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Friday, January 25, 2013

Just a Rainbow


One cold weekday morning in November, 2004, I was just stepping out of the shower when the little voice told me, unequivocally, "You have to go outside right now." Exactly those words. Emphatic. No explanation, and no debate.

I've never heard that before. Since that day, I've never heard that message again. "You have to go outside right now."

I'm a little bit O-C: obsessive compulsive. I have a routine I must complete before leaving the apartment: hair brushed, nails filed, bag packed, weather report checked, clothes selected to fit the forecast, apartment scanned – is there anything I need to turn on or off before I leave? To make matters worse, I had just washed my hair, and it was still wet.

I obey the little voice.

Force hand: put comb down. Hurry up feet, no time for socks: slip on flip-flops. Drag long coat over pajamas. Turn knob on door. Open door. Walk out. Close door. Lock.

My hair a wet tangle, with no further instructions from the little voice, I walked to the Paterson Falls, after Niagara, the second largest waterfall east of the Mississippi River.

Wow. Wow.

The biggest and most perfect rainbow I've ever seen in my life stretched over the Falls. It began in West Paterson and fell on the hill on the opposite side of the Falls. An artist would never paint it; it was too perfect, it was too gigantic, to appear real.

The rainbow was formed by the rising sun coming through the morning mist. I walk past the falls regularly. I'd never seen that effect before or since.

I used to wallow in beauty when I lived in Nepal, where it was served up on heaping platters. I'd round a bend in a mountain trail and there, splayed out against the sky, would be Himalayan peak after Himalayan peak, pink in dawn light, or golden alpenglow.

In Paterson I live in manmade ugliness, an ugliness sanctioned by my neighbors, who have decided that it is right and proper to throw garbage on the street, to beat children on the street, to urinate and defecate on the street, and then to sleep in a drug-induced stupor on the street. In this age of non-biodegradable apocalypses, I find reconciliation with the sad fact that I never had kids.

Here, dancing across the sky, was some of the finest and most arresting beauty I'd ever seen, in Paterson.

Water commission workmen laid down their tools and stared, as did pedestrian commuters. We normally don't talk to each other here. We assume each other to be beggars, drug dealers, hostile or crazy. The rainbow – something ineffable – sliced right through our toughest defenses as if it were a blade and we were cans. We on the sidewalk spilled out to each other, white to black to Hispanic to Muslim. Wow, we said, wow. We smiled like babies. We smiled as if we were looking at babies.

I resolved to stay there as long as the rainbow lasted. Feh. It outlasted me. I was there an hour, I think, and I finally left, the rainbow still in the sky.

What brings this rainbow to mind today is a post on facebook. Sridhar Govindarajan mentioned that he'd always wanted to see a shooting star, and he felt a prodding at 3:30 one morning to go outside. He did go outside, and he saw a shooting star.

Small things. Rainbows. Shooting stars.

When I was engaging in the debate with the prominent atheist I write about in "Save Send Delete" we had this conversation over and over.

He would say: there is only material reality. There is nothing beyond what you can see, touch, hear, smell, taste, measure, replicate in a lab experiment.

And I would not be convinced. I would not be convinced at least partly because of moments like that described above.