Senses and sensibilities

One of the things I love most about my husband is his ability to be in the moment. To live neither in the past nor the future, just to inhabit the present. I suck at that. Early in our relationship, when we still both thought we had to go everywhere together, at the same time, and leave everywhere together, at the same time, we had a tearful argument (tearful on my part, only, I should point out) during which I uttered the immortal line: One thing you should know about me — I will ALWAYS be thinking about what we have to do tomorrow morning.

It’s not just the future I’m adept at projecting into. I also spend a fair amount of time trafficking in the past. I love to paw through my memories, trying to make sense of them. I can think of something I did years ago, YEARS ago, that was mildly embarrassing at the time, and still feel the twinge of humiliation. It is a skill I’d try to be less good at except that it comes in handy for a novelist. I have a complete catalogue of emotions and their attendant actions and reactions easily accessible at all times. Sure, it takes an emotional toll, but hey, I do it for you.

Earlier this week, Ryan sent a bit of a questionnaire to The Common. It went like this:

If you were a deprived of one of your senses for years and then given the chance to choose one thing to perceive for one minute with that sense, what would it be?To smell:

To hear:

To taste:

To touch:

To see:

This is just the kind of stuff Ryan loves to think about. But Christ, what a minefield for such a sentimental fool as I. So, no surprise I was first to respond. And it happened to arrive on what would have been my brother Chris’s 41st birthday. Here’s my fresh-off-the-top-of-my-head response:

Well, first thing that comes to mind:

To smell: my husband’s neck
To hear: my brother’s laugh, which I barely remember
To taste: The sandwiches my grandmother used to make
To touch: Kev’s hand
To see: toughest one. First thing that comes to mind is my little garden, but that seems absurd, except that I love it so much.

I’ve been thinking about this list since I sent it. None of these are the most intense expressions of their respective senses. When Sarah answered, she was all about intensity… fresh brewed dark roast, fresh pasta with tomato sauce. Purity of sense. For me. the first thing that came to mind was experiences that are lost to me even without the artificial construct Ryan devised.

My brother had the most amazing laugh, but I can barely capture it with even the edges of my mind and memory. I remember only that it was amazing and it always made me laugh too. Maybe it was a little high pitched somehow? A little incongruous to his tall, dark person. I think I remember that it overtook him completely. I wish I could remember it. I would give anything to hear it again.

Alright, and then those sandwiches. It doesn’t even matter what was in them, nor that it’s been more than thirty years since I’ve had one. Noni died back in 1977, when I was seven years old, but oh god those sandwiches. On chewy Italian rolls, spread with butter. Then fresh tomatoes, most likely, and some kind of cold cut perhaps? Like I said, I don’t remember what was in them exactly, just that my grandmother made them and they tasted so fucking good.

Touch is the sense I would miss the least. Not that I don’t love to hold Kev’s hand, I surely do. But the other senses, the memories they bring immediately to mind, are so much more immediate, so much more evocative. When god forbid the day comes that I am on my own, I will long for the smell of Kevan’s neck. I know this from where I stand now, so I breathe deeply in its presence as often as I can in the hopes of filing it somewhere accessible.

And as for my little garden, I tried so hard for that to not be my answer. It seems so trivial. And yet, I have such a lively catalogue in my head, and I live so far from my family and the dailiness of their lives, and I have lost so many of the lovely sights of my life (my father’s hands working, my brother’s face laughing, all my grandparents looking proud). And I can see those sights again when I am quiet and still. And in my little garden, gazing at the flowers and the unfolding green, and the work Kev did to make it so very peaceful, when I am there and only there… not regretting yesterday and not anticipating tomorrow … then I can see those lovely sights again.


6 responses to “Senses and sensibilities”

  1. Stephanie… a garden is symbolic of much more than its parts. I think its the perfect answer.

    As for memories …lets be thankful we have them the good ones always linger.I still have dreams of my dad bringing home gadgets and I always wake in the morning with a smile. We are lucky to have had them in our lives, for how ever long.
    Myself to forfeit a sense …how about guilt (thought that might get a laugh out of you.


  2. hi Stephanie… whew- this really made me think. I just came in from the garden, the much-needed sun, the breeze off the Bay. I never appreciated gardening when I was a kid…it was something I had to water, or weed, or pick stones out of, while my father worried about weather, seeds, whether the strawberries would produce….he worked outside three months of the year, most of his later life – whether gardening, mowing, or trying to maintain our old family home.

    One summer a year or two ago, I took off my worn gloves and caught a whiff of something that almost spun me around, thinking I would see him standing there…it was the odour of hands released from the restraint of work gloves, warm and sweet with the smell of earth, old cotton and just a tinge of perspiration. Fresh from the yard, just in time to wash up for supper. Wish I had a pair of his old gloves – to go along with this memory.


  3. I loved your choices. I think they were real and from the heart. Perfect!
    The sandwiches your Noni (my aunt) used to make tasted so good because the key ingredient was love.
    Great blog!

  4. Wow Stephanie, great blog entry! I am hounded by a lot of the same thoughts and fears — I too often look at my partner and breath him in deeply, anxious never to forget the details of his being after he’s gone. But he’s whole and healthy and here! Why am I always waiting for “the other shoe to drop”?

    For me there are two things that get me out of the past and prevent me from venturing too far into the future: 1) writing about something other than myself and 2) gardening. There’s some great research about how the right hemisphere of the brain is the part of us that is fully anchored in the present moment and that if we can engage it, we will have achieved “minfulness”. Dr. Jill Bolte explores this in her book “A Stroke of Insight” — a fascinating read. You can watch a talk on TED on this topic at:

    It made me cry with present-minded gratitude…

    Nature’s blessings,


  5. Stephanie:
    I started reading this in a hurry, but had to slow down. It made me think of all the things I’ve lost – words, songs, people, perfect moments, memories of the details of someone’s skin – and realize how transient these things are. They become what we recall them to be, not what they were. They become shaped by our ability to reinvent them in our current description. I guess we have to be okay with that. I wonder what your garden will look like in your memory twenty years from now…

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