Coming Back

Mind Maps, Deals with the Devil, and the Story of the Lost Oven Mitt

I told myself I would write something this weekend because it was roughly time in my twice-a-month natural newsletter pace, but nothing spoke to me except the disjointed images of my oven mitt encounter and this book by Jenny Odell that I finished late on Sunday night. This morning, I awoke to an onslaught of sensation, and the accompanying emotions merged into the piece below. I sob without fail each time I write one of these, and it tells me that it is important. Important to me, and I hope meaningful in some ways to you. We are each going through a lot of loss and orientation, so hold yourselves close and don’t look back.

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It’s coming back. And lately in waves, I know that something is here. I breathe in, and it’s like sticky memories cling to the inside of my nostrils for one second before dissipating, not long enough for the synapses in my brain to pair them with words but still potent enough to grip me. I’m closing my eyes right now. And when I breathe in it’s like opening the cabinet door and having all the papers tumble down, flitting this way and that so that I see flashes of ideas but I can’t catch any to hold in my hands.

In October, I daydreamed that losing my smell felt like the lights were off, and each day was a fight to reconstruct in my mind’s eye a web of understanding without having the light switch. I wrote down in my notebook that I wanted to have a Batman beam flashlight that sweeps and sweeps so that once in a while, some memories would shimmer back before fading into the dark. Last month, I wrote about the idea of kicking up dust, which is an image that has stayed in my mind. It represents resistance and cacophony, frustration and freedom all at once. When I dreamt of this dark room of cobwebs and light beams, I also imagined that kicking up dust was my solution. That flailing my limbs - continuing to relentlessly move - would clarify this map. But so much of the last year has also been me realizing that change is this thing that hurts so much and feels so good because it shines the flashlight on the idea that those webs might not be where they once were.

The phrase “kick up the dust” was one I used back in the fall, as you can see from my frantic scrawling. I encourange everyone to journal in this time; it is an archive of growth and process of becoming.

I’m closing my eyes and right now it doesn’t feel like there is a flashlight in my hands. I can’t look in the room of my mind and expect that I will be able to fumble for the keys to my cognitive kingdom. Nothing makes sense anymore, and each breath is a terrifying reminder that I don’t really know anything. I am breathing in, and it is like a stew of the lavender hand soap in the bathroom, the LaoGanMa in my noodles last night, the blossom branches on my coffee table, the candle I just blew out, the heat of my laptop whirling. But it’s all mashed up, like the detritus piled in the corner of the basement, tangled and indecipherable.

Looking back on that notebook entry this fall, I am reminded of a unique inner turmoil. At the time, I was starting to experience mismatched smells: things randomly elicited burning plastic, rotting cigarettes, or even hot trash. I wrote, “It’s in these moments that I begin making fake barters with the lesser of two evils.” I wanted so badly then to actually not smell, because certainly, that would be better than this. A blank nothingness might reign supreme against this frustration of misunderstanding, this inability to place myself on any map. I just finished reading How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy by Jenny Odell, and she writes that artists like Hockey and Picasso force us in their all-at-once collages to think about the practice of “looking.” Because how do we really see? It is this amalgamation of angles and views, perceptions and perspectives all boggled together to form the picture in our mind’s eye: paintings represent the feeling of the experience of seeing. I wonder what the difference between what I see in the world and what my mind’s eye imagines of the world is. Which one is stronger? This book reminds us of the power of attention, of sharpening our ability to see into the world by grounding ourselves in the earth, remembering that we are not individual agents lost in the loneliness of life, but that we are connected to ecosystems, to localities, webs, and maps of people and places and pulls.

I’m breathing in again and this time it feels like jam, probably from the pear compote I made for breakfast, or maybe synthetic aloe from the cleaning fluid, or is it just musk from the fact that I’ve been locked into this single room for the last half year. I grasp for words because it feels like when the tumble of papers comes crashing down, directing my flailing arms to catch something before everything vanishes might ground me. I want to feel in my hands a folded sheet, flip it open, and see that there is something whole, contained, digestible printed inside. A single word to hold everything I’ve ever been insecure or uncertain or fearful of for me to see in my mind’s eye, and then to swallow.

Scientific knowledge tells us that when we can imagine something in our mind, the pathways that fire in our brains are actually the same ones as when we literally see; the difference lies in the directionality. When we take in the world with our eyes, we accept that it is stimuli to interpret. When we construct our worlds within, it can only be top down. What can we build from what we already know? I guess that is the sorrow of losing my light switch. I am building from a limited set of resources. But why do I feel larger now?

This pandemic year has body-slammed me into realizing that I had lived my life with multiple layers of blinders and that none of the webs in my mind will ever stay the same. Some will be abandoned, others blown over or replaced with ten far lovelier patterns. I’m learning that my devil’s barter is moot because even returning isn’t the same.

Earlier this week, I lost my sunflower oven mitt. And by lost, I mean, I did my laundry in the basement and could not find the mitt post-launder. I have not left the circulation between basement and studio apartment so there was no doubt in my mind that it was “lost” somewhere in the fold of my life. I sort of accepted that looking for it was pointless after I checked the usual suspects – maybe it was forgotten in the dryer, fell in the crack between my oven and counter, or got tossed in with my bath towels. The whole week I was irked by the fact that each time I wanted to pick up the cast iron, I didn’t have the mitt nearby. Then, three days ago, I stirred from my sleep, became mildly conscious of the fact that it was way too dark to be fully morning, reached for my phone hoping to check the time, and felt a quilted square lump directly under my hand. Even in the grog of heavy sleep, I couldn’t help but let out a literal yelp. It was like a lightbulb went off in my head, like I saw the mitt in my mind’s eye under a layer of covers and bedsheets, its sunflower print exactly how I remembered it. I think of that delightful Le Petit Prince drawing of the hat and the layers of characters that could be inside. There was a gap between when the lightbulb clicked and when my hand first touched the shape beneath my sheets that the possibility of that layered form was infinite. Maybe it’s part delusion and part charm, but there must be something in that moment’s power to elicit such expansion within me.  

I’m trying to live my life without looking for the “lost” oven mitt. It’s silly because this whole online forum is called “In Search of Lost Smell,” but if you’ve been loyally reading, you know that I am saying “lost” with a wink. It’s somewhere around me, this feeling of completeness, and I know that in my mind’s eye it holds a certain form and a certain history, but that really, the ecstatic vastness lies in this small fissure between what I experience, what I already know, and how they can continue to blow each other up. I delight in the fact that I “found” my mitt so suddenly and serendipitously literally right under my nose. If I had frantically sought the mitt in the image of being in a dark room with a flashlight, the moment that I came upon it would have produced relief rather than delight. There was an oven-mitt-shaped hole in my life, a perfectly cropped square, that I needed to fill: the gap between me now and me-once-I-found-my-mitt-again would have been far too palpable. But to exist in my mitt-less state and then to find the mitt and, more so, to encounter it shrouded in possibility, has made me look at these sunflowers hanging over my oven now in a new way. It is a symbol of the futility of returning something to its place.

I’m working on balancing my desire to seek newness and return to what I know, equalizing the anxiety around staying still versus actively forming my life. Sometimes I go on these bouts in which I want to have both hands on the steering wheel. If I can just put the pedal to the metal - keep my body moving - the fears and demons won’t be able to catch me. Other times, I sit in the crook of the fig tree that Sylvia Plath planted in my mind and watch as the over ripe fruits fall to the ground. I’m closing my eyes again and inhaling. There’s something peppery but also saccharine, and I feel my throat tightening because it’s like all the smells that I’ve missed in the last year are fighting for my attention. I find that I’m bargaining again with the devil to let me not breathe this way. The smells and the words and memories and the timeline of this collapsed year flash in front of me with each inhale and I want to run. I want to turn off the lights again and return to the days in which there was a blank slate and I could simply imagine how it felt in the “before.”

But the eternal return is something I’ll fight Nietzsche about. I don’t want to eternally return. As much as it scares me sitting in this purgatory of a lights-on non-recognition, as much as it is torturous to let myself believe that it’s “coming back,” I think I am going to hold this particular moment close. I want to see it as the infinite fissure before lifting the sheet, or seeing the shape under a delightful cap, the fist gripped around a secret scrawled on paper. Even if I never lost my smell, this year is an example of the fact that we never return, and it is going to take all my energy to keep my feet firmly planted on the ground, to embrace each messed-up inhale as a reminder of how goddamn blessed I am to have been slapped into this realization. How lucky I am to have something stir within in me at 4 am and to be able to experience for just a flash a world in which I know nothing and in which anything is possible.

Each breath today is an assault, it is a promise, and it is the possibility of holding myself still while trusting that I’m never going back.

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