READING THE CLOUDS: The secret to telling time by the sky. Post number 28.

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If tales are true, my great-grandmother, Rachel Leah (z”l) could tell time simply by looking at the sky. She knew the time right to the minute just by a glance at the clouds.

What a marvelous, wonderful, amazing thing! What would it be like, I wondered, to be so in tune with the world, so keyed into its rhythms, that you could literally read the sky? There had to be a secret! Of course there was a secret.

I didn’t know how she did it. I never had a chance to ask Grandma Rachel Leah how she learned to tell time by the sky, to read the clouds. But I so wanted to do this. There just had to be a way.

Part 1.

On warm summer days when we were small my sisters and I would lay out on the grass in front of our house and watch the soft, puffy clouds lazily move across the sky.  Of course there was a game: you had to be first to spot a shape in the cloud and point it out before it drifted apart. Did we play for minutes or was it hours? I never knew.

Part 2.

Staring at clouds? What an utter waste of time.   Pretending a cloud was a bunny that morphed into a cowboy that transformed into an ice cream cone was of no use whatsoever. I was too old, too dressed up to lie in the grass anyway. I could get a reasonable weather forecast, and pinch a few jokes, from Sonny Elliot on Channel 4 instead.

Part 3.

If you look carefully you’ll see that my left forearm is deeply tanned. Not so my right. I spend so many hours driving this one and that one from one place to another that the sun has baked my left arm into what’s known in select circles as a true trucker tan. But I am not a trucker—just a mom behind the wheel.

I rarely look up. Why bother? I have my watch. I really love my watch. Besides. I can’t risk misreading the time—I can’t let anyone down by being late.

Part 4.

How odd that I can’t stop looking at the sky. I love the clouds the best. It’s a proud parade, a stunning Shakespearean drama, a breathtaking pageant that is so enthralling I’m afraid to miss even a moment.I sneak glances, and then find myself staring up at the clouds throughout the day. I can almost feel the texture of certain clouds; I love the interplay as they dance across the sky. I love that I can recognize cloud types but the array of clouds across the sky is constantly changing. I’m afraid to stop looking or I’ll miss something once-in-a-lifetime magnificent.

Old habits die hard. I search out and study the names of the clouds, Altostratus, Contrail, Fibratus. I learn what they mean. Some sightings such as Cumulus and Stratus are quite common. Others, like the Kelvin-Helmholtz or Asperatus are so rare that one could live a lifetime and never spot them. I think about the works of Jean-Honore Fragonard and J.M.W. Turner, two of the greatest painters of clouds and know that as beautiful as their works are what they were interpreting was far more astounding. I look up and think about the scores of people who have been swept up by the beauty of clouds since the beginning of time. But really I don’t want to pontificate on the clouds, I want to luxuriate. So I do.

In his book, The Story of My Heart: An Autobiography (1883), English essayist and nature writer Richard Jeffries says, “for artificial purposes time is agreed on, but really there is no such thing.”

If tales are true my Grandma Rachel Leah could tell time just by looking at the sky. I cannot. But then maybe her secret was that with an appreciation of clouds, of nature, of the world itself, time has no real meaning.

Look up and see the sky. Beauty suffuses—it lingers – it lasts.

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INVISIBLE ANCHORS

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Oh, give me a break. It wasn’t such a big deal. Really it wasn’t.

Except that it was. A crushed watch. A cracked French Press.   A smashed wine glass. Nothing was terribly expensive. Everything was replaceable. I was inconsolable.

The watch was a plain and simple Timex (so much for their old “takes a lickin’ keeps on tickin’ “ slogan) but I loved the way it hung on my right wrist just so, timed precisely to the second. My sense of time is very private; I always have the face turned inward. The watch steadily ticked the heartbeat of my day. One of the cat’s paws had caught the band and tore it from my wrist.

As for the French Press, over the years I’ve gained a true mastery of the seven precise and precisely timed steps to a cup of coffee, which for me has to be black, very strong and very hot. That I manage to do this when I am basically sleeping on my feet each morning is a source of tremendous pride. You probably think I dropped it. I didn’t. It somehow cracked all by itself. Mysterious. And for me, weirdly gut-wrenching.

The blender teetered and shoved the bowl, which hit the spoon that tipped the wine glass that fell over the precipice of the countertop. It should have been safely out of the way but it wasn’t. That glass was a gift from my son. I felt shattered.

And ridiculous. Good grief, that’s all it took to cut my moorings? To cast me adrift? Small insignificant nothings, a watch, a French Press, a wine glass?

***

Long ago, before I had people to take care of, before I had people who cared for me, I packed a single suitcase, self-consciously cut every tie I could, and left for New York. I was twenty-two.

I had a one-way ticket, an eager, anxious-to-please expression, the wrong clothes, and a vague job offer. I didn’t know anyone in New York. I was the sweet natured, befuddled, sure-to-make-good heroine of a million movies. But this was the real thing.

The job had disappeared by the time I arrived. I found another. I lived in cinder-blocked splendor at the 92nd Street Y, left to rent a room at 104th street from Shalom Aleichem’s aged mistress, steps away from the then notorious Manhattan Avenue. Singed my eyebrows attempting to light the gas stove. Somehow found a boyfriend from Long Island. Nice but dull- I gave him up. Afraid of the subways, I road the buses. Gave up my seat to another, I was pick pocketed. Later, I was mugged. My wallet came back to me both times. It was a good sign and I clung to it.

But the city was pulsating and syncopated and grittily beautiful. I loved the ordered disorder of it all. I loved that even a tiny bit of it was mine.

Most days I made my own lunch. It was no big deal, usually just peanut butter sandwiches and fruit. But after a while I found myself in a rhythm with this. I took great care to make myself lunches, cutting everything just so and even sometimes putting in treats. Eventually I bought myself an actual lunch box, -just plain green, nothing flashy– and every night packed it carefully for the next day. Every noon I opened it and was pleased.

Of course I eventually lost the lunchbox, leaving it on the seat of the bus one day when I was both tired and rushing. If you imagine that I was as devastated about that lost as I was just now about losing my watch, my French Press, and my wine glass you’ll be right. I loved those odd, seemingly insignificant little things. But while the things were lost something else was left. I knew how to care for myself. To be kind to myself. That was never lost, or shattered or smashed at all. Couldn’t be.

So of course I’ve replaced all the little things, the watch, the French Press, the wine glass (actually, my son knows I break things. He originally gave me two). And I set to my rituals once again. I am caring for myself.

Someday, if I need it, I’ll buy myself another lunch box as well.

I don’t know why things break or are lost, often in frustrating, cacophonous concert with each other. Absentmindedness? Sheer clumsiness? Just plain fate?

Or maybe it’s nothing more than a reminder to value the invisible anchors that we all create to keep us steady in the storm, to remember to care for ourselves as we strive to care for those we love.