Wednesday, May 11, 2022

A FAN OF PHANTOSMIA – The Smell of My Own Nose

“Smell” is an interesting word, isn’t it? It’s one of very few in the English language that’s not only both a noun and a verb, but is also both an action verb—John smells the rose—and a stative verb—The rose smells (sweet to John).

I’m pretty sure every living organism on Planet Earth has some sense of smell. Animals use theirs to find food, sense danger and engage mates. Plants use their version of smell to react with pollinators, size up pests and detect disease in nearby plants.

For us humans, smell may not be quite as vital as that to our day-by-day survival, but if you’ve got a natural gas leak in your house, it just might save your life. And let’s not forget the sense’s aesthetic merit. Flowers, the sea, fresh-brewed coffee and babies’ heads come to mind.


They say one’s sense of smell fades as one ages. I’m sure that’s true with mine. That’s probably why I’m using more and more seasoning in my food these days. And, though it may be simply a measure of my love, why I can no longer smell my dog’s farts.

But I’ve discovered another aspect to my olfactory perception, one that seems to increase with age. For lack of a better term, I’ll call it phantom smell. That is to say, I’m smelling things that aren’t really there.

I first noticed it a couple of years ago while I was meditating. I sat down in my favorite chair, leaned back and, because it was daylight, pulled the hood of my sweatshirt down over my eyes to tone down the brightness.

As I followed my breathing into my inner space, I caught these fleeting whiffs of the most intriguing smells. Ebbing and flowing, they often varied with each inhalation. I found them engaging in the most pleasant, evocative way. But evocative of what, I’m not at all sure.

Even trying to describe them makes me think of a genteel oenophile deciphering notes of chocolate or leather in some nice, old Grenache.

It’s funny, I only get these smells when I meditate—with that sweatshirt pulled down over my eyes, collecting and holding, I suppose, whatever combination of real and imaginary smells come to haunt me.

            They’re more subtle, like the aroma
            of my skin after I sit in the sun.

So, what are these smells that come and go, that might morph one into the next with each inhalation? It might be easier to describe what they aren’t. They aren’t floral, nor sweet. They aren’t aromas I’d associate with food.

They’re less common, more subtle, like the aroma of my skin after I sit in the sun; like the not-quite-herbal, not-quite-spice smell of a hot, summer meadow; like the damp, fertile fragrance of deep forest; or the warm, toasty smell of our miniature schnauzer’s feet.

I’m pretty sure there’s nothing around me that actually smells like that. No dog in my lap; no food left on the side table; nothing spilled on the cushions. My mustache has been known to catch and hold the smell of the bacon I had for breakfast, but it isn’t that either.

I realized that I don’t smell anything until I pull that hood down over my eyes and nose. Maybe that’s where the smells were coming from. But no, I washed the sweatshirt and next time the smells were still there. 

      Oh my God, why are these smells after me?

Since the smells aren’t coming from anything around me, I’ve concluded that they must reside in me. Maybe they’re like dreams: you know they’re not real; you may not know what they mean; but you do know they’re based on something you’ve experienced.

There’s a name for this kind of phantom smell: phantosmia. Medical websites say it can have a number of causes: sinusitis, stroke, tumors, schizophrenia, …Oh my God, why are these smells after me?

Most often, phantosmia produces not-so-pleasant smells, like badly burned toast, chemical or metallic odors, rotting flesh…yikes! How fortunate that mine are so congenial. In fact, I actually look forward to that element of my daily meditation, where the smells help me break through my shell of mundane concerns and into a state of dreamy inner-consciousness.

The sense of smell is another of those miracles we become so accustomed to that we may barely notice it. Whether it’s a pleasant waft or a foul reek, whether the source is real or imagined, smell is, indeed, worthy of wonder.

So, have you ever been visited by phantosmia? Does it beguile you or beset you? Won’t you please leave a comment? We’d all love to hear how you smell.

Thursday, April 14, 2022

HEAR, HEAR! – Music As If For the First Time

Those of you familiar with my As If For the First Time (AIFFT) series will recognize the premise: pick some common observation or activity—one so ubiquitous as to easily escape one’s full appreciation—and describe it as if I’d never seen or done it before.

I’ve written at least fifty of them, and the other day, while listening to our local public radio classical music station, I realized music just begs for a place at the
AIFFT table. Why had it taken me so long?

                                                    ~        ~        ~    

         It can curl one into the fetal position
         or lift one to prayer.


Usually these treatises practically write themselves. But the more I think about music, the more it’s proving one of the hardest themes I’ve tackled.

It’s just that music is so intangible. Unlike any of my previous AIFFT reflections, experiencing it involves no physical action. You can’t see it, pick it up, turn it over, smell it or taste it. You can only listen…and relate.

Much of our response to music is emotional. Like poetry for the ears, it can render one sad, happy, pensive, agitated…or sleepy. It can curl one into the fetal position or lift one to prayer. It can move one to dance. 

IMAGE: New York Times

It coaxes out the sweetest and sorest of memories. It can draw shut dark curtains of fear or doubt, or open them to the golden-hour light of promise.

And yet, how do I describe music as if I’d never heard it before? Doesn’t its appreciation require some cultural or personal reference point? Or could some aspects of it actually be innate to us? In other words, might even infants love a Mozart concerto the first time they lay ears on it? (Brain sciences researchers say they do, and that music plays an essential role in speech development.)

I’m reminded of a film I once watched portraying some early 20th century explorer who’s managed to penetrate a remote jungle—in Borneo I think it was—and discovers a tribe whose culture remained untouched by modern civilization. The visitor unpacks a Victrola, winds it up and plays Caruso. The natives are spellbound.

Why? Is it because the music their visitors love has touched their souls too? Or is it simply the novelty of their magically producing such sounds—any sounds—from that odd spinning disk?

It’s not that they’ve never heard—or played—music before. Of course they have their own rudimentary music. But where does the inspiration for that creation come from? And why hasn’t it produced works of comparable sophistication to those of Mozart or Steely Dan or Nas?

Nature’s sounds are influential—as they have been for composers in other cultures. From the rumble of thunder to the shrill airs of birds; from the sighs of wind through trees to the rhythm of cricket chirps or water dripping.

This might explain basic melody and rhythm, but what do those wide-eyed Borneans know of harmony? Of tonal color? Of counterpoint? Even though Nature has never shown them such niceties, might they not have simply invented them through experimentation?
     Is rhythm something we’re born with, part
     of our DNA, or is it taught us by no less
     a maestro than our own mother’s heartbeat?

The one aspect of music that just might be inherent to us human beings, even before it’s ensconced in culture, is rhythm. So is the urge to tap our fingers and move our feet a need we’re born with, part of our DNA? Or is it taught us by no less a maestra than our own mother’s heartbeat? (Brain development research has shown that it is.)

And our appreciation for harmony, is that an innate quality of sound, an invention of our hearing, or a component of our souls?

          Do infants love Mozart the first time
          they lay ears on it?

We listen to and appreciate different types of music for different reasons. While some folks love what we might call traditional harmonies and rhythms, others prefer their music dissonant, their tempo harsh, even angry. And still others…well, our tastes are all over the map.

One example: Years ago, I met and became friends with the fantastic Mexican magical-realist painter Fernando Garrido. I was absolutely sure Fernando would love a new album I’d discovered, a CD by Norwegian jazz pianist Tord Gustavsen, whose sublime style “melds brooding Nordic lyricism and modern jazz.” *

So, next time I visited him at his home in Querétaro, I brought the CD and gave it to him.

Now I find Gustavsen thoughtful, soothing, at times etherial—creating the perfect “head space” for my own creative writing and crafting. What better music, I reasoned, to stir the creative juices of a famous, prolific, Caravaggio-inspired Mexican painter? Right?

Wrong. After months of my trying tactfully to pry an honest opinion of the CD from my tactful friend, he finally came clean. He said, “It’s so slow; it has no life.” So much for becoming soul mates with Fernando Garrido—at least music-wise.

So I guess music’s effect on us, like that of art, or design, or any other type of expression, is colored not just by taste, but by culture and by our own experience. I know I’ve heard music most people would find nice, but not especially moving, which, because it recalled for me a particular moment of love or loss, caused my heart to swell or brought me to tears.

         It's like trying to assess emotion as if
         we'd never been able to feel.

So, experiencing music as if for the first time. Is that even possible?  

For something so ingrained in the development of our brains, so influenced by our natural surroundings, so colored by both experience and culture, I’m inclined to say it is not. It’s like trying to assess emotion as if we’d never been able to feel. Or discussing language without words.


At least for me there are far fewer answers than more questions. If you have some answers based on your own experiences with music, we’d all love to hear them!

“If I can learn to understand this language without words, I can learn to understand the world.”

“Remember, all music was once new.”
* Apple Music ( )

Saturday, January 1, 2022


What is hope? Is it anticipation? Expectation? And where’s it located? Is it all about something happening way off in the future? Must it always be about the future?

Spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle likes to say, because the past has already happened, and the future hasn’t yet, that neither exists. That the only time that’s real is now.

So, what does hope look like, not when it’s about some distant outcome, but closer to now?

Well, of course there’s the kind with a capital H, that big, existential kind that’s just out there somewhere. But the small-h, everyday kind—is grounded in the here and now, resting not as much in fate as in our own hands, heart and spirit.

It’s really a choice we make, like love or happiness. But more like surrender, cut of the same cloth as faith.

If big-H Hope is the distant glow at the end of the tunnel, small-h hope is lighting candles in the darkness.

In these discouraging times, we need all the hope we can get—both kinds. Big-H Hope to put out there in the Universe as our sacred intention for ourselves and the world.

And small-h hope, which is often just putting one foot in front of the other. It’s there in the smallest details, minutia that might slip right past us if we’re less than fully present to call it what it is.

What is hope?
It’s a rustling in the brush along the bank of Peasley’s Slough
A glint of light through the forest ahead promising the end of the portage
Kneeling down to check the thickness of the ice
Swiping on a little blue kicker over your glide coat
Casting into that deep eddy just downstream from a rock point
Sticking out your tongue for a snowflake

It’s walking out with your choir onto the stage
Composing that exotic, dream itinerary
Readying your craft space with papers, scissors and glue
Checking how many students have shown up in your Zoom waiting room
Wrapping your finished lampshade arc around the rings
And it’s watching the garage door open and wanting so much for your partner’s car to be there.

There is hope in all these things, all of them signs of wonders about to happen.

So, as we face a new year, still groping our way through this tunnel of fear and uncertainty, may we take comfort in the glow we see at the end, and light those little candles. 

May we seek and find hope everywhere. Yes, up in the sky, in the big picture of what might lie ahead for us. But let us also find it in the moment, in the common, the constant. In each small wonder, each fleeting thought, each precious moment of 2022.