Transported There and Back

They say smell is the most evocative sense.  One whiff of wintergreen and I’m crouched on a hot track, my legs rubbed with Cramer’s Atomic Balm, awaiting the gun. Something Pavlovian happens, and my respiration and heart rate rise.

Yet we have no good word for the inability to smell.  You can be deaf or blind, but, if you can’t smell, you are “Olfactorily challenged” or a term no one knows. And smell earns no place as a learning modality either.  Visual and auditory and even tactile learners can look down on the kid who has to smell handouts to remember their contents.

Smell doesn’t rate.

Sniffing out prey isn’t necessary in the modern world, and we’re so beset by artificial fragrances our noses are too befuddled and fouled to smell a mate.  Smell’s association with taste can’t help its reputation much either. Smell and taste don’t work. They enjoy themselves too much and too often. They sit like slackers among the productive, useful, and sane.

Memory is another problem. When I try to recall the scent of wintergreen, a steel fish swims up.  No words can ensnare it.  As soon as I smell wintergreen, I’ll know it, but, in the meantime, it lives in the memory that recalls the next song just before it starts or gets me somewhere I remember but can’t map.  The action that recalls smells hides in shadowy unconsciousness—constant, seldom heard or seen.

Yesterday I walked into a strange aroma and jumped back to walking into the cafeteria at Highlands Elementary on my first day of school.  My madeleine was some special variety of frozen beef patty on a steam table, probably cheap, probably cooked badly, undoubtedly unhealthy.  Instantly I was the lonely boy who wished to go home and eat with his mom.  I was unsure how to make friends and how I’d answer if asked if I’d made one.  Some great space opened and filled with lost feelings.

It was magic, a time machine.  And then I thought, something must be wrong with our lives.  Where have our noses gone?



Filed under Buddhism, Essays, Gratitude, Laments, life, Memory, Recollection, Thoughts

2 responses to “Transported There and Back

  1. Lovely post. You know, there must be a few of us with enough animal sense ability intact. Call us dog people, or cat people, whatever, but there is a certain pleasure in using the olfactory to navigate the world ot the past and present both. I have learned to trust my sense of smell. There are people who are not useful to keep company with – and this is revealed by a reaction to their particular odour. Seldom has my nose not warned me to be circumspect; I have learned to trust my nose. My “madeleine” is the smell of freshly ground coffee – reminds me of pleasant experiences of childhood, and the smell transports me to another time and place instantly. Love it! G

    My children comment about my overactive sense of smell. I must have that animal sense intact too. I’m grateful. At least one of senses seems entirely devoted to memory and, often, pleasure. Thanks for your comment. It’s always wonderful when you visit and comment. —D

  2. A

    When I was in China, I walked through parts of the Shaolin Monastery with my eyes closed because I felt like I was at home. The scent of incense surrounded me completely and for those blind moments, I was no longer in China, but a shapeless plane where my ancestors existed and my parents placed fruit and paper beside red lights in our makeshift chimney. I don’t know what the smell is, and I can’t describe it, but anything you can buy in a store with a name doesn’t seem to fit. (Lavender, Sex on the Beach).

    Quite an experience. Reminds me that the world is a smaller place, really. Similar suns, similar scents.

    What a wonderful comment! I sometimes wonder if we have some sort of deep memory of scents. I remember the first time I smelled snow–I wondered how I knew that smell meant snow.

    Thanks for visiting and responding!

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