Metaphors have a way of holding the most truth in the least space.
― Orson Scott Card, Alvin Journeyman
Tomas did not realize at the time that metaphors are dangerous. Metaphors are not to be trifled with. A single metaphor can give birth to love.
― Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being
There are few things as toxic as a bad metaphor.  You can’t think without metaphors. 
  –Mary Catherine Bateson

Back in October, I wrote a post about metaphors—those intended or inadvertent comparisons we use in our daily lives.  At the time, I was exploring the metaphors we use to describe the “kingdom of the sick,” and how they exert a subtle or not so subtle influence on our daily lives.  How we think of or see a thing often influences the actions we take concerning it.

I was reminded that post on metaphors or comparisons again this Sunday morning, (late Saturday afternoon or early evening for those of you in North America) the day before I return home from Okinawa.   I was reading through my students’ responses to the first week of assigned readings for “Transformative Writing” an online course I teach for UCLA extension Writers’ Program.  We’re using Louise DeSalvo’s excellent book, Writing as a Way of Healing, as the text for the first half of the course.  Her first two chapters coupled with an article by psychologist James Pennebaker got students thinking more about how writing—no matter the form—can have health benefits, whether emotional or physical.   But it was in the use of metaphors two of the students responded with their reflections that got me thinking about how we use comparisons to describe something.

One student described negative emotions like “bad dinner guests.”  I wrote back, suggesting that the feelings we have out of woundedness or a life threatening illness are not so easily dismissed as an unpleasant dinner guest.  His response got me thinking how we sometimes use metaphors or comparisons without stopping to consider what they actually imply.   While poetry abounds with metaphor, the poet’s choice is a considered one, for through them, the poem’s meaning is conveyed.  If you were to trying to describe hurt, grief or fear—emotions that arise out of trauma and serious life situations, would you think of them as “bad dinner guests” or something more onerous or lasting?  What is the metaphor you’d use, and why?

The beauty of a metaphor is that it calls up an image and conveys meaning in a single word or two.  Even DeSalvo’s book is a comparison:  writing as a way of healing.  The second student wrote how DeSalvo’s chapters made her realize why writing is so important for her.  “Writing is breathing,” she said.  I understood immediately—for those of us who write, it is natural and necessary as breath.  I’ve often described my daily habit of writing as “a meditation” or “prayer.”   How would you describe any of your “life-giving” activities using a metaphor or comparison?

This week, think about the metaphors you use in the rhythm of daily living.  Are there ones you find yourself repeating?  Others that, as you stop to think about them,  they don’t quite convey what you intended?  How would you describe—using a metaphor or comparison—negative or painful emotions?  Or, if writing is important to you, then how would you convey that with a metaphor, e.g. writing is _________.   Think about the meaning behind the common comparisons you use.   Explore how you use metaphors.

I’ll be writing next week from my home office in California, my heart filled with gratitude for the time I’ve been able to spend in Okinawa with my daughter and my delightful, never-a-dull-moment two grandchildren, experiencing their lives, the culture in which they’re residing, and experiencing so many truly wonderful moments with their friends.  As for finding the metaphor or comparison that sums it all up, well, my heart is so full, the words don’t quite do justice to describe my experience just yet!  Yes, I think there are also times in life when no words quite capture what we experience or feel.

Where do dreams come from? Do they
sneak in through torn screens at night
to light on the arm like mosquitoes?
Are they passed from mouth to ear
like gossip or dirty jokes? Do they
sprout from underground on damp
mornings like toadstools that form
fairy rings on dew tipped grasses?
No, they slink out of books, they lurk
in the stacks of libraries. Out of pages
turned they rise like the scent of peonies
and infect the brain with their promise…
(From: “Where Dreams Come From” by Marge Piercy, The Hunger Moon: New and Selected Poems, 1980-2010.)

(Note:  This week’s post is taken from an earlier post in October, 2013, when I was also visiting my daughter and her family in Okinawa.  I am again thousands of miles from my home and office and from the quiet I enjoy each morning.  Instead, I am awakened each morning by Nathan (almost six) and Emily (three & a half) for a morning cuddle and a story before breakfast–then the day begins, a whirlwind day of activity, and again, at bedtime a ritual of nighttime stories to be read each evening.   Even as I write this note, my grandson is pacing the hallway, checking my progress every minute or two, waiting impatiently to reclaim his grandmother for another day of fun.  Thus, tI offer this modified post from my last visit–still as relevant now as it was then.)

I’ve been in Okinawa for the month, helping my daughter as she recovers from surgery, the better part of my day and evening spent in the company her children, Nathan, age four and Emily, two. The day winds down each evening at seven p.m., as I guide them upstairs for our nightly routine of face washing, teeth brushing, and each of their choices for a nighttime story. Nathan chose Mousetronaut, written by former astronaut, Mark Kelly, the tale of a small mouse who wants nothing more than to travel to outer space. The children snuggled close to me as I began reading.

“Gramma,” Nathan stopped me after the first couple of pages. “I want to be an astronaut.”

“You do? Well, if you try hard enough, maybe you will be an astronaut someday.

“Yes, but wait,” he said, turning the pages until he reached the page with the picture of the space team, all wearing their orange NASA uniforms. “See Gramma?” He pointed at the tallest astronaut. “Like this. I want to be the COMMANDER.”

I left the room smiling, remembering some childish dreams of my own, some that never materialized; others that did, but not without some unexpected whacks on the side of the head—like the moment I heard the doctor say “cancer” or the day I passed out on the pavement and was diagnosed with heart failure.  I realized that if I truly wanted to turn those long-held dreams into reality, I had better take action. I

In the years since I’ve been leading groups for cancer patients and others, I’ve been inspired—and humbled—by many individuals who’ve faced hardship or odds that might have easily deterred them from their dreams.

There was Ann, diagnosed with a rare, terminal cancer, who kept beating the odds and lived nearly six years longer than anyone expected. That period turned into one of the most creative of her life. She blossomed into an extraordinary poet, studying with masters like Ellen Bass, Jane Hirshfield, Dorianne Laux, and Tony Hoagland, among . A number of her poems were published in literary journals before her death—artistry borne out of hardship and crisis. She touched many of us with her grace and her spirit, manifested in her poems.

Two years ago, L., a recently retired physician, was a student in a creative nonfiction class I taught for UCLA extension Writers’ Program. She was writing a memoir—and what a story she had! When L. was newly married and just beginning a medical career, she was in a horrific accident, resulting in the loss both legs and an arm. While many of us may have felt our dreams dissolve in that moment, she was undaunted and determined to live a full life, continuing with her medical career, having a child, and, with her husband, continuing to travel and experience new adventures. A year after the course had ended, L. me a photograph of an expedition taken with her husband—it pictured her wheelchair at the top of Machu Picchu. Nothing, it seemed, could keep her from realizing her dreams.

I am in awe of L. and people like her, inspired by their determination and resilience to overcome enormous odds to turn dreams into reality. They help me put my life in perspective. Life hands us all tough times, unexpected losses or difficult challenges, ones that threaten to extinguish our hopes or dreams. “Don’t you know that you’re my hero,” Bette Midler sang.  Ann, L. and so many others are my heroes.  I keep L.’s photograph of her wheelchair atop Machu Picchu tacked to my bulletin board because it inspires me to try a little harder.

I tucked Nathan and his sister into bed again last night, as I’ve done since I arrived here. He clutched a small plastic replica of the Okinawa superhero, Mabuyer. “I have the power, Gramma,” he said, holding up the figure.

“Yes, buddy, I think you do,” I smiled.

I said goodnight, kissed his forehead, then left the room thinking that we should all be so lucky to “have the power.”  Maybe then we’d never lose the determination to make our own dreams come true, no matter what obstacles we face in life.

Write about your dreams. When has life gotten in the way of them? What’s changed? What do you hope and dream for now?

We cross many different borders throughout our lives, some of them metaphorical, some of them geographical, some of them emotional.  I spent much of Friday at the doctor’s office, undergoing bone scans and x-rays to rule out a stress fracture—something that would have meant  postponing my trip to Okinawa, where my youngest daughter and her family live.  The night before the doctor’s appointment, sleep evaded me.  I was anxious and worried, not only about cancelling my long-awaited trip, but how my life would change if my hip was fractured, even only slightly.

Thankfully, there was no stress fracture, and although I still feel some pain in my leg as I walk, I’ll be boarding the airplane as planned, crossing the international date line and the Pacific en route to Tokyo, then flying another thousand or so miles south to reach the Japanese prefecture of Okinawa, where my daughter and her family have been living since 2011.  It’s my third trip there, so unlike my first three years ago, I am familiar with the disembarkation process in Tokyo, going through Japanese customs, claiming my bag before re-checking it on to Naha and then finding the gate for my flight–all during my brief layover in Tokyo.  Having done this twice before eases the anxiety I’ve experienced the first time I travel to a particular foreign country.

I am reminded, though, that there are other border crossings that may not go as smoothly as an international airplane trip–they are the ones that involve major life transitions or serious illness.  The shift from one’s familiar life to an unfamiliar one may be unexpected, abrupt and thrust upon us with little warning–like hearing the words, “you have cancer” for the first time.

Illness is the night-side of life, a more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place. (Susan Sontag, in The New York Times, Jan. 26, 1978)

In the Kingdom of the Ill, no one asks for your passport or smiles, “Enjoy your stay.”  You’re cast into unfamiliar and rugged terrain.  The roadmap you’ve been given is a maze of choices you must make, ones that branch into multiple—and equally confusing—pathways.  Worse, there’s the strange-sounding terminology to decipher — colloquialisms and multi-syllabic utterances from your physician’s lips that leave you feeling dizzy and confused.  You’re forced to leave what you took for granted behind, and cross into a new reality that you feel ill prepared for.

There’s a moment, not necessarily when you hear your diagnosis, maybe weeks later, when you cross that border and know in your heart and soul that this is really serious… The hardest thing is to leave yourself, the innocent, healthy you that never had to face her own mortality, at the border.  That old relationship with your body, careless but friendly, taken for granted, suddenly ends.  Your body becomes enemy territory …The sudden crossing over into illness or disability, becoming a patient, can feel like you’re landing on another planet, or entering another country… (Barbara Abercrombie, Writing Out the Storm, 2002).

This is the foreign territory of your body’s betrayal, where nothing seems quite real, and fear is your constant companion.  It’s lonely–You feel lost.  You’re traveling without an interpreter in a confusing and difficult place.  Try as you might, there’s no escape, no going back, no refund for your ticket.  You must learn how to cope and navigate your way through it all, and you must learn it quickly.  Your life may depend on it.

But along the way, a glimmer of hope—and you discover it as you find other travelers, men and women like you, who are also struggling to make sense of this foreboding landscape..  You find comfort and support in the community of other survivors.  You feel less alone and together, experience comfort in the sharing of fears and hopes, making those things seem more manageable.  You join hands and together, begin finding your way through this dark and fearful kingdom.

Somewhere out there in that darkness are hundreds of thousands … like myself …new citizens of this other country… In one moment of discovery, these lives have been transformed, just as mine has been, as surely as if they had been  plucked from their native land and forced to survive in a hostile new landscape, fraught with dangers, real and imagined. (Musa Mayer, Examining Myself:  One Woman’s Story of Breast Cancer Treatment and Recovery, 1994.).      

Write about crossing the border into the unknown territory of life threatening illness.  What was it like at first?  What old assumptions did you have to leave behind?  How did your relationship with your body changed?  What was most helpful to you as you that landscape Sontag called “the kingdom of the sick?”


My husband and I celebrated New Year’s Day packing away the Christmas decorations, boxing up the remnants of toddler paraphernalia which our grandchildren have now outgrown, extra blankets and household items to donate, things we have held on to despite relocations and intentional simplification of our lives.  Later that evening, we sat together with a white board, dry erase markers and embarked on a process we once called “New Year’s Resolutions,” but, as we have allowed the word, “retirement,” to ease into our vocabulary, it has become a necessary conversation of planning–what we let go, what we keep, what we change.  By the time we put the whiteboard away,  filled with incomplete sentences (mine), diagrams (his), we didn’t have a plan,  but we had an illustration of movement, of the hard work giving voice to our hopes and dreams, concerns and fears as we face forward into the inevitability of aging and the changes implied for our lives.

In part, it’s a process of  letting go, acknowledging choices and changes we must make as we grow older, or experience losses, changes in health or circumstance.  I think of the men and women in my writing groups, how a cancer diagnosis forces them to confront mortality no matter their age, their lives altered without warning.  Letting go of what was before cancer isn’t an option.  It’s part of the hard reality of a life changed by debilitating or terminal illness.

But isn’t that also what we all must do, sooner or later, in life?  Clinging to a past that no longer applies to our present only seeds depression or regret.    Letting go of those worn out parts of our past is a necessary process, like post-holiday cleaning, choosing what to discard, what to retain and what to carry forward as we continue to shape and revise our lives.  It’s a process of revision–deciding what to keep, what to discard as we shape and re-shape our lives—and our life stories–at every stage.   It’s alot like the work of writing.  Writing is about rewriting, a process that allows you to see your work in a fresh light.  Naomi Shihab Nye described revision as “a beautiful word of hope… a new vision of something.”

A new vision of something…something like life.  Revision, borrowed from the French and derived from Latin, essentially means “to look, or see, again.” Check your dictionary and you’ll find synonyms like reexamine, reassess, rethink, alter, modify and change.  It’s what we do naturally whenever we try to make sense out of something that forces us to alter the course of our lives.

We are the authors of our lives and our life stories. Things happen to us; we make choices or take actions that influence events and outcomes. But the story closest to us–our own—can be the most difficult to understand.   In his book, You Must Revise Your Life, William Stafford wrote, My life in writing…comes to me as parts, like two rivers that blend.  One part is easy to tell:  the times, the places, events, and people.  The other part is mysterious; it is my thoughts, the flow of my inner life, the reveries and impulses that never get known—[it] wanders along at its own pace

That undercurrent, the internal thoughts and feelings my husband and I have as we consider the next stage of our lives called “retirement” is the more difficult make explicit, and yet, that deep river beneath the surface is what we must voice to navigate our next life chapter together.

We must learn to do what artists do, let the material of our life talk back to us and see it anew.  Stafford tells us that revising one’s life involves embracing whatever happens—in things and in language.   “The language changes,” he says, and “you change, the light changes…Dawn comes, and it comes for all, but not on demand.”

Letting go.  It’s not easy.  Change can be unsettling.  Learning to embrace whatever happens?  That takes intention and courage.  I’m struggling a little today as the full impact of our New Year’s discussion begins to sink into my mind and body.  Like the writers I admire, I’m trying to work with the material of our lives and conversation—letting it talk back to me.  Seeing things anew, and yet, reminding myself that insight and the “right” choices will come as they come, gradually and not on demand.

So to you, Friend, I confide my secret:

to be a discoverer you hold close whatever

you find, and after a while you decide

what it is. Then, secure in where you have been,

you turn to the open sea and let go.

(From:  “Security,” by William Stafford, in:  Passwords, ©1991)

Let the material of your life talk back to you.  What has changed?  What will you let go; what will you retain as you move into a new year or another chapter of your life?


My granddaughter and her parents left for their home in Toronto this morning, and in the wake of their departure, I face not only the predictable heartache of good-byes, but the more difficult and immediate task putting our house back together after Christmas holidays:  decorations, bins of playthings meant to occupy a three-year old, guest bedding, laundry, boxes of household items to donate–all in an effort to restore our home to order just in time to bid good-bye to 2014 and welcome the new year.

It’s a time of remembering and reflection, looking back over the past many months, taking stock of accomplishments and disappointments, and looking ahead to the promise in the coming year.  It’s also a time of choices, deciding what we will carry with us into 2015 and what, because it no longer serves us, we leave behind.

What we leave behind…Every new year involves elements of choice, letting go of old ways of being, discarding items no longer needed, re-designing our lives.  It’s also a time of healing—leaving the difficult or stressful events behind, firmly parked in 2014.  I think about my expressive writing groups and classes as I think about letting-go and healing.  So much of writing for healing is about leaving the pain or sorrow of the past behind, and through writing we begin to make sense out of those difficult chapters of life and grow from them.  As the Danish philosopher and theologian, Søren Kierkegaard said, “Life can only be understood backwards but it must be lived forwards.”

In an independent, 2009 award-winning film The Things We Carry, the viewer follows the story of two sisters, who, in the different ways they chose to deal with an addict mother, were pushed apart.  The story explores their journey through the San Fernando Valley to a dingy motel in search of a package left for them by their deceased mother.  Their old sibling wounds exposed and recounted,  the sisters finally achieve peace with themselves and each other.  “The key to moving forward,” the film’s tagline reads, “lies in the past.”

“Cancer has been,” one writing group member remarked, “a great teacher.”  She had been writing about her life before and after cancer,  lessons learned, and  understanding gained that she intended to carry into her “new” life.  She made a choice, not to “carry” the pain and suffering of cancer into life after recovery, but rather, to use that experience to shape a new life for herself.

I think of C., who died of metastatic cancer in 2008.  It was only mid-way through our Scripps Cancer Center workshop that she revealed she was a sculptor.  She created sensuous and striking forms from stone, treasured and displayed by collectors across the country.  In her obituary, her husband quoted C.’s description of her artistic process:  At first the stone seems cold and hostile. As the shape emerges, the stone becomes warm and alive. The joy and pain involved in the carving process is …something akin to giving birth and seeing your creation change from a gawky adolescent to a sensuous adult…

I think of C.’s words each New Year, how they are a metaphor for how we re-shape our lives after serious illness or other life hardship.  At first, it may be difficult to imagine shaping a new life or chapter for ourselves, but like a sculptor wielding the chisel, each choice we make begins to change us—the way we see our worlds, our hopes and dreams.

It’s a bit like those old New Year’s resolutions, I suppose, but richer.  Why?  It requires time to reflect and remember, to define and incorporate the lessons of experience, then make our choices:  what to carry into the New Year, what to leave behind.  Only then do we truly begin to discover new creativity or strength, the resilience residing within us.

C.’s words and the poem, “I Am Running into a New Year,” written by Lucille Clifton serve as the inspiration for this week’s writing.  Think about the life you want to shape for yourself in the coming year.   Consider Clifton’s lines, “I beg what I love/ and I leave to forgive me.”  As you run into 2015, ask yourself how you intend to shape the life you want out of the material of your past and present.

I am running into a new year
and the old years blow back like a wind…
that I catch in my hair
like strong fingers like
all my old promises and
it will be hard to let go
of what I said to myself
about myself
when I was sixteen and
twenty-six and thirty-six
even forty-six but
I am running into a new year
and I beg what I love and
I leave to forgive me.

(From: Good Woman: Poems and a Memoir 1969-1980)

I wish you a very happy and healthy 2015.

Dear Friends, It’s the day of winter solstice, the longest day of the year, and in a few days, my husband and I will awaken to the excitement of our third granddaughter’s voice as she awakens to Christmas day.   My eldest daughter, her partner and child have flown from Toronto to spend the holidays with us in San Diego.  We decorated the tree only nights ago, sifting through the boxes of ornaments, some from my childhood and others collected each year of our daughter’s lives until they had families of their own.  It’s both tradition and a source of humor that we tell the same stories each year as we hang the ornaments on the tree…but part of our family tradition is to now tell those oft-repeated stories every year that we manage to share Christmas with one another.  With one daughter in Toronto and the other in Okinawa, it’s more often my husband and I who are packing up our suitcases and standing in the long lines at the airport to reach one or the other during the holidays…not the other way around.

Today, I’m relinquishing the usual time I spent to post my weekly prompt in favor of spending this much too precious time with my daughter and granddaughter…so for this week, I’ve “re-cycled” a post from December 2010 and offer it to you as inspiration for writing during your holidays. To all of you who follow this blog, I wish you a joyous holiday–filled with the warmth of friends, family, and those traditions that make your holidays unique and memorable. –Sharon

From  December 2010 :  Memories of Holidays Past

We received a Christmas card from Germany last week, a greeting from a friend of our daughter’s, reminding us of the Christmas he spent at our house, far from his British family.  I realized that it was also the last Christmas holiday that we—my daughters, husband and I—had shared the season together in one place.  It was only a year later one daughter called from Beirut to say “Merry Christmas,” and the other traveled east to Florida to meet the man who would become her husband.  Our annual holiday celebrations have been changing over the past few years.  Sometimes we’ve traveled to spend the holiday with one or the other daughter; at other times, depending on who is living where in the world, one of them has come to us.  Now, as they create their own holiday traditions with their spouses and children, we will, as we are doing this year, be joining the throngs crowding the gates at airports, hoping the weather cooperates enough to get us to our destination as planned.

It’s a bittersweet time for me.  I don’t enjoy traveling during Christmas, but there’s nothing more joyous that celebrating the holidays with my grandchildren, reading Clement Moore’s “The Night before Christmas,” baking cookies, stuffing the stockings with clever little surprises, and Christmas morning, sharing in the children’s excitement.  Yet there’s nostalgia too—memories of Christmases past.

…Always on Christmas night there was music. An uncle played the fiddle, a cousin sang “Cherry Ripe,” and another uncle sang “Drake’s Drum.” It was very warm in the little house. Auntie Hannah, who had got on to the parsnip wine, sang a song about Bleeding Hearts and Death, and then another in which she said her heart was like a Bird’s Nest; and then everybody laughed again; and then I went to bed. Looking through my bedroom window, out into the moonlight and the unending smoke-colored snow, I could see the lights in the windows of all the other houses on our hill and hear the music rising from them up the long, steady falling night. I turned the gas down, I got into bed. I said some words to the close and holy darkness, and then I slept.  (From: “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” By Dylan Thomas)

Early this week, as I drove home in the evening, the neighborhood was alive with colored lights and decorations. I pulled into our driveway, awash with memories of long ago Christmas times.  I remembered how, as a child, we’d climb into our Ford station wagon every year, driving through all over our small town to admire the display of lights and decorations.  I recalled my father’s annual trek into the snowy wilderness to cut the perfect tree, of the bubble lights and themed decorations, packages piled high beneath the branches, and Christmas day, dozens of cousins, aunts and uncles gathered together for the holiday meal, everyone singing carols.

There are other memories too—ones less romantic but every bit a part of our family’s history of Christmas traditions:  I had always wanted to be an artist, and once I reached middle school, my mother assigned me the task of painting a Christmas scene in the front picture window, ever hopeful we’d win a prize in the “best Christmas decorations” contest each year.  My artwork was colorful but untrained, and I was a little embarrassed to have my efforts on such public display.  The year my painting earned an honorable mention only served to reinforce my fear that, despite my desire to be, I wasn’t really an artist. There was also the tradition of annual disappointment—my mother’s– when we brought home the freshly cut tree—never perfect enough to her liking, followed by the inevitable disagreement over placement of lights, and later, my father’s failed attempts to bring home the “right” present for his critical wife.  These things became, although none of us liked them, part of our family’s holiday traditions just as the carols, hanging our stockings or opening gifts on Christmas mornings.  They have become part of the stories we tell—and re-tell—every December as we decorate our tree.

As children, we knew there was more to it—
Why some men got drunk on Christmas Eve
Wasn’t explained, nor why we were so often
Near tears nor why the stars came down so close,

Why so much was lost. Those men and women
Who had died in wars started by others,
Did they come that night? Is that why the Christmas
Trembled just before we opened the presents?

There was something about angels. Angels we
Have heard on high Sweetly singing o’er
The plain. The angels were certain. But we could not
Be certain whether our family was worthy tonight.

(From:  “A Christmas Poem,” by Robert Bly, in Morning Poems,1998)

Whatever your beliefs or religious practices,  holidays are filled with our familial traditions of celebration.  Remember the holidays you celebrated as a child or at a particularly significant time.  What memories have become part of your family lore?  What’s most vivid or poignant?  Write about holidays past—traditions you remember fondly or even the ones that you don’t.  What are your favorite stories ignited by this holiday season? Happiest of holidays to you.

‘Tis the season…or so the ads proclaim.  Drive through the streets, and houses blaze with colored lights, some garish, others more tasteful.  Walk into any store and holiday decorations abound, but by now, weeks old now, my brain has been on strike, protesting against the commercial glitter and recorded Christmas carols playing since Halloween.  Although one might say, “it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas,” the decorations and lights enticing us to buy, buy, buy, have grown wearisome.  I have avoided malls for the past several weeks to every extent possible, knowing I will only morph into a modern-day zombie unable to make any sort of decisions about gift choices.  My holiday spirit has taken cover from the full court press of commercialism, sadly unescapable in our society.  Add to that, I live in a place, unlike the places of my childhood or Canadian years where snow isn’t visible, even in the far off mountain tops.

But take heart.  This morning I baked some pumpkin spice scones for my husband’s birthday breakfast.  The kitchen was filled with the aroma of cinnamon, sugar and nutmeg.  “It’s beginning to smell a lot like Christmas,” I sang as I pulled the pan of scones from the oven.  Last night, we set up our tree, ready to be decorated with our collection of ornaments, a hodge-podge of figures, shapes and colors, acquired each year of our daughter’s lives they had their children, and the tradition continues for each of our grandchildren.  The tree is fake, something we resorted to in our empty next holidays when, more often than not, we’d be traveling to spend the holidays with one or the other daughter.  I missed the smell of pine, so I placed a few pine boughs around the dining table, inhaling the fragrance and remembering the Christmases of childhood, climbing into my father’s pickup truck to head into the mountains to cut our tree.  I felt the first blush of holiday spirit.

Smell is a potent wizard that transports us across thousands of miles and all the years we have lived.  The odors of fruits waft me to my southern home, to my childhood frolics in the peach orchard.  Other odors, instantaneous and fleeting, cause my heart to dilate joyously or contract with remembered grief.  Even as I think of smells, my nose is full of scents that start awake sweet memories of summers gone and ripening fields far away. — Helen Keller

“The eyes have it,” we often hear, or do they?   Our ability to smell is highly linked to memory. A smell can trigger a flood of memories, influence moods and even affect work performance.   According to author Sarah Dowdey, “smell can call up memories and powerful responses almost instantaneously.” Smell is our oldest sense, as Tom Stafford describes in a BBC online article.  It has its origins in the rudimentary senses for chemicals in air and water – senses that even bacteria have. Before sight or hearing, before even touch, creatures evolved to respond to chemicals around them. Smell is unique among our five senses.  Unlike the other four, smell enters directly, deep into the brain.

In the 1990 book, A Natural History of the Senses, author Diane Ackerman writes, “Our sense of smell can be extraordinarily precise, yet it’s almost impossible to describe how something smells to someone who hasn’t smelled it…

We see only where there is light enough, taste only when we put things into our mouths, touch only when we make contact with someone or something, hear only sounds that are loud enough to hear.  But we smell always and with every breath…Smells coat us, swirl around us, enter our bodies, emanate from us.  We live in a constant wash of them.  Still, when we try to describe a smell, words fail us…

The physiological links between the smell and language centers of the brain are pitifully weak.  Not so the links between the smell and the memory centers, a route that carries us nimbly across time and distance. A smell can be overwhelmingly nostalgic because it triggers powerful images and emotions before we have time to edit them…When we give perfume to someone, we give them liquid memory.  Kipling was right:  “Smells are surer than sights and sounds to make your heart-strings crack.”

 Ah, those cracking heart strings…All it took to finally enliven my holiday spirit, after weeks of Christmas advertisements and  carols playing everywhere, was the smell of a few pine boughs and pumpkin scones baking in the oven.  Memories of Christmases past flooded into my head.  Smells were doing the work of a Christmas spirit cheerleader.  Perhaps you have similar associations with pine and cinnamon, or perhaps it’s other smells, like the ones of Hanukkah, potato latkes sizzling in the pan or chocolate gelt, unwrapped, given after spinning the dreidel. Whether Christmas or Hanukkah,  smells  may bring up childhood memories or ones more recent, one that make you smile, ones that bring tears to your eyes.  Kipling was right: “Smells are surer than sights or sounds to make your heart-strings crack.” 

The candles flicker in the window.

Outside, ponderosa pines are tied in red bows.

If you squint,

the neighbors’ Christmas lights

look like the Omaha skyline.


The smell of oil is in the air.

We drift off to childhood

where we spent our gelt

on baseball cards and matinees,

cream sodas and knishes…

(From “Chanukah Lights Tonight,” by Steve Schneider, in: Prairie Air Show, 2000)

Let your nose guide you to inspiration  as you write this week.  List the smells you associate with the Christmas or Hanukkah. What memories do they invoke?  Write some.


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