Two years ago, I was on the subway, traveling from Brooklyn to Manhattan, when I opened my calendar and realized that I didn’t have a day free of work obligations for the following three months straight. I started quietly spiraling, wondering how it was possible that my life had become so overthought yet under-considered, how I had managed to use my own freedom so poorly, how on earth it had happened that I’d tried so hard to make use of myself as a human that I’d left myself with no time to be human in any meaningful way. By the time I got off the train, the sun was setting, electric and tragic, a neon pomegranate flush behind the skyscrapers. I decided, as the first step in a recuperative process, to start keeping a log of sunsets on my phone.
The exercise was deliberately aimless, rather than accidentally pointless, as so many things had begun to seem to me; the sunset log was just a structure to encourage myself to stop moving for long enough to take in what was happening in the sky. In Brooklyn, on September 14, 2019, the sunset was blue-gray like an oxford shirt, striped with slate clouds that were lit up from under with glowing burgundy. In Toronto, a week later, the sunset was radiant peach, with a vanishing flare of chartreuse, a dark cloud crossing the vista like a battleship, flamingo-pink feathers melting into the blue. At half past six in Kauai in December, there was a band of parakeet gray just above the water, topped with lemon meringue, hazy mauve. In Cedar Rapids, in February of 2020, the sunset at 5:24 PM looked like a shaved-ice gradient of apricot and banana and grape.
Almost immediately, the sunset log became an exercise in the pathetic fallacy. One night I noted that the sky looked strong and melancholy, on another playful and lavish, on another gentle and resigned. I had to remind myself that the earth was impervious to whichever of my quasi-buried emotions I was projecting onto it at any given moment. These displays of passing radiance were meaningless—or, more properly, they spoke of scales and systems that rendered me meaningless. Nothing resists capture like a sunset, and nothing so insistently invites the folly of trying. There are two hundred and seventy-six million sunset photos on Instagram; there are nearly five million still living on Flickr; there are two and a half million for license on Getty Images. Sometimes, while taking notes on a sunset, other people would notice the sky and stand next to me, and we would form a little knot of strangers, open-mouthed, phones pointed at the horizon, as if this time, finally, we might actually outrun the grand cliché. We tend to conceive of sunset-watching as an experience of unmediated bliss—just us, and perhaps someone we love, watching the clouds catch cherry-red and delirious—even as we know that almost inevitably we will break our reveries by trying to record what we see. I began to think that sunset-recording came partly from some subconscious craving to remember the smallness of our efforts, the way they melt away so quickly, that what we actually want can be experienced but not possessed.
I stopped keeping my sunset log at the beginning of the pandemic, in the early days, when it was not appropriate to linger for long minutes in public. The future was suspended, the present was terrifying, there was little to do—at least for me, with my coddled employment in the knowledge economy—but to bake things and check the ever-rising statistics of global suffering and death. There was no more travel, no more hustling to meetings, no breathlessly running in late to a friend’s birthday dinner, no conferences, no weddings, no riding a packed train while typing out emails on your iPhone, no visiting family, no talking to strangers, no lingering over produce at the grocery store. There was nothing but the elastic, elusive expanse of each confounding day.
In this state of suspended animation, I waded deeper into a quiet reckoning with my relationship to work. I have often felt so lucky to write for a living—to have the luxury of striving after personal fulfillment in the process of keeping the lights on—that I sometimes forget that it is possible to stop working, let alone desirable or necessary. At times I’ve internalized a misguided idea that I should attach myself to my work with ever more fondness because so much work on this planet is underpaid and demeaning. But the pandemic showed me, with finality, the wrongheadedness of that response. Every day, elsewhere, the gears of the world were grinding: teachers were staging full days of Zoom kindergarten, nursing home attendants were changing diapers for lonely and confused senior citizens, Amazon warehouse workers were packing two hundred boxes per hour, grocery store clerks were wiping down conveyor belts, delivery drivers were breaking their backs so that people like me could enjoy their new quarantine slippers, emergency room doctors were driving home in numb despair. Against this backdrop, the idea that I ought to work more out of recognition of my privilege seemed plainly ridiculous. The only way to honor these workers was to act in whatever ways I could to support conditions in which work would acknowledge rather than deny the humanity of the worker—to push toward a world where everyone could have the security to, in one way or another, stop and look at the sky.
I found myself grasping toward different units of time and measurement, toward the things that were here before us and would outlast us. I tried to remind myself that even this horrifically high-stakes year was just one of hundreds of thousands of years of human existence, a period which itself encompasses a tiny fraction of a percent of the time since the universe’s birth. We were so tiny—we were nothing except the things we could do for one another. I started trying to pay more attention to the natural world than the digital world for the first time in my adult life. I couldn’t see the sunset from my shelter-in-place location, but I started taking notes on the trees and the weather, letting the practice be another reminder to slow down and look around me. I wrote about how dusk over snow made everything glow like blacklight, about the buds emerging on a maple tree in spring, about the cottonwood blossoms that swirled in the wind outside the window, about the day that the sky turned gray-green like a cat’s eye and an hourglass cloud assembled itself in the distance and I hurried the dog inside before it started to hail.
And I kept reorienting my relationship to the internet, which on the one hand had nudged me, with its incentives toward maximum efficiency and profitability and productivity, toward my subway crisis in the first place, but on the other contained a million skies’ worth of reminders of our wonderful smallness in the world. I watched wildlife cams of buffalo in South Dakota, aquarium cams of moon jellyfish pulsing. I spent hours looking at WindowSwap, the website that let me see Maria’s view of downtown construction in Dallas, Ricky’s cat looking at the driveway in Melbourne, Yvan’s blue twilight in Paris. I started making my way through sunset YouTube. A NASA video showed simulated sunsets on other planets—yellow for Venus, cold blue for Mars. There were time-lapse sunset videos, greatest-hits sunset compilations, zoomed-in videos of the elusive green flash that can occur when the sun slips below the water. “PERFECT SUNSET 60min 4K (Ultra HD),” posted in 2014, has nearly three million views: it shows an unbroken hour of a dazzled sunset on the ocean in Kagoshima, Japan, a white-hot yellow core melting into tangerine over iridescent water. “I’m looking out the window looking at the sunset right now, because my parents had another loud, heated argument,” writes a user named Crusty Egg. “The sunset calms me down.” Another user named Akira writes “This is so beautiful and it makes me sad at the same time. I know you are too.” Many users wrote about watching the sunset during the pandemic. Toward the end of 2020, a user named djl2206 writes, “I’ve always wanted to go somewhere away from everyone else, not having to worry about anything or anyone. I could finally be myself and not be carrying the weight of the world on my shoulders anymore. I’ve always just thought that sunsets are the prettiest thing in the world.”
A recognizable combination of grief and hope recurred in these comments—a sense of quiet loss and transience, a tugging desire for more love, more space, more ease. Even in the virtual worlds people escaped to during the pandemic, the sunset was there, representing something irreducibly human: in the video game Animal Crossing, the water turns purple during sunset, and the skies light up in hues of tomato and plum. “I was enjoying a dramatic sunset IRL yesterday which reminded me of a specific sunset in a video game,” one user wrote on an online forum, “namely when you’re at Soldier’s Field in BioShock Infinite, and everything is sort of luminous lavender. It is a static sunset, but still one that sticks with you, not the least because that warm glow fits with some of the fleeting moments of peace and hopefulness in that section of the game.”
As I write this, a prospect of an end to this seemingly everlasting pandemic era is peeking through the dirt, like a spring crocus. In the future we will move around again; we will brush up against one another; the gears will accelerate as fast as we let them. It’s my hope that we remember to retain more stillness than we’d known was possible, that we grant this stillness to one another. I return some days to the Reddit message board that’s exclusively devoted to sunsets, where users post photos from Russia or the Philippines or Germany. “How wonderful our earth is,” they write, over and over. “Breathtaking.” A few days ago, a user posted a fiery sunset from New Jersey. “Was this last night by chance,” another user wrote. He had been working at a supermarket in the area, but by chance, he had seen the same glow.
Author: Jia Tolentino