When I was little, our family friend, Tom, starting playing the William Tell Overture as the sun went down over Green Bay. Green Bay is big enough that the other shore is barely visible, so the pinks and oranges and crimsons and purples of the sunset fill the sky. We called the William Tell Overture the Sunset Song, and the goal, each night, was to match the last notes of the song with the final sliver of sun dipping beneath the horizon. He had learned about this little ritual at a bar in rural Wisconsin, and it soon became an important tradition each time our family visited Tom’s cabin. Even though I watch the sun the whole way down, its movement isn’t apparent until, suddenly, the last note sounds and the sun is gone. The dynamic stillness of a sunset is intriguing and almost meditative, forcing a quiet, focused mind: a moment of peace and complete investment in the natural world. Although I’m surrounded by people, it is a time to myself: completely enveloped by beautiful music and beautiful light.
While a sunset can be a solo experience, sometimes the people around are more important. Last year, COVID changed the world, and, more relevantly to this story, the function of Dobbs Common Table, Emory’s main dining hall. All meals were served to go, and we were released to eat wherever we wanted. My friends and I made a habit of eating on the big steps of the student center, which are an excellent place to watch the sunset. Emory in general is really good for sunsets, with pink and white marble buildings that reflect the golden light of the sun. Eating dinner on the steps, at sunset, I could watch the sun itself or the surrounding sky, but I could also see the sunset reflected in the buildings and my friends’ faces. We would chat and laugh and take a break from school to bask in the dying light, living our shared experience.
Sunsets not only bring people into groups, they unite groups into communities. My hometown is Madison, Wisconsin, which is located on an isthmus, a thin piece of land between two lakes. While this is a disaster for traffic, it creates some good sunset opportunities. Nearly every night, people gather at the Memorial Union terrace, which is a part of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s campus that’s right on Lake Mendota. Some of those people are students, who watch the sunset while trying to make a home in a new place. Some of those people are alumni, returning to a place filled with good memories. Some of those people are Madison natives, like me, who can’t remember a time they haven’t known about the terrace. As the sun goes down over the lake, waves gently crash against the shore, and people laugh and talk. The sunset unites groups of people in a common, universal experience of beauty. The same light shines on every face.
So, I believe in watching the sunset. It may just be a ball of gas 93 million miles away, that, by some fluke of light refraction, makes pretty colors that we see in the sky, but it truly adds value to my life and the lives of others. I believe in appreciating the beauty that is right in front of us. I believe in meditating on nature. I believe that everyone deserves a moment of peace in their day. I believe in uniting people into groups, and groups into communities. And, I believe that communities with positive, shared experiences add a lot of value to my life and the world.
Music: Rossini, Gioachino. “William Tell Overture.” William Tell, 1829. https://www.yourclassical.org/episode/2021/07/22/daily-download-gioaccino-rossini-william-tell-overture