Clouds are visible accumulations of tiny water droplets or ice crystals in the Earth’s atmosphere, according to elementary school science class and the National Geographic. That may very well be true, but children know much more than that. Clouds are giant fish, dragons, balloons, dogs, and anything else that presents itself in the afternoon sky. The clouds are ever-changing, morphing into another and yet another creature.
Remember the hours spent as children outstretched on the grass, hands supporting our neck with ankles crossed, gazing up at the cumulus clouds lazing across the summer sky. There was nothing more pressing on those summer days than clouds. Cumulus clouds are the best sort of clouds for imagining as they shapeshift above us. Cumulus clouds are described as “detached and cauliflower-shaped”, which is never an appropriate description because what eight-year-old likes cauliflower; hardly a one me thinks. Cumulus clouds are puffy marshmallow balls and almost always indicate fair weather. But as is always the case with too much of a good thing, if the clouds start to get taller, a thunderstorm may be brewing, which as a kid was exciting until the power got knocked out and maybe even then.
Joni Mitchell surely spent a lot of time gazing up at clouds and daydreaming for she named her second album Clouds, released in 1969. Most of us know the lyrics or at least parts of the words from Both Sides Now, written by Joni Mitchell in 1966 when she was twenty-three. This was her first hit and put her on the map. Joni saw ice cream castles and feather canyons, but life was heavy, and those same clouds blocked the sun, and rained and snowed on everyone, if you recall. Judy Collins was the first to record Both Sides Now in 1967; she won a Grammy, and it became her signature song, but we never forget who wrote it. I read a review in The Atlantic of Both Sides Now, where it was called “saccharine-filled” and to that I say – pshaw.
I remember my first time in an airplane and flying through the clouds. I was giddy. I was certain if I was able to jump out the window, the clouds would hold me, and I could tumble and roll in the most fantastical of experiences. I would shape the clouds into perfect pillows and pull their fluffy bits over me to sleep in perfect slumber. The image is still clear in my mind and makes me smile even all these years later.
Clouds are the philosophers of the sky, while being both enchanting and turbulent, simultaneously. They carry secrets and share only bits and pieces of those secrets. Clouds are all-knowing, seeing us from above, an unencumbered view of our successes and failures, our easy thoughts and our heavy missives. The age of the Apple computer has claimed the cloud as its own, has stolen its beauty and magic in the name of electronic data storage. Such a shame.
We have used clouds in our every-day language for eons – their silver lining, cloud nine, head in the clouds. William Wordsworth shared his poetic view on the solitude of writing with “I wandered lonely as a cloud”, yet for me, clouds were summer companions as I lazed on the slope of the hill running parallel with the river, my very own version of heaven.
Do you know why all six-year-olds paint cumulus clouds on their artistic masterpieces? Because they know imagination lives inside those white puffs and every single drawing of a cumulus cloud is accurate. No one can say, “Nice try,” shaking their head with supportive disappointment.
The lesson of clouds is to embrace the concept of change, that the beauty of today won’t last, but something else awaits. Clouds, like life, are in a continuous state of metamorphosis. We may have a few days of thunderstorms, the cumulus clouds may vanish and, in their place might appear the cumulonimbus, the most dangerous of the clouds, the stuff of nightmares, but the fluffy daydreaming clouds will always come back. In the meantime, there is a world that exists in-between what we can see and can’t see, so enjoy the view for now and know that every dog’s head will soon be a mountain or a race car or someone’s big fat nose or …
Clouds fill the sky just for me, and just for you. We claim them as our own, but only for a minute. When last did you gaze up at the clouds and imagine?