sunshine, the flux capacitor, and creative work

Posted: January 6, 2011 in A Day in the Life, Complete Nonsense


This post is a little unusual.  It’s 50% science lesson, 50% philosophy, 15% language study, and 50% math. Just kidding (it’s only 20% math).  But if you’ll hang with me, I promise, it works.  The picture above you is the famous Flux Capacitor.  We’re going to talk about it in a minute.  But before we do I’d like to set the stage upon which it will “perform” its feature role.  And so, let’s begin by painting the backdrop with a brief consideration of an ancient energy source, the sun, and the modern use of solar power.

The basics of solar power are this:  you have a source, the sun.  You have an end user, a lamp for example.  And you have a mode of energy translation, the solar panel.  The solar panel is usually flat, broad, and very open to the sun.  So open, in fact, that it spreads out before the sun’s light beams in a direction that allows it to absorb light from wherever the sun is positioned in the sky.  Those panels thatare installed in open fields actually tilt and rotate to accommodate the sun’s changing position.  And while there are many interesting parallels here of living a life more open to God, that’s not what this particular exploration is about.  For in addition to these three basic elements – the sun, the panel, and the lamp – there is a fourth, more practical and equally vital element.

Picture this for a moment:  you’re a reader.  In fact, you like to read long into the night.  Your lamp runs on solar power.  There is little use for the lamp during the day, when the sun is at its brightest.  You need the lamp at night.  A solar panel that collects the rays and distributes them directly to your lamp in an instant is useful, but only if you need that power in that instant.  The solar panel isn’t going to be much  help at all at night.  This is true during a storm or cloud cover as well during which, if you’re running some other piece of electrically-driven gadgetry, you’re equally incapacitated.  While the sun as a source of energy is very useful, during those moments of darkness it isn’t very practical.  What do you do when you can no longer see the sun?  We can learn something here from a brief, very rough lesson in Latin.

The Latin root “cap” is often used in the English language in a way that either means “to take hold of” or “to seize”, as in “capture”.  Another use of this Latin root is “to contain” or “to hold”.  From this root, we derive words such as:  capacity, capacitate, (and therefore the negative derivations of “incapacity” or “incapacitate”).  Now, I’m no language expert or even a studier thereof, so I’ll be checking my Latin roots with my daughter, our resident language expert.  But it’s this latter use of the root that I’d like to hone in on.  Specifically, the “capacitor” and its rightful place as the fourth element in our solar analogy.

The Flux Capacitor is an instrument of legend.  Doc Brown invented it, Marty McFly used it, and unfathomable adventure ensued.  Plus we laughed.  A lot.  And while we first saw the Flux Capacitor in the mid 80’s, it wasn’t until college that I was first really introduced to the capacitor (he real kind, not the flux kind).  I was in my second year of engineering when I was required to take a course in electrical engineering.  While I found the course really interesting, it was in later years where I discovered the more fascinating parallels to the non-electrical arenas of life.  In electrical engineering, the term “capacitor” describes an electrical component used to store electrons.  The flow of electrons through circuitry is what we traditionally refer to as electricity, the stuff powers the lamp that in our example.  Essentially, a capacitor is a set of conductive plates between which resides a space filled with a non-conductive substance (air, cellulose, ceramic, etc.).  Each plate of the capacitor is connected to the wiring of your particular circuitry.  As the electrons reach and are conducted through one plate, they move into the non-conductive material and are stored there.  They are drawn upon by the other plate, only when the circuit on the other side demands it;  i.e., the electrons are stored in this vast reservoir and remain there until they are needed.  What this means for solar energy is that at the peak of sunshininess, solar rays are absorbed into the solar panel where they are translated to electrical energy. This electricity then flows to a parallel of capacitors where they remain in deep storage until the lamp is switched on to provide light in the darkness, whether by night or by stormy weather, where upon they flow out of through other capacitor plate.  The translation to solar energy is important.  The translation to life is critical.

In the daily flow of whatever provides your daily flow, there are moments of inspiration followed by moments of arduous work.  And if you’re normal, the moments of exhaustion that soon follow.  All manner of exhaustion from physical to mental, emotional, even spiritual.  Physical and mental exhaustion we know how to recover from.  It’s the emotional and spiritual exhaustion that really confound us.  For the sake of discussion, let’s look at the area of creative endeavor – one of my favorites – to exhaustively examine and explore the exhilarating example of exhaustion.  Now that’s just fun to say.  Okay, less a full-on “make exhaustion get naked on the exam table” sort of examination; more of a glimpse.

Whether you make your living in the creative realm or not, you know the feeling of those really great moments of creative flow.  It’s energizing, it’s thrilling, it feels like change-the-world kind of stuff.  Things that you didn’t even know were there, are, and you’re accessing them easily at the whisper of a command.  You’re jamming and confident and ready to let the world know about it!  [insert needle across record sound here].  Then.  Then, the next morning or the next week you wake up ready to create, you open up your creative toolbox, and there’s nothing there.  Nothing.  Really?  Writer’s block.  Burnout.  Exhaustion.  Whatever the source, there isn’t anything there.  Said another way, you go to turn on the lamp but the lamp doesn’t work.  It just doesn’t.  No light.  Which is exactly what it feels like.  Utter, cold darkness.  You check the light bulb, you shake it, you wiggle the plug.  Nothing.  This sucks.  You are totally, completely frustrated.  Is devastated too strong?  In that moment it doesn’t feel too strong.  Defeated, angry, and undone, you’re tempted to throw it out.  More than tempted, you’re standing next to the dumpster with the lamp tightly grasped in the fist of your best throwing arm.

Isn’t that just what it feels like sometimes?  That best, creative part of you feels like the lamp.  And though it feels broken, listen:  it’s not.  Read that again.  It isn’t broken.  Think about it.  If we think about it like our solar powered lamp, here’s the question:  what changed overnight?  What changed?  The lamp is the same lamp; you are the same, brilliant creative you have always been.  The bulb, the wiring, the switch – all of it are exactly the same and just as competently assembled as it was yesterday.  And the sun?  Well, the sun just isn’t in the sky.  But think about it a little more; the sun really is still in the sky.  So don’t blame the sun; it’s not like it’s hiding or anything.  It’s right where it was yesterday and right where it will be tomorrow, it’s still there in all its enormous, burning brilliance (just like you, by the way).  So what happened?  A number of things are possible.  But let’s consider just a few.

Maybe there’s a cloud covering it up.  Maybe even a storm.  Have you checked the forecast lately?  Maybe it’s a massive string of storms.  Truth is, our lives are filled with all kinds of storms and rainy weather.  Maybe this is just a shift in the weather; those unexpected things that can and will occur taking our attention, and our creative energies, away to other places where it is needed.  Remember, creative endeavors aren’t the only endeavors in life.   I have to remind myself of this all the time.  Perhaps it’s not just a weather shift, but a full-blown storm with rain and gray clouds and lightning and lots of noise.  Each of us knows all too well that life is not just about the joy and fun in all its wonderful fluffiness.  (Some of us are wondering “yes, but is it ever about that?  Even a little bit?”).  Life has pain in it as well, sometimes a lot.  And whether dull aches, sharp agonies, or the really dark sort of pains, it’s unreasonable to expect a whole lot of creative motivation in their midst.  Storms do that, hide the sun.

Maybe it’s not a storm, but a tornado.  By tornado, I don’t mean the kind that threatens your wellbeing, but rather the kind that pulls you in several directions at once.  Life does that.  “No kidding”, you say.  The skies may not have storm clouds that hide your sun, per se, but there sure is a lot of debris swirling around in the sky when there’s a tornado.  It’s hard to get a clear shot of sunshiny warmth during these periods of being pulled in all directions.  These can be the most frustrating of all, because you can still sort of see the sun; it’s just that you can’t see it long enough for it to power your lamp in more than short, intermittent flickers.

Or maybe it’s just nighttime.  I have yet to see anything that is direct-wired to a simple solar panel work at night.  Sometimes your world has just spun in a direction where you can’t see the sun right now.  That’s okay.  Maybe it’s because you need to rest; after all it is night.  Or maybe your world has rotated around because something else needs your focused attention; another project perhaps?  Regardless, you can be assured that it is temporary.  It’s only a matter of time before your world will be oriented under the direct gaze of a strong and eternal sun.  Whether by deep rest or by the completion of another project, your lamp will soon burn bright once again.

Whatever the reason – storm, tornado, night – the point is that you need to remember that the sun is still in the sky and that your lamp isn’t broken.  Not only isn’t it broken (and here’s where the analogy falls apart), it’s working even when you don’t know it is.  Your creative heart, that is.  In the storms, there may be sheer panic for survival.  Your heart will remember these moments when the sun is shining again, and they will inform your creativity in a new and deeply meaningful way.  Moreover, if you can bring yourself to be that vulnerable artist, you’ll offer your pain to the culture through your creativity in a way that challenges, consoles, and heals the world.  In the bright season of having survived another tornado, you’ll quickly realize that your creative heart wasn’t asleep at all or even, as you’re sometimes tempted to believe, dead.  It was still alive and beating strongly, absorbing all this stuff, taking notes, collecting data.  And when the storms or tornados of whatever is in front of you pass and your creative heart again has room to breathe, you’ll see that it really didn’t leave you and that your lamp really isn’t broken.  Besides, if I may sound trite for a moment, it takes both sun and rain to make you and me grow.  If nothing else, it gives us something to write about.

Back to the capacitor.  Remember the job of the capacitor?  The capacitor “gathers” energy, collects the electricity.  And the Flux Capacitor?  I wasn’t just being fun; there’s a practical reason to consider this instrument of fiction.  If you think about it, the Flux Capacitor really just describes a capacitor that is at work; a capacitor that’s useful is one that flows or “fluxes” when requested to do so.  The sun shines and the capacitor accumulates it so that we may use it during the rainy, stormy, tornado-y seasons in life.  The storm or whatever comes and we’re like, “hey!  my lamp still turns on!”; because our capacitor flows when we need it to by allowing the energy that it has gated off into its reservoir to flow to our lamp.  The capacitor smoothes out the bumps in the road by buffering those fickle bursts of solar rays that happen between clouds and night.

I’m not suggesting that we simply need capacitors to smooth out our creative terrain, for sometimes there’s a reason that we need to take a rest from our creative work; but having one in place, if at all possible, can help.  And I don’t necessarily have what I consider to be an answer for you here; I’m still figuring out my own, in fact.  But I am really good at the question part.  So I offer you this:  what is your holding place, your reserve?  That place in your life or in your heart or in your world where you can store a reserve of creative energy to access during those inaccessible moments?  What holds the hope from which you can make a draw in the more hopeless moments in life?  Your magnetic North that keeps you oriented?  What reserve contains the energies and motivation and inspiration for you during your cloudy, darker times?  Do you have such a thing in place?  In all seriousness, it’s a question worth asking.  May I recommend a rather famous one?  The Flux Capacitor.  You should pick one up.  But it comes with this warning:  it can be dangerous.  And if you learn to use it, you can be too.  It can help buffer those ever-fluctuating moments of creative energy.  It holds reserves of electricity and allows it to flow when you’re running low.  Plus it time travels and looks really, really cool.



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