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lilacs...a journey of the senses

In the spring and fall in Los Angeles the Jacaranda trees bloom.  When I moved here in late August, too many moons ago to count, I was taken aback by the brilliant deep bluish purple flowering tree.  I remember thinking what a curious sight it was and with amazement I would think to myself “only in California would they have purple trees!”  Years later I came to learn that for people who grew up here these flowering trees were signals of school’s beginning and end.  A childhood memory I did not share and never would.


A few weeks ago as I walked through the Brooklyn Botanical Garden with my kids (aka, grown men, aka Californians living in NY) we came upon some lilac trees.  I exclaimed to my son, as I took a deep whiff, that this smell reminded me of my childhood.  Having grown up in California, he didn’t have a memory of lilacs and didn’t remember ever seeing or smelling them.  The smell of these lilacs activated a visceral full body memory; it took me back to kindergarten, walking home from school, a fence, lilacs growing on the other side, blooms reaching out to touch me, bees buzzing, a pungent fragrance wafting through me as I walked past.


I remember hearing the song “Moonshadow” by Cat Stevens, in the car as my mother drove me to the doctor to repair the nose I broke when I fell off my bike. I was 5.  When I hear that song today, I see myself outside myself, sitting in the passenger seat of the car.  (I wonder if I was wearing a seatbelt?).  To this day, that song transports me to this other time and place, long ago and far away.


My yonger son danced in the Nutcracker every year for about 8 years.  Whenever I hear that familiar Tchaikovsky score my whole body is transported to the darkness backstage, standing in the wings of the Luckman Theater, to the raw fingers from sewing the boys into their costumes and elastics on ballet shoes. The overwhelm from spreadsheets of names and roles comes flooding back as does the sense of full body exhaustion that came at the end of Nutcracker Season (yep, there’s a 5th season - Fall, Spring, Summer, Nutcracker, and Winter).


A song, flavor, street, building, a piece of clothing, a color…creates rich temporal memories that call you home or back to a part of yourself perhaps you lost.  The smell of tangerines and cigars take me back to my grandfather’s car, I can still hear the creaky stairs of the house I lived in sophomore year of college, the smell my grandmother’s morning coffee, and taste the delicious onion ring I ate at the County fair on Cape Cod.   I can hear the opening of the can of Tab I drank with my Twixt bar snack when I worked my first grown up job at CVS, I can smell the chlorine from summer swim team practice – I was 12. 


There is something beautiful and incredibly powerful about how the lit-up senses ignite and preserve so much, bringing the past forward and the present backward in a vibrant infinity loop dance. 


It got me to thinking about how in so many moments of our lives, we just float along, sometimes even wishing the moments away and not tapping into our senses and missing the sights, sounds and flavors of it all.  What would be possible if instead we really savored the moments of our lives; took it all in with all our senses, slowing down, fully immersing, and observing?  How much richer and fuller might your life be if you leaned into your capacity to heighten your presence with all your senses in any (every) moment? What might be possible if you really took the time to notice the sounds, sights and smells and create deeply embedded beautiful memories of this magnificent life you are living?  What might you create if you lived in full body, conscious, present awareness.


As most of you know I am constantly looking at things as I traverse my world.  I capture what I see in photographs.  Each one has invisible sounds and smells hidden deep within that only the image and I share. 


Another thing I do as I walk through this world is listen to the music.  I find myself drawn to capturing music that is playing in a store, a coffee shop, a restaurant, tv show or movie.  I use these and create playlists that are musical stories and memories of my life.


I created a playlist during the 4-year expanse of my Leadership Program in Spain.  It is made up of songs that I captured when I was shopping in stores in Barcelona or Sitges Spain, that were fed to me by Spotify’s algorithm with themes of personal development, growth, and leadership, and those played by our leaders as part of the program or during breaks.  I have other playlists, like the songs I Shazamed from the car radio during Ted and my month long 30th Anniversary Trip to Spain and France.  Each time I listen to these, they transport me to special times and places and remind me who I was and help me see who I have become – someone living a life of exploration, growth, and courageous creative action. 


The lilac moment took me to a place of reflection and deep gratitude for the power of richly infused moments that paint the canvas of my life with vibrance and depth.  I believe that multi-sensory immersion in life, open awareness, deep observation, presence, and paying attention, is a deeply creative act.  


I’d like to invite you to engage all of your senses, get grounded, heighten your awareness and presence in each moment and notice what happens.  I bet you just might be inspired to create something from it?  A book, a work of art, a post, a playlist… and when you do, I hope you’ll share it!


Postscript: When I returned from NY I needed to re-fill our fridge.  I walked into Trader Joes and the first thing I saw was a bucket of French Lilacs.  They now sit majestically in my living room window deepening the experience of that moment in the botanical garden with those I love most dearly and creating new memories for tomorrow’s inspirations.

photo by Lynne Harris Bernstein



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