The smell of memory

This week’s #ThrowbackThursday is brought to you by Colombia. I was supposed to be at my home-away-from-home when COVID-19 really ramped up, and I’ve been following news of Colombia more frequently lately, trying to get my fix in any way I can. This has me thinking about this piece of journaling from 2009.

San Francisco

As we round the rocky tumble of mountain struggling to meet up with the Andes, the buildings of San Francisco come poking up into view. Orange and vibrant among the greenery of banana trees and coffee farms, the rough ceramic roofs are scattered like tile chips abandoned and alone. As the chips become streets and homes and tiendas, I feel the rush of excitement that sometimes comes when reconnecting with the past. San Francisco is just 30 minutes (by car or an hour by bus) from Bogotá, Colombia’s capital.  It’s a farm town, and it is just as much a part of me as the rural Nebraska farm town I once called home.

Even though the town is surrounded by mountains and is sinking into a riverbed somewhere below, it is hot here. Tropical, one could say.   The old road has been washed away by torrential rainfall several times, and even this road, paved and “new” is cracking and yawning in several places along the way.  I roll down my window get a better view of the first waterfall, and before I even see its streets, I can smell the town — and my childhood.

The memory is wet and fragrant, all sun-dappled green leaves and wet black earth. In contrast to the wind-beaten grit of sand and dirt blown dry and rough during summers in Nebraska, everything here is on the verge of molding. It’s a gentle, underlying hint of decay, like something rotting in the garden, but the beauty of what’s still living pushes  past this mossy atmosphere.

As we come out of the tree cover and pull into town, edging tires around gaps in the road that eat boulders like candy, the scent all but disappears. On rough roads cobbled and dry, the scent is replaced by arepas baking on the street and chicharrónes cooling on a table. These warm scents also have a place in my past, but it’s a place that feels like not-quite-home. That first whiff…the memory floods in once, and then the moment is gone, like  all the people I once knew that made this place feel like home.

A girl sits in the town plaza in San Francisco, Colombia.

A girl sits in the town plaza in San Francisco, Colombia.

But that scent, and the memories — the moldy smell of my abuelo’s blankets as he lay dying in his bed, or the  sweet, light hint of flowers blossoming out of sight — they put my in the past again in that moment, if only for a fleeting second.

A garden of memories

I think of my abuelita and her garden, the garden that took up half the home’s space INSIDE the walls of the home and was both backyard and living room; the garden that sprung up where the final wall of the house had crumbled away; the garden in the home  that missing a section of roof. I remember how the house always smelled like orange peels and roses, but after a heavy rain, it would take on the additional scent of ground coffee.

I used to tell my friends stories about the banana trees growing in my grandma’s house, stories too great for their their little  seven- and eight-year-old minds. A garden IN a house? A banana tree growing from the ground next to the kitchen? No way.

I didn’t need to embellish things because my adventures were always otherworldy. Nothing like abuelita’s house existed in Nebraska; there, there was nothing like Colombia and its charms.

It’s almost haunting how a place I visit every few years retains such visceral memories. Some of these are fainter than others, much like the once vivid decorative patterns etched into the limestone of cobbled streets. There were rose vines and arabesque mosaics blasted into the sidewalks outside the houses I played in in San Francisco, but now, it takes a special eye (and maybe a bit of imagination?) to see them.

Some of these faded sidewalks include chips of memory too, like playing in front of that building for entire mornings then sharing Colombiana and bread with the kids inside. I barely remember that one of the girls was even named Colombia, a memory that comes only because I remember thinking as a child it would be weird to be named “America.”

These memories, the ones of playing with friends on the street, or watching my uncle play soccer until a sweat-soaked jersey was flung up into the stands at me, have their own odors. There’s the bread and chocolate of Colombia’s house, which was also a panaderia. Tio Jose’s sweaty, smelly hugs have only be duplicated a few times, after hugging a high school boyfriend stained and tired from chasing an American football up and down a field.

This journal entry ends abruptly; did I get sidetracked? Did I get up to get an arepa? Where was I as I wrote it? I can’t remember these things lost to the 11 years since I wrote this, but I’m OK with them being gone. What’s more important are the older memories. Today, as I long for family and familiarity — in Colombia or in my Minnesota home — I’m grateful I have those older memories to return to. 

What memories sustain you right now?

It keeps the fire going

In 2018, I attended a local writing conference and heard one of the speakers say she had set a goal of submitting 100 pieces of writing a year. With that many submissions out there, she said, she was bound to score some publications.

I was floored. Here was this amazing poet, someone with books published, telling me that she aims for this large number and is happy if a small part of it is fulfilled. But it was a good nudge, and later that year, after a few years of not submitting much creative work, I dusted off the Submittable account and got busy submitting poetry and hybrid pieces. I did not hit the 100 subs mark (nor had I set mine that high), and I got more rejection notices than acceptance letters. But I landed three pubs, and the momentum pushed me into 2019.

Last year was such a blur that when, over Christmas, I got an acceptance letter from Lethe, an international journal in Istanbul, I didn’t remember submitting work! But a hybrid piece flash piece about my mixed heritage is out in print and will be online soon.

And just last week, another acceptance letter came in, this one from Graphite Interdisciplinary Journal of the Arts, a journal sponsored by UCLA/ TheHammer Museum. 

I don’t typically submit to themed calls for submission, but this one put forth by Graphite, on the topic of “fruit,” inspired me. I was teaching 100 Year of Solitude when I read the call for subs, and we had just entered the banana massacre timeline. Bananas are fruit, I thought, and my research for class led me to some interesting telegrams between the U.S. and Colombian government. So I spun them into a poem. It was one that got accepted, and I’m excited to share it with the world.

Writing is hard work. Finding time to write is hard. And then writing something that’s good enough one wants to submit it? Also difficult. These small pubs are not Poetry Magazine or The New Yorker.  But they still reach people. And because my poetry is almost exclusively about social justice, the publication of my work makes me feel like perhaps some distant reader might be spurred to find a cause of their own, make time for it, and run with it.

The nonet

I’ve been buried by rough drafts of persuasive essays this week, so I’m behind in the poetry writing challenge I’ve been writing about. I’m working to get caught up because I really like the idea of ending the month with 30 new poems.

Bam! That is some serious productivity for me!

One of the recent posts I missed featured the nonet, and the word of inspiration was “cousins.” The form itself gave me a fun idea to play around with, but cousins…meh.

Instead, I wrote about a spontaneous trip with a hostel-mate to Buenaventura, Colombia.

Buenaventura

I took a leap and rode off with him
to the coast, where fish still had eyes
on our dinner plates. It was
brash and risky, but I
felt so free, like I
was diving in
without fear
and no
net

It was fun to incorporate the form name into the poem while playing around with coastal/water-related themes, but perhaps it’s just too cute?