Posted by: Harold Knight | 07/14/2011

Brother Sun, Sister Moon

At or beyond the horizon?

At or beyond the horizon?

Yesterday I took 170 pictures, many of the sunrise—the kind of sunrise I hoped to catch the day before, expansive, colorful, and seemingly full of—of what? Hope? But I’ve already written about sunrise this week, so those pictures will have wait until another sunrise writing. (Taking yesterday’s sunrise pictures was a fortunate accident; the fog is so thick this morning I can’t see as far as Humbug Mountain. Yes, I’ve taken a picture.)

The new sunrise pictures will have to wait because this writing is about sunset.

I don’t usually announce at the beginning what my writing is about because I don’t usually know until it’s nearly finished. So it will be interesting to see if this in fact turns out to be about sunset. The last time I was in Port Orford I heard about the sunsets at Paradise Point. Spectacular, they said. I waited until the last evening I was here to go to the Point at sunset, and it was too cloudy to see much of the sun, setting or not.

Just a Song at Twilight

Just a Song at Twilight

Today was different. I saw a sunset that, for me at any rate, inspired the kind of awe I experience only rarely. Two caveats. First, I was not alone at Paradise Point—obviously about 15 others had heard that viewing the sunset from there is a special experience. For once, I did not mind the company. Second, my writing about sunset is not some overworked tired obvious metaphor for old age or death. And it is not deathless prose (“inspired the kind of awe” is pedestrian, you’ll have to agree).

At 8:30 PM, over the ocean to the west a dense cloudbank either hung just beyond the horizon or covered the horizon. What do I know of cloudbanks and horizons? I’d say the clouds were beyond the horizon. How would one know? I wouldn’t think about it if I were you. If one went out to find the edge of the clouds, the horizon would move away and . . . Well, you get the idea. Sometimes mysteries are so simple as to be terrifying.

The cloudbank would obviously change the sunset. We wouldn’t see the actual sunset—we’d see the sun set behind the clouds before 8:55 PM, the scheduled time for sundown. Another mystery, not terrifying, but exasperating, the explanation of which must be mindlessly simple to astronomers—how is the precise time of sundown calculated? How are the times of high and low tide calculated? I’ve given up thinking about such things.

A couple of minutes before the sun went behind the cloudbank, everything on this side of the visible ocean took on an intense golden glow. I know, I know, everyone has seen it. But have you ever stared at it? Absorbed yourself in it? Sung just a song at twilight? (It’s my blog, and I’ll be corny if I want to.) When anyone asks me what’s wrong with fluorescent lights, I try to explain that sunlight is not pure white. It’s this light I’m thinking of, I guess. (I was disabused of my notion about white sunlight by an astronaut I heard on National Public Radio recently who said no one can be prepared for the whiteness of the sunlight when one is on a spacewalk. But we are, after all, on earth where human eyes belong.)

A light too white

A light too white

And then the clouds in the space behind which the sun had disappeared began to reflect colors that intensified in brightness until they were nearly white. Look at the filament of an incandescent light bulb and you get the idea—absurdly minimized. My picture is ridiculously inadequate. But I doubt anyphotograph could have captured that light.

The sky changed color constantly. But—because of the cloudbank, I assume—the brilliant shades of red I was hoping to see did not materialize. At least not in the way I expected. Instead the high thin clouds above the cloudbank reflected the red of the setting sun, and the sky became orangish-pinkish (I don’t know names of colors). I wish I knew a synonym for “breathtaking” that didn’t belong in a Hallmark card.

I turned to leave.

Sister Moon

Sister Moon

Never have I been in a place at the proper time (that I remember, at any rate—or that seemed important enough to remember) to watch the sun set and the moon rise simultaneously.

However we should try to distinguish between living and surviving. . . without an understanding of living it is difficult to justify the quest for immortality. For the divines, longevity was primarily a sign of possible redemption, but can the quest to avoid oblivion be a justifiable goal? The choice of the word ‘oblivion’ may be indicative of Baby Boomer values. . .  However, ‘oblivion’ has obviously no real content, and certainly no moral content. . . The question that is pertinent to . . . aging is whether, in a period in the West that is undeniably secular, we can find any purpose to life that might justify life extension . . . (1).

As I said above, “my writing about sunset is not some overworked tired obvious metaphor for old age or death,” but I’ve done a lot of thinking in the last few days about how long my little stay on this planet might last. I don’t know why I’ve been thinking intensely about that this week except it’s one of the things 66-year-olds think about. I’m six months too old to be an official Baby Boomer. My genetic heritage indicates I have a good chance to be here awhile (my dad is 96, his dad lived to 92). I’ve never been worried much about longevity.

But I abhor the thought of oblivion.

That is an absurd statement. The reason we fear death is the thought of oblivion is impossible. We cannot ponder oblivion.  It is the most terrifying of all mysteries. We are trapped here between Brother Sun and Sister Moon. Even they came from oblivion and will eventually return to oblivion. Their seeming eternity is a mystery so simple it is terrifying.

The religious language is not exactly what I would use, but St. Francis of Assisi’s Canticle to the Sun speaks to the terrifying mystery.

Be praised, my Lord, through all your creatures, especially through my lord Brother Sun, who brings the day; and you give light through him. And he is beautiful and radiant in all his splendor! Of you, Most High, he bears the likeness.

Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars; in the heavens you have made them, precious and beautiful.

Be praised, my Lord, through our Sister Bodily Death, from whose embrace no living person can escape.

Sun. Moon. Death. Oblivion. Terrifying, but hopeful?
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(1) Turner, Bryan. “Longevity Ancient and Modern.” Society 46.3 (2009): 255-261. 

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