One year for Christmas (or maybe my birthday, December 2001 regardless) my eleven-year-old sister gave me a painting. It was a sunset, she told me, from when she had gone whale-watching.
The colors were identifiable to me as yellow, blue, white. The shapes made themselves legible, clouds, waves, rays of light. But no matter how long I stared at it, the painting didn’t look like a sunset to me. It completely defied my expectations and confused me. I treasured it.
Sometimes I would get angry at it, and even annoyed with my sister, why couldn’t she have just painted a sunset instead of painting me this incomprehensible scene, then mocking me by labeling it “sunset”? Taunting me with some unknowable vision, neatly enclosing the limits of my understanding in an innocent wooden frame.
In the twelve years since she gave it to me I have lived in twelve different homes. With the exception of two of places (couldn’t risk stuffing it into an already overstuffed suitcase) the painting has come with me and is usually the first thing to go up on a wall. I absolutely love this painting, despite the jumbled emotions it inspires.
It only recently dawned on me (pun unintentional, but pretty perfect nonetheless) that what I have been staring at — with love and self-pity and admiration and doubt — is not, in fact, a sunset. Not any sunset that I have seen or will ever see. No, for nearly a dozen years I have had the incredible privilege of looking out at Raquel‘s sunset.
My little sister opened her eyes one evening and this is what she saw. And then she gave that sight to me.
I’ve seen sunsets; the cones and rods of my retinae have absorbed evening light and bounced the information to my brain where my inner monologue said “sunset”. Say the word to me again and I get an image, my own concept, of sunset. All very useful, but my own labels have prevented me from appreciating that “sunset” to someone else looks different.
I think we all have a lot of expectations, for how a day will go, for how another person will act, for how we’ll feel about this that or the other. I wonder how much my expectations have caused me to miss. On my wall hangs a painting of sunset, that still looks nothing like sunset to me, that fills me with joy and wonder for the immense plurality of human experience. I am so grateful for it.