Finding a Separate World in the Stillness

CLOUD-WATCHING should be a required school subject. I try to recall the facts and figures poured into me as a student in a traditional public grammar school, but what I rest on in memory is the just-mowed grass of my front lawn where I'd spend hours on my back reading the sky.

Last summer, I sat under an East-Coast sky on a dry day. I turned my head slightly. In a nearby tree, a cardinal began to sing. How many times since my cousin pointed out the bird to me had I looked for the source of that sweet song?

I'd heard the melody while unloading the groceries, while sorting through materials for recycling, while watering the garden.

Sometimes the busyness of daily life encourages a numbness and speed that can dull the senses to beauty in the ordinary, to the necessity of stopping to locate a bird's song.

Often I'll walk by something again and again until I slow enough to notice it. It takes a certain stillness to find things that are close. It wasn't until I was quiet enough to watch clouds that I saw and heard the cardinal at the same time.

On dry days I'll see my children stretched out on the lawn. Their long slender legs cross and recross. It surprises me that my daughter, Hallie, who usually cartwheels her way across any surface longer than two or three feet, can be so quiescent.

ON a recent camping trip, my family laid sleeping bags side-by-side under a dark Idaho sky. It was a warm dry evening. No need for a tent.

The next morning, I woke to see another family who must have slipped into the camp well after we were sleeping. About 15 feet from me was a young boy. As far as I could see, he and I were the only two people awake in our vicinity.

It was so quiet that the sounds of the nearby river were magnified, and the steps of the roving Canada geese could be measured by the rustle of grass. Apparently the geese had moved close to us to feast on the remains of last night's dinner that had slid unnoticed under campground tables and chairs.

In a sleeping bag, even the slightest movement can cause a rustle that is magnified in silence. Yet the boy rested so still, his head cupped in his hands, that the only way I knew he was awake was that occasionally our eyes would meet.

We were quiet this way for close to half an hour.

Geese came within inches of his nose. He remained motionless. He never reached out or over to shake one of his brothers or sisters awake. He never appeared to move the muscles in his face. A fellow cloud-watcher.

A trailer door slammed. The geese dispersed. The boy looked over at me and smiled.

On the same camping trip, Hallie encouraged squirrels to nearly run over her shoes by assuming statue-like poses and admonishing me not to tend the fire or even turn the pages of a book.

``You'll scare them,'' she hissed.

I still work, as a parent, on not being defensive. But there are moments when remaining passive is just too hard.

``I know,'' I hissed back a bit sternly, ``about being still.''

Hallie rolled her eyes and looked away.

In the glove box of our car we keep (along with maps, pencils, tape, used birthday wrap - everything but gloves and mittens) small steno pads in case we run out of recycled paper napkins on which to write notes and reminders. These are the pads that often hold pieces of captured thoughts and observations.

OFTEN I'll ask my children to record something for me. Right now, they probably have the skills to be reporters.

Recently, though, Hallie appropriated one pad for herself. In the car, I'll glance over to see her tilted at an angle looking at the sky through the windshield. Sometimes she'll write about a configuration of clouds, but most often her observations are unrelated to what's above her.

She jots down what she sees peripherally. A recent list included the following: short grass, empty, farm, looked like a robin, no horns, Snake River, was beautiful. If I'd not been a cloud-watcher, I would have wondered how she saw all this in the sky. But, I felt kinship in Hallie's observations and her notes on apparently unrelated topics.

Watching clouds hasn't taught me more about clouds. I suspect this is also true of my children. Rather, it's helped me to keep still enough to see not only what is above me but everything else around as well.

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