3. peppermint swirls

3. peppermint swirls

When people describe what the year 2020 was like for them and how it makes them feel, it seems generally agreed-upon that it was a year unlike the rest. For me, 2020 was a swirl of unpredictability, victory, challenge, boredom, grief, intimacy, and isolation. It was each of these, and yet it somehow was also its own agitation--as though I illustrated the events of my life this past year and then ran my hand across the wet ink, leaving behind a smear containing real but unnameable building blocks.

Though I don't talk about it with most people, I am a synesthete, which means my sensory experiences sometimes get cross-wired. People with synesthesia experience all kind of strange sensory phenomena, but what we all have in common is a blending of one perceptual sense into another. I hate seeing blackbirds en masse on a power line because I taste the abhorrent crunch of their delicate bones in my mouth when I look at them. The color schemes of a painting have literally made me ill. The stifling heat of a summer afternoon is, to me, an umami aroma, much like inhaling the scent of miso soup. This is not to be confused with late-evening summer heat, though; when the setting sun is behind the trees on hot evenings, the heat I feel on my skin smells sour, like pink lemonade. In my world, tastes are sometimes colors, and the music I hear becomes irrelevant, vibrant visions.

I hardly know how to write about what I am only beginning to name. I have only recently come to take interest in how synesthesia affects my perception of the world. Until lately, I have just taken it for granted. The fact that the '2020 swirl' is difficult to define in language doesn't make it any less real, though. What I can articulate about where we all are in this unique place in time, this hopeful transition from 2020 to 2021, is that it smells very much like a peppermint stick, and it resembles a snowy day where the white, swirling clouds are hardly distinguishable from the fields below them. In recent days, my brain's backdrop is a photograph I took of the Icelandic countryside from a moving bus. My favorite photo has become my current existence.

I know we aren't all synesthetes, but I'm willing to bet that most of us have some commonalities right about now. Some of us are feeling hopeful. Some of us are stretched so thin, one more mishap feels like it may shatter us completely. Some of us are eager, and some can barely get out of bed. Some of us are inundated by the volume and energy of the homes from which we can't seem to escape, and some of us are lonelier than we have ever been before. Sometimes, you might be most or all of these, competing fragments put together--and if you are, then you know the swirl, too. I don't think I'm the only one.

What are we to do when we feel a whirlpool of sensations that we can't even fully articulate? How do we take hold and ground ourselves?

Lately, I have been thinking about a particular still hour that my husband BJ and I experienced in Iceland a year ago. We had been steadily moving from one side of the world to the other for a day and a half, and we were exhausted upon arrival in Reykjavík. Our flight the night before had been pure magic: just as we passed over the eastern banks of the Hudson Bay at midnight, we spied the aurora borealis from our plane window. All night I watched, like a baby mesmerized by a glowing Christmas tree, as the green and white lights bent and spiraled high over the black ocean and the craggy shores of Greenland. The sacrifice of sleep had obviously been worth it, but I felt it when morning came.

View from my plane window over the Arctic Circle

After our plane touched down at 6:00AM, we took an hour-long bus ride to the city, all of which did nothing good for my motion sickness. By the time we stepped off the bus, refreshed ourselves, and found a place to store our luggage for the day, I was struggling. I had no idea what reserves I was going to draw from so that I could get through the day and actually enjoy the time I had been aching to experience in Iceland.

"We need some caffeine and food, and you need some Zofran," BJ said, steering my sluggish body in the direction of a fabulous-smelling bakery. Fortunately for us, two curveballs were thrown our way: the first was that the bakery did not sell coffee, so we decided to take our cinnamon croissants to go. Coffee was a Must. The second curveball was the coffee shop we found down the street did not allow us to bring our croissants into their establishment, so we had to get our coffee to go, too. For ten seconds I felt total defeat: there I was in the place I had been dreaming about for years, but I was nauseated, exhausted, had nowhere to recharge, and it was dark outside even at 8:30AM.

I sighed and looked out the coffee shop window... and that was when I spied the life-saving red table.

The outdoor table belonged to the Drekinn (Dragon) Grill across the street from the coffee shop; at this early hour, the restaurant was closed and the table abandoned. As we exited the warmth with coffees in hand, I grabbed a free newspaper covering the Of Monsters and Men concert we planned to attend later in the trip. We felt as foreign as could be in our chosen refuge as we sat down on the icy cold bench and opened our bag of croissants.

In the end, what seemed like an inconvenient, alien respite was actually a bone-deep recharge for both of us. It didn't even matter that it was 30 degrees outside. We had come to Iceland prepared for the cold, and the chilly air felt good on our faces. Slowly, we drained our coffees, raved about our warm croissants, and my medicine helped my nausea subside. We examined the unfamiliar language of our foreign newspaper like schoolchildren, took in our immediate surroundings as day began to break, and laughed about our amazing fortune at being in my soul's homeland. By the time we stood up 45 minutes later, we were ready to tackle our day. I walked away from that table with gratitude, breathing into my lungs the salty air of the city that would steal my heart in the days to come.

Iceland became not only a journey to explore a land I had wanted to see for so long; it was also a journey of self-discovery. On a larger scale I learned more about who I am as a mother and what it means to be a global citizen, but I also absorbed sanity-saving lessons along the way. The red table has served as a reminder to me to ground myself and breathe in the air wherever I am, even if the circumstances require acclimation--even if it feels far inferior to what I had imagined for myself. I thumbtacked that Icelandic newspaper to the wall of my closet, and every day it reminds me that I might need to readjust. I never saw the likes of 2020 coming; I can only hope that 2021 holds more promise.

As it stands now, a contagious sickness will kill more Americans than World War II did. My children no longer attend their beloved school, and I have become their teacher. I miss my family and friends. I am ready for all of us to have this vaccine. I am turning a page to a new decade, becoming 4o years old this week. My eyes are leaking multiple times a day. I feel guilty about how my personal world has shrunk, about the people and roles that I was once so invested in and now have left behind. What was previously unimaginable has become our new normal.

Right now, I feel overwhelmed by my senses. The swirling, white clouds are meeting the snow, and I can't tell the sky from the ground. I can hardly pull basic words from this mess, much less explain how I perceive all of it to people whose brains don't equate sound as taste. I can tell you this though: I smell peppermint in it, but I also smell promise. The swirl of emotions in your brain almost certainly doesn't behave in the way mine does, but I'm guessing your swirl is at least sometimes there, disorienting you and sometimes even threatening to defeat you.

We might be nauseated, and we might be sleep-deprived, but Iceland taught this synesthete a thing or two. Curveballs are happening all around us, but it doesn't mean we will swing and miss. It just means we have to think outside the box. It turns out that sometimes the best seats in the house are the frozen, red benches out front in the dark. The best photos sometimes can be taken from a moving vehicle. The best recharges can happen in the midst of a global pandemic. Find a still moment and breathe in that frigid, January air: I wager it's filled with peppermint and promise.