Early spring, gray sky lingered over the greening lawn and swaying evergreens that hugged the community center that Sunday. Visiting a newly planted church, I had already taught the children’s Sunday school, joined the morning worship, eaten a delicious potluck lunch, and played a few wanna-be rounds of spike ball when I went downstairs craving something warm to drink. I looked at the coffee perk and then at the basket of assorted teas. Among them were the standard mint and—jasmine tea.
Jasmine tea. Cambodia.
I added hot water to the bag floating in my Styrofoam cup and carried it upstairs, feeling pensive. I stepped outside onto the concrete step washed with warm rain, closed my eyes and breathed deep.
I found myself in the Swan King with its yellow and red canopies, potted plants, and plastic chairs and tables of primary colours. I saw the lethargic waiter taking the order from Krista in Khmer (pronounced Kuh-mah-e) then bringing us a couple plastic tumblers with ice tubes about two inches in diameter and three inches long, hollowed out down the middle. She lifted the stainless-steel teapot like something from the days of Jane Austen and poured the tea over her ice, telling me that I could add sugar to mine if I liked. We sat; drank tea; smelled the scents of hot pavement, dust, rotting stuff on the road, and nearby fruit vendors’ wares brought to us by the breeze; and waited for them to make our food. The restaurant wasn’t busy, but it still took a while. No one can rush Cambodia.
And then I felt the sun’s hotness, the sweat dribbling down my back and legs, the crook in my neck as I look up, up to the top of the gray stone, mold-covered temple I’m climbing. I climb those last steps and peer into a dark room feeling melancholy and exultant all at once. I’ve made the summit, but here in front of me is a shrine to an orange and yellow clothed god, a Buddha idol surrounded by incense sticks, plastic flowers and the lingering scents of old urine, lotus flowers, and jasmine tea. The ache inside me is neither pulsing nor stinging but just still. I hurt for this broken country and its wandering souls.
And then I open my eyes, smell the nearby pines and rain-washed earth. I go back inside and play another game of spike ball as well as Scum. Yet somewhere, in the attic of my brain sleeps a wondering, “How can one simple whiff send me so quickly to another time and place?”
It’s not the only time this has happened. The scent of florist flowers sends me to an afternoon in February when other gray clouds hung heavy, wind nipped my bare hands, and I placed a single red rose beside my sisters’ on the wooden coffin. It was my mother’s coffin.
I smell hailege (How do you spell that?) and am suddenly a little girl ambling through my Grandpa’s warm, dim barn a little scared of the Holsteins’ heaving sides.
I know I am not alone when it comes to this strong connection between smells and nostalgia. A friend tells me that whenever she smells a certain kind of sunscreen, she remembers summer days at the cottage with her family.
In fact, even scientists agree with me, and they have found that these startling connections have everything to do with brain connections. When you catch a whiff with your sniffer, the scent runs along the neurons and passes by the amygdala and the hippocampus on its way to the olfactory bulb. In the olfactory bulb, the scent gets deciphered and connected to its source. Think musky skunk or sweet wild roses or salty buttered popcorn. While the scent runs by the amygdala and the hippocampus (two areas of your brain responsible for memory and emotion), your brain makes connections. Things smelled are better memory triggers than any other of your five senses which don’t pass through the amygdala and hippocampus.[i]
I always thought there were connections between memory and scent, but the emotional connection surprised me. Then, I started thinking about those memories and realized there were strong feelings connected as well.
I could ramble on about scent and how entire industries depend upon it. But the time would fail me to tell of aromatherapy and perfume and other such industries. However, there is a little Divine joke that I’d like to share with you.
You see, our Creator knows this about us, and in His laws He called for burnt sacrifices “a sweet smelling savour” and incense as a part of worship. (See Leviticus) As our Creator, you can be sure that He wants us to care about Him (emotion) and remember Him.
In Revelation 5:8, John tells of beasts and elders. One of them had a golden vial full of odours which were the prayers of the saints. In chapter eight, John continues to describe how an angel offered incense with the prayers of the saints and the smoke rose up before the Almighty.[ii] Each time you pray, your Father breathes deep that beautiful odour. You can be sure that He cares about you and has not, nor ever will, forget you. A-men
*Now, it’s your turn. What smells bring back memories for you? Share in the comments below or e-mail me. I would love to hear from you! But even if you don’t, stop and send incense God’s way. He loves to hear you—a-hem, smell you—praying.
[i] Mercola, J., Dr. . (2015, August 06). Why Sense of Smells Can Trigger Strong Memories. Retrieved August 07, 2017, from http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2015/08/06/smells-trigger-memories.aspx
[ii] All Biblical references are taken from the King James Version.