Saturday, November 26

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A sunset on the concrete beltway

A sunset never breaks while you watch it. It's like time passing; it can only be captured in frames, sudden realizations. It can only be felt – a tinge on the periphery, marked in sideways glances and a gradual dimming, shadows lengthening and lastly dispersing. One moment dusk, then twilight, then evening, until night drops down from the top of the sky. And it all happens while you're looking the other way.

I imagine I'll probably be the first of a series of columnists to tell you all about "How I Spent My Spring Vacation." Still, when you're mired in traffic outside Washington, D.C. and dreaming of sunny, sweet South Carolina, you have ample time to contemplate iridescent sunsets, or the way in which the concrete river of the interstate flows to follow the curves of the earth, or how slightly uncomfortable a Ford Tempo can be when you're 6 foot 4 inches.


I realized the sky first, which was not surprising, given that it was in its usual position directly above me. Around the sun, the only slice of sky uncloaked by clouds, it was a chalky, dusty blue, almost white. The clouds themselves swept westward across the sky, a flat sheath of dusky gray, pink-tinged on the bottom as though they were being cooked in sunset rays. A toy jet, bound hurrying for somewhere, left a cream streak in its wake, like a slash across the sky. The sun, sinking, was orange and blurred. It burned on itself, pushing out horizontal rays in stubborn rage, like an obstinate child who refused to be put to bed, even as the quilt of clouds advanced westward, bringing evening in their trail.

There were other images. The skeletal ash trees, bare, stark and black against the glow, sentried each side of the highway. They had bony, unbudded limbs. They were still trapped in winter. Unlike our southern-searching selves, spring would have to come to them.

We passed by a small sign nestled in stripped pine that read, "You Could Be Home Now. Oak City, Houses in the $100,000's." Smoke like clouds emerged in great billows from an industrial stack that was as tall and thin as a cigarette. The smoke was whiter than the darkening clouds, and stretched for the sky with great ambition. For a moment, the smoke eclipsed the sun.

All of those words struck me in that cramped Ford Tempo as we sat surrounded by gridlock just outside of the Washington Beltway, going nowhere. And like they teach you in writing classes I scribbled them down, those words, the smart little adjectives, the easy metaphors. But they fall short of revealing the greater part of what I saw through my rolled-up window as we glided south, mile by marked-off mile. Those random letters struggle to share with you all the majesty of life that is wrapped up in a toxic brilliant sunset in northern Virginia. It was the transcendent nature of the ordinary realized, for a sunset happens every twenty four hours.

I didn't learn any life lessons on this trip (except that if you're from out of state and should choose to speed in North Carolina, make sure you can either outrun Boss Hogg and the state troopers or bring along enough money to make bail). In fact, life has never gone out of its way to teach me anything. Life simply exists, gliding along time and carrying us along with it, blind as we are with our own busyness.

Sometimes, though, when we are forced to drop ourselves, we can observe what we are even a part of. We can observe the grace that transpires, daily, all while we're looking the other way.