A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.
~ Robert A. Heinlein
I’m sitting in my closed office as the room fills with the scent of store-brand Bengay. The aroma is a cross between Pepto-Bismol and the big thick, pink Canadian mints that my father would buy when I was a boy.
The smell is neither unfamiliar nor entirely unpleasant. I remember watching television as a kid and popping the mints in to my mouth until my stomach churned and every burp was wrapped in a fresh wintergreen bubble. Each release of gas would relieve the pressure just enough to permit another mint in to fill the space until all that was left was crumbs. Even those, though, weren’t safe from a wet finger tracing the bottom of the bag until every piece of bright, pink dust was collected and consumed.
My sense of smell has always been able to transport me through time without warning. One waft of apple blossoms and I’m climbing the trees in my grandparent’s back yard; the smell of lilacs has me standing on their front porch. The salty smell of the ocean takes me to every summer spent at the beach, crabbing and fishing. Even the pungent, lingering stink of the Drakkar Noir that I bathed in in high school places me firmly in my seat in 12th grade English class as I stared affectionately at my teacher as she explained Shakespeare in a way that could only be symbolic of our love that only existed in my dreams.
There is no controlling where the journey takes me. There is no way to turn off the destinations that lead to pain or sadness. The smell of a hospital brings me back to the last few times that I saw my sister. The smell of vodka has me sitting on my kitchen floor during darker days.
But even those places, as unforgiving or desperate as they might seem, eventually send me back to the present. The good memories and the bad both remind me to be grateful, and humble, and to appreciate where I am, what I have, and who is around me. Because eventually, these things, too, will be memories that I will want to someday revisit the same way, with familiar scents taking me back to my past.
So, I take my time, and I smell the roses.
A few years ago, I found simplicity and went through The Great Purge, eliminating more than half of my material things. My initial motivation was a combination of disgust over my consumerist lifestyle that gave my stuff with no contentment combined with my Catholic guilt for having so much stuff when so many people have nothing. Like so many others have expressed, it felt good to get rid of the junk, to eliminate the clutter, and to stop buying things just to have them or because someone else had them.
When I had less stuff, it was easier to see what was left, which was usually a combination of must-haves, sentimental items, and the really important stuff. It was easier to draw pleasure from these items because they had made they cut…because they were important.
After releasing the bonds of the physical items, the next stage was for me to focus on how I spent my time. I cut down on my television watching. I dropped projects that wasted my time. I started removing things that took my time but did not feed my soul or that did not contribute to the life I wanted to live. Those things that made the cut did so, again, because they were important.
By removing everything else, it made what was left, what was important, richer, more valuable, and more meaningful in my life.
This exercise of subtraction, of removing things that simply exist to take up space or time, is a hard exercise in a world where so much is defined and valued by addition. The more you have, the more you are worth. The more you do, the more valuable you are. Most people keep adding more because it is expected, and because they don’t know what else to do. But the more you add, the more stuff, the more noise, the less attention can be paid to any one thing, and the less value can be gleaned from the things that are truly important.
The easiest way to be present and to experience and enjoy what is important and to increase its value and its impact on your life is to start subtracting everything else.