The Cloud Library, booklet for Fries Museum Leeuwarden
The cloud library
Another morning and once again, little by little I stretch out my rather stiff eighty-one-year-old legs, I walk outside, spread a blanket on the ground where I carefully lie down and watch the clouds. If it rains I open the door of the shed and rest my head on the doorstep, where my hair gets just a little wet but I can still see the clouds. I prefer to look upwards, since my husband died. I count the clouds, when five proper cotton wool clouds drift by in twenty minutes, he looks at me. Eight long, thin wispy clouds work just as well. It’s not easy counting clouds; sometimes the one is barely distinguishable from the other. And on some days a grey mist colours the sky into one big surface. Then he’s forgotten me for a moment. My husband lies under the ground, and yet I seek him in the clouds.
I don’t really know what to do with my life. My spiritual friend gave me a voucher for a free ‘toe reading’ consultation. Do your toes have life lines too, do fungus nails and calluses have a meaning? I make an appointment for Monday morning at half ten. Warily I park my electric bicycle in the stone front garden of the house, where tulle curtains bedecked with suns hang in the windows. A woman, still young, with hair too dark opens the door and shows me inside. She goes to make coffee for me. The small room is full of black things, an imitation leather sofa, a flat television screen and a computer with a black printer beside it. It smells of old cigarette smoke, like in hotel rooms where the odour can no longer be removed by airing alone. For the rest, the room is dominated by a mural of a sea view with classical pillars on either side. The vivid blue sea collides with the hazy sky at a sharp-edged, dead straight line. She serves water in a glass with a green base and a thin film floats on the coffee.
While sitting on a low stool directly in front of me, she stares intently at my feet, which are still glowing from a scalding footbath. ‘Lovely feet, yes, beautiful feet. Emotions, intuition, creativity, everything in balance. You must have a good life.’ Long toes indicate wide interests. Toes are transmitters and receivers, and mine stand nice and open in the world. Without even touching my feet she tells me my truth from the position of my toes. My toe whisperer does suggest that I stand up during telephone conversations to bring my big toe more into contact with the earth; it tends to whip up off the ground slightly.
Why aren’t my toes bowed and pointing to the ground, to the rich black clay in which the worms nibble on my husband? Then I could send a message into the earth with my perfect transmitter feet. Anyway, apparently I’m in better shape than I realize.
I decide to take her advice and head up north for a while. In the Tourist Information Guide I find an address in Aldeboarn where I can stay in a converted barn behind the house. Elba, it’s called, a resort for exiles, persona non grata. I depart.
The pinewood house is light and spacious. There are crystals to purify the air and the walls are covered in pictures of dolphins. The wife, the ex, of the man who rented me the room, used to have her practice here, a therapy based on contact with dolphins. ‘In the middle of Friesland?’ ‘Yes, believe it or not, she could tell you all about it’, but she’s gone, the sentence continued in his head. Friesland is a lonely-man’s-land, like Amsterdam is the abandoned-wife-capital. In the house I happen upon all sorts of letters that talk about letting go and that caring is not the same thing as supporting, that we especially mustn’t get those mixed up. It saddens me that an act of kindness for someone else has to be so dissected.
When I sit at the table I look out over the fields and every evening the sun shades the sky red and yellow, in the daytime the sky is bright blue, which makes the cloud counting easier. To pass the time I cycle through the landscape with its flat line in the distance. Here in the vastness, the immensity above our heads, the clouds retreat to the edges of the firmament, almost touching the ground with their blurry bellies. I cycle and lose my way constantly. The Friesians live with the landscape, they don’t make a map of it in their minds, on countless occasions they look at me all bewildered when I ask for directions. Hmm, now how shall I explain that? But fortunately I enjoy meandering.
The houses here have names like Bankrupt, The Last Penny, Beyond All Hope and then suddenly Amor vincit omnia. Love conquers all. Church spires peak in the landscape. Every village has its own little cemetery surrounded by a hedge. I rest my bicycle up against the gate, walk around a bit and read the names on the immaculately clean-washed headstones. No moss, no scale. It must be just as messy below the ground as it is tidy above it. A man rakes the stones off the grass. He wears a white paper overall stripped off to the waist and hanging down. ‘Hallo.’ Douwe shows me the mole tunnels and the places where he needs to set the traps. They excavate the stones with their tunnelling. ‘Every so often we dig up a grave. We keep the bones in that shed, but if we find a skull we rebury it, but then at the foot end of the grave.’ For the rest he sprays the liverwort and purple loosestrife with a mixture of acid and soapsuds. Liverwort is a type of succulent that spreads insidiously if you don’t do something about it. And while loosestrife is essential for the Melitta nigricans bee, they’d rather not have it here. ‘Goodbye’, I say. And pedal off into the wind, constantly heading for the horizon. ‘The ultimate painting is like the horizon that never gets any nearer. Perhaps it is an illusion.’ The ‘perhaps’ in this sentence by Willem van Althuis occupies my mind.
In Franeker I see the marvel of a ceiling sawn into rings, just as blue as the sky outside, that precisely describe the planetary system. Amateur astronomer Eise Eisinga wanted to show his contemporaries that the world was not about to end, the pastor predicted that the earth would slip out of its orbit and be pulled into the sun. He made this motorized model of the starry heavens, which is still powered by the mechanism fixed firmly to the floor of his attic with ten thousand nails.
Heaven is an odd wide-ranging word, the ethereal of the eternal rest and what we see created above our heads at night, the darkness with its stars and planets, or the nebulous wisps and clouds in the boundless blue. The clouds, according to the Bible, are ‘the dust of His feet’. The breath of God breathes over us but today he appears to have been eating kippers. The weather is breaking. The sky turns dark and overcast, shrinks in upon itself, hangs lower above our heads. One by one, the souls that gather in the clouds over Friesland slowly glide to the ground, drop by drop. I go outside to lie in the grass and catch them all.
‘Welcome misses’, says a voice from behind the hedge. Would you like to come in? Coffee? Clouds and coffee, yes, please. All around the white plaster walls, hung on nails, are pieces of string, wool, jute, and leather and shoelaces in all different colours, materials and lengths. Each with a hand-written date beside it. Big spools of thread, string and wool lie on the floor. Further it is empty and unadorned, a large writing desk stands by the window, which looks out across the green pastures. On the adjacent wall hangs a large map of the province of Friesland covered in pushpins, and a few Post-its with vague calculations. Willem is Friesian, a geologist, artist, teacher and lover of cinnamon bread. He is obsessed by the horizon. In Friesland the landscape rolls out in front of you in all directions, it is inescapable. The horizon is ever present. ‘So I’ll often tuck a piece of string in my trouser pocket, one that suits my frame of mind, wide, thin, coloured, flaxy string or fishing line, or even a piece of wire. Then I select a distance in kilometres, by setting a number between zero and eighty – the maximum distance from here to the furthest border of the province – and decide a wind direction with a spinning arrow. Then I set off with a compass and the piece of string and try to get as close to that spot as possible. Once I arrive I stretch out my arms and lay that piece of string precisely on the horizon. That piece between my arms is comprehensible, for a moment I have the horizon on a human scale, a moment of contact. The string traces a line between above and below, a shimmering line because the thread is seldom taut and unmoving. And then, sometimes, briefly, I grasp the immeasurable, the all-embracing. But the moment of searching is just as wonderful, then I’m already imagining holding the string up to the horizon. It’s a pointless gesture really, but it grips you once you’ve started. The way I look at things has changed because of it, my eyes are constantly searching the horizon, slightly above it, slightly below. The shimmering of the horizon, that’s what it’s all about.’ Willem takes an orange-coloured piece of string off a nail and hands it to me, I tuck it into my trouser pocket. ‘It’s the landscape that makes us Friesians such recluses, the vastness brings peace, you don’t need people so much.’
Yes, I am also more self-contained, as I heave against the day with hunched shoulders, specks of contentment appear. My granddaughter calls me. ‘How’s grandma today?’ I tell her about my encounter with the clouds. But I tell her nothing of the encounter with my neighbour.
That evening I place a small table outside and draw a cloud. Goethe loved clouds too. During his trip to Italy (from 1816 to 1817) he accurately and obsessively noted his impressions so as not to forget them and to talk of them. He apologizes ‘when it is about sky and clouds again’. At the end of his journey Goethe realizes that ultimately he is travelling for his own benefit, to become a better person. ‘Keine Kunst ist’s, alt zu werden; es ist Kunst, es zu ertragen.’ The piece of string frays contentedly in my trouser pocket, today I measured the horizon.
Against the boundlessness of the day, when the wind blows the thoughts from my mind, the night grows dark, the kind of darkness that creeps in through the chinks and cracks and fills the room. The darkness frightens me, it presses itself upon me and encircles me like an ill-fitting helmet. My thoughts must have to remain inside. ‘At night I see so many visions of fine paintings that I barely sleep at all’, writes Van Althuis. I too cannot sleep. During the night I relive the past and that makes me happy, but I also want to sleep. Five days after my encounter with Willem I wake early after a restless night. Outside the night wavers. From a chair I look out across the fields, everything is sunken in a grey mist, I can almost touch the horizon with my hand. The trees, the houses, the spire are all dissolved in the haze, above and below are no longer separate. The clouds reach down and stroke the ground. They embrace, the heavens and the earth. The whitish grey makes everything uniform and brings to me the same world that also continues on endlessly, a huge realization comes crashing down, that the conjuring game of life is the same as the illusion of a painting; the truth about the truth is forever absent. The mist in the landscape, which frays the edges and brings all things together, renders the world motionless in utter calm. I remain sitting there until the sun rises and the mist clears. Goodnight dear husband.
Ook deze ochtend strek ik mijn wat stramme eenentachtigjarige benen beetje bij beetje uit, ik loop naar buiten, leg een deken neer waar ik voorzichtig op ga liggen en kijk naar de wolken. Als het regent dan doe ik de deur van de schuur open en leg mijn hoofd op de drempel waardoor mijn haren net een beetje nat worden maar ik toch de wolken kan zien. Sinds mijn man is overleden kijk ik het liefst omhoog. Ik tel de wolken, als er binnen twintig minuten vijf echte wattenbollen voorbij drijven dan kijkt hij naar mij. Acht lange dunne sliertwolken mag ook. Wolken tellen valt niet mee, soms is de een nauwelijks te onderscheiden van de ander. En op sommige dagen is er een grijze nevel die de hemel tot één groot vlak kleurt. Dan is hij me even vergeten. Mijn man ligt onder de grond, toch zoek ik hem in de wolken.
Tegenover het onbegrensde van de dag waarin de wind mijn hoofd leeg waait, duistert de nacht, het donker dat door spleten en kieren naar binnen kruipt en de kamer vult. Het donker maakt me bang, het dringt zich aan me op en omhult me als een helm die klemt. Mijn gedachten moeten binnen blijven. ‘’s Nachts zie ik veel visioenen van mooie schilderijen zodat er niet veel van slapen komt,’ schreef Van Althuis. Ook ik kan niet slapen. Tijdens de nacht herleef ik het verleden en dat maakt me gelukkig, maar ik zou toch ook best willen slapen. Vijf dagen na mijn ontmoeting met Willem ben ik na een rommelige nacht vroeg wakker. Buiten wankelt de nacht. Op een stoel kijk ik uit over de weilanden, alles is in een grijze mist weggezakt, met mijn hand kan ik de horizon bijna aanraken. De bomen, de huizen, de torenspits zijn opgelost in nevel, boven en beneden zijn niet meer gescheiden. De wolken zakken naar beneden om het land te betasten. Ze omhelzen elkaar, de hemel en de aarde. Het witachtige grijs maakt alles gelijk en brengt de wereld naar me toe die ook oneindig verder gaat, een groot besef dondert naar beneden, dat het goochelspel van het leven gelijk is aan de illusie van een schilderij, de waarheid over de waarheid is altijd afwezig. De nevel in het landschap, die de randen doet oplossen en alles naar elkaar toe trekt, legt de wereld stil in volkomen rust. Ik blijf zitten tot de zon opkomt en de nevel vertrekt. Welterusten lieve man.