As winter winds down and semester’s end winds up, I find myself simultaneously weary and frantic. A few days ago, rushing around making preparations for a conference, I emerged from my local Kroger to a steel blue sky washed with broad streaks of orange cut with yellow slashes. I stopped at the curb and set my grocery bag down to admire and absorb. For a moment I breathed in color and light. Then I reached in my purse for my phone to record the stunning sunset.
Years ago I learned that the myriad colors of sunrises and sunsets are, in fact, a side effect of a more prosaic problem: air pollution. The sky lights up because the light of the setting sun reflects off particles in the atmosphere. Whenever I’ve offered this information unsolicited, others have frowned and accused me of being a downer.
I don’t see it that way. I find it poignant, the dark knowledge of what’s underneath making the sunset before me that much more beautiful.
Not in a “no pretty without pain” way; I’ve never been one, whether in art or in life, to advocate suffering as an ideal path to appreciating or creating beauty. No–it enhances the experience because it reminds me that beauty, like anything else in this world worth contemplating, is complex.
Too often, we’re sold a bill of goods: beauty is pure. Simple. Innocent. Its most common cultural icon, after all, is the unlined face of youth. But beauty isn’t simple or innocent. Real beauty is complicated. Layered. Full of richness and depth. It is surprising, even challenging. Not Welch’s grape juice. Fine wine.
In its presence, beauty always already contains the possibility of its absence. For that, it is all the more precious. The breathtaking sunset stops us in our tracks because we are wise to its complexity, wise to its transience. It demands and deserves our full attention now, while it is here before us.
As with beauty, so too with love.
I took one picture of the sunset, then walked to my car. The hot pink line demarcating the black mountains from the deepening blue sky suddenly intensified, glowing a hot, bright coral. I glanced down into my bag to find the phone, but when I looked back up, the high color had already dissipated.
Hold fast. Every moment is fleeting.