Peaceable Man Files #29: Taking in the Sunsets at St. Pete’s Beach
What is it about a sunset over the ocean that draws people like bees to nectar?
I found myself pondering this age-old question last week as Rachael and I, along with my youngest son Liam, spent a few days in Florida on a winter getaway. We were in St. Pete’s Beach, an area Rachael and I discovered last year and fell in love with. The clean, white-sand beaches; the warm turquoise Gulf waters; the relaxing island vibe of the beach bars and restaurants where every night you can find someone playing live music: what is there not to love?
We were fortunate last week to avoid the worst of the red tide that is currently wreaking havoc along Florida’s southwest coast. On our first day in St. Pete’s, we were dodging dead fish and other debris as we walked along the beach, but after that, the water cleared up and we were even able to put our toes in the water and go for a swim with no noticeable ill effects.
The weather was perfect: sunny blue skies every day, a light ocean breeze blowing, temperature reaching the low 80s. Aside from one day when we went to see a Phillies spring-training game in Clearwater, we spent every minute we could on the beach, knowing that we would soon be back home in the cold, damp Northeast.
At the end of every lovely day, we made sure we were down at the beach for the last half hour of daylight to watch the sun dip into the ocean. We were not the only ones. Sunsets here on the Gulf Coast of Florida are quite the draw among both the locals and vacationers.
All around us, people streamed out onto the beach to see the sun set over the water. Young and old, they came with chairs and blankets to sit on. Couples stood arm-in-arm. College kids climbed out on the jetties to sit on the rocks and watch.
Being a lifelong East Coaster, I am not used to seeing ocean sunsets. Sunrises, yes—I’ve seen my share of those in my days hanging out at Ocean City, New Jersey. My first view of a sunset over the ocean was when I was in Key West for my honeymoon many years ago.
Key West sunsets—at least the ones that I went to at Mallory Square—are a rowdy affair, complete with street performers, live music, food trucks, and local artisans selling their wares. The celebration starts an hour or two before sunset and continues afterward. It’s a lot of fun, but it’s not exactly peaceful.
Our sunsets last week in St. Pete’s Beach were quite a different story. Everyone was quiet and respectful. There were no performers, no rowdiness, no music. We didn’t even hear seagulls squawking as I’m used to while watching the sun rise at the Jersey shore.
There was only the wash of the waves breaking and retreating as the ocean exhaled and inhaled. Nature was the star of the show here, and we were a community of watchers, come together for a brief period to witness the performance.
And what a performance it was. As the sun crept lower toward the horizon, the sky turned varying shades of orange, pink, and raspberry, spreading color across the sky and the glistening water. As the sun sunk closer to the rim of the ocean, a meditative hush went over the crowd. We were taking in more than the beauty of the scene. We were reflecting on the passing of another day of our lives.
As soon as the sun sunk down into the water, the crowd began to disperse. People grabbed their chairs and made their way back to their homes to enjoy their evenings.
Sunsets remind us of the limitedness of our days on this Earth and the finality of our time here. We only get so many days, so many sunrises and sunsets. What will we do with them? What should we do with them?
In his book, Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals, Oliver Burkeman reminds us that the average human being, if he or she lives to the age of eighty, has four thousand weeks of life to work with. To make the most of our days, he says, we need to be clear-eyed about our mortality and seek to maximize the enjoyment and productivity we get out of our finite time.
I’m now sixty-three and hoping to make it past eighty, but even if I do, that means I only have maybe a thousand weeks left in my all-too-brief time here on Earth. How do I plan to spend my remaining days?
I’m going to watch as many sunrises and sunsets as I can. In between, I’m going to do my best to live fully in every moment, regretting nothing and approaching each day with appreciation, wonder, and an adventurous spirit, all while looking forward to the next life.
What more could we ask?