Learning to Want Again

In 2022, as late summer turned into fall, I saw him perched on the edge of a wooden fence. The second time I spotted him, he sat at the edge of a paved path while I jogged—only to spot him again when I completed the loop of my run. The third time, I got the hint: I needed to pause and pet this stray tuxedo cat with a perfectly circular polka dot on his chin.

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I eventually scooped him up, fed him, and toted him into the vet’s office, checking him in under “Stray Cat,” because he wasn’t my cat, after all. It just wasn’t the right time. Earlier, I’d retreated home to put myself back together after the end of a relationship and shared home. My health started to falter and deadlines slowly loomed. I’d spent the better part of that year wondering if I knew myself well enough to want…anything. But escorting this cat home from the vet in his cone of shame, I let myself wonder if I wanted to keep him.

My relationship to wanting is complicated. Especially as we reflect on what we want from a new year, it’s been a welcome surprise to notice how much my own sense of wanting has shape-shifted and clarified throughout the past year, in ways both significant and quiet, and inched me closer to myself in the process. Because it wasn’t that a pet was some sort of foray into the finalization of adulthood: I’d felt like an adult longer than I’d been one, used to the responsibilities I needed to handle for myself and for others. Rather, knowing what I wanted, even for a moment, felt like a form of knowing who I was again, and deciding that, maybe, that person was someone worth trusting.

Wanting to adopt a cat was the hilarious but earnest desire that led to years of cat-themed mugs and cat-specific coffee table books, but never actually, well, getting the cat. It was the milestone I waited for while I crossed the threshold of new jobs and job losses, moves in and moves out, sorting out the differences between what I wanted and what I was supposed to. “When you’re settled,” I’d tell myself. I’d have the pet insurance and the life plan; I’d have the morning routine and the mailing address that didn’t change.

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What I hadn’t realized is that, over a stretch of several years prior, my sense of wanting dulled. A scenario involving sexual harassment pushed me out of a professional opportunity, then took years to logistically resolve. As that crawled to a close, my then-relationship, where I had a whole future’s worth of wants, ended for good. At the time, I hadn’t noticed how hard I’d worked to convince myself I hadn’t wanted the opportunity that bad anyway, as a means of coping, or how many of my own wants I’d been willing to nudge to the side to be a little easier to get along with, a little more tolerable. A little more wanted.

In the aftermath, my desires, decision-making, and direction were flattened. I wondered, in private and paranoid, if I’d ever want anything—a job, a person, to get out of bed—again.

But then I realized I wanted to keep this cat.

This epiphany was less a moment of clarity and more looking at a stray scooting a dog-toy moose across the floor and thinking, “you know, might as well.” Perhaps not as decisive as I’d hoped, but “might as well” was the closest I’d come to trusting what I wanted, without negotiating with myself (or others) or feeling guilty, in the better part of several years.

We’re not lacking a script for what to want. The “best ofs” lists and honor rolls and glitchy timelines for life’s accomplishments are as omnipresent as the endless stream of stuff we’re supposed to snatch up while we’re aimlessly scrolling. The wants can be ambitious, if we want them to be, and the line between wanting more and savoring satisfaction can trip us up often. But it wasn’t so much that I wanted more.  I would often think about how much wanting anything felt too risky, like taking up too much room. After all, I’d wanted everyone, from friends to colleagues to former significant others, to have what they wanted, for their lives to feel full. I still do. What took time to learn was that I could want those aspirations for myself, too.

Even if I knew nothing else, I knew I wanted this cat and I’d started calling him Harry. I’d been watching When Harry Met Sally, only to have him respond as if he was grateful I’d found my manners and begun addressing him by what had always been his name.

Harry and I have moved to a spot where I painted a wall charcoal gray and hung art that’d been stashed under the bed or in dusty closets for too long, a visual reminder of wanting and deciding. I’ve wanted more time with friends, more work that drives me, and to rediscover preferences as big as boundaries and as small as favorite dinners. I got a second cat for Harry, Fig Newton. I watch them like they’re a feline buddy comedy and wonder what took me so long. In some ways, it took a silly, unquestionably happy want to open the door for all those that were more complicated, more layered.

I know my world won’t end if it doesn’t turn out how I want. My default setting is to assume it won’t. But just as we trust ourselves to handle the fall-out when we don’t get what we desire, I’m trusting myself to want it regardless. As one year ends and another begins, I want more than I ever have. More chances to try. More connection. More laughing at the cats sliding across the hardwood floor. Articulating what you want comes with its own learning curve, but I’m closer than I was before. In fact, that’s it: I’m practicing letting myself want more of this.

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