The Smell of Burning Leaves

The Smell of Burning Leaves

If one mentions the word Trigger it quickly calls to my mind a picture of a golden horse with a white patch responding to its owner Roy Rogers. Different strokes I guess.

The brain is a strange little computer. We respond to the senses and a smell, taste, sound or a glimpse can evoke the most intense memory and catch us completely off guard.

One smell that induces the most extreme reaction for me is the smell of burning leaves. If there was a candle that smelled like burning leaves I may be tempted to keep it lit all day.

Occasionally I’ll smell something that reminds me of a fresh spring day after a rain and feel that sense of contentment spring brings, but it’s the burning leaves that stoke my flame of happy memories.

Growing up in the Midwest, autumn was such a happy time filled with sights, sounds and moments captured by one scent—burning leaves. It doesn’t induce a single recollection, but a torrent of memories, happy and heartwarming that bring me to a moment in childhood special and revered.

Autumn meant the beginning of school, new clothes and clean saddle shoes. A trip on the first day of school to the corner drugstore to pick out supplies, including a new loose leaf, pencils and a clean eraser. The excitement of a new school bag complete with clear, zippered pencil case and a fresh box of Crayolas, tips sharp and shiny.

Coming home after school and changing into play clothes then going outside to play with friends and watch the neighborhood boys play football in the street.

I can still picture a leaf gently falling and covering the green grass after turning the most exquisite shades of reds, oranges and yellows. The pure joy of crunching the leaves while walking to school and then jumping in them after my father raked them to the curb. Of hearing him grumble because I messed them up and he had to redo them, yet he was never really angry. I always suspected he wanted to do the same himself.

For me it also meant the Jewish holidays were near and I looked forward to meeting friends at synagogue then walking to the bagel factory after services. The fun of Halloween and choosing a costume, begging for candy and rushing home to look through and see what wonderful delights the treat bag held.

The smell of burning leaves promised Thanksgiving and turkey roasting in the oven while we watched the Macy’s parade on television. Then soon came Christmas, Hanukah and the smell of latkes would arrive with vacation time.

No mention of autumn could be complete without invoking the smell of freshly crushed apples at the Cider Mill. The giant wheel mashing apples into submission as they released their delicious juices then paired with hot cinnamon donuts in a grease-laden paper bag. Followed by a ride on a hay wagon into the orchard to soak up the autumn colors or climb ladders to pick the ripe fruit off their trees. No memory would be complete without the crunch of a caramel dipped apple on Halloween.

Yes, that’s a lot to put on a single smell, but that’s why burning leaves are so powerful. I’m certain if you ask any Baby Boomer what smell evokes autumn for them it will be the same.

There’s a certain comfort in memories now. When younger I never thought much about the past because I was too busy living in the present, and of course when one is young there is very little past to recall.

This past year when I’ve been forced to come face to face with my own mortality and had little ability to move my life forward as I’d have wished, the past seems so suddenly important. It’s as if I pulled out an old scrapbook filled with pictures and suddenly recalled how precious each snapshot has become.

Nostalgia has been a big part of how I’ve coped with this captivity because although I wasn’t free to travel outward, I could travel backward at my leisure. I could reflect at will upon those memories that had settled into the nooks and crannies of my brain and become hidden from view. Whenever a scent or sight drew them out of hiding I luxuriated in their warmth.

There has been a great deal of sharing with old friends on the phone and of course Facebook, and recalling time spent in childhood schools, stores and hometown haunts. Remembering my favorite foods makes me long for a local deli, great burgers or pizza, Chinese food on Sunday or a trip to the DQ. The burning leaves seem to be the magic carpet that transports me to the past, flying over childhood and once again absorbing the sights, smells and tastes of my youth. Filling me with the warmth so desperately needed in these cold, scary COVID days.

Even now when I’m walking and come upon a small pile of fallen dried leaves I will crunch them under my feet and feel a sense of satisfaction as the sound hits my ears.

Perhaps it isn’t the COVID that has captured my imagination and yearning for happier times. It may simply be a side effect of baby boomerism. I can’t say for sure what has created this new desire to share memories with those with whom I shared my youth, but it is a heady and incredibly magnetic feeling.

The question “do you remember” could probably be translated as, “oh, how I miss.”

Whatever the reason I shall always love the smell of burning leaves and the wonderful feelings they evoke and in this uncertain world, of that I am certain.





There’s a Disturbance in the Force

There’s a Disturbance in the Force

I imagine it’s inevitable and every writer faces a tragic truth one day. I’d always believed simply sitting in front of a blank sheet of paper or of course now a computer screen would ultimately produce the desired result and emit forth a wealth of plentiful prose. It was simply a matter of time I told myself and the words would flow like money from a drunken gambler at a Las Vegas craps table. Truthfully they always did, until now.

I must face the fact that after the captivity of COVID I’ve run out of things to say.

My mind is clouded by the numbness that grows out of boredom and despite my efforts I can’t find the words, or any words actually.

Yet, of course why would I? Cooped up like a veal my mind has glossed over from too much media and carbohydrates.

What a combo. Although of course this seems to be a teenager’s dream and I’m certain it once was mine, the lack of stimulus has become malignant.

Like everyone I strive to remain relevant and in tune with the universe.

Calls to friends whom like myself feel the need to escape their bonds of virus prison may for a moment lessen the lack of communication with my fellow beings, but this isn’t entirely about conversation.

Perhaps that’s what we’ve forgotten or probably never before knew.

Living is not predicated by simply interacting with others, but with the other.

So what is the other other?

The other is the mere act of living within the world.

COVID has forced us to retreat and that is harmful to what creates the energy we all absorb into our lives.

Of course there are many that still venture out to stores, teach, work over the Internet or meet with friends.

But what of those who choose to remain behind closed doors hopefully safe from COVID’s clutches?

Strangely enough the result is the same for both.

My friends that go out feel equally as stifled and imprisoned as those who hide away.

I couldn’t imagine why and it didn’t seem to make any sense at all.

Yet truly it does.

If we believe there is an energy that permeates the world and enters into each life than the virus has zapped that power whether you’re home or outside.

There is to put it quite simply a disturbance in the force, young Skywalker and everyone feels the interruption.

Of course I’m not the first to speak about life forces and energy and certain I can’t possibly explain it as well as Master Yoda, but I’m actually witnessing the effects with my own eyes. I’m guessing this is something none of us has noticed before.

How many times have you felt something uplifting while just walking down a street looking in windows, or how satisfying it was driving a new car on a gorgeous spring day, listening to music and simply enjoying your freedom? It could be that happy feeling holiday shopping in the mall when everyone is rushing from store to store intent on finding the perfect gift?

Perhaps it is when sitting by the ocean and wiggling your toes in the wet sand on a cool autumn day when the beach is quiet and the waves are your only company that you feel alive and at peace.

These small moments that don’t amount to anything earth shaking like creating world peace, cleansing the oceans or curing cancer seem at times all we need.

There is satisfaction in being part of a world that is in motion, absorbing the essence of life in those around you. The unique connection each human being creates by simply existing in the universe, feeling and contributing to the energy.

This is something else COVID has given us. The frustration and hopelessness humans feel when they are captive and lose their sense of community.

Going for a walk, taking a drive or visiting with friends seems to make things better, and perhaps for a time it works. Still it’s merely a band-aid on a massive wound and why despite how hard we try we can’t stop the bleeding.

We need to see a smile on the person walking toward us, we need to feel the hugs of our family and friends, to travel and absorb the energy of novel places, new sights and active people. There is something palpable about a busy street or airport filled with travelers. Our souls require more than the latest Netflix offering, we crave the other.

Human beings cannot survive behind masks, closed off from the life force that sustains us.

There’s a reason people are suspicious of loners, anti social behavior and shut ins. Most view it as an unnatural and foreign state.

Of course some people are quite content by themselves and most are happy to be alone some of the time. Only it’s in the knowing that life is outside our door for the taking we remain secure and sane.

In our DNA we are social animals and being blocked off from the other has consequences. During this pandemic for the first time we as a human race are seeing these results up close and personal.

So what can one do to create at least a bit of the energy? At this point I suppose it’s the band-aid effect upon which we must rely. Call a friend, social distance, go outside, walk or take a ride. Have a picnic or go to the beach, there is something quite calming about the ocean. It won’t restore all our energy but at least a portion until our tank is once again full.

Without putting a name to it we sense something is missing and the effect on our life force is stifling. So until we are free to experience others and the other as well, I wish you fulfilling days and may the force always be with you.