Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Nose Knows

I got flowers for Valentine's Day! Not a big bouquet or even a little spray, but three tiny yellow flowers, barely bigger than my thumbnail. I held the delicate blossoms in my palm and breathed in their scent. I hadn't seen flowers in Mongolia literally in months. I felt like they must have been illicitly trafficked taped to the top of a truck or something. "They smell so good!" I exclaimed, cupping the precious plants under my nose. The flower giver smiled and shrugged; "they smell like grass." "Exactly!" I had forgotten the smell of grass. The deep, rich, organic smell of things that grow. In a Mongolian winter many things die, the strangest of which are smells. When things freeze, you can't smell them. This fact of life makes the outhouses much more pleasant but the rest of life becomes incredibly flat. Of course, the opposite end of the spectrum is when things burn. For some reason I've always imagined the streets of India in summer being alive with festering, sizzling things. When things freeze, they just slowly deaden without a fight. But when they burn, its like they become so alive that they explode in an ecstasy of being. On cold days I'll close my eyes and think about an outdoor market on the surface of the sun; a brilliant yellow existence in the distortion of hot air where everything is painfully alive. But here in Mongolia smells disappear, dieing along with their source, and you don't notice. It's easier to focus on the narrowing color palate, the vibrant greens and blues shriveling down to browns and grays. Then it's those times in which you are presented with a living thing that you realize what you are missing. The revisited fragrances are overwhelming and exhilarating. 

A memory I have held close from my trip this summer is visiting a museum in Auckland. It had beautiful grounds and though it was rainy my friend Wes and I decided to stroll through them. We came to a hot house where Wes, always the gentleman, opened the door for me. And all at once it hit me; I felt as if I'd been blitzkrieged by a perfumery. The smells! The beautiful, floral aromas that had been so absent in my life for a year enveloped me and I was carried along by the warm saccharine breath. The colors were so vibrant. It was so surreal, so completely different from what I have gotten used to. Now back in Mongolia I can conjure a vague memory of the distant tropical smell while the world freezes around me. Knowing that hot house exists with it's precious cargo is a thought I hold dear.
In another instance of sensory recall, I held a baby this weekend for the first time in a very long time. Rocking her back in forth and humming the Beatles, her eyes began to close. I cradled her to my face and breathed deep the scent of her hair. It's amazing: babies everywhere smell the same! The fresh, delicate smell of new life is the just same on an old sofa in rural Mongolia as it is in Piedmont Hospital in downtown Atlanta. And everywhere it is heavenly.

What I've taken away from this sensory phenomenon is that I suppose you can't in fact have rain without rainbows, fireflies without mosquitoes, weed without stems and seeds or whatever they say. True, flowers have and will always smell good. But just as hunger is the best sauce, revising a rare smell after so long is almost indescribably mind blowing. For as long as I live I don't think I'll ever smell such honeyed flowers or babies so sweet. These memories will carry me through the winter until the world blooms again.

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