Potential Energy

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Me playing with a bunch of puppies

It’s weird to want things but to know that you’re not yet ready for them.

One of my favorite short stories is “Cat in the Rain” by Hemingway. It’s brief, and very simple, but the first time I read it, it filled me with so much joy.

In this story, an American husband and wife are on vacation in Italy, staying at an inn on a rainy evening. The husband is relaxing in bed reading a book, and the wife looks out the window and notices a cat outside in the garden, crouched under a table trying to avoid getting wet.

The wife feels sad for the cat in the rain, and decides that she wants to bring it inside with her. She walks downstairs and goes outside with an umbrella to retrieve it, but finds that the cat is gone.

When she returns to the room, she is restless, and begins talking about other things that she wants. She wants her own house and dinner table, she wants it to be spring, she wants her hair to grow longer–and still, she wants a cat. Her husband listens only absentmindedly, as she speaks with great longing. He tells her to stop brooding and read a book.

Then, there’s a knock on the door. It is the inn’s maid, with the cat in her arms, which she has brought up for the wife.

The end.

That’s all.

Months after I read this story for the first time, I read someone else’s analysis of it. They argued that the story highlighted how impatient and frivolous Americans can be. They said that the wife was being childish, and that she was only focused on her own desires instead of enjoying the present moment or appreciating her surroundings.

But to me, it seemed to be the purest happy ending to a story I’d ever read, a perfect example of wish fulfillment.

Like the wife in the story, I feel like there are always so many things that I want–material things, specific experiences, personal growth, certain circumstances. Lots of them are far out of my reach. I see them far off in the distance and I hope to reach them someday, but for now, I just pine and work for them.

Patience is a virtue, but it’s not always one that comes easily to us. There’s a reason why you train a dog to hold a treat on its nose before letting it eat–because learning how to wait is an important thing to learn. And I am learning this, too.

On a most basic level, our behaviors are predicated upon the outcome of an electrical equation. Excitatory and inhibitory impulses sum up in our brains, and whichever has communicated a higher number of impulses at a time or place wins out, either exciting or inhibiting a behavior.

I am very happy with myself now, and these days, I sometimes feel like I am straining against some natural urge inside of me to be always excited, to be always acting. I don’t feel I inhibit many of my behaviors very often anymore, and it’s very pleasant to give into my whimsical impulses.

But, as with everything, there must always be balance. I can’t do or have everything that I want all of the time, most often for lots of very practical reasons: I don’t have enough money, I have certain responsibilities, I don’t want to be disrespectful, I don’t want to inadvertently harm someone or something.

There are also some things, however, that I can’t have because I’m not ready for them yet. I am my own best judge of what’s right for me, and I have finally reached a point of maturity where I can recognize my own limits without feeling defined or boxed in by them. Instead of striking out wildly in some impulsive attempt to break free, I am learning how to stand still and acknowledge my current place in things, and to see how that relates to the things I eventually want. I’ve learned how to exhale calm and to feel joy, even, in waiting for those things.

My father is a butcher by trade, but he has the mind and heart of an inventor. Our house is full of things he’s made, both beautiful things and useful things. He goes through phases of interest. A couple of years ago, he was building furniture out of tree branches. Currently, he is constructing electrostatic generators from scratch, using bits and pieces of things he finds or acquires, watching videos, and tweaking his machines to suit his purposes.

I check in on his workshop every few days, and he shows me his progress. He points out the different parts of the machines and shows me how they work together to generate electricity. On the sides of his generators are leyden jars, which collect static through wire brushes and store electrical energy inside themselves until it reaches a critical value, resulting in the discharge of a large spark in the space between two metal bulbs.

While the spark is the exciting part, the goal, the tangible product of the work, it could never be produced if the electricity didn’t have time to build up inside the leyden jars first.

I feel a sense of kinship with this process, and I recognize its importance in myself.

In one of my favorite books, Stranger in a Strange Land, the main character Michael Valentine is a human who was raised by martians. As a result, he is a strange godlike creature who radiates wisdom and can bring about large-scale events through a finessed series of actions.

One of the characteristics he brings with him from Mars is the happy sense that he still has so much learning and growing to do. “I am only an egg,” is his endearing translation of the martian concept into English, and he also talks happily about waiting to “grok” (understand, feel) many things fully.

I am a leyden jar. I am only an egg.

I am glad to be those things. It’s lovely to know that there are warm, happy things waiting for me in the future that will unfold as I reach them. I am not religious, but I always feel a great sense of sureness in the natural unspooling of events, in the ever-onward march of time and its implications for growth, however slow the growth may be.

Like the wife in the Italian inn, I sometimes sit and dream impatiently about all the things that I want, until I nearly make myself ache with all my wanting.

But I know that I am moving forward towards them. At the perfect moment, there will be a knock on my metaphorical door, and someone will bring me a cat.

And what a purely happy thing that will be.

(Fun fact: Although this is applicable to many, many things in my life, I got onto this whole train of thought for one reason. I. Want. A. Puppy. So. Bad. But it’s not a good time for me to get a puppy. So if anyone in Central PA has a puppy I can come play with, PLEASE LET ME KNOW. THANKS.)

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