Whenever I get the chance, I drive south out of Lawrence just past K10 highway on a back road to Clinton Lake. I park in my usual spot, angled toward the impending sunset and take a moment to enjoy the view.
The sky, reliable as time itself, fades from a light blue to a golden yellow and deep orange, eventually giving way to near darkness. It has become my self-soothing ritual for whenever things get tough.
I always go back to one of my earliest memories, crying myself to sleep the day I found out my mother died. My brother, 9 at the time, sniffled to himself in the matching twin bed next to me as the cartoon cowboy mural filled the wall behind us.
That’s just the kind of mother she was — the kind who had matching denim bed sets in a cowboy themed bedroom for her sons. Regardless, the breast cancer that took her far too young persisted, and left one skeptical son in its wake.
At 6, I was forced to face the permanence of death before I was even capable of processing it. This moment served as the foundation — or lack thereof — for my spirituality the remainder of my childhood. I’d needed a God and no one showed up.
I was never satisfied with the lessons learned in Sunday school or Wednesday night bible studies. I’d move through life processing the why’s and how’s of moving forward that follow immense loss. Why me? Why now? How do I move on? The technicalities of who and why all of this existed seemed lost on me.
At church camp in seventh grade, my already struggling belief broke. Everything suddenly felt so meaningless, as I realized that no amount of singing, praying and scripture would bring my mother back, rid the world of pain or even make this all a bit more bearable. It was overwhelming.
Several years later, with our heads bowed in prayer at church on a Sunday morning, I looked up and realized everyone else in the congregation seemed committed to a belief I couldn’t understand. It was then that I accepted I would never understand this point of view, and I felt at peace with that. A weight was lifted when I realized I could stop trying to believe.
Until I saw the dedication to belief that filled the sanctuary, I was convinced no one actually believed in God. So I stepped into the world with a newfound understanding in myself and my beliefs.
Then I moved away to college. Where, honestly, I never even tried to go to church. It wasn't what I wanted or needed to do. I had more to learn about the world and myself and church just wasn’t where I was going to find those things. I’d already tried that for the previous 18 years.
I found rituals in other things. So there I sat, perched on my bunk bed on the sixth floor of my college dorm room to watch the sun set over Daisy Hill every night.
Streaks of blue and pink and orange and red filled the Lawrence sky day-in and day-out and another 24 hours of freshman year were crossed off the calendar. Whether I was crying over my Philosophy 180 homework or the frat boy that wasn’t texting me back, that sunset was right there as the most dependable part of every day.
In these brief moments of stillness, the brief moments of reflection, I felt connected to something bigger than myself for the first time in years.
The cherry red pews of my church turned into the torn leather seats of my car and the altar became my dashboard driving out to Clinton Lake whenever things ever got tough or I just couldn’t shake a feeling of loneliness. I’ll turn on “Golden Hour” by Kacey Musgraves (the quintessential sunset album) and watch the sun inch down into the crescent of the earth.
I think of the heartache and grief of my childhood and the life I’ve built in the years since. It all begs the question, is there a higher power? Is there more out there than meets the eye? I haven’t found an answer that works for me yet. I’m not sure I ever will. But I do know, if I ever find myself stopping to look at a sunset, I make sure to take a deep breath and let myself feel the warmth of another day closing.
I let go of myself; the triumphant wins and deep losses in this lifetime and I hold on to the hope of the future and the permanence that the sun will rise again and time will keep pressing forward. I let myself feel the power in the hope of something greater and some days, this is all I need.