The graffiti read, “I HATE THE WORLD.” It was in all capital letters, spray-painted in fluorescent orange paint, under an overpass.
It was a few years ago. I was a passenger in the car and on my way to celebrate a milestone in my life. My friends and family would be cheering, clapping, crying and capitalizing on every photo opportunity they could, while an African drummer played a traditional drum beat on the side of the stage. They would watch me and the others smile and receive our validation that yes indeed, we were all now bona fide. My mother would tear up, my father would hold her hand and smile proudly and my children would wonder when the endless speeches would be over. Graduate school acceptances would be announced, mine included, followed by more praise, more tears of joy – and yet…
I wasn’t really there. On this happy day of celebration (and I was indeed happy) I found I couldn’t concentrate.
Every once in a while during the ceremony, I caught myself being transported back to the freeway – a passenger in a car, driving under the overpass, seeing the fluorescent orange words, “I HATE THE WORLD,” while I listened to Johnny Cash sing The Man Comes Around.
It wasn’t as if it depressed me terribly or ruined my special day. The words simply had me wondering a bit as most things do. I wanted to talk to the tagger. Ceremony or no ceremony my curious mind never really stops. So it was, in the fifth row, while a Senator from Washington sang her own tune, that I decided I knew what the “taggers” problem was – He didn’t have a sense of smell, which in turn fed his unhappiness with the world.
The senator went on about social justice (a topic I’m usually so passionate about) while I stared at my hands which were folded gently in my lap, contemplating hatred, the tagger, smells, and the like.
I’ve always said that if I could have a journal of only smells from my life I would never need the written word. Smells have the uncanny ability to tell me everything and are clearly my strongest sense. They take me back to places, people and feelings, and with them bring along an entire story. Years ago, Marcel Proust acknowledged the importance of smells, writing, “When nothing else subsists from the past, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered…the smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls…bearing resiliently, on tiny and almost impalpable drops of their essence, the immense edifice of memory.”
I understand why Napoleon kept violets in a locket after Josephine’s death. It was the smell that reminded him of her; not photos or words, but the simple smell of a flower could transport him back to her instantly. The scent of her precious violets remained with him until his death – a reminder of the tumultuous love they once had. I then wondered if the tagger knew that. Knew about smells, about Napoleon, about essence.
There have been periods in my own life, in the not too distant past, I didn’t smell much either. Although I never harbored a hatred of the world my own personal tumultuous life had taken over my being, my essence, and in turn my sense of smell. There were glimpses of scents every so often, but they remained somewhat elusive – just beyond my grasp…like the person who hates the world I suppose. I would occasionally smell the earthiness of my son’s head when I hugged him tight, my dog’s fur after being out in the rain, or the sweet breath of a lover, but at times, they were left to mere chance.
Then, while still continuing my contemplation of senses of smell, the hatred of the world, and Napoleon and Josephine – something absolutely serendipitous happened – Someone began mowing their lawn. I knew this because I smelled the cut grass, the occasional dirt being blown from the blades and the gasoline in the tank vaporizing in the air. I looked up and around to see if I could see where it was coming from; the glorious smell. But I saw nothing but a vast sea of heads looking towards the stage.
As I smiled to myself, inhaled deeply, and took it all in, my name was called to make my way to the stage, receive my paper from the higher minds and enjoy my day, the world, it’s pleasures and most importantly… it’s smells…