For the nature lover, the Pacific Northwest is gloriously overwhelming. For the nature writer with attention surplus disorder, it is maddeningly gloriously overwhelming. There are simply too many compelling subjects to write about—too many fascinating, attention-worthy stories in every nook and niche of the natural world.
Faced with such abundance, some of us simply freeze. The way I did after moving to Olympia in 2006. I had compiled a long list of ideas to explore for a new book, but failed to fully commit to any of them. I had tried many ways to get around what was likely a classic case of Writer’s Block, but nothing worked. After two years of being a writer not writing, I was getting desperate.
I came up with a plan one weekend in late October. I’d sit myself down in a big comfy chair in my living room at 8 o’clock on Monday morning. In my lap I’d have my notebook with my list of the dozen or so subjects I was considering for my next book. My pen was at the ready in my right hand, my mug of coffee within easy reach at my left.
I planned to sit like this all day—relaxed and receptive—waiting for my erstwhile Muse to appear in her draping diaphanous robes. She would float, ghost-like behind me, glance at my list of subjects and at my idle pen. I would feel the wave of her pity and then—the weight of her hands on my shoulders as she whispered in my ear her choice for The Story that I was meant to write.
It was a ridiculous plan, really, but as I said I was desperate.
I made my coffee and had a few minutes to spare before settling in to my chair for the day, so I went to my computer for a quick check of my e-mail. There was little red flag next to one e-mail. It was from a friend and it was sent at 4 a.m. She’d had family emergency and needed to catch a 9 o’clock train out of Olympia. She hoped I could give her a ride to the train station.
So off I went.
When I got to my friend’s house, she was not packed and ready to go. I was afraid she would miss her train so I tried to hurry her along. To be honest, I was more worried that I’d miss the visit from my Muse.
What if she arrived while I was out? Would she wait for me in my living room? Would she cross me off her list and move on to inspire the more committed writers and artists around the state? Did she work on Tuesdays?
To calm myself down I began some deep breathing exercises. Then some shoulder rolls. Then some gentle neck twists. First to the right, then to the left. That’s when I saw them. The clouds—dozens of them. They were luscious, dappled, windswept, storm-tossed—and arranged in rows in a full-color poster pinned to the hall-closet door.
The title at the top of the poster read “A Guide to the Sky.”
I stepped closer for a better look. I scanned the rows of photos—but did not see the names of the clouds I knew: “thunderheads” “mares tails” and “mackerel skies.” I recognized some of the shapes but could not guess their names. How could this be? I had lived under the clouds all my life—how could I know so little about them?
My friend was still packing her bags so I started back up at the top of the poster to read the Latin names of the clouds—the names I must have learned in school long ago but had since forgotten. Cumulus. Cirrus. Stratus. Cumulonimbus. Altocumulus. Nimbostratus. Cirrocumulus. Cirrostratus. Altostratus. Stratocumulus.
Then I started reading the captions. Each described the type of cloud, the altitude at which it occurred, the atmospheric conditions under which it formed, and the clues it offered about the weather. The captions were all written in a straightforward style until I got to Cirrostratus.
“It had been a perfect vacation day. Rounding the corner, you become upset.You see the solid layer of high icy clouds on the western horizon. You know that the weather will deteriorate. The perfect sunlight will be dimmed in an hour. And it may rain within four.
How odd, I thought. What was this strange second-person voice? Who was “you”? Who would get upset looking at such a dull smudge of clouds on the horizon? Who wrote this strange caption and why?
I re-read the caption then found myself staring at the photograph of the Cirrostratus. Suddenly, I wanted to be the “you.” I wanted to round a corner, see a cloud, and respond to it instantly and emotionally. I wanted to know the Latin names of the clouds and the secrets of the atmosphere. I wanted to make up for my nearly 50 years of not looking up, of not paying attention to the beautiful and generous clouds.
There, in the dim hallway I felt the spark of a story. Suddenly I was on fire and full of gratitude to my Muse for finding me, for turning my head toward the clouds.
NOTE: This blog is a rendition of two stories from my book, A Sideways Look at Clouds. I am posting it here because it is part of my "performance reading" at The Center Salon in Olympia on April 13. The event is sold out.