Tuesday, May 9, 2023

Memory and Smell- What I Never Want to Lose

In case you were wondering what a 
"millrace" is and how one would sit
in one.
How many of you have an active, potent, smell memory? My smelling abilities are closely linked to my ability to recall memories and emotions. Mostly positive ones, though there are a few smells that can trigger bad feelings. Smell is a gateway to re-living the pleasures of the past all over again. I wonder whether I would be able to viscerally enjoy my surroundings half as much without my sense of smell?

The smell of a river- is the smell of my childhood living across the street from one. It is the smell of languid summer days canoeing- oh how lucky I am that I got to spend so much of my childhood in a canoe with a friend gliding through dappled green glades with a wood thrush singing! My memory of having chicken pox is not so bad- because I was lying in the bottom of a boat on cushions while my mother paddled us quietly under willows and tall sycamores. There were days spent on an innertube put in below the millrace and watching startled turtles plop into the water and herons take flight and baking on top of the tube in the sun and cooling off in the deep spots by hanging on to the back and floating in the current. Or getting right IN to the millrace and letting the water flow over my head while sitting on the water-moss covered flat surface below it. 

There is honeysuckle blooming right near our backdoor right now. I pull out this invasive foreigner constantly- it likes to take over and strangle anything native that might want to try to grow- but I think I will always have to leave a little to make our springtime that much more glorious. This smell is the smell of nighttime of my childhood and teen years. Leaning out my window in the moonlight taking huge gulps of that sweetness and imagining I am Juliet and thinking about romance. The soundtrack for this memory is Mozart Concerto for Flute Harp and Orchestra in C major, K 299, Andante, which I listened to ten million times at night with the honeysuckle blooming and I still consider one of the most glorious pieces of music in existence. 

Even the faintest hint of woodsmoke in the air will summon the delights of family camping trips- especially that one in the Finger Lakes on our way to Ontario where it was freezing and and we ate borscht that my mom had prepared and frozen to be camp food. Eating hot steaming borscht when you are freezing next to a campfire is top notch. Woodsmoke is also the smell of walks in the cold air and going inside with cold noses and having tea by the fire and maybe even fresh scones and jam and clotted cream that your fabulous friend's mom made and cats coming to get in your lap. 

The hot sun warming up the plants in an Appalachian mountain clearing where there are ripe blueberries- that is the smell of family weekend hikes in our favorite northwestern NJ spots. Grass and wild onions and dirt- that's my mom digging a new vegetable garden on a windy day in early spring. Hot attic air smell- the hours I spent playing in the long huge attic that covered the length of our big old colonial house- creating huge barbie doll living spaces with a combination of 60's and 70s's hand-me-down barbie furniture and accessories from my older sisters and all kinds of other stuff found in corners of the attic. Musty earthy smell- the root cellar below the kitchen where not much was stored because it was too damp but still an interesting place to play occasionally.  There are other smells that I can't exactly identify but the memory is attached- the smell that says "Jurgen's house in Germany when I was six." Or a smell that is the smell of a loved person long gone. And smells that don't have a specific attachment but have all the good feelings- like apple pie baking in the oven makes the whole world a wonderful place. 

Bad smells? Oh yes, they exist. Formaldehyde- instant reminder of intense headaches after high school biology class dissection labs and the awfulness of death. But most bad smells aren't attached to an evocative memory, thankfully. I just hate them. Strong perfumes and air fresheners and new cars and carpets. Chemical smells. No thank you! They can be so powerful and headache-inducing that I'll do anything to get away from them. Even the most offensive natural smells are far preferable to those. Yep, a dog fart over a new carpet- I'll take it. Even though dog farts might send me fleeing the room just as much as the next person they won't give me a headache and the sensation that evil incarnate is trying to poison the world. There's a few chemical exceptions- like the smell of faint perfume and cigarette smoke clinging to clothing because that is the smell of my mother coming in to check on me after a date night out with my dad (when it was legal to smoke in restaurants so even if you weren't smoking, you still came out smelling like it), and now I could go to sleep because my mom was home. 

I like to keep my coffee beans in the fridge because when I take them out to gring them I love to inhale the cold coffee air that instantly transports me to the blizzard years of high school of endless snow-days off from school and going down to the little coffeeshop that was the hangout of local teens and opening the door and coffee smell flooding out and playing chess with my dear friend and then walking down to the river to look at the magical ice formations hanging from the cliffs  and sparkling in the below-zero sunny weather.

If I could imagine a perfect museum it would be a museum of smell. Different species of pine trees in the hot sun. Smell samples of grandparents houses. Restaurants of the world. Schools on the last day of the school year when it's hot and humid and summer freedom is about to ensue. The wooly-hay-manure smell of a sheep barn. Arizona desert after a rain when mesquite smell fills the air. Coyote bush on a hot California hillside by the ocean. 

Do you have smell memories to share? Please, do! Also welcome: ideas for the Smell Museum.

Saturday, March 18, 2023

A brilliant imagination: not really a DIY guide for parents

My dad and his brother and the family cats.
We are entering an era where people many are concerned about ability of children to develop proper imaginations because they don't get bored enough. Is boredom the necessary prerequisite for growing a good imagination? The idea goes that if kids are constantly handed a device to keep them quiet or to stave off boredom, they won't have the chance to figure out how to entertain themselves by playing.

I don't know whether this is true or not. I think the theory makes a lot of sense. We've certainly believed in using screentime limits for our kids. I'm always trying to figure out how to spend less time on my phone and constantly backsliding. There's lots of other things I want to do with my time and the phone gets a hold on me and my brain and I don't want to transition into "up and at 'em" mode. I'm like that with pretty much anything that engages me, whether I'm in the midst of an art project, playing music, reading, zoning out in the nice warm shower, or weeding my garden. Don't take me away! I see another weed! I just have to finish this chapter... and read a little in the next so I'm not left on a cliffhanger! 

However, the point about imagination not developing because of screens? Maybe? But I do have friends with kids who really don't put any restrictions on time with devices and those are some of those most freaking imaginitive kids I know. They spend a lot of time on their screens but also seem to be playing dress-up and inventing things and getting incredibly dirty outside.

So, I guess my opinion on this is fairly wobbly. My youngest gets a lot more time on his devices (still with limits) than my oldest did, who is always ready to point out this proof of parental fallibility. He had to make do with 5 thirty-minute screen-time tickets per week when he was a certain age, and decide how he was going to budget his time. Poor kid. He was so deprived. 

But I can tell you ONE way to develop a brilliant imagination and it DOES have to do with high levels of boredom. Here it is:

Be born in the 1940s, have a case of strep throat that doesn't get treated with antibiotics and turns into rhematic fever which damages your aortic heart valve which causes you to spend much of your childhood in bed. 

Yeah, that's the idea you were looking for, right? That was my dad as a kid. A man with an incredibly brilliant imagination. A great storyteller, master of silliness, fabulous writer of the best silly cat songs. And I have a strong suspicion his childhood of being made to stay in bed had a lot do do with it. Of course he made do with the electronic entertainment available to him at the time: radio shows, for example. But there certainly wasn't an infinte selection of shows for kids all day long. They only came on at certain times on certain stations. He read a lot books. His favorites were books with talking animals: the Thornton W. Burgess Books (The Tale of _________. Insert appropriate animal- Grandfather Frog, Jerry Muskrat, Billy Possum, Reddy Fox), all the Freddy the Pig books. Cowboy adventures, Tarzan adventures- those were good too. His father gave him a big world atlas and he spend untold hours poring over all the lands of the world, marking out routes for adventures he wanted to go on. And he loved his stuffed animals! One of the favorite games he played with his stuffed animals was to use them as cat-teasers. He would tie a long string to them and dangle them out his bedroom window as one of the family cats came strolling by. 

When I was sick as a child, he taught me a game he used to play in bed: Bedcovers Zoo. First, get out your collection of plastic miniature animals. Then put your top blanket over your head to create your own personal tent. You'll note that the next blanket or sheet underneath is all wrinkled around your legs. If you want to sit cross-legged, that's fine, but make sure there's lots of wrinkles all around you. Use these wrinkles as the walls of the enclosures for a zoo for all your minature animals! There's plenty of room for everyone to have their own area, and they can visit back and forth and talk to each other- it's really good for a full day of play. Then you have to convince your mother to let you have your chicken soup and saltine crackers in your personal tent on your bed. That's a little harder. 

Really, I have no moral or wise parenting advice to offer about the use of screens in childhood. But I think that maybe kids figure out how be kids in nearly any circumstances.Sometimes they need help with moderation in all things, if that's your motto (thanks, Hesiod). Maybe my grandma used to come in and say "now Christopher, I think you've spent enough time reading Freddy the Pig today, it's time to dangle your stuffed animals out the window" but I kind of doubt it. 

To be perfectly honest, the whole point of today's post was not to have an Impotant Talk About Screentime but to tell you how cool my dad is. Because he is.

Saturday, January 21, 2023

Ode to an Old Friend AKA Abby

 Well isn't this so typical- I go for months without writing and then- two days in a row. My passionate interests and desires to do things come in spurts of intensity. I suddenly remember today how good it was writing yesterday and I want to do more. Tomorrow I might build on this momentum and write again- or, distracted by the sheet music on my desk and my viola on its stand on my dresser- decide to record some chamber music that is me playing all the parts. That is really fun. I also have winter seeds to plant and invasive vines I want to rip out while they are dormant. Books to read, a new banana recipe to bake, art ideas- let's just say that when I have free time boredom is never, ever, an issue. Three kids, husband, two dogs and two ailing parents with dementia for whom I am the medical power of attorney- you might ask what have I to do with free time? Yes, I am always behind on things and forgetting things. But I can't help it. My interests intrude and insist on luring me out of responsibilities into joyful creative places. And I wouldn't trade that for anything. I don't think I could still be sane right now otherwise. Joy is a good buffer against the hardness of life on earth.

One of the things I did in this last week while sick was watch all 16 episodes of the Korean Drama "Because This Is My First Life." As far as K-dramas go it wasn't one of my favorites. But the lead female actress, Jung So-Min, reminded me so much of a childhood friend that I've lost touch with that I haven't been able to stop thinking about her. Yes, to me, Jung So-Min looks like the Korean edition of Abby. No, if you happen to be one of my childhood-era readers that knew Abby and you go look up Jung So-Min, you probably won't see the resemblance. But after 16 hours of watching her I began to remember Abby's face and expressions vividly. Thinking about Abby goes well with my ponderings about living with ADHD because I'll venture to say that she probably had/has it too, in the much more culturally recognizable form. I flew under the radar for my whole childood and young adult life with not an ounce of an idea that my struggles fit neatly into the category of "Inattentive Type ADHD." I was quiet, Abby was not. I was very cautious, Abby was not. But aside from those two qualities I can see that we were very, very similar, which is probably why we were such good friends.

We were both very impulsive, though my impulsivity was restrained by fear and caution so it wasn't nearly as visible. She didn't seem to have those restraining factors and I often remember pulling her back by her collar from the edge of a canyon, so to speak (Abby was a metaphorical "let's try hang-gliding with this new invention I built this morning!"). I can see her high up in the limbs of the enormous old Norway maple behind by house, with me below pleading for her to come down, absolutely certain that she was on the verge of plunging to her death. I have no idea where Abby is today, but if she is anything like she was as a kid, her hobbies probably involve sky-diving, swimming with sharks, and a side of space exploration. I hope she has pursued life with the boldness and flair she used to have.

My impulsivity involved much less risk but the fun thing about having Abby for a friend was she was always up for adventure and ready to jump in head first. She was a great supporter of my ideas. Putting on disguises and foreign accents and going around our small town seeing if anyone recognized us. Deciding we were old enough to go out to a fancy restaurant by ourselves and dressing up and putting our money together and giggling and flirting with the cute waiters who were hopefully Italian but were probably just local high school boys. Writing elaborate creative stories together... which I bet I have some of stored away in a box in the attic. I can picture her handwriting precisely in my mind after all the notes we exchanged in class. I hope she is still writing, too. 

I'm thankful for her perpetual encouragement of my creative, out-of-the-box self. And she was one of those people that deeply cared and was always there for you, no matter what. We had some terrible clashes, one of them involving, shall we say, her un-asked-for-assistance with a boy I liked (which I can see now came from a heart of wanting to help a friend and not thinking through the possible results, which was that I would lose my head and go crazy and not speak to her for weeks). 

I really hope Abby has taken the world by the ears and shaken it. I have no idea where she is or what she is doing, but maybe somehow this blog will find its way to her. I want her to know she was one heck of a great friend and influence and that she is making me laugh right now to think about her. I'll bet she has a tome full of crazy stories from her life of the past twenty-plus years and I hope one day I'll get to hear them. 


Friday, January 20, 2023

goodness, the battle with clutter, living with ADHD

 Things are hard- and yet simple things are still good. Like a new place in the kitchen to put books and baskets of shoes and fruit and tea tins, and morning sun. A place too high for a young puppy to jump up to in one bound to sit in the window. (We'll have to find another window seat for his survellience activities). 

Or looking down through the woods from the window where I write and seeing beech leaves in their winter tans and creams and pale gold that cling until the new green comes. Loblolly pines at the highest tier, needles against the sky, and the bare branches of oaks and hickories and tulip poplars just below. Birds like this side of the house and up and down the trunks of trees hop pileated and red-bellied woodpeckers and three species of nuthatch, not to mention upmteen squirrels with waggling tails. 

Back in my kitchen under the south window all my teaboxes are lined up- I may have a tea collecting problem but this makes me happy.

I'm glad simple things make me happy. It feels like an enormous gift in life, to be easily satisfied. 

Several weeks ago in my my frustration with my perpetual inattention, I began reading a book on life skills for people with ADHD and I asked my husband if there was one household life problem area that he dislikes that I could use as a way to apply and practice said skills and make our domestic life nicer in the bargain. He pointed out my well-marked trail- yes, it's easy to track exactly where I've been because I have the very common to ADHDers habit of being totally unaware when I have something in my hand and not mentally registering that I am placing it on a surface and leaving it there. Which leads to clutter and the never-ending hunt to find lost things because how can one remember where they've put something when they put it down completely absent-mindedly?  

It turns out there is something beneficial about asking for one thing I can work on. It's better to take initiative than to be complained to about something. The brain feels more motivated to try to change, somehow. It also helps to have a patient spouse that will applaud my efforts and patiently turn a blind eye to my failures. He's had a lot of practice in the blind eye department over the years. 

In any case, these nice pretty domestic photos I've posted today are evidence of several weeks of progress. I still put things down and leave them, but I'm getting into a habit of scanning for my clutter during little moments when I have a break- like waiting for the tea water to boil and the leaves to steep. Things being clean and pretty are good for my mental health, too. Less clutter somehow makes my mind feel less cluttered. 

There are much bigger and harder things going on around here that I want to "solve" more than my life-long clutter habit. I've been trying to get a handle on my clutter issues since at least kindergarten and why now, of all times, should I read something and a change happen in my brain that actually results in progress? The weeks are young, however and I must admit that I've only read the first two chapters of that life-skills book, forgetting about its existence completely while reading at least three other books, starting a slide-scanning project, an art project, a new puppy project, and binging on a new K-drama TV series while sick in bed. It's frankly amazing that this clutter-scanning in my free moments strategy has been remembered so well while totally losing track of what started it in the first place. 

Truth be told, for all the trouble and frustration ADHD may cause me, I think there's a benefit to being so easily distracted. There are so many good and interesting and fun and beautiful things in the world to be distracted by, and I'd be sad if that wasn't so, if I couldn't notice them because I was being so steadfastly practical and focused on whatever task I'd set for myself. Yes, I'd like to pay better attention to the conversations happening right now, but I don't want to miss the black-capped chickadee saying "dee, dee, dee" in the tree nearby on a frosty morning and the cry of the red-shouldered hawk looking for breakfast. 

Thursday, May 12, 2022

Thoughts on these times- discipline, idealogy, fear, our places in each other's lives

I wrote this in my journal last June, almost a year ago, and yet I came across it today and realized the same things are circling around in my mind again in light of all the things happening in the world in in our country and in my own life today.  Are you thinking about any of these things? What is circling in your head while you go about your day?

My disorder is also my gift. I must take both in the same hand. My attention that focuses so deep within and causes me to block out everything around me allows me to think and contemplate deeply. It also causes me not to listen- and I miss important things: the lives happening around me, the words of the people I love, the words of teachers and preachers. 

I am tired from staying up too late reading Madeleine L’Engles “Love Letters.” Within it I see so many of the themes that I have seen in so many of her other books, the thoughts that framed her life and soul, presented and explored in new ways.

Freedom within discipline, framework, structure. The sonnet, the fugue, the dedicated practice of four notes on one’s instrument for several hours developing the ability to pour life and passion into one’s music. The discipline of the convent, the commitment to vows. The filling of one’s self with self so that one has no room for God. Unbounded freedom and no structure or discipline leading to self-destruction, or insufferable blandness. The bearing of suffering that is unbearable. The necessity of joy, the joy of joy, yet that cannot be real and deep and true without sadness. 

And here we wheel around in this selfish world that exalts self-direction and self-satisfaction over any kind of discipline of giving up of self without personal gain. The idea of submission of self to any other human or vow, foregoing one’s own freedom and pleasure to take a path that will only lead to crucifixion of the self- is trampled underfoot as a stifling and undesirable and backwards. Not simply rejected, but actively fought against, in terrible fear of a dystopian world where such submission is forced upon others, not authentically chosen in freedom. 

This fear is legitimate- we have seen it in play again and again through history, where corrupt power does not ask, but demands and forces submission to its ideology, an ideology for others to be bent to, but not practiced by those who preach it, who use the freedom of power to indulge every desire that those they rule over are not allowed. And yet, the tenets of this ideology may be good and a blessing to those who practice them- freely. It is when they are forced, required, and disobedience punished, that they become tenets of death to those subjugated under them.

There seems to be a particular kind of personality that is both drawn to rules and drawn to insist others obey them as well. In a forced ideology environment, they function as the police, and no infraction of the rules is too small. They derive their personal value from living to the letter of the law and seeing that others do too. They desire recognition of their work from their leader, whomever they serve, or from God. 

I see crows high in the leafy green trees of the forest from where I sit writing, hopping from branch to branch conversing with each other, and I think of those who sit in literal prison cells or metaphorical ones in a place that is not free, wishing they were wild birds that can fly where they please and do what they wish without the smothering rules that bind them unwillingly.

Humans wish to have the freedom to choose their master, to choose their ideology, and this is a freedom that God has clearly allowed us. And yet we must have some structure as a society, some agreement to prevent some humans from committing acts of evil on others. In our society today we seem to define evil as an act against another person or their property without their consent to that act.

I watched a video yesterday that a friend sent me on an atheist’s view of the morality of abortion. Their argument for the legality of abortion fits precisely within the consent framework- a woman did not give her consent for this baby to grow in her body, and so she has a right to kill it. But there is no voice for the child in this equation. Where is the balance, and can we find it?

This is where my journal ended for that day. I'd love to hear your contemplations these days, but given the sensitive nature of a debate that is ripping the fabric of our society apart and the deep personal experiences that others reading this may have, please be kind. Let's refrain from smug one-liners that you might see in a meme or on a posterboard at a protest and be real, and stand in the uncomfortable place together where there are no pat answers and nothing is black and white.

Tuesday, November 9, 2021

Peak autumn in Carolinia

There's a moss-covered stone wall near the intersection of Rosemary and Hillsborough and I am sitting on it. Early November is the time of autumn glory for Chapel Hill. All overhead is crimson and golden against the backdrop of deep cloudless blue sky. Jacket weather in the shade, basking weather in the sun. Crisp, cool air, smells of fallen oak and maple leaves, and I just saw a squirrel run by with a whole cluster of green hickory nuts popping out of its mouth like a giant green beard and mustaches. I was surprised to pass an osage orange tree on my way to this spot, something I haven't seen in many years and not since I moved to the south. Osage oranges resemble grapefruit-sized green brains, and these bright green brains were strewn liberally on the moss and grass under the tree. 

Among the towns of the south, Chapel Hill feels the most like the places of the Mid-Atlantic and New England where I grew up and went to college. The buildings of the UNC campus and surrounding environs are old, and I like old very much. I grew up in a home dating from 1830 or so on a street with even older homes in a town founded sometime in the 1700s.  Ivy, moss, tall trees with thick trunks, old decorative hardware on doors and drafty windows, creaking wood floors and the smell of wood smoke on a chilly morning are the comforting feelings of home.

There are two crows in one of the tall golden maples across the street, high on the very top branches, surveying, watching, calling to other crows at the tops of other trees that I can't see. Crows really are the watchmen of the animal world. Other species of birds understand crow calls, as do the furry, four-footed creatures. When crows sound a warning, other birds take up the alarm and pass it along, diving into dense bushes where larger birds of prey cannot reach them, or up high out of the reach of a fox or cat. Squirrels chatter in a great chorus and the predator slinking along below knows they've been had. 

I'm here in this spot completely by chance. As I left a friend's house this morning, I spontaneously decided to take a walk in the beautiful morning instead of getting in my car and going straight to the grocery store. My life is so full of worries and stresses these days, with people close to me spending far too much time in medical sorts of places or at home in bed in pain. Wandering and looking, being present among sun-dappled reddening shrubs and clusters of delicate, lacy brown flowers leftover from summer, breathing deeply of a kind of air that only seems to exist on sunny cool days in autumn… I can't remember when I did this last, but I'm glad I'm here.

These moments are a gift from my Shepherd who leads me beside still waters and makes me lie down in green pastures. He knows sheep can't go running around at top speed navigating mucky bogs and foggy moors for very long. I'm thankful for this rest and beauty that He has carved out for me. I'm memorizing and imprinting images and sounds and smells into my brain to be drawn upon later. This burnished hydrangea pouring over the stone wall ahead of me, drenched in light, the brick walls of the church beyond, the lichen-covered thick arms of an oak that clearly sprouted long before the Civil War, the ringing sounds of hammers and 2x4s being knocked against each other somewhere nearby, bluejay calling, cardinal pairs talking to each other, cars going by and even a few still-living insects humming in grass… I'm downloading everything so I can come back here when I'm forced to sit waiting somewhere, indoors, in a place I don't want to be.

It worked. As I finish writing this I am now sitting in my favorite chair at home, late at night, but the details of the time I spent walking and looking and lying on the wall and smelling and listening- I have it all right here clear and sharp and sparkling when I close my eyes.

Friday, June 4, 2021

On the necessity of eating light

There are reasons why I am continually drawn back to certain creators of art, music, and the written word. C.S. Lewis, Madeleine L'Engle, Johann Sebastian Bach. The great painters of the Hudson River School, the Dutch Masters. They weave with the eternal Light of the universe. They reach out and take my face and turn my gaze from the things in front of me, vying for all my attention, to the things farther out that wait patiently and do not demand or coerce. Light, that invites me in and I forget to think of me. Instead my soul and inner being are connected to eternal and invisible things, which become visible as the eyes of my heart are transformed. It is also in this place that darkness is revealed. The Light halts at walls inside me that I do not even know exist, and says "what is this?"  

 I must wash dishes and make dinner and call the insurance company and go shopping, as well as daily take on greater tasks of mentoring my children and intervening in sibling fury, reading books aloud and playing games or taking walks and pulling weeds together. And there are the not-musts of mindlessly scrolling through my phone and other habits that compel me to idly think only of small things. I need the Weaver and Master of Light to intrude into my daily thoughts, and this is why I try to start my day with the words of the ancients shot through with the Holy Spirit in that collection of writings we know as the Bible. I forget, again and again, the existence of the Light, and I must make room for it. We are spiritual beings and yet constantly forget that we need spiritual food or our souls whither away and we are left only with a shriveled, confining daily existence.