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Sporadic photos and notes from a Psyche-midwife, cheerleader, anthropologist--aka clinical social worker in therapy practice. Photos are usually mine except for those of historical events/famous people. Music relevant to the daily topic is often included in a web video embedded below the blog. Click on highlighted links in the copy to get to source or supplemental material. For contact information, see my website @ janasvoboda.com or click on the button to the right below. Join in the conversation.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The (Lost) Smell of Pleasure

evening sky, 6/1/12
I'm at the first year anniversary of losing my sense of smell.  It'll be good to be past some of the difficult firsts:  Thanksgiving, spring scents, summer harvest, winter without enjoying the olfactory pleasures of a woodfire or baking bread.  My weight has stabilized.  I learned one can eat food whether or not one likes the taste.  But I miss enjoying it, and I imagine I always will

When you have a peculiar experience, it's common to notice evidence and reminders everywhere.  I've become acutely aware of how much we talk about smell and taste in daily life, even in our slang: "sweet!" and "that stinks".  And I always loved smell and the memories it instantly evoked.  One of the hardest parts of this year was losing my father, and not being able to recall him through the scent of his belongings.  After my mother died, even years later, I could bring her back in the most vivid way just by going into her closet and inhaling the scent of her bathrobe.  I have my father's cedar chest, and it saddens me that it is now just a visual piece. 

There is no describing the paths scent carries us on.  It's hard enough to describe a smell.  Try it.  Often scents are articulated by the memories associated with them--fireworks smell like summer, the 4th of July; pine like Christmas and the forest we walked.

smells like:  nothing.
Luca Turin, a perfumer and the controversial subject of Chandler Burr's book "The Emperor of Scent", is an exception.  In his classic "Perfumes:  A-Z" (with coauthor Tania Sanchez) he is able to evoke complex imagery with his descriptions; still, they generally refer to a mood, or another smell.  Both books are currently buried in the stacks at my library, but a rough Turin paraphrase might be his description of a perfume as "reminiscent of an apple in the sun cut with a steel blade."  When I first lost my ability to smell, I devoured both of these books greedily.  As a supersmeller prior to anosmia,  I never liked perfume-- my nose plowed right past whatever they were supposed to offer and was overwhelmed with chemicals.  But after scent was gone, books like these were olfactory porn.  I was a torch-carrying separated lover reading old letters and staring at photographs.

With the passage of time, there is the robbery of memory.  Now it's harder to recall the scent of an apple or of a blade, and what's left is a ghost of impression, drifting.  There is a very real sense of loss of pleasure.  If you're familiar with learning theory, you may have heard of primary reinforcers.  There aren't many.  Food, sex, sleep, satiation of thirst.  Always first food is mentioned.  Without smell, food becomes more of a secondary reinforcer.  It staves off discomfort, but it doesn't give pleasure.

how did that guy know about the nose? (A+gallery's photo)
In my life, I have been through harder immediate struggles.  In my work, I see larger tragedies every day.  But this has been a loss for me, and it helps to acknowledge it, especially at Big Times like the anniversary date.  "Get the wound out of the body and onto the page", says author Marjorie Sandor; and she's right. It helps.  Three things that have also really helped:  talking to other persons with smell loss/distortion on web support sites, having friends and family that have tried to hear and understand what it means, and artist Wolf Nkole Helzle's wonderful community of world photo diarists.  The latter has helped me learn to appreciate the visual world, never previously my strong suit.  Thanks to Wolf and his project, I now carry a camera with me everyday and look to find something in the visual world that leaves the sort of mark scent use to leave on me.  Since olfaction serves as a mental marker for events and emotions, it helps to have visual cues to tie my these to places and dates.

Thanks for bearing witness.  Suffering decreases when we are heard and seen; that's what my work is all about.

Today's video:  it just made me smile.


Wolf Nkole Helzle said...

thank you Jana for the possibility to be a part in your life.

Unknown said...

Balzac wrote, “Love is the poetry of the senses.” You have an uncanny sense of people, and a gentle blunt heartfelt way of reinforcing the idea that syncopated is a rhythm, too. So, maybe it doesn't compensate for your olfactory loss. And these words compensate nothing. Still, and now is as good an occasion as any: know that what you have and what you do and the way you receive and give and honor and grapple with life continues to be poetry in motion and in rest. Shine on, Jana.