For the majority of my twenties, I worked in security at a now-defunct automobile assembly plant on the outskirts of my adopted hometown, Oklahoma City. The job itself was as boring as an occupation can possibly be. Hours upon hours passed while I sat in a chair, monitoring a computer, radio, or gate house. I listened to a tremendous amount of music, wrote pages and pages of terrible fiction, most of which ended up in a box in the garage. Luckily, I also did a great deal of reading/studying.
From December 2001 to August 2008, this was my life. I worked evenings and weekends, mostly because they afforded me more chances to study and more time to take classes towards my bachelor’s during the day. Working evenings and weekends also afforded me another interesting set of opportunities: watching glorious sunsets. Most people only glance up at a sunset when it’s particularly colorful. I intently watched hundreds of them, out of fascination and because I had little else better to do at the time.
Because I had the keys to the entire facility in my pocket, I could go anywhere on the property and watch sunsets with absolutely no obstruction or interference. When a particularly lovely sunset was forming, I’d find a way to get to the far western side of the factory and climb atop one of the electrical substations, high on the roof, so that I could spend thirty minutes staring into the face of god.
The sky would slowly begin to simmer in muted pinks and lavenders along the edges of thin, wispy cloud banks. Behind me (and no one ever turns around during a good sunset), the sky devivified from bright sky to a soft royal, into a deep slate, and finally settling into a dusky, inky midnight blue. Sunset side, I watched as the muted tones, having simmered long enough, began to erupt in polychromatic perfection.
Reds near the horizon promised both a searing finale and a sharp distinction against the silhouetted trees dotting the distant landscape. Fiery oranges encircled delicate golds embroidered in thin purple threads. Directly above, the finality of the night sky washed the color and vibrancy from everything, filling my heart with heaviness at the impermanence of it all.
My mind, like most people’s, would wander back in time to the faces and places long since disappeared from my sight. We all do this and there’s absolutely no shame in the moment of bittersweet recollection. We form and reshape our souls with endless welcomes, goodbyes, and unwilling transformations triggered by the consequences of our decisions.
I’d think of the good friends I had in my hometown and how our group was shattered by the complications of love, lust, and infatuation. I’d think of sweet faces and stupid mistakes from my first attempts to stand on my own feet at a small Christian university. I’d think of my best friend from that era and I’d wonder what he was doing. The last time I ever laid eyes on him was as he drove his yellow pick up away from the factory, where he stopped by to see me on his way out of town. He disappeared down the road and around a curve and I spent the remainder of the day feeling desperately abandoned and unwillingly disconnected.
I’d think of my mother and how much it must have disappointed her that I ended up here, drunk on sunsets and not achieving the great things she had hoped I would. I’d think about how much I missed her and my whole family, who were all a hundred miles away and living their own lives. Every time I leave the city in which I was born, I find myself caught in the rear-view mirror, watching the skyline disappear behind one specific hill near Ochelata. The city will be there when I return, but it will never be the same again.
In my life, in all our lives, we say hundreds and thousands of goodbyes. People, places, and moments pass irrevocably into the past. Sunsets, especially the spectacular ones, remind of us this. Every day that passes is a day that never comes again. Every time the sun disappears behind the horizon, it reappears on a new day with new promises and new moments to illuminate, but never the same moments and never the same day.
Yet, if you’re painfully sentimental like me, you wonder how long you can extend those goodbyes, those sunsets, those moments where lives diverge. You become terrified by finality and you express your deepest sentiments as a feeble defense against the heaviness. Most sunsets last twenty or thirty minutes, at most. That’s precious little time to feel a deep connection to the lost past or gaze in wonder at the majesty of the present. Most goodbyes don’t last much longer.
Standing on the edge of the factory roof, I’d wonder how fast I’d have to fly to keep up with the sunset. How many miles per hour would I need to cover to permanently stay in this transitory space, before goodbyes are final and before what was once bright day becomes dark night?
1000 miles per hour.
In case you were wondering, that’s a virtually impossible speed to maintain. There are numerous vehicles on Earth that can exceed that speed for a short duration, but they are always brought back underneath the threshold by necessity, circumstance, or exhaustion.
So it is the same with us. None of us can keep pace with the speed of the sunset, with the speed at which our present moments become past memories. On the edge of that roof, I’d often wish I could keep up. I’d wish I could exceed the speed of the sunset and somehow relive past moments so that I could drink of them more deeply and savor their rarity with more appreciation. This too is impossible.
At some point, we’ll all have to accept the temporal limitations that force us to finally say goodbye, to let someone dear go, and to let the world resolve itself into darkness so that it can be reborn again in the morning. And it will, we hope.
Our hometown dissolves behind us, along with the safety in which it enveloped us. The yellow truck driving away carries with it part of our heart and all of our innocent youth. One day the road will take our children and the sun will set indifferently and gloriously over all our scurrying toward happiness. Fleetingly and by accident, our eyes catch sight of an airliner in the sky, flying east, on a chilly November morning. It carries with it another person who takes part of our heart with them. The plane moves in and out of obscuring trees before, like everything else, it disappears over the horizon. 1000 miles per hour into the past, at the speed of the sunset.