Sensation Preservation: My Favorite Sights, Sounds, Smells, Tastes, & Touches

IMG_4025“When we think of the past it’s the beautiful things we pick out.–Margaret Atwood

Hello friend,

Matt Nathanson is one of my favorite musicians. Last year, he put out a song called “Headphones” that managed to get a bit of radio play. I liked the song at first, until I saw the video. Then, I LOVED it! The video is basically a documentary montage of a trip Matt took to an impoverished town in Peru to give hearing aids to people who had either never had hearing or who had lost it. As the song rises to its climax, the video’s story reaches the point where the long-deaf people, who had lined up for hours for this moment—and certainly dreamed about it for years—begin to hear. The reactions are absolutely priceless! As they are overwhelmed with tears, amazement, gratitude, and wide wonder, I cannot turn my own teary eyes away. Each time I watch the video, I wonder about how special that moment is for those people, how the voices of Matt and the others must sound like audio magic to them, and how the image must sear itself into their hearts and minds forever. I also look at it from Matt’s perspective, but in the visual sense rather than the audio. I have to think that the look on those beautiful faces (see the photo) as they heard their first sounds—the absolutely palpable ignition of their souls—must have touched his heart in such a profound way that the image of them etched itself there forever as well.

At the start of the video’s story, in a voiceover that fascinates me, as Matt is explaining how much he loves music, he says, “I’d gladly go blind or mute, anything rather than go deaf. I’d be completely lost. I think that for most people, keeping their sight would be their first choice. But what a thought! I shudder at the very idea of losing any of my senses. I am reading a book right now called All the Light We Cannot See—I highly recommend it—in which the main character is a teenage girl who became blind as a young child. I am completely captivated by every scene she is in and try to imagine what it must be like to be in her shoes, to have seen the world once but now living totally in the dark. What images are etched in her memory? What would be the first thing she would want to see if her vision was restored? And what about Matt Nathanson and his hearing? What sounds would he miss the most? Music? Voices? The wind in the trees? What is so etched into his soul that he could never forget? What would it mean to reconnect with them?

Of course, I use Matt Nathanson, the deaf people of Peru, and Marie-Laure LeBlanc from my book as my examples, but who I am really thinking about is myself? What are the images—the sights, the sounds, even the tastes, smells, and touches–that I would miss the most? Which ones could I never forget? Would I pine for images I have never known outside of my imagination, or would it be the sensations that are the foundation of my everyday world? What makes this earthly life so great, anyway? The sights and sounds matter. So do the tastes and the smells and the touches. It turns out that our senses are the pathway to our entire experience of the world.

Like with most everything in my world since my kids were my born, the sensations I associate with my joy for life are so much tied to those two little munchkins. I think of my son’s cat-who-ate-the-canary smile and the look in his eyes when he has a joke up his sleeve. I cannot imagine a life without those magical, playful eyes that light me up every time I see them.

It is in my moments of being literally in the dark that I appreciate my sense of touch. The ones that seem to glue me together come after my daughter and I have said goodnight to my son and return to her bed. She lays her head on my arm and snuggles in close as she tells me stories and asks me questions. Gradually the talking comes to an end as she begins to give way to sleep. It absolutely is the food my soul lives upon, and I cannot imagine not being able to feel her against me, the curls of her hair tickling the side of my face.

There are also images from my past that seem to be seared into my heart and mind, and while I would love to experience them again, even if I went the rest of my lifetime without feeling them, I would still hold them as fresh visions in my mind, ones I wish never to forget. Two come quickly to mind. The first is a place called Avalanche Lake in Glacier National Park (which itself is a tremendous feast for the senses that I give the highest recommendation). One day I hiked up to this crystal clear, glassy mountain lake and trudged through the brush to the far shore where no one would come near. I plopped myself down with my journal and seemed to have all I would ever need. I was surrounded almost entirely by steep rock faces with small waterfalls cascading down, except of course the absolutely crystalline water in front of me. Alone I sat with my heart completely open, and both the place and the visual completely soaked into me. I pray that Alzheimer’s does not take that image away from me any time soon.

Another fine day in another fine place came about 10 years ago in my beloved Italy. The town of Siena holds my heart anyway, but that particular late afternoon in Il Campo, the giant town square, my wife and I—relative newlyweds at the time—were just sitting on the ground on the beautiful, burnt orange bricks after a full day, enjoying some gelato and people-watching. In a playful mood, we pulled out our clunky camera—this was pre-smartphone days—and started taking selfies, giggling as we snuggled our faces up close to squeeze into the shot, then laughing at the results. We were so much at ease and so much in love. It was nothing but an ordinary afternoon in a magnificent place, but my memory of the sights, the tastes, the smells, and the feelings seems utterly extraordinary. If I could not see anymore, I would still have that day in my mind’s eye.

It is easy to take these senses for granted, but they are absolutely amazing gifts. I think of my son’s eyes, my daughter’s snuggles, the taste of gelato, the smell of the pine forest in Montana, and the sound of the ocean waves crashing on the beach. How could these be replaced if my senses were lost? Would my memory of them be enough? I honestly cannot say. What I do know is that doing this exercise has made me smile at the thought of so many beautiful sensations and the memories they have carved into my mind. It has made me more grateful for these priceless gifts. It has swept me away to my happiest places, and I have truly loved every step of the journey.

How about you? What are the sensations that live in you for the long-term? Open up your journal and take a trip through your most treasured memories of touches, tastes, smells, sights, and sounds. What are your favorite examples of each sense? What emotions are tied to them? Do the different senses seem to conjure a different set of emotions? What senses seem to create the strongest emotions in you? Are those senses also the most valuable to you? Which sense would you most willingly give up? Least willingly? If you lost one or more, do you think your memory would be strong enough to keep the feeling alive? If today you lost your hearing for a long period of time—say, five years—and then gained it back, what would you want to hear first? Same for sight: what would you want to see first? Touch? Smell? Taste? Armed with the answers to all of these questions, what are you going to take the time to appreciate in your day today? What sensations will you seek out? Which will you try to commit to memory? Leave me a reply and let me know: What images do you savor?

 Take it all in,

William

P.S. If this post resonates with you, I would greatly appreciate it if you would share it with your family and friends via social media or old-fashioned word-of-mouth. My hope is to positively impact as many people as possible every week, and I need your help to do that. Thanks in advance for your support.

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