these dated words

I finished reading For the Time Being by Annie Dillard. In the “Author’s Note” preceding the text Dillard lists some questions that the book contemplates. “Does God cause natural calamity? What might be the relationship of the Absolute to a lost schoolgirl in a plaid skirt? Given things as they are, how shall one individual live?” The prose is split under recurring headings: birth, sand, China, clouds, numbers, Israel, encounters, thinker, evil, and now. Each heading carries different narratives that are picked up, dropped off, and later revisited. Further into the book the narratives blur, tiptoeing into each other’s headings.

While all of the themes and characters Dillard writes about are captivating and well worth further study—birth defects, the paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin, quantifying human mortality, interactions with strangers, Baal Shem Tov, etc.—something that stayed with me from its first occurrence in the first chapter was Dillard’s writing on clouds, found on page 20. The “clouds” section of each chapter is typically the shortest. In each section Dillard unearths someone’s observations of clouds, noting that interest in the big white fluffy things in the sky is fairly universal. She draws on the writings and drawings of clouds by John Constable, “one oblique bluish cloud riding high and messy over a wan sun;” John Muir, “‘a solitary white mountain… enriched with sunshine and shade;'” Gerard Manley Hopkins, “‘One great stack in particular over Pendle was knoppled all over in fine snowy tufts and pencilled with bloom-shadow;'” Jorge Borges’ character Ireneo Funes, who “could compare the clouds’ shapes to a pattern in marbled endpapers;” Athenian men and women in January of 1942, when the United States entered Athens, “‘an undercloud, floating like a detached lining;'” biologist Archie Carr, “‘little round wind clouds’ … and ‘towering pearly land clouds;'” the Baltimore News-American, “‘a cloud of sand blown thousands of miles westward from the Sahara;'” and painter Jacqueline Gourevitch, who “drew in graphite seven clouds above Middleton, Connecticut. The largest cloud tumbled out of rank.” We like to look at clouds. Sometimes we like to paint them, find animals in them, or write about them. But why?

As with most questions asked in the book, there is no concise answer that does the question complete justice.

In the first section of “clouds,” which takes up a little over half a page, Dillard writes of John and Maria Constable. In 1824 the couple visited the beach at Brighton. John hoped some fresh air would cure Maria of her tuberculosis. Dillard writes, “On June 12, he sketched, in oils, squally clouds over Brighton beach. The gray clouds lowered over the water in failing light. They swirled from a central black snarl.”

Brighton Beach by John Constable, 12 June 1824. On display at the Victoria and Albert Museum.

In 1828, as his wife neared death, Constable revisited Brighton to collect some of their children. Another painting.

Coast Scene at Brighton: Evening by John Constable, 22 May 1828. Also on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Dillard describes the painting: “On May 22 he recorded one oblique bluish cloud riding high and messy over a wan sun. Two thin red clouds streak below. Below the clouds he painted disconnected people splashed and dotted over an open, wide coast.”

To finish off the section, Dillard makes two statements of fact. “Maria Constable died that November. We still have these dated clouds.” In these sentences, a hint of the underlying tension in For the Time Being is disclosed. Some things cease while others continue to exist, and as humans, we happen to be in the former category. After an even shorter lifespan, clouds, too, pass away. The paint, however, remains.

“Maria died that November. We still have these dated clouds.” Of course, in writing about Maria, Annie Dillard is extending a measure of the same longevity to her as her husband John did to the clouds. It doesn’t need to be clouds. In the act of recording what we see in our ever-changing world with paint, ink, lead, or pixels, we give something transient new life, embedding it in the memories of all who behold.

Since I moved my website from Weebly to WordPresss, the title of my blog has been “Samuel Ernest.” While I like my name, it should not be the name of my blog, lest I confuse myself further as to who Samuel Ernest is. So I’ve been on the hunt for a new name. I tried desperately to pull a title from Father Zosima’s stories in the Brothers Karamazov, but to no avail. When I read this passage of For the Time Being, I thought it perfectly summed up the role of what I attempt to do via my blog. I want to observe and create art out of my day-to-day experience, sharing what meaning and truth I find and in so doing give that truth a home that spans time. Generations from now, no one will know who Samuel Ernest was beyond what they may find on Ancestry.com. But, maybe, in a small way, someone will find these dated clouds and find beauty in them, or hope, or something else worth holding on to.

Annie Dillard opens the last chapter of For the Time Being with these words:

Our lives come free; they’re on the house to all comers, like shopkeeper’s wine. God decants the universe of time in a stream, and our best hope is, by our own awareness, to step into the stream and serve, empty as flumes, to keep it moving.”

*

One more painting, for good measure.

Rainstorm over the Sea by John Constable, 1828. On display at the Royal Gallery of Arts, in London.

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