I’ll never look at clouds the same way again. Not long ago 4-year old Violet introduced me to a charming picture book, Cloudette, by Tom Lichtenheld, about a little cloud who wanted to make a big difference. Simple, yet profoundly enabling. Then I read David Mitchell‘s extraordinary 2004 novel, Cloud Atlas. A complicated collection of stories that come together to project profound liberation. On Ascension Sunday, June 1, Pastor Elizabeth Foss stated that in the Bible clouds are symbols of God’s presence, as in Acts 1: 9-11, when Christ ascends in a cloud to His Father in Heaven. Clouds blur the boundaries of time and space. She went on to say that because we sense Christ’s absence in our lives, we come to church to seek His presence–out of cloudiness, clarity.
It was after discussing another book by David Mitchell, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob DeZoet, with my morning book group, that I decided to tackle Cloud Atlas. Six nested tales in one big book is the most challenging reading I’ve done since James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake in college. Each tale is in a different genre with different characters, connected by a musical composition and themes of identity, freedom and slavery. The interrupted narratives start in the South Pacific in 1849, then pick up in 1931 Belgium, 1975 California, present-day England, 2144 Korea, and finally 2321 Hawaii, after “The Fall” of civilization. The novel then boomerangs back through centuries and space, returning by the same route, in reverse, to its starting point. Along the way, Mitchell reveals how his characters’ fates intertwine, and how their souls drift across time like clouds across the sky.
Clouds in the Bible have inspired artists for millennia, such as Dosso Dossi’s 16th century painting above. Cloudette has inspired teachers and librarians to invent activities for children that explore and extend the book’s message. Cloud Atlas inspired this rollicking, virtuosic, and ultimately pleasurable 2012 movie, directed by the Wachowski siblings and Tom Tykwer, and starring Halle Berry, Tom Hanks and the amazing Doona Bae.
Violet and I like to watch clouds and think about what they represent. Realizing now how powerfully they serve as metaphors, I’ll be looking out for cloud metaphors in more places. And I’ll be reading the Bible, Cloud Atlas and Cloudette again and again, seeking God’s presence in my life, wondering how my life connects with the past and the future, and hoping, like Cloudette, I can make a positive difference.