.  Or he did and just looked at them with a kid’s eyes. He and Lily have a game they play in the car imagining they are racing all the others on the road (yep, G.K. Chesterton was right) that they played on our trip, too.  It was just a bigger race track.  A super slow one at times, but that didn’t ruin the experience for them.  If you ask me what I remember most from the trip, it’s the bad cold we all caught, the puking, the traffic, and then the fun stuff.  But if you ask the kids, it’s only the fun.  They had a grand adventure.  I could learn a few things from my children and G.K. Chesterton about rightly considering inconveniences.  Life would be a lot more exciting if I did.

Winter Ends

          Thank the Lord, it’s sunny today.  And warm.  I was about to think we were skipping spring this year, which, besides throwing off the way the entire planet works, would throw off the way my emotions work as well.
          This year hasn’t been my favorite so far.  It started with some depressive feelings, and they have hovered overhead ever since, like a storm cloud threatening a downpour at any moment.  There has been an excessive amount of sickness going around my family this winter, which does nothing for morale.  And then there’s the lack of writing time, which I’ve come to realize is an important ingredient in my well-being.  We took a recent trip to L.A., which brought some relief from the cold and snow, but returned to yet another winter storm and the feeling that spring was a dream that wouldn’t be realized.
          I think I feel this way each year.  Eager to replace the heavy storm door with a screen and step outside in short sleeves rather than a full-body covering of wool.  Ready for walking Luke to school again, the excitement of booming thunder claps and weather advisories, redbuds and forsythia blooms, the sight of Mae’s little toddler legs in shorts, the feeling of promise in the air and warmth on your skin. This waiting, waiting for something new – it’s about to make me crazy.  And then I wake up and the sun is shining.  And someone is wearing a tank top at the park.  And everyone is smiling.  Hallelujah.
          We wanted to name our third child something that meant “renewal,” but all we could find was Chun, a Chinese name that didn’t quite have the sweet, happy sound we were looking for.  So we went with Mae, which means, well, May.  She was born in March, but it was the only name we actually liked that had a spring-related connotation.  It was close enough for us.  During labor I listened to a Gungor song over and over.  The chorus repeats:
                    You make beautiful things
                    You make beautiful things out of the dust.
                    You make beautiful things.
                    You make beautiful things out of us.
It’s a thank-you song to God.  And a welcome-to-the-world-little-beautiful-thing song.  It was a perfect way to say hello to Mae as she made her entrance, with promise and newness and crinkled skin all over her face.  It’s been two years since she burst onto the scene, but she’s still a daily reminder of the beauty that can come from nothing.  Of hope personified.
          Yesterday we celebrated Easter – early this year, thankfully.  It came at the right time for my weary heart.  A day to take the focus off of me and put it on something, someone, much greater was a welcome reprieve from my self-centered ways.  A day to be grateful.  To remember why tree buds and flower blossoms and warming temperatures are beautiful.  They reflect a deep, planet-affirming ache in our hearts.  For newness.  For starting over.  For proof that though something lies dormant for a time, it can come back again in brilliant color and glorious life.  That though my heart doubts that spring will come, it always does.  No matter how distant it seems, it is there, under the surface, ready to burst into view when the time is right.  Bam.  Beauty all over the place.
          I’m hoping spring is here to stay, though I’m sure we’ll see a few more days of cold and gloom.  But I’m hanging on to the signs of newness I can see today: a daffodil in the neighbor’s yard, my cherry tree buds popping open, the irises making their way through the mulch.  They weren’t here two days ago.
          Bam.  It begins.