The crisp tingle in the nostrils, so pure it almost hurts. A smoky tea to keep you company for long hours at your computer. Thyme in the community garden on the Meadows. The lingering coconut butteriness of the yellow gorse in Holyrood. The scent of a candle in the rain. The smell behind Ben the collie’s perfect ears. Pizza in the oven on a Friday, and a lavender oil that lulls you to sleep.
It’s the stuff of life itself, but it is subject to interruption. Walking past Pollock Halls last semester, I overheard students talking about experiences of COVID. ‘She couldn’t smell anything,’ they said. This is now a key indicator of infection: about sixty per cent of COVID sufferers are thought to suffer disturbances in smell and taste. Ten per cent have persistent symptoms for more than six months, and most, like Alice Thomson, retrain their nose, working through cloves and lemons all the way to lemongrass and red wine.
Loss or disturbance of smell has unexpected effects. A partner suddenly smells wrong; toothpaste becomes acrid. COVID sufferers have been surprised by their ensuing feelings of disconnection and flatness. Smell, it turns out, is a key way that we take in the world, and when it is compromised, our world can turn upside down.
Even if you have not suffered COVID’s sensory interruptions, you may be experiencing olfactory fatigue. ‘Sameness’ is the problem: with most of us working from home in the same environment day after day, with the same routine and sensory stimuli, our olfactory nerves start to tune out. Nothing to see here, they decide. Better keep back efforts for the dangerous, and the unexpected.
This is why you may not be able to smell yourself, your room, your house. Subtly, invisibly, your sense of smell is bored. After all, we are embodied creatures. We are not quite like Ben the collie (whose relationship with me mostly consists of me allowing him to smell things), but the scent of the rain, Granny’s house, or a garden rose, makes life real. When we talk to loved ones on Skype, or go on a date at two metres’ distance, it’s part of what we’re missing. And when our sensory life consists of a circuit between bed, desk, and kitchen, no wonder we wind up feeling flat.
In the mindfulness courses, we talk about automatic pilot: the way our minds and bodies carve out their well-worn grooves of habit. Habits are invisible; they do not draw attention to themselves. When we are on automatic pilot, we are in a state where over-stimulation or familiarity has led over time to checking out. In due course, if this is unattended, we may find ourselves flat, or discontent.
Olfactory fatigue is a great example of this – and, therefore, a potential site of intervention to make lockdown life a little more interesting. Here, this week, are some ways to reclaim your olfactory attention.
1. Interrupting Automatic Pilot
For the first practice on the mindfulness courses, we look at, smell, and then eat a raisin, slowly and with attention. If the participants don’t run for the hills, something magical starts to happen round about the point where we get to smell. People are transported: a vineyard in California, a red packet of raisins in a childhood lunchbox. This is an ordinary raisin, mind. In usual times, in the Chaplaincy in Bristo Square, it’s Sainsbury’s own.
To help interrupt your olfactory automatic pilot, take a moment or two to smell ordinary life around you as it happens. The fresh laundry, and the soil of your houseplants after watering. The tea, while you drink it. The pillow, when you hit it. A piece of chocolate. The pages of the book that you are reading.
We even have a phrase for this: to ‘wake up and smell the roses’ means to appreciate what is ignored. These things are here already: have a good sniff. See what you discover.
2. Broaden Your Smellscape
It’s easy in lockdown to stay at home day after day, morning til night. You are probably thinking about the new UK virus variant, and where you can walk safely after dark.
But try to get outdoors every day: your nervous system is tired of the same four walls, and the same smells. Just walk around the block, and smell the rain on the hedges. Venture to the Meadows, and rub the herbs in the community garden between your fingers. Amidst the bare soil you’ll find lemon balm, thyme, and rosemary. And on Arthur’s Seat, that yellow gorse really smells like popcorn: try it and see.
3. Seek Out Smell
A friend recently realised, after not wearing perfume for months, that she did not wear it for other people; she wore it for herself. So she brought it out a few weeks ago, for a celebratory occasion, and has not stopped since.
Ask yourself what you want to smell, and seek it out: botanicals, florals, sweetness, sharpness, chocolate, cinnamon, the smell of toasted spices. Use the nice soap people keep giving you. Check that you like your laundry powder, and change it if you don’t. Buy real flowers, with real scent, and send them to others. Cook something different every week, and enjoy it.
When it snows, get out there, tingle, and enjoy.