Memories Held by the Senses

Body memories: the first crackling fire of fall when images of that time at the cabin in the mountains arise like the catch of flame. The old, familiar scent of Chantilly dusting powder, and there is Grandmother in her Sunday dress with its jet-black buttons. That song on the radio, and in comes the memory of love’s first dance and its bittersweet farewell.

Tango arms

The taste of spring’s first strawberries; the twinge of pain at an old basketball injury; the scratchy feel of his old sweater you wear over your pajamas, the smell of him still held by the wool. Every sensory image brings an already lived image and with it, an emotion.

Our senses take in, our memory responds, sometimes with an image that appears lightning fast and disappears so quickly we’re not even conscious of it, yet here we are feeling an emotion, which came from we know not where. At other times we’re transported to another time and place, with details so real it’s as if we’re living that time again. Or maybe, as imagination takes cues from memory and adds its own creative touches, we live it for the first time.

Sensory memories: this is the place where story resides and where our writing can find a toehold.

What are your sensory memories today? Right now? Is there a story that goes with the memory? Of course there is. Want to tell me?

(Note: parts of this blog are excerpted from Wild Women, Wild Voices — Writing from Your Authentic Wildness)

10 thoughts on “Memories Held by the Senses

  1. Right after I wrote the last entry I noted the annual sense, the stillness, the hush that tells me summer is broken. The locust trees stand before my balcony and say we’re done. There is the usual mantra, the roar of traffic that never ends, but the quiet is there over it and through it. The vista looks the same with its layers of green but it’s too worn to continue.

    It’s the same ever year, suddenly, this time during extreme heat in the 30s Celsius. This is the outside edge of the Sonora desert, Canada’s hot spot, wine country, fruit orchards, and early August fall.

    And then it hides for a few weeks as if it didn’t drop by to smirk. It’s time now to write the hush. Sweet endings.

    • Hi Linda,
      This is a lovely observation. It takes a person really in touch with her senses to notice such a subtle moment of change. Thanks for sharing it with us.

  2. Thanks for all of these posts about memories being evoked by our senses. The smell of freshly mowed grass and the salty air of the ocean envelopes me every time with “pleasant emotions.”

    • Hi Arlene,
      Thanks for sharing these. I think that “freshly mown grass” is a scent that universally evokes a pleasant emotion. Unless, of course, this is how you earned your living as a kid and had to work all summer pushing a lawn mower in the mid-western heat and humidity.

  3. The smell of humid dust sends images and emotions from a car accident I was in once. It is so fascinating how these sorts of things have the capability to bend our emotions, send images to our minds, and make our hearts pound. And, as you have written before, when we write using show don’t tell, the reader’s own experiences and past brings the writing to life. One of my favorite things, when I’m reading, is when I feel as though I myself am living what is written before me. Thanks for sharing!

    • Thanks for writing, Sarah. Sometimes memory serves up what we might prefer to forget, but I think memory doesn’t make judgments, it just holds it all, all that has had an effect on us. I know what you mean about being so deep in a story that we lose ourselves in the time and place and events that we’re reading. And isn’t that the dream of all writers–to have that kind of effect on our readers, to transport them into the world we’ve created.

  4. The dancing girl needs to put some meat on that bones before she gets sick. This RCA sees health problems.

    I would say my canine olfactory sense is good for memories. Makes up for my horrid hearing and my total lack of attentiveness to the visual? I can bark and scratch at the door too.

    Having said that and despite the fact that I don’t hear properly my auditory memory serves a little too well as I recall things said that should be forgotten. All the way to when I was almost three a hundred years ago.

    I can carve out those voices as if they were uttered this morning….

    • Oh, Linda, I know what you mean about those voices, those messages, those “pronouncements.” They still echo and they still evoke response. But I’m glad you can bark to be let out, and scratch to come back in.

  5. Samba Pa Ti by Santana and I am instantly riding a motorcycle on the beach in Rota, Spain in the 1970s. Every single time. A vivid image of those moments, weaving in rhythm with the music. Hair flying, banking to the left, banking to the right, beach stretched before me in an endless ribbon of empty, golden sand.

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