Friday, May 6, 2011

Can you smell that?

As the car reached the top of the hill Anna closed her eyes, tilted her head back and took a deep breath, "Can you smell that?" Up until that point I don't think I was paying attention to the smells in the car, but following her lead I closed my eyes and took a deep breath and there it was...the ocean. That unmistakable combination that is the salt water, sand, fish and sunshine smell of the ocean. From that moment on, any time I smell the ocean part of me remembers that day.

Smell and memory are closely tied. There are scientific reasons (or theories anyway) for this. One being that the olfactory cortex has a direct neural link to the hippocampus where as all the other senses go through the thalamus first and then on to the hippocampus. Meaning that smell goes right into the memory banks and our other senses are processed, then stored. Makes sense right? Or your eyes just glazed over and you started hoping for the next paragraph to get on with the story....lucky you...

I love the ocean. I love the vastness of it. I love being in the water. I love watching the waves. I love the gritty salty feel on your skin when you have spent the day at the beach. This isn't a secret to anyone. But one of the things I love the most is the smell. That smell takes me back to the day in the car, finally reaching Southern California after driving for days. It reminds me of days spent on the beach in my early 20s boogie boarding with friends. It reminds me of taking C to the beach for the first time when he was little. Watching his face as he was fascinated by the tides rolling in and out. Opening the doors to the lanai in Hawaii and breathing in the freshness of the new day and again watching the sunset at night. It calms me, centers me, connects me to the fact that no matter what is going on in my world the ocean is there, the waves keep coming in and going out.

This past summer we visited with family in Michigan and I went to Lake Michigan for the first time. I was amazed at how much like the ocean it was. The lake is big enough you cannot see the other side so it looked like the ocean, there were waves, so it felt like the ocean. There were shells, there were sunbathers, there were kids building sand castles, but it didn't smell right. I kept taking those deep breaths in and though the sun smell, the water, the fish, the mist, it was all there, it was missing the salt. But it was beautiful in it's own way. It just didn't smell right. There was nothing there to tie it to my greater memory banks. To weave it in to the story in my head "This is what the beach is like" so I almost felt like it was missing something. A beautiful beach for sure, but just not quite right.

I have never been one of those people who is bothered by our weather in the PNW. I always tell people I love the rain the way only someone born and raised in a desert can. Growing up in New Mexico a big rainstorm is the lead story on the news. Even in monsoon season there is sunshine every day for most of the day. Many people from that climate never adjust up here. The gray, the rain, the cool temperatures get to them. But not me. I have always loved it. Until the past two years hit...after a particularly brutal winter for us on the heels of a non-existent summer which had followed a very wet (even for us) winter I had reached my breaking point. And I wasn't the only one.

It seemed like everyone I knew was just over the weather. A good friend of mine was training for a marathon and I could always tell when she was taking her lunch time run, that would be when the micro-system over the area would burst and the hail and freezing rain would hit. The weatherman would predict sunshine at the end of the long range forecast and if you mentioned it to someone they gave that derisive snort followed by an "I'll believe it when I see it." And then the day for the sunshine would come and go and the sun would have never made its promised appearance...the weathermen took to claiming a day with just clouds and no rain as a victory...or maybe just a light shower instead of a downpour! Hey! Isn't that great! Umm...no.

Then two weeks ago Brent realized I was at the end of my rope. My sunshine meter was buried so far in the red I was starting to absorb the light from every room I walked into. He first suggest a last minute dash to Las Vegas, but my father's practical voice made me balk at the final ticket prices and I suggested we head to beach on Sunday instead. Then we checked the weather forecast one last time. Rain. Are you kidding me? It was supposed to be sunny! Oh well...but then Friday dawned clear and bright and Brent decided that nothing at work needed his immediate attention so he scooted out early and we dashed off to Seaside and Astoria for the day. We ate seafood, walked along the beach, looked inside kitschy little stores, took pictures of ships waiting to go out to sea, laughed at the harbor seals in the aquarium and at the sea lions sunning themselves on the pier. We enjoyed it so much we did it again the next day.

Now, don't get me wrong, it was super cold at the beach. In fact most people in Oregon don't say they are going to the beach, they say they are going to the coast. It's a different experience than southern California. The point in California is to be IN the water. To surf, to swim, to boogie board. The point in Oregon is to be NEAR the water. To hike the wilderness areas near by, to explore the tide pools, to beach comb. But the water is pretty cold, especially in April, and the wind rips and the temps stay mild. But it's still the ocean. And it still smells wonderful.

Like a sunflower I stood on the sand with my face pointed toward the sun, eyes closed, head back, breathing in that ocean smell. Ahh....this is what I needed to start recharging my sun meter. This is what I was missing. Breathe...and suddenly I was 16 sitting in the backseat of my parent's car with Anna, I was 20 floating in the waves in San Diego, I was 30 walking in the waves with my young son, I was 36 standing on a balcony in Hawaii watching a sunset so beautiful it took my breath away, I am 42 chasing the cobwebs of a long winter out of my head...Can you smell that?

The time came to head home. When we got there I had a package waiting for me on the porch. It was a scarf knitted for me by my cousin in Michigan. As I put the scarf around my neck the smell of her perfume filled my nose and I could hear her laugh, see the kids, feel the dogs wiggling around my legs vying to get pet, taste the peanut butter pie from the Amish village and most of all I could feel the sun on my face, the sand beneath my toes and hear the waves of Lake Michigan crashing on the beach...nothing was missing after all.

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