We felt it before we could name it. We understood that it is a big, hot circle that sits in the sky. We played and danced and rejoiced in its existence. We felt the warmth of its rays soak into our hungry skin. One day our mouths learned to form the word. Sun.
In preschool we drew pictures of it with large yellow crayons pressed between our small fingers. In later classrooms we learned that the earth revolves around it, that it gives life to plants and trees which in turn give life to us, that it is, in fact, the very center of everything.
We set our clocks to it. We measure our days by it. It follows us wherever we go. We are amazed at how different its warmth can feel in different places in the world, in different times in our lives. It has tanned us, and burned us, and made us happy to be alive. It is a constant that all of share. We miss it when it’s gone.
It continues to teach us lessons. The sun rises each morning with the promise of a new day, a clean slate to be filled with as much happiness and kindness as we can cultivate. And when days fall short of our expectations, we can watch as it slowly slides down the slope of the western sky. We can revel in its pink and orange assurances that this day is over, that we can begin to let it go. We can hope to be lucky enough to see another sunrise. We can wish for the chance to try it all again.
On one of my childhood vacations, my father heroically offered to drive us through six European countries. A lot of what I watched through the backseat of that rental car has become jumbled and lost in my memory. Still, I remember vividly driving through the south of France. I remember the fields of sunflowers. I remember the hundreds of thousands of tall, yellow petals shining in the heat of summer. I remember being so utterly delighted.
My mother recognized my joy, as perhaps only mothers can, and she turned back to me to say “the thing about sunflowers is, they always know how to find the light with their faces.” I remember this experience as a whole because of those few words. I remember thinking, even as a young child, how profound that was. What more could any living thing hope for? What more can any of us do but be wise enough in times of darkness to know how to search for the light?
Life is difficult, far more so than we are willing to admit to one another or ourselves. All we have is the distance between the rising and setting of the sun, and so years, months, days, even mere moments can feel simultaneously all too long and all too short. Time itself can break your heart.
And more than once in my life I have had to follow the example of the sunflowers. I have looked up at the sun. I have felt the comforting warmth of its rays. I have pointed my face toward the light. I have let it devour me.