The Museum of Science in Boston has a Foucault’s pendulum. Surrounding it in a perfectly spaced circle are small pins. As a kid, I would stand there for what felt like an eternity watching from behind the glass as the pendulum swung back and forth in a straight line, the earth’s rotation slowly shifting the direction with each passing second. Through smudged fingerprints and streaks of breathy fog, I would wait for its axis to line up with another pin. The pin would wobble as the pendulum closed the distance, the wind from its plodding swing just enough to cause it to teeter. The edges of my mouth would creep higher as the tiny space between weight and pin shrank to nothingness.
Once I knew how the pendulum worked, I understood it was essentially a clock set by motion and the earth’s rotation. The window always seemed to have someone standing by it. Usually, it was a family discussing what they wanted to do or see, a small child pressed against the window, a stroller or toddler clutched in the parents arms. The adults didn’t seem to note the clock, preferring to confer while the wee ones watched. Compared to the musical stairs, the planetarium exploration zone, the polarized mural with polarized glasses that let one see the polarized image, and the multiple Rube Goldberg clocks with moving balls, elevators, and ramps that now show up in dozens of airports, the pendulum clock seemed boring. As the pendulum approached a pin, however, I would find myself jostled and pushed as kids would jockey for position.
I don’t ever push my way to the front of a crowd unless it’s required of me. At my height and weight and size, I feel as though I’m in the way more often than not. I gravitate toward the back or side of crowds and it takes an effort to drag me toward the middle or front. When I do end up in midst of a throng, I feel utterly self-conscious, worried that I’m blocking someone’s view, slouching hunching my shoulders, trying to still my body to take up the least amount of space. I find it difficult to concentrate on what I came to see, fearful of how I’m affecting others’ experiences.
Even being a bigger kid, even gravitating toward the back of the crowd where I would have to tilt and lean to get a view, I never felt self-conscious watching the pendulum. I would lose myself in its swing and rhythm, its perfect parabolic arc of motion and acceleration. Time slowed down as it would approach the pin and my heart ached with desire every time it passed close, threatening, yearning.
No matter how badly I wanted that pendulum to slide into that pin, there was no rushing it. It was at the whims of gravity, under the spell of planetary rotation, and legally bound by physics.
The last time I went to the Museum of Science, I barely paused at the pendulum clock. A family of four stood in front, the parents discussing plans while one of the kids pressed up against the glass. I watched the girl’s breath billow against the glass in anticipation, her fingers squeaking against the invisible barrier. As the pendulum swung close to a pin she tried banging on the glass to no avail. Her parents barely glanced over as they told her to knock it off. She tried stomping on the ground, her weight and size making the crisp clop of her flip-flop barely register. The pin didn’t budge. The tips of her ears turned red as she held her breath trying to will the pin to fall, her cheeks following soon after. The pendulum passed within millimeters of the pin, sending it swaying without toppling. She grasped at the glass, as if trying to fold it into the room. The pendulum nicked the pin and, with a soft yet satisfying clink, tumbled to its side. The girl grinned, relief pouring from her face, her body relaxing as she turned happily back to her parents. Their obliviousness was obvious.
I wondered where that passion had gone as I wandered past the girl, the pendulum and the recently fallen pin. How could I feel so much as a child, yet be unmoved by the same stimulus now?
“I’m not angry,” I say.
“Sure. Or maybe you just don’t want to admit it,” she replies, her eyes never leaving the road. The matter-of-fact way in which she says it catches me off guard.
For the last fifteen minutes, I’ve been telling her a story, rife with complaints and angry words; the bitter, twisted subjectivity of my tale matches her assessment.
This is far from uncommon. When I notice anger, guilt, shame, I tend to feel confused as to their origins. I pause and logically break down the roots, carefully deciding if I’m justified in my emotional reaction. Occasionally, I know I should have an emotional response and yet I don’t; in those moments, I can choose to force it, to explode with a dishonest vehemence. More often, I choose to remain even-keel.
Though fewer and farther between than the constant bursts of emotion as a child, where everything was grave and serious and the end of the world, I still find myself overwhelmed every once in a while. Mostly its by positive or neutral emotions: joy; ecstasy; love; lust; excitement; pride; curiosity; appreciation.
Were the pendulum left to its own devices, it would eventually slow down, never quite reaching the pins again, finally coming to a halt over the center of the clock. Luckily, someone or something continues to add energy, allowing the pendulum to swing freely each time I pass, no matter how many hours or days or years have passed.
I wonder if I’m not unlike the pendulum, my speed reduced by age, the arc of my swing ever shrinking. Only by some unknown hand, when I’m not pressed against the glass watching and waiting, is energy added to my system.