Although our five senses are best when in sync, research shows smell has the leading edge on memory recollection.
For me, born and raised in Minnesota, some of the most powerful triggers are seasonal scents. Fishy lake water. The earthiness of dried leaves and bonfires. Crisp falling snow. Soil after a light rain.
Cedar is another sure trigger. On the rare occasion I get a whiff of it, I’m reminded of a walk-in closet in the basement of my childhood home.
There was a long white string hanging from the ceiling light fixture. When you pulled it, a plethora of boxes, shelves, and racks loaded with all kinds of old relics, including a few of my mom’s old purses, shoes, and dresses sparkled like a treasure trove.
Then there’s bus diesel! A quick pass by those toxic fumes, and I’m all over the map.
Sometimes it’s to the rumbling streets of London, where I studied for a semester in college enamored by all the stone and brick monuments and museums, theatres, edgy fashion, pigeons, pubs, and red double-deckers.
Recently, it transported me all the way back to my sixth grade bus stop.
A month into my sixth grade year, due to unforeseen circumstances, our family moved out of our lake home on the outskirts of Duluth and into a rental located downtown.
Up to that point, ever since kindergarten, I simply walked to the top of our driveway on a quiet tree-lined street and waited for a yellow bus to take me to school.
Then, suddenly, to get to our new elementary school, my younger sister and I had to walk along several cracked sidewalks to a busy intersection with stoplights, a convenience store, I think a laundromat, probably a couple of drainage grates, and I don’t remember what else, to catch a city bus instead.
These days, big life changes can cause me to break out in hives. But as a kid, it was an adventure (which was soon followed by another one when we moved and changed schools again a year later).
Izzy, also in sixth grade, waited at that intersection, too. In the winter, her braids, still damp from her shower, froze solid a few times.
She was nice but talked incessantly. Not a big fan of early morning chatter, I’ll fess up: there was an itty, bitty part of me that wanted to reach over and snap one of those frozen braids in half like a carrot to hush her up for a second.
Wow. Ok. So that’s where bus diesel takes me.
It’s not always a clear, vivid image like that, though, that’s rustled by a particular smell. Sometimes, instead, it’s a longing.
For example, without any attachment to a particular memory, the scent of a burning candle, a flower, vanilla, lemon, coffee beans, the inside of a hair salon have each been known to cause a slight puncture in my gut. As though a part of me yearning to live bigger and brighter than I currently am just got poked.
My childhood vision of grown-up life was as extraordinary as a lit-up castle, radiating with infinite possibilities to finally show my true colors.
But now that I’ve arrived, it sometimes feels more like a cubicle as radiant as a 30-watt bulb.
Integral pieces of me wear thin as they churn endlessly in a cycle of daily tasks, comparisons, expectations, self-doubt, financial responsibilities, worries about my children, my parents, the world, the future, and so on.
The vision shrinks. Colors fade.
And in the thick of it all, what I fail to consider is this: When I allow that to happen, part of the world shrinks and fades, too.
I believe each of us is born with a unique character, quality, and purpose—a God-given spectrum rooted in the center of our true, messy selves. But that spectrum isn’t only meant for own own fulfillment. It’s meant to be manifested and poured out into a broken world that needs us.
So how do I find my way back to the center?
When a baby is given a toy, she wraps her fingers around it, looks at it so closely that she goes cross-eyed, rattles it, sucks on it, and presses her nose to it.
From the start, our senses, which began to develop at the moment of conception, were designed to help us gain understanding, to preserve experiences, to slow down and live fully in the bodies we’ve been given.
Who’s to say they weren’t also designed to lift us out of our funks and redirect us to where we’re meant to be?
And who NOSE? Maybe after a few times of intentionally listening to the crunch of a rich, red apple, savoring its fresh scent, tasting tart juices as they squirt into my mouth and drip down my chin, I might even start catching glimpses of the lit-up castle again!
I’m Julie Jo Severson, mom to two teens and a tween, freelance writer, editor, and co-author of HERE IN THE MIDDLE: Stories of Love, Loss, and Connection from the Ones Sandwiched in Between.
This blog, Carvings on a Desk, is where I reconnect with my own voice swirling around in the middle.
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