As I was driving out of town for the weekend, a rainbow appeared. A broad stroke of color and beauty that crossed the boundaries of the sky, it caused me to try and figure out where the sky begins and where it ends.
My young daughter had been chirping about rainbows all summer, and I was thrilled to open the car windows and call out to her, “Emma, Emma, look, there’s a rainbow.”
Her gasp filled the car with joy as she inhaled, “Mommy, Mommy, it’s my first rainbow ever, I’ve never even seen a rainbow before.”
Her older brother, trying not to be impressed, leaned forward and they began to follow it, first on this side of the car, then on that side of the car. We opened the moon roof and, still, the rainbow lingered until the sun finally set and we all relaxed into our chatter about rainbows.
On the trip home, our journey again in the rain, we sat in traffic, caught in gridlock, watching the signal change and going nowhere. As a man walked back and forth along the side of the road, my daughter asked, “Mommy, what does that man want?”
“He wants money.”
“Why don’t you give him some?”
This is a boundary where I falter every time. I want to open the window and hand over a few dollars, a Clif Bar or a banana we never got to while there was junk food in the car. Every time I am overcome by guilt and a feeling of how much we have as I sit there in our car filled with food and clothing, as we drive to our home in the suburbs. But my policy is, and has always been, what I tell my children, “I never give money directly to people who ask me for it, but we give to organizations that help people who have a need.”
My daughter responds, “Well, I feel sorry for him. What does his sign say?”
“Good man down.
Thank you. God bless.”
I watch Charles walk away and toward his things — a red blanket covers a lumpy pile, perhaps another person, and I notice that Charles has three signs, all written in black paint with wide brush strokes on a white board. I am drawn to him and his hand-drawn signs, perhaps it’s the writer in him, his multiple copies or his need to validate himself as a good person.
I tell my daughter, I want to give the man something but I can’t give money to everyone who asks. This is the city and there are people in need everywhere and we get approached almost daily, sometimes multiple times in one day. A dollar or two isn’t going to solve anybody’s problems, and then I start to get more theoretical and philosophical than a 5-year-old cares to understand.
A few days later, it occurs to me to ask my daughter, “Where do rainbows come from?”
She answers me, “God made rainbows.”
This afternoon when I stopped to buy gas, I thought of my daughter’s convictions while reading Wordsworth,
My heart leaps up when I behold
a rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So it is now that I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
or let me die!
The child is father of the Man;
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.
And I have no idea what it all means, why I read poetry at the gas station that causes thoughts to come to me in parallel images, brushstrokes of rainbows and of black paint on a white board. I don’t want to admit that maybe my daughter is right, if Charles needs money, maybe I should just give him some.
But today, driving home from out of town, there was no rain, there were no rainbows and Charles wasn’t there.