A small thunderstorm passed by overhead. A few raindrops darkened the pavement of the road and the sidewalk. Twenty minutes later, another small thunderstorm, a few more raindrops. The sun came out in the west, and I decided to take a walk.
A few raindrops were still falling as I stepped outside. The sun was shining brightly, and I looked up at the dark clouds to the east, and there was the rainbow. Rainbows have been co-opted by feel-good New Agers, and adopted by nine-year-old girls, but the rainbow I saw was not the kind that gets painted on tchotchkes or printed on decals.
The rainbow was brighter towards the ground, but even at its brightest it did not look like something substantial or corporeal. It was sublime:– both in the sense of a solid thing that turns immediately to vapor, and in the sense of an experience that can overwhelm our rational selves. The rainbow changed with the changing light, it was both part of and separate from the clouds, and as the storm clouds moved farther away it faded, beginning at the top, and ending with the lower leftmost or southern end. Of course the rainbow brought to my mind the promise made by Yahweh in the Hebrew Bible, a promise which sounds hollow in light of the promise of global climate change. Then I thought of Iris, the messenger of the Olympian gods and goddesses, who was also the rainbow:– the rainbow as the messenger of that which is transcendent. Iris does not always bring good news, but she always brings something of great importance:
On this Iris fleet as the wind went forth to carry his message. Down she plunged into the dark sea midway between Samos and rocky Imbrus; the waters hissed as they closed over her, and she sank into the bottom as the lead at the end of an ox-horn, that is sped to carry death to fishes. She found Thetis sitting in a great cave with the other sea-goddesses gathered round her; there she sat in the midst of them weeping for her noble son who was to fall far from his own land, on the rich plains of Troy. [Iliad, Book XXIV, 77 ff., trans. Samuel Butler]
In twenty minutes, after I had walked a little more than a mile, it was gone. During all that time, I did not notice anyone else looking up at the rainbow.