The Salvation of a Nantucket Sunset

by Robert P. Barsanti

Even at 6 pm you can find sandals at the beach. They remain paired and herded at the base of a dune, or underneath the Rosa Rugosa, or at the foot of the stairs. All the brands are represented, from Nike to J.J. Newberry’s to L.L.Bean to Thrift Shop.

I am not of the flip-flop tribe, so I cannot speak for their customs. I would like to believe that these people wear their flip-flops from their cars, over the rough and rocky parking lot, and to the beach, where they surrender them at the first kiss of sand and then proceed to a towel and the rolling Atlantic. But, when I come here in the evening, or, perhaps, February, some of these sandals are still nestled up under the stairs or wedged under the bushes, hibernating until July. I suppose some people just leave their sandals at the beach, and then change into them at the base of the dune, so that they can cross hot sand.

I don’t know if this is common at other beaches in America. I haven’t noticed it happening in Wellfleet, Hawaii, or Gloucester, but I haven’t travelled the length and breadth and can’t speak as an authority. But, I think many summer visitors have a proprietary view of “their” beach. Those beaches have better sand, or better waves, or less seaweed, or, frankly, more friends. Oh, they know that “Schneidies” or “Fat Ladies” or “Airport” are not, per se, their beaches, but they are the ones that they go to if they have a choice. But in the winter, when they are stuck in the long parade to Hartford on I-84, those are the beaches that they see. For them, their worn flip-flops are membership cards; they belong to this strip of sand. Membership, as we remember, has its privileges.

One of those privileges comes at sunset. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth—whenever it is a damp drizzly November in my soul—I find that it is high time that I go to the beach and see a sunset. Now, I understand that searching after sunsets is the sort of thing that plein-air artists, twiggy poets, and TED Talk speakers might do, but an island sunset comes in a different flavor, for a different audience. I try not to hang out with those sorts for obvious reasons.

When the sun sets on Nantucket, it descends into the straight line of the horizon. The sun does not slip behind the Adirondacks, then bathe the mountains and valleys in a golden Alpenglow. And it does not descend between the building in New York for Manhattenhenge and illuminate the cabs and town cars. Out here, the monuments of earth and man are tucked away: the sun dips into the infinite horizon, the straightest thing I see all day.

So, when you come to Cisco in the evening, pass by the communion of sandals, and settle yourself on the beach, you witness one of the most mundane and monumental events of the day. On one hand, the sun is setting every second: somewhere across this great globe, the sun is dipping below the horizon. Nothing in the world is more ubiquitous than a sunset (other than a sunrise).

Yet, I don’t spend much time on the infinite, be it mathematical or otherwise. Always, something is in the offing, out there between the horizon and life. Roads, hills, buildings, and heavy brush clutters up the view. You spend an extra ten minutes in the grocery store, fifteen at the bank, and twenty on the phone, and then it gets dark fast. The infinite gets mucked up with bills, bodies, and balderdash. And it doesn’t matter. The infinite will always be there, that’s what it says on the label. And the infinite sunset will glow when the sandals, the beach towels, and myself have all been ground up into dust.

Out here on Cisco Beach, you can make time to clear everything from the offing and leave yourself clean, in the presence of geometry. The mathematics are brutal. Time dips second by second, degree by degree, into the glowing horizon. No word, no structure, no mountain will hold it back. The mathematics are also liberating. With the gradual inevitable, the planets and then stars emerge into the purpling dark. Venus, Jupiter, Sirius, the zodiac, and then, finally, the Milky Way.

Nothing burns up problems and poetry like the application of geometry. We keep time throughout the day, following the beat of clocks and cannonballs, but the slow creep of a sunset strips our clocks down to the primordial tick. Sunsets make time, so we have to make time for sunsets.

Yo-Yo Ma speaks about making time for culture. If you make time, you change the angle at which you look at life. If you make time, you can feel in charge. If you only keep time, or mark time, you are waltzing to someone else’s downbeat.

To be out at Cisco, in the gradual tick of time, is to stare down the well of infinity. On the stage of water, tides, moon, and stars, one island of human life (and their sandals) weighs about as much as the microscopic water bears that wash up on the sand.

The one part of a vacation that will reset your life are the hours when the sun sets and the Milky Way rises. If the leaky window in Tom Nevers and the lack of lemonade in the refrigerator still seem important after the galaxy appears out of the ocean, you may need to spend the night.