Held Captive

We are a society that is progressively looking inward rather than outward. As we spend more and more time among concrete towers and experience more and more of the world through our computers, we’re relying less and less on our senses, on all our senses. We are quite strong visually or aurally, but even that is becoming more selective. Cogito, ergo sum or “We think, therefore we are” is becoming “We think, more, therefore we are, more” and sacrificing much of our sensory selves to achieve this state.

I must confess that I am not an intellectual. To me, “I think, therefore I am” becomes “I think and smell and taste and hear and see and touch, therefore I experience rampant joy at the minutiae of endless and daily variety of life, of which I am just one part.” I have no idea what that would be in latin.

And I am easily a captive to my senses.

A year or so ago I was walking with some people I worked with when several pigeons took off and started flying, as a group, around some of the buildings. I stopped walking and just stared at the display, calling out my appreciation of the flight to the people I was with. One of them returned with, “They’re just birds. You’ve seen birds before, Shelley.”

Yesterday when I walked to the subway I passed a few trees in downtown San Francisco and heard birds singing to the dawn and stopped, right there on the street, looking up at the trees and just listening to the sound. And as usually happens in these circumstances, some of the people passing me — those who weren’t on their cell phones, or hurrying past because they were late, or trying to walk and read the newspaper at the same time, or involved in intense discussions with another person — also glanced up, trying to see what I was looking at.

(It’s not very heartening to know that the majority of people around you think you’re touched in the upper works because you’re standing in the middle of the street staring up into the air, not looking at anything.)

And what of the more subtle senses? Am I overcome by taste and touch and smell?

Years ago I watched a wildlife preservationist give a talk about birds, a flightless owl perched on his arm. I chatted with the person after the show and he moved the bird a bit closer to me to provide me a clearer view of the bird’s eyes. When he did, I brought my hand up to touch it, whereupon the speaker drew back in alarm and exclaimed, “This bird is dangerous!”

“Do you always reach out to touch things!?”

Well, actually, yes I do. And it has been known to get me in trouble a time or two. It seems I haven’t quite lost that childlike aspect of myself.

People rely on their sense of taste and touch and smell almost entirely when they’re young, but seem to lose this sensory dependency as they get older. Right and wrong is explored first through taste and touch, trying to swallow everything at hand, trying to touch everything that’s new — in both cases prematurely aging their parents in the process. And when asked to try a new food, they’ll sniff it first, wrinkling their nose and rejecting the food if the scent falls too far outside of the familiar.

Younger children prefer blander foods not because they lack sophistication, but because even the simplest taste overwhelms their unfiltered receptivity. Anyone exposed to babies know that anything within the grasp of an infant is first put into the baby’s mouth, to be chewed on and swallowed if possible. I, personally, have been chewed by more babies than I care to remember, and that includes kittens and puppies in addition to human babies.

And be honest — did you really believe your Older Significant Person when he or she said the fire or the stove was hot? The first time?

Survival dictates that we learn from our senses, quickly, until we’re at an age of reason and can think our way out of troubles.

(With wars and crime and addictions to various materials, I’m not quite sure when the age of reason will hit, but I have hopes for the future.)

As we mature and rely on our senses less, we have to find larger and larger sensory inputs in order to break into the creaking, whirring, machines that are our minds.

We increase our use of spices as we burn our mouths with the hottest peppers and chilis, not stopping until we literally sweat from five-star Thai food or five alarm chili. Why use one clove of garlic when we can use 40?

We use packaged apple pie smell and packaged lemon smell and packaged “Spring Fresh Scent” and so on, until our homes and our bodies reek of undifferentiated stink.

We buy books on how to touch each other, how to touch our children, and even the appropriate way to perform a handshake. For instance, I read that before going into an interview, always go to the restroom, wash your hands in warm water and then dry them completely. When grasping hand, do so with confidence, firm but not too firm. No cold and clammy hands. No weak and tentative grasp.

We think, therefore we are. Or the Postmodern equivalent — it thinks therefore I am only if I recognize that I have the capacity of thought to appreciate that it thinks independent of its own capability of understanding that it can think without being aware of its own self and its own appreciation of self within a greater cosmic awareness.

Me thinks, at times, we think too much.

Isn’t it nice when we shut down our minds and let our child out to play?

To breath the salty, weedy smell of freshly mown hay or the rich, fresh smell of huckleberry plants in the midst of tall green pines. To close eyes and drink in the scent of freshly baked bread, or clean laundry hung out to dry. To walk in gardens of lavender and lilacs.

To taste a wild strawberry, still warm from the sun. To savor the sweet crispness of a fresh apple or the bite of good, sharp cheese. And chocolate. Mustn’t forget chocolate — the only taste known to break through even the most dedicated intellect.

To touch a stone worn smooth by flowing water and to feel its coolness and the softness of its surface. To hold sand in your hand and let it slip through your fingers. To face someone you love and move your hand slowly and gently down their face, from temple to chin, feeling the curves until you place two fingers lightly on lips soon joined to yours.

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