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? Continue reading