I was drinking tea a while back – a blend of white tea, orange peel, and exotic spices – and as I stood over the cup, pouring steaming water over the leaves, a delicate fragrance bloomed into my nostrils, and I was in the elegant Orient. I remember the day we bought the tea. I was admiring the iron teapots carved with Chinese dragons while my husband talked with the tea seller about finding an orange spiced tea. The vendor selected one, and when he opened the loose tea so that we could smell it, the spiced essence billowed out, drawing me towards it until I wanted to crawl into the canister and make a nest there. I wish our atmosphere were made of that scent.
While I drank my tea, remembering, it occurred to me how much aroma adds to the beauty of life, and how underappreciated the sense of smell is. Or, I should say, how much I take my sense of smell for granted. A while back, when I was still on MySpace (MySpace!), I got a friend request from a home chef who was born without a sense of smell. Can you imagine? I still can’t get over that, and I think about him often. I had never thought of olfaction as being a necessary sense. It is so subtle, it seemed like more of a bonus sense, one that if you were missing it, you wouldn’t really be handicapped. It might take longer to detect a fire, but the danger wouldn’t be imminent before one of your other senses would pick up on it.
But when I tried to imagine life without a sense of smell (no briney salt marsh, no fresh rain on hot summer pavement, no crackling campfire), I realized how much of a handicap it really would be. A sensory experience would be absent (no warm coffee brewing, no chocolate brownies baking), and we would lose an entire pathway to pleasure.
So when I first read about doing a sensory awareness exercise, of focusing each day on one of the five senses, I was most excited about the sense of smell. And as I’d hoped, the subtle world of scents did not let me down. Today I reveled in the seduction of olfaction, the sense of all senses that can evoke precise, vivid memories in one breath, and can alter our moods in an instant. Fragrance has an extraordinary power of capturing the essence of a thing, or a place, or an act, or a moment – the pink joy of a grapefruit, fruiting in a warm sunny place in the middle of winter, the warm comfort of a home cooked meal in the sizzle of onions frying, the sweet innocence of children in the space behind their ears – and when we receive the gift of fragrance in the air, it can transform our emotions or teach us lessons, even if it’s only for a moment. Today, my sense of smell taught me gratitude, for I am awed by the beauty in the world around me. Here is my morning in smells.
7:00 am – The sweet honey-like fragrance of my daughter’s cheeks, ears, and hair when se snuggles against me in the bed. I stick my nose in her hair and breathe, hugging her close, smelling my sweet baby girl.
8:00 am – The warm sweetness of blueberry muffins baking. It’s really just blueberry Eggos for the kids, but they smell so warm and cozy that I decide to have some too. I boil water for tea and inhale the clean moisture of steam – it has a wonderful pure smell that I can’t articulate – before pouring it over lavender blossoms and Earl Grey tea leaves. When I close my eyes and inhale, I smell the lavender plant in my garden, releasing its fragrance as I brush up against it, soothing, herbal, peaceful. I sense its beauty, its life, its essence, in the infusion of its dried flowers. What a gift to have lavender in the world.
9:00 am – Since breakfast, I haven’t really smelled much. It hasn’t been for lack of trying. I’ve turned my nose to the air at every opportunity, seeking scent and not finding any. It’s kind of a relief after the enormous overload of sounds and sights over the pass two days, but it’s also kind of a letdown. It makes life seem kind of dull and dreary.
10:00 am – A fragrance-free hour cleansed my nasal palette and made for a wonderful shower experience. I used a homemade grapefruit and ginger soap, and the essential oils had a powerful impact on my mood, lifting my spirits immediately as I inhaled the crisp, sunny grapefruit and the zing of ginger. Every time I sniff my arm now, I smile, buoyed by by the happy bouquet.
11:00 am – I still can’t pick up an ambient scent in our house. This is a stark difference from my experience with sight yesterday, when there was so much to see and process that I had to filter things out. Now I’m working hard to pick something, anything, out of the air.
I decide take the kids outside, and immediately upon walking out the door, I smell the color green. I smell freshness. Clean, moist air, filled with the energy of living organisms. I detect a pleasant hint of nuttiness, but it is elusive and I cannot place the scent. I breathe long and hard, over and over, trying to find it again. I wonder if this is why aromatherapy works – because it encourages us to breathe.
I sit on the cold concrete and imagine what it would smell like in the rain. Earthy, with bottom notes of clay, middle notes of rain, and a top note of ozone. I like that smell.
While our son plays tee-ball, and our daughter fetches, a breeze blows across my face and I catch an ephemeral mustiness. I wonder if there are mushrooms nearby. I don’t care to look for them, but I try to find their scent again. I know some people don’t like that musty smell, but I do. It makes me think of leaf litter and autumn walks in the woods.
12:00 pm – When we come inside for lunch, I smell a sweet spicy smell, probably lingering from the pineapple and cashew stir-fry we had for dinner last night. How exciting! Our house does have a scent, and it is pleasant. It smells comforting after being away from it, and it has a fragrance instead of an odor. I’m always worried that our house smells like cat pee and litter. I’m grateful that it smells of happy family dinners instead.
I wrote this in Tampa in 2008 when I spent five days doing a sensory awareness exercise. Each day I focused on one sense and wrote what I experienced. I didn’t mean for it to be a writing project – I was mainly interested in being aware of the world, and how we experience it through our senses. It turned out to be one of the most useful writing exercises I’ve ever done. You can read about a morning in sounds here, and the overwhelming experience of seeing here.