When You See a Rainbow

The bike shorts didn’t fit. Don’t ask why.

I put them in the “when I’m thin” pile. Then I saw the rainbow dividing the eastern sky.

I went to the garage, hit the door opener and the cool afternoon breeze blew away the dank, oily, grimy odors from all the stuff that we would never put indoors.

Before me was an old Dahon fat tire two wheeler, my second folding bike. The first I got as a birthday present. A few months later it was stolen after I locked it to streetlamp in front of the Delancey Street Playhouse in Philadelphia’s posh Rittenhouse Square. I had ridden several miles from my safe, suburban house down through scary slums and nasty, broken streets so I could rehearse my minor role in a community theater production in which my 13-year-old son was co-starring.

Later that year he would go to New York City to audition. Then he would become an equity actor in a revival of a Neil Simon play that would rehearse and open in south Florida, playing Cocoanut Grove and Fort Lauderdale before returning for six weeks at Philadelphia’s Walnut Street Theater.

I would accompany him to New York and Florida and feel so proud when he took his bows at the end of every performance.

Then I would buy another identical Dahon folding bike that, a decade and a half later, looks just about the same, while its owner has thickened somewhat from the chest downward, had two heart attacks and gave up riding.

But strange things happen when you see a rainbow. You can feel like ancient people, who presumed that anything so beautiful must be special and divine–a gift, a signal, a sign.

I wore creased LL Bean full-lenth khaki trousers with one-inch cuffs, clunky black Merrill leather mocs, and a favorite blue-striped T-shirt.

The tires had enough air. I eased the bike out of the garage. The rear wheel’s snick-snick accused me of neglect.

I threw a leg over the bar, sat down, pressed on the pedal and took off.

My face divided the thick, late evening air. I hit the street that would normally be cluttered with rush hour parents returning from wherever they hunted and gathered, zoomed past the masked folks with their masked kids and unmasked dogs, heard the steady drone of fat tires on asphalt wet from the earlier cloudburst and returned to that moment from my childhood when we took the training wheels off my first two wheeler and I entered the transcendent state of speed.

I did the course I previously trudged in running shoes, with earphones and an ancient I-Pod. I glided up inclines that had seemed so signifcant as if they were mere variations in a path that was mine alone to enjoy.

I caught the scent of spring blossoms as my street came up. I was not sweating. I was not tired. I did not feel like a heart attack survivor, or a survivor of anything. I was just a guy on a bike having a great time being alive.

I asked myself if I should maintain my state of speed and prolong the ecstasy. Aging wisdom kicked in: don’t push yourself; it’s better to quit when you want more.

I rolled up the driveway and entered a garage that was no longer a dungeon for outdoor stuff.  It was a Bat Cave and I was Bat Man having returning to a world of an invisible, infinitesimal killer, in which people are suffering and dying and sacrificing everything they have to save lives.

But a world with enough rainbows for everyone, when we need them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Be Happy For This

For a moment, put the phone down. Turn the big screen off. Look away from the news. Reports of so many frightening, terrible, shameful things will be there when you return.

If you have kids, parents, friends close or far, and they’re okay, be happy for that.

If you have pets, and you have the food to feed them, a place to care for them and they don’t need the vet, be happy for that.

If you share your space with a loved one who is stressed out because working from home is still work, be happy that you can still love that person, even if it’s only to make a cup of tea for that person and leave that tea where they can see it.

If you have a roof over your head that doesn’t leak, hot water when you need it, cold water you can drink, doors and windows that you can open to let in a spring breeze and close to keep out a storm, be happy for that.

If you have an old shirt, sweater, pair of shoes or pants that just feel good when you wear them, be happy for that.

If you hear about someone being kind to another, be happy for that.

If you can finish the work you have been given, if you can put your kids to bed, wash the dishes, sit in a chair or sprawl out on your couch and do nothing for a few minutes, be happy for that.

If you have enough food in your house for a few days, be happy for that. When you go to the market and you find something you need, or something that would be so much fun to share, and you have enough money to buy it, take it home and serve it, be happy you can do it. Even if some don’t touch it, don’t like it and don’t know why you bought it, sharing food is a good thing to do.

If you go for a walk and people you don’t know on the other side of the street wave and ask you how you’re doing, and you can’t figure out how it is that those you’ve never met and probably never would, are so pleasant, be happy they are.

Maybe there’s something to being nice that makes it worthwhile.

If you see plants pushing up from the soil, if trees and flowers bloom and then push new leaves into the air, if some other thing you find suggests to you that being alive–as hard, scary and sad as it can be when too many people are struggling, suffering and dying–can have moments of incredible, astonishing, redemptive beauty, and you wonder why you didn’t notice it, or why you need to be reminded of it, just be happy that beauty got your attention, for a moment.

Find peace.

 

 

 

 

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I Thank You Kindly

I saw a recording of a speech given by Dr. Martin Seligman, a University of Pennsylvania professor and founder of the positive psychology field of study. I want to share an idea he suggested.

If you haven’t heard by now (and it’s surprising how many people haven’t), positive psychology differs from much of what was studied in the 20th century in that, instead of examining and devising therapies for mental illness and psychopathology, positive psychology asks such questions as, “What really makes people happy?” “Why do people stay happy?” “What has to happen for people to feel good at about who they are, the work do, the place where they live and those who surround them?”

Among the many things that came out of studies led by Dr. Seligman is the importance of gratitude as a practice, a habit and an expression of value.

Many religions incorporate some kind of gratitude practice in prayers, ritual, and regular worship. The effect of sacred and secular gratitude practice might as well be the same: you look around and acknowledge that who you are, where you are and how you’re feeling right now have a lot to do people, places and things around you that you tend not to notice that often.

Do this often enough and the grumbles and grievances and, perhaps, inconveniences, if not downright disasters and unforeseen losses, are complicated by a certainty that, even in the worst conditions, things are not as bad as they seem.

I’m reminded here of Dorothy Day, the journalist and social activist who, when asked why she could remain so positive through a life of challenge, conflict and struggle, she merely replied, “Too much beauty.”

It can be hard to see the beauty when you’re seriously ill, you’ve recently lost a loved one, you’re fired from a job for no fault of your own,  you’ve made a mistake that has harmed someone or you’re just plain lonely on a Saturday night. Gratitude practice reminds you of that beauty not only exists but that it is possibly more varied and prevalent than you thought.

Seeing beauty, even in the worst circumstances, doesn’t hurt and can provide a moment of relief that can give us the strength to find our way to a health, healing and happiness.

Gratitude can become a habit through practice and daily affirmations. A positive psychology study in a nursing home revealed that residents lived longer, had better social lives, were better at coping with change and needed fewer doctor visits when they kept a diary, or used some other daily reminder of the things for which they were grateful.

G.K. Chesterton, a witty English writer best known for his Father Brown mystery series, linked gratitude to the identification and appreciation of the sense of wonder, which, he believed, was the essence of the religious experience.

For Chesterton, the sense of wonder was a great, big, continuous wow! The path to this wow wasn’t as easy as looking up at golden sunlight or fireworks in the sky because, as Chesterton often acknowledged, the English sky is mostly overcast, wet, gloomy and gray. He advised that we should accept gray skies and other kinds of limitation with humility and rediscover our childhood innocence in the warmth of a room, the glow of a candle, laughter and the joy of good food and friends.

Gratitude as an expression of value is not about what makes us special, unique or worthy of privilege and good fortune. It is the recognition of the importance of gifts, obvious and subtle, that sustain us, whether or not we have done anything to deserve them.

Which brings me to an exercise Dr. Seligman mentioned, the gratitude testimonial. Students were asked to think of a living person who made a significant, positive contribution to their lives. The nature of that contribution was open to broad interpretation. What mattered was that the students’ lives were made better because of what that person did.

Students then composed a speech about how this person changed their lives, thus compelling them to review that event and bring forward from the past a moment (or more) for which they were grateful.

That was only part of the assignment. After completing the speech, students found the address of that person’s residence, office or place of business, and (presumably when classes weren’t meeting), traveled there. Without making an appointment or warning that person in any way, showed up, asked politely to see that person and then, when that person was within earshot, read their speech to that person.

What did this accomplish?

First, students had to do a gratitude survey in which they usually came up with more than one person, thereby enriching their appreciation of the many people who had helped them, or had been a gift in some way. They had to prioritize their selections and choose one that was reasonably accessible.

Second, the act of putting a person’s contribution into words had the same effect as writing a journal or memoir. It brought a memory into the present and framed it in light of the student’s current understanding and education.

Third, the pilgrimage introduce an element of risk. We can imagine many ways in which gaining access may be problematic, and reciting the speech may lead to confusion, embarrassment, impatient foot-tapping from the person’s nearest and dearest, and that disquieting moment when this person admits to having no memory of you, and can’t recall ever doing what you’re grateful for.

Seligman said that the exercise ended up being beneficial for both the student and the person in ways that neither could predict.

And it made both rather happy, for a few minutes and more.

This said, I want to thank you for reading this. I believe that kind attention paid to another’s efforts furthers that effort in vital ways. This happened when I was a young writer and couldn’t wait to show my girlfriend what I had come up with that day.

Today, that girlfriend is my wife and I still show her what I’ve written. She is my muse, my inspiration and my best friend.

What if the reader and the writer never meet, or share a word across cyberspace?

For a moment, let’s be grateful for those whose words, however we found them, were exactly those we needed to read.

Thank you very much.

 

 

 

 

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Cancer Free

Four months have passed since my wife’s last cancer examination. I was apprehensive as we drove to the doctor’s office. My wife was cheery, as always.

After a brief examination, he pronounced her, once again, cancer free. We celebrated with a big breakfast at a nearby bagel shop. Then she dropped me off at home and, before she continued on to her work, we agreed we had much for which to be grateful, and thankful.

I looked around for someone to thank but just saw trees with leaves beginning to turn color, a bright blue sky marked with squadrons of birds heading toward their southern time shares, a gentle breeze and a rising air temperature that inspired me to open the windows and let it all in.

I thought back on some of G.K. Chesterton’s advice for living.

1. The most important, beautiful and redemptive thing in life is the sense of wonder. There is no shortage of miracles and we only have ourselves to blame if we don’t notice them and be grateful for them.

2. In order to appreciate the miraculous nature of our lives, we must adopt a humble attitude about ourselves and our place in the world.

3. Terrible, awful, unfair things will happen. These events will move us to anger and despair. We must not delude ourselves about our feelings. Nor should we pretend, rationalize or fail to see these events as anything other than what they are: terrible, awful, dreadful things. But we may consider that the miraclous nature of life, whether or not it can be explained adequately, remains, and that, no matter how terrible our situation seems, we can strive to identify and appreciate the wonderful things that find us, comfort us, restore our spirits and bring us joy.

So, though it appears one of our cherished trees is dying, I am grateful for the others that are blooming in this beautiful autumn.

I thank the sky overhead for a color that suggests infinite possibility.

I wish the birds luck on their journey.

I welcome a breeze, perhaps connected to a fearful storm in another part of the country, into my home, as an honored guest.

And, despite a persistent, spasming pain in my knee, I took the dog out for several walks. We met dogs she likes. The other dog walkers agreed with me that it was a pleasant day.

My wife is cancer free.

Thank you, thank you, thank you.

 

 

 

 

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