In his essay “Experience,” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote,
“Life is a train of moods like a string of beads, and, as we pass through them, they prove to be many-colored lenses which paint the world their own hue, and each shows only what lies in its focus.”
2020 was a devastatingly chaotic sunset of moods.
While these past 12 months have been destructive in their delivery of epiphanies, they delivered nonetheless. And while I have tried time and again to capture their ferocity, words, like the photographic lens, fail to capture the intensity of watching the world blaze around you as you discover yourself.
2020 has been a year of discovery and reconsideration, a year of contradictions and a year of selective blank slates. And for someone like me, who often extolls the catharsis of understanding and defining our feelings, it was a year of finally learning the meaning of words I had previously overused: gratitude, happiness, family, privilege and bittersweet.
The sunset that defined normalcy for me was mesmerizingly blue and gold — the kind that seems gloriously mediocre until the setting sun peeks through the clouds, casting golden panes of light through myriad blues that rapidly turn inky. It’s the kind that mirrors the ocean waves, sometimes turbulent, sometimes placid. But always celestial. It makes you rise out of your seat by the window and wonder how something so normal could be so beautiful.
While the routine of daily life remained the same, sunset after sunset, my mind was turbulent: The six months that I spent at home this year were six months of intense, sometimes devastating periods of internal reflection. For the first time in years, I asked myself what I wanted. Who do I want to be? What would make me happy? Do I like the things I’m doing? What are the demands that I have from life?
To be honest, the answers were unimportant compared to the process itself. The act of checking in with myself was very dramatic for me. There was clarity in now knowing that my aspirations are not just a product of habit. Quarantining at home showed me what my true priorities are. There is beauty in reflection and rumination, in spending time with yourself. I always believed that my sins could be overwritten by straight A’s. Over this year, I learned to untangle my sense of worth from my productivity and academic performance. The inequitable impact of the health crisis showed me that productivity is a luxury that not many can always afford.
The class on human happiness that I took this spring taught me about the incredible effect of “awe” on humans. It’s easy to be awed by incredible experiences. But to let yourself be in awe of the seemingly insignificant — a beautiful lyric, a small scientific discovery, a succinct line of code or even just a blue and gold sunset that fades naturally into the twilight — that’s the real challenge.
In August, I moved back to Berkeley to begin a dystopian junior year of online school. One incredible evening, the sky broke into one of the most magnificent sunsets I had ever seen, painted with bold, burnished strokes of red, pink, orange and yellow. I distinctly recall thinking, hellfire.
Over the next few months, I remember rushing out frantically to catch many such transcendent sunsets. The campus, though definitely not a ghost town, seemed muffled, as though buried under a velvet blanket. I missed the bustle of regular campus life, the trek to Northside, even the incessant flyering on Sproul. But in previous semesters, sunsets and viewpoints would be rare indulgences, probably seen through the window of a library. Now, they are a much-anticipated part of my daily routine.
I’m grateful not just for the experiences I’ve had this year but for the fact that I’ve been able to savor them twice, as Anais Nin says, by writing about them. The sunsets and the people with whom I savored them inspired a level of creativity and nuance that I would never have achieved without the happenings of 2020.
A quiet evening on the edge of a cliff, with just the ocean in front of me, I remember writing a note that I could almost feel the colors of the sunset. An afternoon watching the sunlight skip across a lake, we couldn’t stop muttering the word “scintillating” because nothing else could describe the radiance. This semester, I understood the unending power and beauty of nature. This semester, we lived sunset to sunset.
The last type of sunsets in 2020 was the poetic “cotton candy skies.” The kind where the sky looks like Frank Ocean’s voice — unconventional and startling. Lilac skies that darken into violet, ever so often punctuated by candied pink wisps of clouds. If the other two sunsets heralded reflection and poignance, this one whispered of rare, quiet moments of reprieve.
A professor once told me that happiness is an art, and so, you can learn to practice it. I tried to learn it this year. Like the memories of the cotton candy skies, there have been countless times when I have paused to bottle the moment and turn the gratitude I feel, the inspiration, the desire to contribute to the world, the need to be increasingly true to myself, into a memory that I will cherish forever. And through all the stress and uncertainty, I could not bring myself to be ungrateful because to stay on to see another sunset, to experience the colors of the universe yet again, is a huge privilege.
For 20 years, I have viewed myself and society in distinct colors, all the while priding myself on the fact that I don’t see things in black and white. But 2020 showed me that I’ve still been viewing these intangibles as discrete hues when they are, in fact, a continuous, chaotic mess of blending hues that come together like a unique sunset. Virginia Woolf once said, “I am in the mood to dissolve in the sky.” And I think this year, I did.