Bright towers of silence,
stiff sculpted like a
heap of marble flowers.
-- Edward Shanks, "Clouds"
VERY EARLY in life I came to learn that the speed of clouds is best measured from a position parallel to, and in firm contact with, the ground. This afternoon in a Homewood sculpture garden, my family assumed the cloud velocity detection position -- the bodies of two 30-somethings and a 4-year-old splayed beneath pieces of iron and sculpted stone bearing names like "Large Boxing Hare on Anvil."
Overhead, above the swaying oval window made by the tops StephenVicchioof towering trees, white clouds, looking as intricate as a map of the Greek isles, slowly drifted east in the direction of an invisible Asia Minor.
When one is upright and walking around, it is not so easy to mark the movement of the clouds. When they are noticed, it is usually with a utilitarian interest, for what they may or may not bring. But in the cloud velocity detection position, the interest becomes aesthetic, the simplest changes become readily apparent, a series of small reports of a great and ephemeral work in progress.
I learned this little trick about the speed of clouds -- and perhaps the velocity of our individual lives -- from an uncle with whom I stretched out on the grass in the tiny yard of my grandmother's row house in the fall of 1956. My grandfather, my uncle's father, had died suddenly a few days before. The ground was wet, and grief mixed with curiosity as we lay in the middle of the yard trying to understand one of nature's hieroglyphics.
For years after that day, I saw my uncle on rare occasions. He died earlier this month. From what I know of my uncle, he lived a life of accomplishment, but one in which the velocity of clouds still played more than a minor role.
Before he died, he left word with his wife that he wished me to speak to their 20-year-old son about "some important things in life." I don't know for sure what my uncle had in mind, but he made his request from a hospital bed, as close as he could be to the cloud velocity detection position.
For two weeks now, I have been trying to compose a letter to my young cousin. This afternoon, while looking at the slow movement of the clouds and the first of fragile leaves disconnected and fluttering to an early end, I want to tell him something about how we are all as ephemeral as the clouds, so we must watch carefully for the beautiful. I want to mention how his father taught me as a frightened grieving child that few adults can really see nature, and about how sometimes life must be slowed to a snail's pace, where real seeing is possible.
Toward the end of his life, Thoreau remarked in his journal that the ancients, with their centaurs and sphinxes, could imagine far more than exists. We moderns have an increasingly difficult time just imagining the natural.
In this early autumnal quiet, I am searching among the leaves and in those first breaths of cold air for something to tell my cousin about his grief, something that Keats understood by looking at an urn. That day in 1956 my uncle tried to tell me that beauty usually comes in small, nearly imperceptible moments -- that traveling at the wrong speed is the surest way to miss most of them.
What is clear, even 34 years later, is that my uncle had a real inkling of the sadness that comes when even the smallest of opportunities is missed. As much as accomplishments, a completed life is a catalog of what one has slowed down to see. When it comes to clouds, the best way to do it is by first assuming the cloud velocity detection position.
Stephen Vicchio teaches philosophy at the College of Notre Dame of Maryland.