cloud, noun, 1. a visible mass of condensed water vapor floating in the atmosphere, typically high above the ground 2. a state or cause of gloom, suspicion, trouble, or worry.
Clouds are usually around, in the sky, floating past and shaped like things that exist in our lives that are made of matter, not water vapor. They block our view on airplanes, turn black to signal bad weather, and often, inspire us. Sometimes they disappear entirely letting the blue take over until we feel like we can see “forever.” Often, they hang around for too long, blocking out the sun and bringing us down. Yet nearly every day, when the sun rises there are clouds there changing their colors like a kaleidoscope of pinks and oranges, striping the sky to signal the arrival of day.
“Rows 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’s illusions I recall
I really don’t know clouds at all”
It’s amazing how profound and complex humans have made a floating mass of condensed water vapor. We paint them, we watch them float by, we use them to describe our bad moods, we sing about them. We assign them meaning and emotion. It’s the singing about them that has captured me most these days. Especially the song “Both Sides Now.” (I know Jonie Mitchell sang it first, but I like the Judy Collins version better.) I love how the song starts off describing the duality and illusion of clouds and then goes on to make them a metaphor for love and life. I remember listening to this song as a kid and thinking about the words. I didn’t understand all that it meant back then. I think you have to be an adult to really get it. In the final episode of Season 6, Mad Men, the song is used to perfect effect. After Don Draper’s life has fallen apart and his family, everyone,
knows that he isn’t who he says he is, he takes his children to see his childhood home – revealing to them the truth about who he is and where he came from. His entire story is one of duality and illusion and in this final moment, the song captures it. The thing about this song that really hits home is that it doesn’t end on a sad note. It ends on an inspiring, hopeful, “anything is possible” note. I often listen to it on Mondays.
Clouds can also be a place of refuge or happiness. Whether they serve as a calming presence while lying on your back, staring up at them with imagination or feeling like you’re on cloud 9. The etymology of why we say these things and think of clouds this way is interesting. I hadn’t known it before I started thinking about writing this post:
“The origin of sense 1 (“a state of bliss”) is uncertain; however, the following etymology has been suggested:
The first edition of the International Cloud Atlas (1896), which defined ten types of cloud, described the ninth type as the cumulonimbus which rises to 10 km (6.2 miles), the highest a cloud can be.
Compare cloud seven (“state of complete happiness or euphoria”), which may have originated from confusion of cloud nine with seventh heaven.
Sense 2 (“a state of fantastic or impractical dreaming or thinking”) may be due to a confusion between sense 1 and the phrase head in the clouds.”
In the same way Dante describes the circles of hell, the clouds could be said to signify the steps toward heaven or the human happiness / euphoria. We often use clouds to describe hiding or happy detachment – like having our “head in the clouds.” Who doesn’t love a good daydream? Clouds describe our happy place, the place we go to after we’ve fallen in love, succeeded at something, or are on vacation.
Every morning I wake up and watch the sunrise. What I’ve been noting lately is that it’s not actually the sun that’s in control. It’s the clouds that are. Over the years I’ve noticed that each sunrise is a little different based on the color the clouds take on, how many there are and how thick they are. Sometimes they are just whitish amongst the yellow sky, almost like they’re slacking on the job. Sometime they are gray and opaque – and the sun can’t be seen at all. In the summer, it seems like the clouds go on vacation entirely leaving the whole job to the sun. But the best sunrises, in my opinion, are those where the clouds turn into bright pink bands and the sun creates the strongest orange that it knows. On those days, that light just pours in through my kitchen window and makes every surface glow with pink colored life. It wouldn’t be the same without the clouds.