Do you see what I see?

Thursday 16th February, 2023

As I was driving home a few evenings ago, through the snowy open countryside of North East Scotland, I had one of those moments of wonder where you realise that you are witnessing a sunset so unusual and perfect that it goes beyond the background scenery of normal life.

The sky was turquoise and peach and purple and yellow and red with glowing edges. It reflected off the snow so the ground had a purpley peach radiance. An imposing church dominated the horizon, giving a satisfying focal point to the whole scene. Everything looked too dark to be daytime but too bright to be night-time. Even though it was sunset, the sun was nowhere to be seen. In Scotland this is called "the gloaming" (my English friend informs me that people call it that everywhere and we are not as special as I think we are). It is impossible to truly describe and impossible to capture in a photograph.

So, I pulled over in a suitable layby to capture a photograph. With my 3-year-old phone.

Of course, when I looked at the photo on my camera screen, I was predictably disappointed. The sky was mostly blue, it looked like normal daytime and the rest of the colours were meh. The snow was grey. The imposing church that was supposed to dominate the scene was a speck on the horizon. There was none of the glowing vibrancy that my eyes could see. An experienced photographer with a fancy camera would no doubt have captured something substantially better, but the disconnect between what was right there in front of my eyes and what was on my screen was frustratingly insurmountable.

Not to be defeated, I tried that night to recreate the scene on paper. I have a deal with my 4-year-old daughter. I can use her watercolour pencils, and she can use my special brush pens. In reality, my special brush pens are hidden away somewhere she will never find them, and my cheap brush pens are pretend hidden away so that I can make a ceremony out of retrieving them for her when she's being good. But she doesn't know that. To explain why I need her pencils, she is a keen colourer-inner, and so we bought her fancy expensive pencils that are better than anything I own. They are really nicely pigmented and smooth, as well as being water-soluble so you can dip them in water and feel proper fancy. It was worth making this expenditure for her; going by the precision with which she stays within the lines I am pretty sure that she will grow up to be a talented artist. Of course, being her mother, I am also pretty sure she will be a concert worthy singer, a Fields Medal mathematician, a Laurence Olivier dancer, a Nobel prize winning scientist, an Olympic gymnast, a vet, a sculptor, a model, a writer… basically she will have more career options than Barbie.

Anyway, armed with excellent pencils, a mediocre photograph, and my unreliable memory, I sketched out the big bits (horizon, clouds, fields) and tried to fill the colours in. Then I realised two important facts. Firstly, I actually suck at drawing. This is why I don't deserve my own fancy colouring pencils. Secondly, I had even less idea than my camera what the colours were. What my brain told me was purple may actually have been peach, the yellow was probably orange, the red was pink. I couldn't even begin to work out how to capture that deep dim clear comfortingly foreboding lighting. Everything I tried looked ridiculous and unrealistic. To be fair, the real scene had looked unrealistic in real life, but it wasn't ridiculous.

So what could I do with this amazing scene in my head? How could I preserve it, share it with my loved ones, relive it? Of course, the problem here is that I can't do any of these things. Even if I were an amazing photographer or a talented artist, nothing really captures the lived experience of seeing something with your eyes, being surrounded by it, actually becoming a part of the scene. My inadequate colour memories showed me that I couldn't even accurately relive it in my brain. I suppose I wanted to share the awe with someone, but even if someone had been with me would we reminisce about it later? "Hey, remember that time there was a really nice gloaming and it had been snowing?"

Stopping my car did mean that I looked at that snowy scene and appreciated it even more than if I had kept driving, and I would never have done that if I hadn't been trying to take a photo. It was cold, the roads were bad, and I wanted to get home to my central heating and snacks. Maybe next time I see a beautiful sunset I will just take the time to stop and appreciate it with my eyes, in the moment.

And it doesn't matter if I can't preserve that memory. To be there, to feel both part of something and insignificant, to just think, "Gee, that view is kind of pretty," should be enough to make the experience worthwhile. We didn't used to feel compelled to share every precious moment with anyone, we didn't even try to preserve thoughts for our future selves. Sometimes all that matters is that you take the time to stop and actually live in the moment instead of #liveinthemoment. No photographs, no watercolour pencil sketches, no self-indulgent solipsistic blog posts… ah shit.

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