the rainbow sign

Posted by on March 11, 2008

While putting Esme down for her nap today I sang Kermit the Frog’s rainbow song. Actually, I don’t know the title, only that it begins by asking the question: Why are there so many songs about rainbows?

If there are a lot of songs about rainbows, I’ve never heard them. I only know the one Judy Garland made famous, and that as a child it made me imagine a little box of Lemonheads (the candy) sitting on top of a hot chimney, melting into a sticky mass. Perhaps there are some long-forgotten rainbow songs from Vacation Bible School having to do with Noah. I can’t recall.

We spent Jeff’s spring break in Tennessee with his parents. My friend Lisa usually drives the short way from her home in Atlanta to come see me while I’m there, and she came again last week, bringing me her old juicer, and a canvas bag with magazines about raw food living, a spiral bound calendar with a story of an Orthodox saint’s life for each day, and some boxes of steel-cut oatmeal that her mom left at her house. Esme and I ate some of the oatmeal for breakfast this morning, with currents and almonds thrown in. I had to puree Esme’s portion in the food processor so she could have the almonds.

Today is the second day of Lent, and already something has changed cosmically, as it always does, and I mean that without exaggeration. For me, Lent always introduces the notion of a coming blossom, hidden and not-yet, present through anticipation. Interestingly though, I cannot access this cosmic blossomy feeling until Lent is actually here, and until it arrives, I doubt, and wonder if this year it will falter; I downright refuse to expect it. In February, the hidden quality of resurrection felt absolute to me. Its hidden quality seemed equal to nonexistence– not the same as hidden-but-eminent. I could not sense the end of the flu season, overcast skies, ice-crusted windshield wipers, and the fallen nature of everything, near and far. I knew that spring would have to eventually come, but could not seem to access the hope of its intervention. But a change came rapidly on the very first day of Lent and I could sense the sureness of the alteration.

I am not sure why, after nine years of Lent, its real efficacy, as well as its being bound up with spring irrespective of the movable date of Easter, continues to surprise me.

The trees I see continue to appear as nondescript sticks, but I have managed to renew my faith in their inner-leaves. Meteorologists are saying that the Aurora Borealis can now be seen: an official sign of spring. I cite this to prove that this alteration appears to be cosmic and not merely one of my own fantasy. If a sign of spring can be seen in the arctic circle, then it can be seen anywhere.

Indiana is still cold but the day I spent with Lisa in Tennessee was warm enough for us to lay beach towels on the spongy grass and lay there looking directly up at the sky. It was a remarkable thing to be doing, but our conversation was actually quite somber. The blue dome above us looked higher than I have seen it in ages. An airplane I spotted was the smallest silver splinter, sneaking past the entire region soundlessly. The clouds were the kind that move and change quickly, as if someone was dragging a large rake over them, so they were interesting to watch. Then, we saw an inexplicable rainbow fragment posted in that same hidden region, like a stain, fading out then coming back in with relative permanency, though the whole sky around it was bright blue with white going hither and tither. There had been no rain or even humidity, so it wasn’t a rainbow sort of day, according to my prior experience with rainbows.

And we were most likely the only ones in town who saw it– because you would almost have had to be lying on grass in the middle of an ordinary work day, gazing at a ninety degree angle into obscure altitudes.

On our drive back to Indiana, I saw another unlikely rainbow created behind a semi as it kicked up the puddles of melted snow over the highways of Kentucky. It followed gloriously behind a mud flap, again with a seeming mid-air permanency and stillness, despite the transient action of mud and salt all around. In the midst of all this taking note of rainbows, I perked up when I heard a Pete Seeger song on the radio whose lyrics said,

God gave Noah the rainbow sign,
No more water but fire next time.

I started at that line. I guess rainbows are not all about sentimental promises and three cheers for humanity. Lent is similar, because I spend half of it feeling like a jar of homegrown sprouts waiting to spring in a sunny windowsill and the other half thinking about what it will be like on the withering Day of Judgment. Somehow the Lenten season in the Orthodox Church holds all of this together perfectly, and for that I love it. It comes as a perfect relief, an intervention, a sign, a shift, bigger than me yet graciously containing me and including me in its cosmic proportions.

  1. Jenny
    March 13, 2008


    This is a lovely lenten post. For me, lent has started with a bang–all I want to do is eat, eat, eat, which distresses me. What does this inordinate desire have to do with lent?

  2. Alyssa
    March 13, 2008

    I’m a midwesterner transplanted out to Portland, OR and even though I can’t deny I do enjoy daffodils in February…part of me will always feel homesick for the long, slow thaw of spring that I came to associate with Lent in my childhood. Have you ever heard the easter hymn that begins “Now the green blade rises from the buried grain”? I don’t think it’s a hymn that’s sung very often, but I’m guessing that’s because it’s a sort of song you can only really understand if you’re from, say, rural Wisconsin (or Indiana) ๐Ÿ™‚

  3. anna j
    March 13, 2008

    Lovely reminder Julia–and a delight to hear that you feel that lifting of the spirits. I especially smile at the beautiful picture of you and Lisa laying there in the grass ๐Ÿ™‚

  4. Julia
    March 14, 2008

    Thanks, you all.

    Alyssa, I love the words to that hymn. It did occur to me that the church year would feel totally different in the southern hemisphere or other regions where the weather doesn’t follow this pattern. I guess it would develop its own rhythms and associations depending on where you live.