When the pandemic started, we made rainbows. The rainbow arch is an ideal template for young children because it is simple, scalable, replicable. You can make five rainbows quickly or one slowly. Any colors will do, in any order you choose; pink and brown and polka-dots will scan, too. You can draw rainbows in bright chalk on the sidewalk, in subtle gradients of watercolor on scratch paper, in smeared marker ink dragged along the rounded edges of jars and lids on fabric, as my youngest son enjoys, or in color-pencil freehand, slanted as though written in italics for emphasis, as my older son does. You can hang them up so that they seem to float from the ceiling, or from a tree in the woods, vibrating in slow twirling rotations in the wind, or you plaster them to the ground to be admired with a half-smile before being gingerly stepped over. People look at your rainbows and they think they understand what you mean — thank you. I’m sorry. We’re OK. We’re not OK. I love you.

The meaning of the rainbows we hung in the neighborhood and around the house, imported to the US in March from Italy, was widely understood to be “everything will be all right” — andra tutto benne. That is one sentiment that I was uncomfortable with myself, especially as things got worse, and then worse again. Nothing seemed like it was going to be all right, even when things were good. And things were good, perversely good, I had so much time, all the time I ever could have asked for. I was so lucky in the midst of so much suffering. And I also know it’s a fleeting thing no matter how lucky you may be, fleeting as a rainbow.

Rainbows really are special. Our eyes can detect wavelengths of light within a narrow range of nanometers, and beyond either limit, low or high, poof, nothing, or so it appears (other animals see more than we do, so who knows what a rainbow looks like to a bird). I usually tend to think of color as a closed circle, as in the color wheel. But our perception tapers off to invisibility, from red to not-red on one end of the spectrum and from violet to not-violet at the other end. Red and violet, which seem so visually close, are literally as far apart as we can perceive light to be. The existence of a reddish-violet color like mauve that “closes” the color wheel is pure illusion, a trick our mind plays on us to complete a circle that is really an arch. By contrast, rainbows only appear as arches because we tend to see them from the ground — rainbows form circles when viewed in the air.

What I like about rainbows is that they are an objective phenomenon that can be measured in nanometers, but are nonetheless an expansive palette, an infinity of creative permutation. Our perception of a rainbow’s colors end at red and violet, and yet everything in between can still make magic. It inspires wonder precisely because it can be explained, and leaves us speechless anyway. The explanation heightens the wonder, the joy. I find unknowable things distressing. I take no solace in the unknown, and have more or less trained myself to ignore it.

I have been with my children every day for four months now. Intimate, tender, wild times. Rainbows continue to assert themselves. A neighbor informs us that if we run down the street right now, we will see a massive rainbow that spans the whole neighborhood. Four months in, the paper rainbows hanging in the woods nearby look bleached of their color, dingy, still twiddling suspended from their little branches or taped to signposts. They look how we feel. But we feel good sometimes, too, good to be together, to be sharing our perceptions. It feels like we all see the same colors in the sky. We don’t talk about it much, but we have a collective mood: a funk that descends, and then lifts, and then descends again. My sons both yell at me, the little one copying the big one on a two-second delay, tears in their eyes: “You’re just being mean today because you’re grumpy!”

Grumpy is not the emotion I would ascribe to these periods of hopelessness. Nor would I describe hopelessness as an emotion, per se, more as an orientation. I orient toward hope and away from it, all from the same spot here on the ground, where the rainbows end at your feet. I struggle to think of how to describe these feelings; they are new to me. It reminds me that emotions are arbitrary like colors are: colors are merely demarcations of light wavelengths that we choose to name. Isaac Newton purportedly included the dubious “indigo” and “orange” in his ROYGBIV spectrum because he needed seven colors to correspond to the seven tones in a musical scale.

It makes sense to me that Newton settled on those seven notes in the rainbow. There is indeed a pleasing harmony in seven. But indigo and orange are still a little dicey, spectrally speaking. Pixar eliminated both colors from their palette altogether when they grafted the color spectrum onto the range of human emotions in Inside Out. They settled on five, also a good number, though not as good as seven. We’ve watched Inside Out a lot these past few months. My sons find their own comforts in it. The three-year-old pretends he is Riley, the girl with an army of personified emotions waging a battle for soundness in her head, to soothe himself at night, when unwanted thoughts seem to flood in unbidden in the cover of darkness, feelings he cannot yet name. The six-year-old pedantically explains the true meaning of the film to the little one, who isn’t old enough to understand its central metaphor. “Riley doesn’t really know her feelings are in there,” big brother explains, pointing to his forehead, “she just feels stuff.”

He’s right. When I first saw the film, when it was in theaters, it bothered me that no human character in the film ever once talks about how they feel. I wrote about the film several times after it was first released, trying to work out how I felt about it, when my oldest was still an infant. The film made me weep uncontrollably in the theater, an experience that never happened again on subsequent viewings. My wife reminds me of the circumstances in which I saw the film for the first time: it was my first Father’s Day, and the outing was a gift from a friend. At the time, I hadn’t left the house alone for pleasure for three months. So on a clear, cloudless summer day, I sat in a darkened theater and confronted the existential import of fatherhood in solitude for the first time, all at once. I suppose it would be difficult to replicate those circumstances again, though the world seems determined to try.

I am still moved now by the film’s elegant concluding idea, that the transition away from childhood starts not at the onset of adolescence, but rather whenever it is that our sadness begins to tinge our happy memories in a new, complex emotion — bittersweetness, a yellow-blue swirl, the onset of nostalgia. That seems lovely. But I also think a lot about what the film’s simplified emotional spectrum does to conversations and frameworks for identifying and reflecting on emotions in our lives. It seems like the wrong framework, reductive enough to miss the whole point of emotions — which in their variations and evolutions can seem to create new colors on the rainbow, shocking new sensations beyond prior comprehension, right there below red or above violet.

It is admittedly easier to talk to children about their feelings in this other, simpler way. A few outside experts told the creators of Inside Out that the true number of emotions is zero, because “emotions are sort of an illusion.” I can see why they didn’t go with that interpretation. We teach kids about color in a way that is similarly illustrative but insufficient, by claiming that you can mix one color with another to “make” a third. It seems that way, as far as our perception goes, but it’s not all that’s happening, and it may make more nuanced color theory, the interaction between the light, our eyes, and our brains, harder to fully grasp and adopt later. (I was bedeviled enough by color in film school to fail a quiz on the subject.)

Certain colors absorb certain wavelengths of light, and therefore stop that light from reflecting back from the colored object. This makes it appear as though the few wavelengths that did reflect back to you are the “new” color. You paint some red and some yellow, and what’s left to bounce back looks orange. But what you’ve really done is absorbed wavelengths that are not red and not yellow and you get back the light that remains; you’ve buried the light that isn’t orange. If you keep piling on paint, as any child mixing colors knows, nothing bounces back and you have a gloomy mud.

This process of eliminating reflective wavelengths is subtractive —applied color material “removes” some of the light that might reflect back to our eyes. But you can also mix colored light rather than colored material to illustrate additive color, a theory taught less frequently to children (and usually in science class rather than art class) but perhaps a better way to describe the physical phenomenon of the color spectrum. When you combine colored lights, what you “see” is your brain interpreting wavelengths of the sources. If you add a red light and a green light, your brain interprets it in the middle — yellow. My younger son tries to say something silly and is accidentally correct, in a way: “Look, Daddy — I have a little red and a little blue, and that makes pink!”

He finds this amusing because everything “makes pink”; it’s his favorite color, but he’s also paraphrasing The Color Kittens by Margaret Wise Brown. As in much of Brown’s work, the book never settles for a pat primary school lesson, so the mechanics of subtractive color aren’t the main idea. The Color Kittens, Brush and Hush, spend the first half of the book mixing their colors together until they make their favorite color, green, but what follows is a dream, where the colors start to blend together to create magical worlds and characters and tricks of the eye. You count to three and turn the page and red roses change to white in a dramatic flourish. I always enjoy reading the phrasing she uses in the moment the Color Kittens wake from their dreamland: “The sky was wild with sunshine. The kittens were wild with purring and pouncing.” Yes, the sky can be wild with sunshine, and never more so than in the moment you notice the rainbow, light splitting and reflecting back from a fine mist of water hovering in a deceptively clear blue sky.

Pixar was right about blue; it seems like the right color for sadness, even though blue is the color of that same sky, the one wild with sunshine. The weather has been so nice lately, and we are so happy, and we are so sad. There is the water in the air, and the rainbows, and there is also the ash smoldering above, capturing the light, refusing its return, gray like grief is gray. Sadness and beauty and joy and grief, spiraling inside of its own peculiar marble, an emotion we haven’t given a name. That gray can dull everything — we live in subtractive times. And yet we still lift our heads and turn our eyes toward the light.