Miracle in Chestnut Hill

Evangelist Mark recounts an event in which Jesus restores the sight of  Bartimaeus, a blind man he encounters on the side of the road. This event is later known as a miracle, one of the many that the Messiah is supposed to have performed.

The sense of smell may not be as glamorous a sense as sight, but it is nonetheless one of our five senses..and like the sense of sight, it can be lost or damaged. This condition, of having a diminished or absent sense of smell, is called anosmia. A BBC article says that, according to researchers, some 2% of people “lack the olfactory sense.”

I have been functionally anosmic as long as I can remember. Unlike most people, my childhood memories are not encoded in the smells that were around me. I do not comprehend the concept of finding pleasure in a whiff of perfume, of detecting the smell of rain, or of savoring the aroma of a warm pie. I do not, as far as I know, choose romantic partners based on their fragrance. When people stick teas, plants, wine, etc., in my face for me to sniff, or ask me if I too noticed that peculiar odor in the hallway, I never know quite how to respond.

Now, as far as I can gather my gustatory sense is largely unaffected – I can still taste things – so my anosmia is not highly developed as that of the individuals in the article. But it is developed enough to make certain situations in life very awkward. Most unfortunately, during some of middle school and high school – i.e., the peak of puberty – I refused to wear deodorant as I did not comprehend how something as immaterial as a smell could cause discomfort. I figured that out eventually. Still, the ways in which smell could offer delight and pleasure eluded me. How can something smell good when everything just smells the same?

But, something miraculous happened.

While in Philadelphia, we went boutique shopping in Chestnut Hill, a quaint business district which is home to one of the few locations of Penzey’s Spices. I neither cook, nor am capable of perceiving scents, so I expected to be a touch bored while my foodie friends stocked up their spice racks. In fact it was a beautiful shop and not boring at all. Penzey’s was lively and meticulously orderly, each spice in a labeled jar printed with a succinct description of its properties and recommended uses.

While reading these blurbs, I could not help but notice that sitting next to each type of spice was a large unsealed jar containing a generous sample of the herb, there for buyers to test. So I started opening the jars and taking whiffs. Of course I was merely doing so in an attempt to fit in with the other denizens of Penzey’s. I simply expected to find the same flat air smell that is the one scent of my world.

But that is not what happened. Something was different. It slowly became clear that I could perceive an aroma, one that was different in each jar into which I stuck my nose. I cautiously tried more and more jars. Allspice, herbs de provence, epazote, paprika, curry.. Surely this was a fluke. But no. Each smelled different – softer, or tangier, sharper, or sweeter… Never having had to describe scents before, I ran out of words. I had never known smells to be so variegated. This was really miraculous.

Ever since, I have been keeping a large jar of Chinese cinnamon next to my bed. I take a hearty sniffing of it every morning just to make sure that my nose is properly stimulated, that the miracle actually happened. In daily life,  I still do not experience scents, but the sweet spiciness of the cinnamon reminds me that someday, maybe I will be able to perceive the odors and fragrances of everyday life.

Miracles are inexplicable phenomena. Trying to explain them is beside the point. They exist in popular imagination as a means to challenge our rationality and preconceptions. In the spirit of the miraculous, I am not asking why, for twenty years, my nose was stubborn to detect smells. I am just glad my sense has been restored and my reception of the world has been so enriched.

In conclusion: if you ever find me sprawled out on the floor of my dorm with cinnamon dusting my nostrils and lines of dill, cumin, and paprika snaking over the desk… you will know why.

A memroies BartimaeusBartni

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