Would We Lie to You?: On Tolerance and the Senses

[Another entry in the on-going blog "Would We Lie To You?: News from the Non-Fiction Career Lab"]

by Claire Cheney

"Each of us possesses five fundamental, enthralling maps to the natural world: sight, touch, taste, hearing, smell. As we unravel the threads that bind us to nature, as denizens of data and artifice, amid crowds and clutter, we become miserly with these loyal and exquisite guides, we numb our sensory intelligence." — Ellen Meloy, The Anthropology of Turquoise


When I forget how to write, I usually cook something, or take a photograph. I turn to my other senses — my nose or taste buds, my vision, and try to remember how those function, so that I can bring it back to the page, so that I can remember how the sensual experience of life informs my writing. And when I forget how to do that, how to cook or take a photograph, well, then I just walk around outside and try to notice things outside of the buzz inside my head.

I'd say my biggest struggle in the effort to keep writing page after page about the spice saffron, the elusive but irresistible topic I've been chasing these past few years, is that of tolerating what Meloy points out as this "unraveling" — the life chaos that unhinges us from the world,  most notably the natural world, that is the source of much inspiration and drive. She writes how the "crowds and clutter" can "numb our sensory intelligence" and I admit that I experience this regularly when returning home from my day job of managing a cafe. Setting down my purse on the kitchen counter, I open the fridge, stare blankly at the back wall behind the orange juice and pickle jars as though maybe it's the new passage to Narnia, and then without too much delay, end up slumped on the couch with a box of Triscuits and a can of Coors light. "My grandmother drinks light beer" I tell myself, so this is classy. More acurately, this is a profound display of sensory hypothermia.

The things that distract us and derail us are always present, always threatening, sneering, shaking our worlds. Often it's not even an acute circumstance, or person, or broken thing, but rather the accumulation of little agitations and snags on the creative spirit: a stream of junk e-mails or text messages from work colleagues, a pile of smelly dish rags, a pile of parking tickets, of mismatched socks, of inkless pens and dead batteries that need to be disposed of properly. Unless we tolerate it, this tide of schmultz and chaos, it can corrode our energy, creating a cycle of frustration, guilt and discouragement.

I don't want to deny the fact that "dumb time" can be useful — this couch plus Triscuits plus Coors light situation for example — as it is important to let our busy selves off the hook sometimes. But the goal is to have fewer days when "dumb time" is necessary, as each day will only bring more chaos, more data and more unraveling.

For whatever reason, I was born sensitive; "over sensitive" I've been called, though the more positive term is "highly sensitive." After a panic attack episode in college my mother bought me the book Highly Sensitive People: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You that I know she bought with the intention of helping me realize my "gift" of being sensitive. While it was interesting material, I wasn't ready at the time to realize this "gift." I was better at obliterating it with alcohol or long, solitary walks in the woods or late night cooking sessions that left scars on my forearms and charred pans in the sink.

How have I learned to be sensitive AND tolerant? To keep my sensitivity in balance with the chaos of the world that is always shooting a fire-hose of information and sensory input into my face? How to tolerate the anxiety, breathe its poisonous vapors and be glad I'm still conscious and functional?

Listening well, looking, tasting, smelling — this is how I tolerate, this is how I begin to "sense" the world again after everything has turned to static, noise and chaos. In Alice W. Flaherty's book The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer's Block, and the Creative Brain (2004) she describes this balance for the writer as paying attention, or taking care of, the inner voice: "When we write, we feel as if we are setting down what our inner voice is saying. ...Our experience of the inner voice is a crucial aspect of our mental health. The inner voice may be absent in dreams or hypnotic states. But in general, everyone has an inner voice that lulls us with its familiar chatter or keeps us amused with daydreams on long plane rides." (p. 239) In some way, Flaherty is writing on the same subject as Meloy. Flaherty argues that "psychosis" — or deafening of this calm, inner voice — is the same as what Meloy says is "unravel[ing] the threads that bind us to nature."

As we round the final phase in our year of non-fiction writing, our class has entered a phase of focused writing aimed at gaining traction in our book projects. For me, I have had to turn my attention back to my senses, as I've gotten a bit lost in a high-tide of chaos. While many are returning to the gym to get their blood pumping, I am exercising my senses. I've returned to the kitchen to experiment more with spices, and I've borrowed my father's Canon Rebel EOS to take photographs of the shadows and snow and wilted roses in my Italian neighborhood. As I slow down and focus on my other senses, I feel myself beginning to tolerate the disorder, and suddenly I can describe the way cinnamon tastes, with its hot, earthy tang, or the way the light falls on my neighbors driveway, in a quiet geometry of grays.

Claire Cheney lives and writes in Somerville. In 2012 she self-published an art book called Art of the Harvest chronicling her trip to Macedonia to harvest the spice saffron. She continues to do research on this strange spice while working full time in the specialty food industry. She likes to cook paella. 

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