I can’t remember the very first time I saw a rainbow, but I remember the first time a rainbow made me stop, mid-trek, and catch my breath. It was my first of two trips to Europe. I was fifteen and hiking with some new-found friends in Northern Italy. There was a clearing, and up above the most vivid, striking rainbow my southern-American eyes had ever laid upon. It curved in a miles-high arch, each end disappearing behind lush mountain evergreens. Every band of color popped, emanating an unmitigated saturation that did not bleed into the other. I must have stood there with my mouth wide open for minutes.
I grew up going to church on Sundays and Wednesdays at a Church of Christ—very strict, puritanical, and God-fearing. It was because of that church I was introduced to the very people who would lead me on that unforgotten trip to Europe. But it was also that church that made me question the very existence of rainbows. In their doctrine, as they gathered from the King James version of the Bible, rainbows were a gift to man. God had created a great storm that had flooded the lands and killed everyone except Noah and his boat-load of animals. Because God was sorry for being such an asshole (my words, not the church’s), he would provide his disciples and worshipers the gift of a rainbow after each rain so they would forgive him, and remember to build a damn ark the next time he said a flood was a comin’! Actually, it was a symbol pledging he would not destroy the earth with water a second time. Hmmm, sort of a morbid thought to have in the back of your brain while standing in awe of such a natural beauty.
If you listen to science instead, a rainbow is an arc of light separated into bands of parallel stripes that appear when the sun’s rays are refracted and reflected by drops of mist or rain. Still more explanations, the Greeks believed it was a sign from the gods to foretell war or heavy rain. Native Americans presumed that arc of light to be a bridge between life and death. And the old saying that a pot of gold lies at the end of the rainbow came from the lucky mouths of the Irish.
After my beloved dog Napoleon died back in 2003 the vet sent a sympathy card along with his ashes. In the card was a poem titled “Rainbow Bridge”. It speaks of a place “just this side of heaven” where an animal goes that has been especially close to someone on Earth. At Rainbow Bridge pets are “made whole and strong again, just as we remember them in our dreams of days and times gone by.” Every time I read that poem I bawl like a baby. Strangely I had witnessed a rainbow just a couple days after Napo died and before receiving that card. The rainbow I witnessed looked just like a bridge, each short arc ending in a puffy, white cloud high in the late summer sky. I’d never seen one like it before. I continued seeing them almost every week for months after that.
There have been other instances when a rainbow has presented itself to me at opportune times, like after spending an afternoon with a dear friend, thinking of someone long gone, or needing a lift during a trying day.
Even Kermit the frog waxes mystical about rainbows, in the song “Rainbow Connection” from 1979’s The Muppet Movie. “Someday we’ll find it” he muses after he questions the meaning of rainbows, and whether they are just illusions, although in the next few lines he reveals he doesn’t quite believe that. Kermit and The Muppets were a big part of my childhood. I was in my bedroom getting ready for another grueling day of high school when I heard on the radio that Jim Henson had died. The DJ immediately played that banjo-infused melody and I cranked my boom-box’s volume to ten. My mom and brother came into my room and we clutched each other and cried and swayed. That moment, for me, symbolized the death of what was a long, innocent girlhood.
No matter where on this rock you are from, what religion you do or don’t practice, your heritage, or what movies you adored as a child, that beaming spectrum of colors in the sky cannot be denied. I don’t believe it to be a remorseful gift, but a sign and science. And whether you believe the sign and the science came from God is yours to own. To me rainbows connect them all, and every one of us. As Kermit would sing, “the lovers, the dreamers, and me.”