“I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now
From up and down, and still somehow
It’s cloud illusions I recall
I really don’t know clouds at all”
—Joni Mitchell, “Both Sides Now”
When I was a child, I thought clouds were soft and fluffy like cotton balls or a down comforter. I imagined stretching out on a cloud, and I thought it would feel like a soft bed. I half-believed I could touch the clouds. Even now, when I know they are composed of water droplets and far beyond my reach, I still half-believe I can reach up and grab a piece of cotton candy cloud.
Our lives are filled with illusions—and only some are the optical type. In a dinner discussion a few nights, my younger daughter commented that she always found the villain in TV shows, movies, and plays to be much more interesting both to watch and to perform. I think that is often true. Very often in fiction, the villains get the interesting lines and the more complex back-stories. They get to be fun instead of righteous.
The most interesting fictional heroes are flawed. I like characters and stories in which people and the choices they make are not black and white. In John Le Carre’s elegant Cold War masterpieces, for example, the lies and half-truths of various governments are echoed in George Smiley’s personal life, and in the lives of many people he encounters.
In real life, I suspect few people know people who are always good and always right. Life is seldom that uncomplicated. Was it wrong for Jean Valjean to steal a loaf a bread to feed his sister’s hungry children? Yes, Inspector Javert says. Stealing is stealing, and there can be no straying from the legal road of right and wrong. Morally, however, was it wrong to steal to feed hungry children? That is
the type of question that most people have to decide on their own.
Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther novels feature a homicide detective/private detective in WWII era Berlin and in the immediate post-War period. Gunther is not a Nazi—he despises them–but he sometimes works for them to solve murders and find missing persons. Of course, since there is no lack of either in this time and place, he always has work. He is cynical, and not always likeable, but he is a truly interesting character, the hard-boiled detective transposed to 1930s and 1940s Germany.
In the TV show The Walking Dead, the most interesting thing to me, is how the characters have had to evolve. Their world has changed, and each one of them must decide what he or she will do to survive in it. They must watch out for zombies all the time, but they also have to decide when to help and trust other humans. (I realize many people, if not most, watch the show only to see blood, guts, and gore, but I would be fine without viewing any of that.) Similarly, the young protagonists of Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games trilogy and Julianna Baggott’s Pure trilogy must fight against the morally corrupt governments of their dystopian worlds without becoming corrupted themselves.
In the real world, even those of us not living in war zones or battling zombies must still make daily decisions about right and wrong and how we want to live our lives. In the novels of our lives, we choose to be the heroes or the villains. We may be flawed, but we can still try to be good, while remaining interesting. I can only speak for myself. In my own life, I want my daughters to be as proud of me, as I am of them.
I truly want to believe that most people are good, and that a rainbow will appear after a thunderstorm if I only keep looking for it.
“In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at
heart. I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of
confusion, misery, and death. I see the world gradually being turned
into a wilderness, I hear the ever approaching thunder, which will
destroy us too, I can feel the sufferings of millions and yet, if I look
up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right, that this
cruelty too will end, and that peace and tranquility will return again.”
We decide what illusions we want to accept and which battles we want to fight. And we dream–because
what would we do without imagination? Who has not looked at the clouds and wondered–if only?
For those who really enjoy clouds, I discovered there is a Cloud Appreciation Society.