Thursday, January 16, 2014

The People Who Influence Us

There will be a bit of rambling here. And hey, maybe one day I'll read a book and talk about it.

I didn't sleep any last night. It happens every now and then--whenever the Sandman replaces his stash with cocaine, I suppose. So what happens when you lie in bed awake for eight hours straight? (After running out of Candy Crush lives?) The mind wanders into weird territory. All the blood rushes straight to whatever part of the brain is dedicated to soul crushing nostalgia.

It begins like this. I remember a tweet I made about having a nose like Cyrano de Bergerac. And how I have super smell capabilities. Then I think, "If I had to make a list of my favorite smells, what would they be?" Coffee. Laundry detergent. River rocks. Musty garages.

Oh, musty would I explain that one? Well, I have very fond memories of musty, oily, garage-y places. My dad's garage with its cool concrete floor, tools lining the shelves, the perfect place to practice dribbling a basketball. Or my cousin's old hideout: an abandoned shipping trailer in my grandparents' yard. After he moved away he stored his old things there: a punching bag, stashes of comics and MAD magazines, Metallica cassette tapes. It became my new hideout. And the smell of the place--"eau de garage moisi."

And how weird it is that twenty years later, and very far removed from the source, I can recall exactly how it smelled. It's like we have a smell-catalog in our brains, a smellalogue if you will, storing and organizing every scent we come into contact with. It's a much stronger memory holder than sight or sound, I'm sure of it.

Then I panic. I remember the trailer in the yard, but what did my grandparent's house smell like? For several minutes I can't remember. It worries me. I don't want to forget. Then suddenly it comes back in waves. Tobacco. Bleach. Vegetable soup. The perm solution my grandmother used.

And then I'm there. Coloring pictures at the kitchen table, catching minnows in the creek, watching The Price is Right with my grandpa. There's no distance between then and now--it's a wormhole, a direct path between two points in time. Maybe at times we forget the people who influenced us when we were young, but it doesn't change the fact that they're there in our lives, every step of the way.

Other than sleepless nights, the circumstances that usually lead us to remember the deep past is through death. Someone dies, and although we vaguely think about their life and their person, what we always come back to is their influence on us. How we interacted, what we learned, how things changed, what we experienced, saw, tasted and smelled.

I got a Facebook message this morning from my boss at my old job letting me know a shared acquaintance had passed on. I worked in the media department of a university library, and we helped this gentleman, a former professor, digitize a collection of photographs he took on his travels. Every morning this fiercely independent ninety year old man would drive his old pickup truck to the library and slowly walk the long distance to our door. Even though he had difficulty walking he would refuse to let us drive him the distance in our golf cart, only reluctantly agreeing to a ride on rainy days.

He had traveled all over the world. During my time helping him I must have scanned thousands of photographs. All professional, all breathtakingly gorgeous. We would often work together. Although he would at some points forget my name and call me "Jennifer," he could remember every detail of his global journeys. The peaks he climbed in Colorado, or the spiritual experience he had after coming across a forest carpeted with bluebells.

When I got to take a world journey of my own when traveling to Japan, I took inspiration from his techniques and tried to make the best photographic travelogue possible, albeit limited to the point-and-shoot camera I was able to afford at the time. Later when I showed him my photos, he urged me to continue practicing photography and to explore the world and its wonders. I haven't been able to travel far since then, but I've done my best to explore my own backyard and catalog its magnificence through frozen snapshots in time.

So I am sad today. The world has lost a true gem of a human being. But at the same time, I'm gloriously happy. He had such a fulfilling life, and he touched the lives of so many others. This nostalgia we have for things past, the memories, should be dusted off every now and then. Not just when death forces us to think about them. They're not stuck in some way way back--they're surrounding us every day.

So. Take out those photo albums, and exercise your smellalogue. Don't live in the past, but accept it, and acknowledge how it and every person you've come into contact with has molded you into the person you are today.

Thank you, Dr. Wine.


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