Cloud Atlas

I have this inexplicable habit of photographing clouds. Thin, hazy clouds in the morning. Sullen, grey clouds sweeping forward over the sea. Clouds hanging heavy over the hills, ripe with rain. Or whimsical and pink-tinged at sunset. I will often take a series of the same shot, only it’s not, because clouds change by the second. By the nanosecond. There is never an instant that the clouds are the same.

There is a novel by David Mitchell (highly recommended, by the way) brilliantly titled Cloud Atlas. I love this idea of earnest human futility. Mapping the ever-changing. Pinning down the ephemeral.

To me it’s a perfect metaphor for the human desire for knowledge, predictability and control juxtaposed against the wild freedom of the natural world.

Aren’t we all cloud mappers? We try to pin down the particulars of our lives. As a doctor, I have tried for years to pin down the particulars of a disease, or a treatment. As research scientists, my colleagues have tried to map out the biochemistry of the human body. As a mother, wife, friend, daughter, I’ve tried to pin down the particulars of me – who I am in my various roles, and then try to pin down the roles and behaviour of those around me.

Picture the explorers of days gone by bravely venturing into the unknown then diligently mapping the unknown out, so that it will never be unknown again.

We all try in our various ways to do this. We do it for ourselves, we do it for those who follow us, whether they are colleagues, friends or children. This human habit of mapping the unknown has a name. It’s called experience.

Experience has served us well over the millennia. After all, the world behaves in habitual ways. Certain things can be relied upon to occur again. Like the movement of our planet in space and the turning of the seasons, the day/night cycle, the path of the moon across the sky.

But. Though the general behaviour of the natural world (including us humans) can be predicted based on what happened before, the particulars of how it all plays out cannot. 

Try even pinning down the particulars of a single day, for goodness sake! Isn’t it supposed to be pretty much the same as the last one? Nothing has changed. Only it’s just the opposite. Nothing – not a single thing – is the same. Yesterday was infinitely different from today. My thoughts upon waking were different. The coffee I made for myself was different (damned mercurial milk steamer!) The words I typed were different. My mood that simmered all morning and flavoured every interaction I had with others was different. The people I met and the things they said were different. My kids when they came home from school were different. Even my physical body was different. I’ve sloughed off skin cells and stomach cells, have created new ones, I’ve breathed different molecules of air that each have their own unique history before they entered my body.

If we assume that, because the generalities of life are predictable and relatively stable, the details will also be, we are 1) incorrect, and 2) limiting ourselves. Assuming that what happened before will always determine what happens next can be stifling and even disempowering.

Next time life feels a bit narrow, and choices seem limited, lean out the window and have a look at the sky. It’s a mirror to our own possibilities. Ephemeral. Expansive. Limitless.

So. Maybe that’s why I have this fascination with the ever-changing clouds. (“Oh look at the colours now!” I will exclaim as I grab my phone and take another shot). I love the fact that everything cannot be pinned down, that there is an inherent newness to every moment. The cool thing is, each new photograph, and each new moment, is stunning in its uniqueness, breath-takingly beautiful in ways that could never have been predicted.

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