Early February in Portland, Oregon isn’t typically a time of cascading blue skies, but today is one of those days where you need to be out doing anything but sitting in an office or even your house. Temperature is near 60 and a few clouds hang around so as to punctuate rather than threaten.
There’s a bit of sad irony for me today. I’ve just learned that a friend and fellow writer, Stanley Fisher, passed away suddenly. I don’t have details, don’t have the how or why, only know that he’s gone off to someplace else.
Stanley was a Guest Writer back in early December. He shared an essay he’d written entitled, “Blue Skies and Cotton-Puff Clouds”. The essay was an anchor for a larger project – he was collecting other peoples’ stories around the question, “What’s your simple pleasure?” Maybe someone’s asked you that question recently. Maybe Stanley asked. Maybe you sent him an essay explaining your simple pleasure. His simple pleasure had to do with a sky that looked very much like today’s.
I have an essay to send Stanley – it’s in my head, along with so many other things “I’ll get to” later. But I’ll do it. It’s about baseball, I think, somehow includes my father, brings it back home to boxscores and ends in a field. I’m not sure the best way to share it with him now. Write it and burn it? Read it out loud on a blue day? Not write it at all, just meditate on the thought of it?
I’d like to share Stanley’s essay now.
BLUE SKIES AND COTTON-PUFF CLOUDS
With those two words the heart lightens, troubles ease and imagination expands to hold half of heaven. If only we could have blue skies all the time. For much of the year you can, if you enjoy living in deserts of sand, or ice.
It’s not the blue sky itself that lightens some things and expands others; too much blue sky causes oxidation, wilt, sunburn. It’s the way the sky changes out of winter’s grey flannel into a new spring suit, or when it removes its rain clouds like taking off a broad-brimmed hat to show me its sunniest smile. And when that beautiful face is accessorized with a necklace and earrings made from huge clouds white as cotton puffs, I fall in love with the sky all over again.
My home state, Oregon, is a place immensely proud of its mythology and despite the pressures of truth and the inquiries of outsiders, meteorologists, and other doubters, we strive to preserve it. One of our greatest myths is that it rains here all the time. Another is that if you live here, you will grow webbed feet.
Truth is: the rain myth does not apply to the eastern two-thirds of the state. That Oregon is semi-arid high desert, a family secret of sorts hidden behind the slogan, “Cool Green Vacationland,” pressed into license plate frames and printed on travel brochures from the state’s department of propaganda and myth preservation.
But here in western Oregon’s Willamette Valley, the most populous part of the state, just ask anyone: it is oddly wet and blue skies are oddly rare. Cars don’t wear out here, they rust. And people don’t really get fat here they just absorb the atmospheric moisture and swell.
I have cousins in southern California; they wash their cars a lot. They like not having to think much about blue skies, they take them for granted. In Oregon we take grey skies for granted. We like not having to think much about washing cars; we know it’s going to rain.
When you’re a child you spend a lot of time looking down at the ground, at bugs and worms and things; and a lot of time looking up at clouds shaped like ships that turn into sharks that turn into ice cream sundaes. And in the middle of your life you spend a lot of time looking straight ahead.
Grey days and mid-life are much the same, a lot of looking straight ahead, cloudy with a chance of drizzle, not much momo to look up. Then it happens: one of those rare days to see ice cream sundaes in the clouds, one of those days to get wrapped in the embrace of bliss. The temperature draws me outside and my blue sky, home from some sunnier escape, presents herself bejeweled with cotton-puff clouds.
Rare days like that cover me like the lopsided boyhood tents built with sheets borrowed long ago from mom’s linen closet. Over cords strung from the top of dad’s favorite chair to a handle on the opposite cabinet hung a miniature sky of cotton percale and beneath it new worlds came and went.
Rare days like that nudge me off the course of myself and my own little world and my own brief life and make me look up and recall ships and sharks and connect with things greater. Whether it’s those fantastic scenes imagined beneath living room tents or today’s expansive reality, the effect is still the same. Calm hues, brilliant highlights, and soft shadows wash over me in currents that gather up troubles, fears, worries—and for a moment—sweep them away.
When one of those cotton puffs floats between the sun and I and day’s brightness suddenly darkens, it is the drawing shut of an eyelid in the sky. Heaven is winking. Someone, something, out there, seems to think I’m still worth flirting with.
Some tell stories about their “out-of-body” experiences. I’ve never had one of those but every time blue skies brush aside the usual grey backdrop and cotton-puff clouds distract me from the usual forward gaze, there’s an “out-of-me” experience that never lasts quite as long as I’d like. But as it departs it always does so cordially with a quiet promise of coming again another day.
And as real life reasserts itself I return to wherever I was before getting nudged off course; a little happier, a little saner and a little more certain it’s possible to face whatever troubles there may be by looking up at blue skies and cotton-puff clouds.