By Sara Collie
It was the lilacs that undid me. I could smell them long before I saw them, the air was suddenly thick with their distinct aroma. In a flash I was transported elsewhere: France, in my early twenties, in the back seat of my roommate’s car. I was tired and homesick when I piled myself in amongst my bags and books. Not just for our apartment in the city where we were returning after a weekend at her parents’ house in the middle of nowhere, but for something or somewhere else that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. At the last minute her mother chopped a small branch of lilacs off the bush in the front garden and handed them to me and I cradled them all the way home, keeping them safe as we bumped and rattled down the country lanes in the late afternoon sun. I was touched by her thoughtful gesture and comforted by the delicate scent which sent me spinning further back in time. To my grandmother’s garden, years and years before, back when I used to put on ballet recitals for my bemused family on Sunday afternoons, twirling in a black leotard and pale pink tights on the old path. There was a big lilac bush there too: it towered over me then in those days. Sometimes I was allowed to pick a posy from the garden with my grandmother and, when that bush was in bloom, I always headed straight to it. The sweet perfume of its puffy cones of pale little flowers was so intense, though it never lasted long in a jar. I would bury my face in the bush for what felt like hours, then. Even now, mid-run I’ve been stood with my nose pushed into the branches that are hanging over a garden fence for a full minute, crying as I inhale the fragrance, remembering what it like to feel comforted by lilacs, recalling how small and safe I once was.
Back in the present day, but before the lilacs reached me, another unmistakable scent had hung heavy in the evening air: petrichor, rising from the wet grass and warm, damp tarmac. All week the temperature had been rising at a rate unsuited to the gentle early days of April until it broke suddenly with a rumble of thunder that signaled the start of an intense and unexpected storm. After the rain cleared the air I felt a need to do the same thing with my own head. There is a lot going on these days, mid-pandemic, and the old familiar weight of anxiety has been growing heavier in the middle of my chest. I know from experience that the only thing I can do to diffuse it is move, and so, having persuaded the laces on my old trainers into a bow and cloaked myself in lycra, I set off into the early evening.
There’s always a point when I run when my thoughts dissolve and I find myself moving on autopilot. No matter what music I have playing in my headphones, it is a quiet place, characterized by calm. I follow my feet until I’m miles away from anywhere with a headful of nothing but the sound of my own lungs. This trance-like state is a kind of disassociation: a disconnect between body and mind which allows me to process things differently. I seek it out as a way of escaping my tendency to over-think things. Normally when I come round, back into my body, I feel refreshed, soothed and re-energised.
But this time, when I come back into the present moment, it is with a huge jolt. Suddenly, coming straight towards me is a person in a mask. Everything seems to slip sideways as I try to make sense of what is going on – not just on the street, but in a wider sense. Somehow, as I was running along, my brain managed to completely forget about the pandemic: the thousands of people dying every day; the awful conditions that doctors and nurses are working in; the pain and suffering; the fear that has crept into the edges of all our lives; the lockdown; the loss of work; the stockpiling, everything. It is as though time briefly stopped without me noticing and is now exploding back into motion, as the last six weeks hit me all at once.
It’s funny how quickly we adapt, how swiftly the strangest of gestures becomes ordinary. Before I have quite understood what is happening I am checking the road behind me and, noticing it is clear (because it’s still possible to die in all of the old, ordinary ways), I am veering out beyond the cycle lane, right into the middle of the road, giving the person a berth much wider than the suggested 2 metres. My heart is pounding with the shock of remembering; with the shock that I managed to forget it all, for even a moment. I can’t quite believe I was running along oblivious for however many minutes it lasted.
As if to compound the shock, an ambulance suddenly veers around the corner, siren screaming, lights ablaze. I glimpse the face of the paramedic in the passenger seat as he passes me. His jaw is set firm, his mouth a grim line. I realize that I need to catch my breath and absorb all the information that is reentering my consciousness so I stop running and pull my headphones out of my ears. I am greeted with absolute silence. Aside from the now distant ambulance, not a car is to be seen on the usually busy road which leads down to the hospital. I realize that the masked person is the first person I have encountered in the whole time I have been out. It is not surprising that it feels strange: such emptiness on a busy road like this would be unthinkable, ordinarily. I start running again, my body instinctively seeking movement, my eyes roaming the street for the next distraction.
There is a method for combatting anxiety called the 5,4,3,2,1 technique which involves identifying five things you can see, four things you can touch, three things you can hear, two things you can smell and one thing you can taste. Focusing on the list causes negative thinking spirals to get interrupted and paying attention to your senses grounds you in your body in the present moment, which helps to alleviate panic. I start to do it as I run. I can see cherry blossom, bluebells popping up in nearby gardens, potholes, the sky glowing orange, cars lined up on driveways. It doesn’t feel like enough to just glimpse things, so I slow down and pull my phone out of my pocket to start cataloguing the flowers, the light, the signs of life and nature that are lining my route. I tell myself it is so I can look through them later when I lie in bed awake, an alternative to doom-scrolling the headlines but it is a habit I often indulge in, even in ordinary times. A deep-seated need to try to preserve fleeting, beautiful things in nature. I notice, as I do every year, how quickly the blossom has already become confetti in the pavement cracks. I am always melancholy at the thought of how brief blossom is, but this year my feelings have been dialed up to a deeper kind of despair that is not just about the ordinary passing of time which rolls round every year to punch me in the gut. This year, death is so much more present in everyday life: a real threat that we are all living with and trying to avoid. For some people it is has come already, so much sooner than they or anybody expected. What to do with that thought?
I keep counting, only I can’t do four things I can touch because it isn’t safe to touch anything anymore, so I skip to three things I can hear: more sirens, wailing faintly a few roads away, my breath, fast and gulping. I cannot identify a third sound – this isn’t working as well as it usually does. What to do when the things that normally comfort me get over-ridden by the darkness of the world? Where do I turn then? Quick, what are two things I can smell? There’s the after-rain scent of petrichor, still heavy in the air, and then that’s when the lilacs get me and everything I was trying to hold together inside me comes pouring out in hot, insistent tears. I cross the street to the branches of just-opened purple blooms and sink my face into them. I am grounded in the now-ness of these little flowers and simultaneously transported to the layers of safer, more comforting memories in the past.
I tell myself it’s just a brief escape from the world as it is now, a distraction, nothing more. But I know how important it is to indulge in moments of sensory delight – to live them fully as they present themselves. I know that is where life is. That if I focus my attention in the here and now, I will see little glimpses of joy that will come and go in real time but endure somehow, somewhere, in my memories. I wonder if the moments I am living now, in this new world, are getting laid down in my memory bank, filed under lilac, cross-referenced with cherry blossom confetti and bluebell bonnets so that when I stop to sniff these flowers in years to come, I will be back here in a world of deserted streets, masks and sirens. I would rather keep my earlier lilac memories distinct from the world that is unfurling here and now this spring, but what if I can’t? The body remembers what it remembers in whatever way it chooses. I cannot will myself out of this situation and, as I found out a few streets back, slipping out of it involuntarily, even just for a moment is perturbing. Better to stick with the here and now. And right now, that means smelling the lilacs. They won’t last. None of this will.
Bio: Sara Collie is a writer based in the USA.