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Secret Gifts: Aesthetic Deprivation in Covid-19

I knew that I had Covid-19 when I inhaled deeply my bag of coffee and no aesthetic signals of beautifully roasted bean reached my brain. I plunged my face in more deeply, hoping that some small bit of coffee smell would escape, but to no avail. It was as if someone had painted gray glue over my sinuses. I had been feeling unwell and self-isolating, but this was the dooming notice that triggered the test, the positive result, the flurry of calls from the health department, two weeks of exhaustion and swollen sinuses, and lingering lung damage and a very vague sense of smell.

But lately, almost two months later, it’s been coming back. Not gradually, but great tidal waves of sensations—both good and bad—and then odiferous silence for days. Smell seems like the least useful sense, only helpful occasionally, but being deprived of it demonstrates how much less vibrant reality is when the soup tastes like an afterthought and the coffee tastes like dust. With our olfactory center in our brain seated right next to memory formation, smells springboard you off into memories and nostalgia. No smells, less associations with the past.

I don’t want to trivialize the horrors of Covid-19 as an aesthetic exercise for me. But amidst a world drenched in death, poverty, and selfishness, there are big lessons, and there are little ones, and both are good in their own way.

When scents were gone, food was relegated to a mundane utility. But when smells came back, they brought gifts.

The joy of this wine; I took it for granted before. I sipped and nodded at the bouquet of flavors. I didn’t savor.

The rediscovery of star anise. This is such an interesting spice. It’s like licorice but not. Do I actually like it? Or do I just think I like it? Or want to like it? Or is it expanding my palate into a new realm of things to like? I need to get to the bottom about what my relationship with star anise is now.

It’s hard not to connect it to lent: reorienting yourself with what are first things and second things. When you take away a secondary thing, you can focus in better on what should be the primary thing in our life: God. With this in its proper place, when the secondary things come back, they can be loved and enjoyed better and not asked to be god.

In this season of aesthetic deprivation (obviously there are notable exceptions, but on the whole no music shows, no art museums, no plays, no travel), it’s silly not to see this as a rather uninspiring time as a creative. But, in this time of deprivation, there are opportunities to see what is primary and what is not, and to be ready for the joy and rediscovery of those secondary things in this reframing.

So, when we finally discover the old avenues that were blockaded during this pandemic, how are we going to approach them? Are we going to dive into our old ruts? Or, at these reunions, will we greet these old pathways with a new wisdom?

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