By Kevin Carrel Footer
The afternoon is bright. There are a few creampuff clouds in the sky – isolated, pristine, sovereign – and trailing them dark stains on the water’s surface. Above, they are all majesty and pomp; below, they are a flat discoloration on a muddy river. One by one, the brilliant white thorns of pleasure boats are gobbled up by those shadows, deprived of their shimmer – and then spit out the back none the worse. A tragedy has been averted.
How to make sense of this? The giddy perfection of clouds, the menace of ravenous shadows, the immutability of small white boats? The world around me seems a drama to which I would impute morals and lessons – except that I can’t. The cloud, white and heavenly, has nothing to recommend it but a sort of vapid beauty, while the dark splotch on the river has done nothing untoward but carry out the white cloud’s blocking of the light. Indeed, the shadow is nothing but the result of the cloud’s gauzy substance: that which I admire – the whiteness of the cloud – is a consequence of the light that would have reached the water being diverted into my eyes instead.
Neither cloud nor shadow has the least volition. Yet I insist on casting one as the villain and the other the hero. Why do I shed time in such games? The impulse, I suspect, is as ancient as ourselves: we make up stories to explain the world. Should I wonder at those who saw gods hurling lighting bolts and brewing wars when I have just caught myself on a 21st Century afternoon concocting the fable of the cloud and the shadow?
Other times – too often – I have found myself trying to predict the future based on signs: if that blossom falls to the left of the dried branch, I will arrive on time; if no car passes before I count to twenty, then the weather will be good tomorrow. While I may have discovered that the spiritual and physical universes are more intimately connected than I ever imagined, I make no claim to really believe that these arbitrary, chance events are any portent. It’s just something that bubbles up spontaneously within, probably from the same spot that causes me to stare at a bonfire. They are impulses that are more powerful than any post-modern varnish.
And perhaps they continue to serve their purpose. Many of the apparently more logical explanations of our existence and our world – and in which we have placed all our hopes – cannot explain the most pressing questions that begin with ‘Why….’ It is a fine and wondrous thing that a cell phone can connect me to someone across the planet on a whim, but does it get us any closer to the essential answers?
Obviously, it doesn’t. For those, we must rely on whatever it is that surges up from within us, whether cloud or shadow.