Saturday, December 31, 2005

Smells You can See

This essay was originally written and broadcast on Tuesday, May 3, 2005
Smell is a potent wizard that transports you across thousand of miles and all the years you have lived.
--Helen Keller

Isn’t that an amazing statement?

Of course, some of the most profound thoughts were expressed by Helen Keller… born without the senses with which most of us are equipped, and yet despite those physical shortcomings, she developed an incredible capacity to perceive, understand, explain and express herself, in many ways far better than “normal” people around her. I think Helen Keller is one of the most inspirational personalities in American history.

Isn’t it funny how a smell can transport you to another time and place?

Fried chicken does that to me. Crispy, crusty, salty, crunchy fried chicken from my grandmother’s stove top in the house my grandfather built with his own hands. I can still see that kitchen--the splashboard behind the sink trimmed in white and black ceramic octagonal tiles, and a floor that creaked and squeaked when you walked across the flowered linoleum. Grandmother Clanton's kitchen always carried the aromas of Sunday dinner cooking, supplied by a pantry brimming with home-canned jellies and jams, and usually a quick treat to bribe me to leave.

Patchouli is another fragrance that can send me spinning back to high school in the ‘70’s, with the rich, warm musky smell of a gentle girlfriend’s perfume, daubed at the nape of her neck, and sweetly wafting from her hair with the feathered bangs.

I can still hear the slam of the locker doors, the echoes of voices shouting, laughing, and calling out to one another in the commons before classes. Remember the sharp tang of the mimeograph machines? Purple on white pages, lined with fill-in-the-blanks, multiple-guess questions, and essay challenges. We’d take one and pass it back, pressing the stack to our faces to inhale the traces of whatever it was that made that machine work.
Today they’d throw you in detention for that—isn’t that like sniffing glue? What did we know then?

Do you remember what a newborn baby smells like-- just home for the first time from the hospital, all swathed in yellow flannel: The smell of clean linen and baby oil. Picture that memory, and you can also hear the gentle sound of unencumbered slumber, see the subtle flickers of the eyes beneath the tiniest of eyelids, not yet accustomed to seeing light.
Sometimes I can see my children as I saw them for the first time—each one—and all it takes is the lid left off a box of baby powder. The smell of innocence and promise, hope, and perfection.

There is an overpass on the highway I drive each day that passes behind a candle factory. I never knew this until I took a detour one afternoon, when the freeway was clogged in a rain storm, and I discovered the wholesale candle factory outlet store, tucked away on a street still boasting a rounded asphalt surface, and lush, green bar ditches on either side, brimming with rain water run off.

In the early morning hours as I passed by on my way to work, I would drive through a zone of air so rich with the aroma of the previous night’s candle making, that it would drive my senses wild: seductive roses, warm and friendly vanillas, and sweetly thick magnolia scents. Each one a flavor of a memory, unlocked in my subconscious until resurrected by a unique twinge in my olfactory…the smells of childhood, adolescence, young adulthood, and last year--just a delicate sniff away from instant recall.

You’re passing through a memory right now—what is it?
Roll down the window: whether it’s a newly-mown field on the outskirts of your commute, fresh tar poured over a new stretch of pavement down town, or a new batch of doughnuts popping out of the machine at the corner... savor the smells. Savor the moments, and someday, years from now, when that chemical combination again tinkers with your nose, you’ll remember what you were doing, right about now.

May the new experiences you share in 2006 be the foundations for wonderful memories in the years ahead.
Happy New Year!

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