Literature 12-23-2020

Smells of the Present Moment

Poet Sagirah Shahid evokes the spiritual and creative power of scent: from her grandmother’s living room to protests on Lake Street.

1Julie Mehretu, Babel Unleashed (2001). Walker Art Center, Minneapolis.

I didn’t leave my house the day Minneapolis smelled like shit, but the articles and tweets about it felt symbolic of our city’s present moment. It’s been months now, and I have yet to wash the emerald scarf I wore this spring. It still smells like the last time I wore it. I keep the emerald scarf in a plastic bag. I keep the plastic bag hidden beneath the messy array of my closet. When I open the plastic bag where the emerald scarf is held, I gag a little. It’s overwhelming, the scent of it.

The last time I wore the emerald scarf was May 27, 2020. I didn’t remember that exact date until after I read an email The Washington Post sent this October. In the email they announced the publication of an immersive six-part series that revisits the early days of Minneapolis’s 2020 uprising. As part of this series, The Post wove together 149 videos from social media accounts to reconstruct a timeline of events. I saw my emerald scarf on a few videos labeled “Lake Street”.

I don’t know, or care to know, the technical difference between tear gas, pepper spray, or mace. What I do know, is whenever I open that plastic bag, the emerald scarf still reeks of those chemicals, pungent and punching open the walls of a memory that’s still ongoing, still being fashioned into this present moment.

I live close enough to a store called Present Moment. They sell teas, books, essential oils, incense, candles—all sorts of healing fumes and treats. My grandmother used to shop there. For me, the shop itself is fused to early memories of my grandmother, the woman who taught me how to notice the imprint a scent could have on any soul.  

Throughout the 90s and early 00s, like so many African American Muslims, my grandmother was in the business of smelling good. If I locate one of the brown oils glinting from its thumb-sized glass bottle, its shimmery gold lid, its tinier gold leaves screenprinted on the exterior like one of the sequence-flecked sheer scarfs my grandmother used to wear, I am instantly transported back to the 90s.

Some rented home she dolled up with lace curtains and pink floral drapes, the after-smoke of a tiny cube of amber tinting the air, a lush burgundy carpet reimagining whatever mess of a floor came with the rented home. And there on the floor, a bevy of little bottles, empty and awaiting her hands, her pipettes filled with the liquid of brown oils too rich, too earthy, too bodied and necessary to be called anything as thin and fleeting as perfume. 

As a child I disliked the strength of those oils, how an oud or a sandalwood could permeate the fabric of anything they touched and mingled with. How this fusion of aromas created a third, uniquely entangled smell that lingered for months, years, a lifetime even. At seven years old, I felt overwhelmed by that level of invisible permanence, but how I loved helping my grandmother prepare her oils. I loved arranging them, packing up boxes of them and riding in her minivan to a farmer’s market, or an Islamic conference in Chicago, an extended stay at a family friend’s house in Detroit and selling those tiny bottles of oils to our people: for us, by us. 

Paradise. Heaven. Whatever you call it, a pleasing smell is associated with something ethereal in our tradition. In Islam, we know the Hadiths that elevate a welcomed fragrance, the smells escaping the opened gates of paradise. This relationship to scent is not exclusive to Muslims. Look anywhere in the world (or your own backyard) and you’ll find spirituality and scent—incense and what have you—braided together, fused to the hip of some ceremony, some tradition clung to for generations. 

In his Alchemy of Happiness, Imam Al Ghazali writes about the connection that worship has with our bodily senses, how the senses can act as little portals to help souls confined within a body demonstrate love of the divine. For Ghazali, this informed and action-driven love is true happiness. In a similar vein, in creative writing, an early lesson we learn is how bodily senses can open a reader’s access to the world of the page. Describing the texture of a pillow, or the eggy smell of an alleyway, become our cheat codes to imagery. Here, I must stress the intrinsic limitations and ableism that can arise in such lessons if their framing is not intentionally inclusive of the many ways bodies do and don’t experience the world. It’s also worth noting that a pleasant smell isn’t a barometer of morality or a qualifier of a person’s humanity. 

There is a certain degree of privilege to “smelling good”. Regular access to human essentials such as housing, bathrooms, and running water have a relationship to “smelling good”. Also, there’s this saying in our tradition about the breath of fasting folks (a notoriously stank smell) smelling beautiful to God—the implication being that the context of a smell matters. For me, the context of my emerald scarf’s stench matters. This context shapes the experience, the scent it carries, and the memory of both.

Neuroscience has long confirmed the link between memory and scent. It has something to do with where our sense of smell is located in relation to our brains. As a creative writer, I think my brain is fixated on the potential implication my inability to wash my emerald scarf may have on my relationship to smell. I am grateful to have had a grandmother who trained my nostrils to notice even the faintest of smells. That noticing was a gift I didn’t realize I received until after her departure. And of course, the act of remembering, which is a kind of noticing, implies some degree of loss, some degree of distance.

I wonder what it means that the tender memories I have in relationship to smell have sharpened my experience of less tender reckonings. Pepper spray. Mace. Tear gas. I smell the hours my emerald scarf is drenched in. I can’t bring my body, and by extension my mind and soul, to sit with that experience for very long. If I do, the present moment is blurred by the scents of May. The events of which are still ongoing, indefinite, seemingly endless. Even so, like some otherworldly antidote, a whiff of my grandmother’s brown oil, holding it, inhaling it despite the current context my body carries, sends me and my memory elsewhere. 

This piece is part of the series by guest editor Sun Yung Shin.