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in search of lost time

in search of lost time

remembrance of right now

I’m always struck by the profound loneliness of a sunset. But today, there’s something singular about the way its fading warmth cuts through the empty twilight air. I’m walking down Benefit Street, and the sun is going down in the west. Orange blankets the ancient brick walls of the surrounding buildings. The world is tinted, but the view ahead wears an unusual clarity nonetheless, a clarity endemic to this particular hour. Up the hill, spikes of reflected color stripe the steeple of the Unitarian church, and buildings behind it glow. Down toward the river, deep shadows mask the narrow streets that intersect with South Main. The contrast is sharp, rendering the contours of the city unusually distinct.

Four cross-streets later, the light is flat; the orange is gone. Desperate, my eyes search for a hint of its former glory on the blank faces of the city’s concrete edifices, their dark windows staring back, vacant. But there’s none to be found. The sun has dropped below the horizon, leaving the sky empty and the city sedate. All of the previous contrast has disappeared, faded away. Like that, Benefit Street went from flaunting the sharpness of its New England edges to hiding them under the thin faintness that precedes night. Total reversion, but so gradual you don’t notice unless you’re really paying attention. And how often do we pay attention, as this cycle repeats, day after day, night after night? There’s an industrial quality to the sunset, a mechanical element, both in its color and in its rhythm, but at the same time, what could possibly be more organic? At the end of the day, the sunset is the only worldly manifestation of the passage of time itself. It’s the only way that we can watch time pass before our eyes, not in representation, but in actuality.

Walking during the sunset necessarily turns into an attempt to escape time. Somehow, you assume that by walking faster, you will be able to make it last longer, to outpace it, to outpace time. You can’t, of course. That would be impossible. So when it does finally set, there is a distinct disappointment, even a resignation. But at the same time, you recognize that the very object of your admiration was itself nothing more than the passage of time, so if you had succeeded, if you had outrun it, you wouldn’t have prolonged the experience at all; you would have left it behind. That’s the paradox of the hour, the inherent tension of being so transfixed by the beauty of the passage of time that you want to stop time to admire it. But time keeps passing. Time always keeps passing. In fact, tomorrow, there will be another sunset, superficially similar to this one, but different, at least in how you observe it. And so goes the cycle.

It’s hard to believe it’s been six months. It feels like I arrived yesterday, but also like I’ve been here forever. Now, I have half a semester left in my first year, and it’s hard to know what to think. Have I missed opportunities? Been too quick to judge? Spent my time wisely? Invested in the right relationships? How else could my first year have gone if I’d done just one thing differently? What about if I’d done everything differently?

Soon, I’ll only have three years left. That’s a terrifying notion. The pressure of finality will inevitably shape me in ways I cannot foresee. While this scares me, I know that I rely on it to grow. I can only hope that I grow in the right direction, that I don’t leave myself behind. But the shedding of a self is just as inescapable as the reassuming of a renewed iteration of that self at some point in the future. Why, then, is the passage of time so scary? Maybe it’s only scary when it’s startling, when we can’t observe it as it happens. When we can observe it, like during a sunset, the feelings are slightly different. We still want to arrest it in its tracks, but only because we’re awed by it. If time were always observable, then we wouldn’t be so amazed upon witnessing its passage. As it is, however, the scarcity of observable moments makes them special, just like how the scarcity of time in general makes each experience precious. But we don’t normally notice that because there’s nothing to remind us. The sunset, then, is a reminder—a whole day has passed since the last time you appreciated time passing. Better start paying more attention.

I didn’t know about the light on Benefit Street as the last remains of the day washed away into night when I decided to come to Brown. Somehow, the day ends better here. It ends all the same back home in Upstate New York, but here, it’s different, sharper, louder, more obvious. It forces you to appreciate it by making itself impossible to ignore. It prompts in you that sense of tension, that tight desperation to make it all stop, followed by that wave of realization that its progression itself is exactly what you want to preserve. You realize that nothing may be appreciated without a concept of its antithesis, that the contrast between the desire to embrace the future and the need to preserve the past is exactly what makes both of those instincts so powerful, just as the brilliance of the twilight glow is what makes the flatness that precedes the dark so stirring. Perhaps we need a new word to describe this fundamental sense of losing oneself in the rush of time precisely because one is so enlivened by its passage. But now, I’m back where I started, on Benefit, and the blanket of night covers the world.

One Comment

  1. ezra
    Mar 31, 2015 @ 23:29:47

    Great piece, jonah!