Sunday, June 6, 2010

The very thought of it

Marcel Proust said it best in "The Remembrance of Things:
"When nothing else subsists from the past, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered· the smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls· bearing resiliently, on tiny and almost impalpable drops of their essence, the immense edifice of memory."
The ocean, a new book, a cup of coffee, a rose, even the musty smell of a basement - all these smells conjure up for me a memory of some time and place from the past. My first memory that I can recall is standing on a gigantic steamer boat, the S.S. Rose, and looking out over an endless sea. I was no more than three or four at the time and my family was returning from Panama to North Carolina. My father was a career army officer. We had lived for a year in Panama where it had been hot and humid. We lived near the jungles and my mother would later tell me stories of how I was always almost lost in the jungles. But, I don't remember any of that.

It is the boat, standing on the deck and looking out at the immense ocean that I vividly recall. The scent of the ocean’s salty green brine that hits not only your sense of smell but taste with its salty sweetness. At sea decaying fish and seaweed are consumed by ocean dwelling bacteria and produce a sort of fishy tangy smell. The smell is unique. Anyone who been on a boat that has recently been fishing knows this smell can stir up a flock of seagulls in to a ravenous frenzy.Perhaps it is this primeval need for food that stirred in me this memory. The memory is more visual than olfactory, but that is not unusual. Smell is a more subtle sense than sight. It embeds its effect in silent ways and calls out to our need for basic survival, the need to eat.

What I do remember is that it was the instance between dusk and night. When the sun is setting, the sea turns from turquoise to iridescent orange, and then in a moment both night and sea turn purple then black. The rippling of the waves and the wake the boat makes the scene animated as if thousands of hands in a multitude of colors, turquoise, orange, purple and all sorts of shades in between are waving at me at the boat silently glides through the water. In my memory, I am shorter than the railing. At times I have my hands on the thick rail watching the show and smelling the air. At other times I stand there hands at my sides awestruck by the immensity of the boat, ocean, and sky. I was too young then to process this thought, but I have often wondered since whether it was at this moment that I understood what it was to be part of the universe. To describe that moment as spiritual is fitting even though at that age I would not have understood the word. Spiritualism is after all deeply confusing even as we grow older.The one thing that even a child can understand is that we are a part of something larger, and that try as we might we can never understand it all. As Marcel Proust might have said, we are tiny almost imperceptible drops within a cosmic universe. The thought is both humbling and reassuring. Humbling for who are we to think that we can in any way make an impact on the world. Reassuring in that we know that in at least one sense our atoms will continue to form and reform in a myriad of different life forms and continue to be part of this universe until the end of time.

Every return trip to the ocean invariably brings back this memory. But even the smell of fish at a local restaurant like the The Fish Market, here in Wichita can involuntarily trigger this memory. The very smell of it - Halibut, Salmon, Mahi-Mahi, Grouper, Tuna, Haddock, Oyster, Clam, Calamari - will bring back that time, place and smell of long ago. The memory like mementos stored in a cigar box is carefully tucked away, safe and secure.

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