The Sun Also Sets

Seeing the beauty in front of you

Illustration by Peter Arkle

My daughter doesn’t yet appreciate sunsets. Last year at this time, we were on a ship in the middle of the Pacific. Each night the equatorial sunsets looked as if the sky had erupted like a giant volcano and spewed Technicolor magma all over the horizon. I’d regularly drag my daughter to the ship’s west balustrade and demand that she marvel at them with me, which she did with much eye-rolling and arm-folding. “Look at that!” I’d exclaim, pointing to the heavens. “Doesn’t that make you want to fall over backwards and foam at the mouth?”

“Not really,” she’d say.

Still, I made her join me every night. I thought it would be wise to plant these moments in her mind, and the day might come when she would be swayed, when these moments would blossom in her memory. That is my hope, anyway, and I don’t think it’s a small one.

One thing she did appreciate was the odd ceremony performed when the ship crossed the equator. In it, passengers were flogged with dead fish and showered with rotten food and other filth, then they were tossed into the pool, which itself turned into a giant puddle of roiling, near-toxic gruel. It wasn’t that long ago when I would have reveled in having rancid crap dumped over my head and then being pushed into a river of swill—in fact, that’s almost exactly how I’d describe my twenties—but the fogey in me reared itself and I gingerly stepped through the melee, careful not to slip on any of the artificial diarrhea covering the deck just then, and made my way to the far bar, where I asked a crew member what in God’s name was going on.

“This is the line-crossing ceremony. It’s maritime tradition,” he said. “It’s fun.”

I didn’t see how it was fun to turn the pool into a toilet and then swim in it, but what do I know? “Maybe one day you will look back on it and appreciate it,” my girl told me with loosely guarded sarcasm. That evening I snapped at least forty photographs of her in front of the sunset.

A few days later our ship docked in Dalian, China, which is famous for kite flying, although this local notoriety could have been completely invented by the cruise line for the purpose of fleecing passengers frantic for land-based activity after spending five days at sea dodging dead fish. We signed up for a kite-flying expedition regardless of the fact that my girl had, days earlier, slipped on the ship’s deck and fractured her foot. Still, she gamely clambered about on the outdated “polio crutches” the ship’s doctor had given her.

I thought that since the kite-flying expedition was to be in the city’s central park, it would, you know, occur on an expanse of level grass, because in my head that is what a park is. But no; in Dalian the entire park is paved in concrete, and it has tons of steps in order to climb the many ridges and hills. It was hostile ground for a girl on crutches, and I winced watching mine attempt to navigate it.

As we passed one small hillock, I saw that its entire eastern face was covered in small handwritten notes, and a crowd of elderly people milled about, picking them up, assessing them, putting them back.

Our guide explained that it was tradition for parents to gather here every Sunday and place notes on the ground, extolling the virtues of a grown child or grandchild who is still unmarried in hopes of finding them a suitable partner in life. “This note says, ‘My son is loyal, strong, and exceptional at playing the mandolin,’” she translated. “This one here says, ‘My daughter doesn’t yet appreciate tradition, but at least she is able to grow eggplant, and she is smart and kind and doesn’t speak ill of anyone.’”

Looking at the notes—there were so many of them—I hoped that these people would find what they wanted for their cherished ones. Then I looked at my own girl. She had unfurled her kite and forsaken her crutches, hopping around on one foot as the kite soared into the sky. I called to her, unsure she should be hobbling around like that. “You can’t fly a kite on crutches!” she called back.

So I sat down and watched, picking up one of the notes. I studied the indecipherable writing. “My daughter doesn’t yet appreciate sunsets,” it may have said, “but at least she doesn’t rely on crutches, and she is smart and kind and able to 
be swayed.”

This article originally appeared in our March 2013 issue.