Sunday, April 8, 2012

Impossible Colors

We use the word "light" to describe the relatively tiny part in the center of the electromagnetic spectrum that can be detected by the human eye.  The spectrum itself stretches off for quite a long way in both directions, left and right, beyond the weensy little bit we can see and sort into colors.  

The Chinese have a saying that trying to understand life within the span of a single lifetime is like watching a horse race through a crack in a fence.  This is almost literally true of the tiny slice of the spectrum we're able to see as light.  When we think of the spectrum, we probably envision something broad and horizontal, like this:

But in fact, placed into the entire spectrum, that spacious gradient of color up there actually looks like this:
We can only see that little notch in the center,  All the colors we celebrate in art and poetry and love letters are crammed into that minuscule segment of the spectrum.

But just because our eyes can't see them, it doesn't mean there aren't colors, millions of other colors, trailing off into space, colors like plore and yensh and lorrow, emitted by the parts of the spectrum we can't see.  It's silly to try to give them names because -- here, at last, is the point -- we can't even imagine them.  We literally cannot visualize colors we've never seen.  They're unimaginable colors.

My guess is that most of us with ordinary vision don't go through life wishing there were more colors.  At some fundamental level, we believe that we were essentially born with a full box of crayons.  If we're missing anything, it's a shade of some color -- purple, for example -- that's a blend of two colors we can see. We might not have a red enough purple in our crayon box, but we can imagine it.

And yet we're practically drowning in colors we can't imagine.  If I can't imagine something as fundamental, as primary, as colors, it makes me wonder what else I can't imagine.  The reality, for example, of other people's world view.  Unconsidered variations of love.  The permanent availability and power of forgiveness.  Beauty in art I've glanced at or listened to once, and rejected.  Better ways to be true to myself and others.

Easter, the holiday of resurrection, is in part a festival of color, which is a residue of its pre-Christian identity as a celebration of the rebirth of spring, when the monochromatic world of winter turns brilliant again.  Rebirth is a valuable concept, even a useful one.  I personally think rebirth should be something we try to practice daily.

We've all experienced rebirth.  We fall in love, and our world changes, although, of course, we're what's really changed: we're reborn.  We find the thing we love to do: rebirth.  We see Van Gogh's "Starry Night" -- really see it -- for the first time: rebirth.  We read a line of poetry; for example (for me), Rilke's "I believe I would know/which one of those stars still burns/like a white city/at the end of its long beam/in the heavens."  Rebirth. We do something we didn't know we could do: rebirth.  We're re-centered, re-energized, refocused.  Reborn.

When we live literally surrounded by realities we can't imagine, it seems to me disastrous not to try to be open to them, to be content to wake up every day in the prison of our limited sensibilities without trying to find a way toward new feelings, ideas, commitments, even realities: impossible colors.  When I look at the eggs in that Easter basket up there, it reminds me that I need to be open to rebirth, even tiny rebirths, on a daily basis. 

I know none of this is new, but Easter, which I don't celebrate in the conventional sense, brings it to mind.  I have the blessing of being a writer, meaning I get to trot characters around and see what's wrong with their lives, and that has made me doubly aware in my own life of the almost constant need for re-evaluation, for re-commitment, for constant redefinition of the word "possible" or even "unimaginable."  For rebirth, in other words.  So my Easter message to you, as I sit here in a blaze of invisible unimaginable colors, is a line from Bob Dylan: He not busy being born is busy dying.

Happy Easter or Passover or whatever holiday it is for you.

Tim -- Sundays 


  1. Happy re-birthday.

    One of the things I want to do as I grow older, aside from being compassionate and wise and young at heart, is to find joy every single day. In the philosophy you've so eloquently, to discover a color or a feeling or some other fragment that allows me to feel sparkle and jazz.

    Thanks, Tim. My Easter just got a little more More.

  2. Now I want to see lorrow and yensh. Tim, I love the way you say things, and even more, I love the way you think things. I feel like a better writer for knowing you--and more important, like a better person.

    Thank you.

  3. It's a Happy Hallinan Holiday every time I read your stuff. WOW, do you make one think.

  4. Happy Easter, Tim. Or Happy Continual Rebirth!
    Lovely colors!

  5. Oh, come ON, Tim, that's total moronic trash, and you know it!

    :-) Sorry, couldn't resist. SOMEONE had to counterbalance all the boot-licking, head-swelling other comments that fall so feebly short of the reality of your godliness. :-)

    Loved the column, Tim! Another of those many thoughts that we need to keep in mind EVERY day. Life is for the living, so get busy living or get busy dying, as the saying goes. And living inherently involves change. But random change is rarely as rewarding as consciously chosen change and growth. If you want to grow as much as possible, you have to change as much as possible. Just try to make sure that as many of the changes as possible are ones that you like. If not, change 'em again!

  6. Beautifully stated, Tim. Wishing you and everyone here a happy and colorful Easter celebration.

  7. Lovely. One of these days, we may be re-born and see more of what is around us. When we are re-born, the world looks different, brighter, it's nice to wake up in the morning with gratitude for the richness. Thank you once more waking me up. Happy day.

  8. I am just going to have to go along with the crowd of accolades here. Lovely piece!

  9. Thanks for sharing this, Tim. :) Happy Easter!

  10. That's truly one of the most beautiful qualities you have, Tim,- you're open to that vast expanse of life called the unknown. I love that open breath of fresh airness you constantly exude. It not only expresses an inner freedom-it shows you know that freedom is infinite. It's this kind of writing that points in the direction of expanded awareness, limitless possibility and a valuable use of this particular rebirth.
    Kudos, kid! Keep it going on multiple fronts!!

  11. What a literally beautiful post (the color spectrums) (spectra??) And I love the Bob Dylan quote. I couldn't agree more, and am so glad you said it so well.

    As just one little instance of becoming new for me this year...I went out after a reading by mystery author Brad Parks to talk about this writing life over a beer. Which meant I had to have a beer. It was the first one I drank since the heinously awful ones I didn't drink during keg parties in HS and college. A Sam Adams spring ale. Which I loved--and have been enjoying ever since.

    Um, suddenly I'm wondering whether this is the positive example you were going for??

    Anyway, Everett also made me laugh.

    Happy spring to all.

  12. Very inspiring post, Tim. You do make us stop and think, which is always a good thing, and I love the Dylan quote. We need to be constantly aware of the opportunities for growth in each day we have.

  13. wow! I was so amazed and I really enjoy reading this..

  14. Hello i like your text and translate the part of impossible colors to my language.

    its a good pleasure to see that there is another people think about impossible colors
    im a physics student in turkiye.
    this is my blog which i will publish your text in turkish.

  15. Hello, I was looking up for an electromagnet spectrum and I found your blog. So I was wondering can you give me permission to reuse your pictures for my school work?


  16. Worst garbage I've read in my life.