I read once that to be happy you need to narrow the distance between expectation and reality. The article was about happy marriages, and the premise was that unhappy people had unmet expectations, and the greater those unmet expectations, the greater the unhappiness. The closer the reality was to expectation, the happier the people were. The solution, then, was not to stop expecting, but to temper one’s expectation to reality. For example, if you envision life as a perpetual dance and your spouse is a klutz who can’t follow a beat, you can either hold to your vision and be miserable, or reevaluate your expectations and find a more realistic vision.
This expectation-to-reality formula works in other ways. For example, if I looked only at my expectation of the Petrified Forest to be an actual forest, my visit to the park would have been highly disappointing because a few pieces of tree trunks is not my idea of a forest. Yet, when I gave up my expectation and just enjoyed what that visit brought, it was a wonderful side trip on my drive across Arizona. For one thing, the Painted Desert, the scene of the Petrified Forest, was totally unexpected and simply stunning — panoramic views with many hues. For another, the individual tree rocks were spectacular in their own way. (Oddly, there is way more petrified wood outside the protected park than inside, so anyone who wishes to own such a piece of geographic history can easily obtain a piece or ten. In fact, the museum/gift shops at the gate give away small chips as a come-on to get you inside the shop.)
The mysteries of the Painted Desert and the Petrified Forest weren’t the only rainbow-colored mysteries of my drive across Arizona, but first, let me set the scene.
As I drove to Flagstaff after I left the park, I felt sorry for myself because although I was looking forward to journey’s end, there was no joy in the expectation. I would be able to take care of a few matter such as getting my computer fixed and my car serviced, and I would be able to visit friends and take dance classes again, but I wasn’t going home to a special someone, wasn’t going home to a special place. I was simply going.
And then, as if the very heavens took pity on me and wanted to send me a bit of encouragement, a streak of emerald flashed in the sky. I leaned forward and peered up over the steering wheel to get a better look, and the sky lit up with drapes of horizontal color. For a second I thought I might be seeing the aurora borealis, but there is no way the northern lights could be seen so far south. I watched, amazed, as the emerald gave way to peacock blue, and the rainbow swathe grew crayon bright. I pulled off the highway as soon as I came across an exit so I could get a photo, but by the time I finally was able to take the picture, the bright rainbow had faded to pale sunset colors, though the peacock blue still held true.
Apparently, what I saw was a rare fire rainbow. (Fire rainbows are formed when the sun, high in the sky, shines through cirrus clouds made up of hexagonal ice crystals.)
Awesome. Unexpected. And totally joyous.
You’d think that the message of the heavenly sign (if a sign it was) that things would be okay would sink in, but no. The next day, as I drove from Barstow to Apple Valley, unexpectedly, I started to cry. Then it occurred to me what those tears were about: this was the first time I had driven that road since my life mate/soul mate’s death. On that previous trip, I was on my way to visit my father, and Jeff was still alive, waiting for me back home. It’s amazing to me that no matter how long it’s been since Jeff’s death, “firsts” still can freshen the sorrow.
I did learn something from my Arizona drive, though. Don’t expect what isn’t. Instead, accept what is.
Now I just have to put the lesson into practice.
(Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.”)