Lilac Blossoms

A friend has asked me to meditate on an interesting question, well phrased,

“What is the origin of originality?”

As I prepare to look into this question with all its implications presented afresh by the inclusion of origin within originality opening up fresh avenues of inquiry, I’m led to go back over pieces I’ve worked touching on it, even as they don’t specifically answer it.

The first post in this series is this one, a short rumination on Lilac Blossoms that began for me last spring while their aroma skirted my deck overlooking a little back-cove of the salt-pond.

Lilac Blossoms

Lilacs, they bloom for two weeks out of fifty-two. During that time I try to drink in their fragrance as often and as deeply as I can. They have always held significance for me. One of my fondest memories of spring in Provincetown as a teenager is of the masses of Lilacs in town; and the mixture of liberation – spring, the end of the school year, the coming stretch of summer; and of desire – for their beauty, their color, their fragrance, the paired masses of florets redolent of sweet adolescent perfume like an ideal bosom – sublimation and symbol of a guiding imperative in those years, and beyond….

These fragile, pale-violet blossoms – deep violet also, white ones always seemed… cheated. – have carried heavy burdens for me since those days. Nostalgia, an aching evanescence of what they are and all they represent for me; was there in full in these early memories. Perhaps because most of what mattered to me back then had that same quality; a sense that I was experiencing them, not only afresh; but with the weight of all my imminent potential they seemed to have carried within themselves; so that each actual experience was more than could be borne with so much left to discover leading off ahead into my unknown future.

Add to this the power of scent to directly link emotion and memory, and so deeply that each instance holds both the present and all its past iterations, compressed into a perennial, emotional present. Smelling Lilacs has always felt portentous and weighty to me; combining a desire to connect with the past with a desire not to miss this transient moment of the present.

Smelling a flower. It sounds easy enough, but an attempt to smell a flower opens us to realms of sensory function and even quantum mechanics. What is the best way to experience their fragrance? The ideal might be a chance breeze engulfing you in their aroma and then, in a flicker of turbulence, moving on. Their smell enters your being spontaneously, emotions rise unbidden. The moment passes with the glory, the lightness of grace.

This ideal may occur a few fleeting, accidental times a year? One begins to reckon how many of these moments of grace one might reasonably expect in a lifetime. And how many are left?… Even without deliberate quantification, the resulting opportunities appear to be too few, and one’s rush to know how many might remain is replaced by the need to bury such knowledge out of a fear of delving too deeply into the workings of Fate closing the door to curiosity.

One is left with desire, and desire knows no bounds, and desire does not wish to be limited by grace. I try to resist, to avoid situations that lead to a confrontation with the source of this dilemma, but when I do confront a Lilac in bloom, I do not hesitate. I bury my nose between its lobes. The result is always the same, both rewarding and self-limiting. I am flooded by an olfactory moment, visual proximity – even touch, a light brush of petals against my cheek. But then, my sense of smell quickly, too quickly, becomes saturated. In a fraction of a second my perception peaks and is drowned out, as my sensory system is flooded by a single, singular, excitant and is overwhelmed. After that first inhalation, its smell has already become a memory somewhere behind the physical sensation of irritation, of pollen scratching on nasal membranes. A second sniff becomes wholly an act of will, enacted against expectation, resulting in ever more limited returns.

While smell is instantaneous, triggering memories that outlast it, vision works differently. A flood of color and shape and form persists, creating a poetry of imagery that long outlasts the experience. An aroma cannot be recalled directly. As with pain, it does not persist as itself in memory, but only through the associations it develops. As with pain, these accrue beyond our control. Associations follow their trigger as they will and we cannot resist. Visual imagery is different.

There is an immediate involuntary recall, when on closing our eyes we are struck by a vivid imprint on our visual field, startling and exact. Beyond that, even before that, begins a long process in which an actual image, either before us, or lingering in memory, attaches itself to other images; layering into an ineffable, yet vivid composite sensation. It is possible to call this up at will at times, through a certain indirection; an oblique attack that allows us to glimpse an image of what is no longer there.

This experience is somewhere between the unmediated immediacy of an uncontrollable olfactory memory, and totally mediated memories of signs and symbols that arrange themselves in such a way so as to create a string of imagery and association that can, to an astonishing degree, be both repeatable and communicable, between writer and reader, and then on to other readers and writers.

Beyond the sensory, there are perceptual mechanisms involved in smelling Lilacs that hint at the underlying effervescence of reality itself. In speaking of reality, we are limited to our perceptions and understanding of what might actually be occurring, but all that is truly beyond our perception and understanding is so perfectly hidden from us as to be beyond existence as we experience it. This limits all our discussion of what reality might include to what we can perceive, tempered by what we can imagine or understand. This has impacts even on our experiences of Lilacs. Perception and observation always have an impact on what we consider as real.

At sub-atomic scales, if we intrude, attempting to measure the location or velocity of a particle; we introduce uncertainty and end up – as we force an answer to one of these questions – never knowing the answer to the other forever entangled in uncertainty. At greater scales, if our intrusion is not equally as gross in proportion to what we are observing, we settle into a realm of probability that can be taken, for all practical purposes, as a working certainty. But only so long as our intrusion is not proportionate in scale to
the one we attempted sub-atomically. Force such an intrusive measurement at any scale and uncertainty and chaos results.

With Lilacs, smelling them on the breeze amounts to a gentle intrusion; and we can marvel at all that is gained. Force your face into its blossoms and the results hint at what was there, even as that perception withers into unreality and spins into chaos; even as it brings us closer to an intimation of our own mortality as we ask ourselves, “How many more times?”

It is also bringing us a hint of the froth of which our reality is ultimately constructed. The limitations of our sensory apparatus, along with our limitations of observation and inquiry lead us to a deeper understanding of that point, precisely because of how they break down. An intriguing subliminal imagery of the froth of potentiality, uncertainty and quirky determinacy bubbles up and dissipates in our minds at the thought of it.

The persistence of this understanding, its dissemination, is then made possible by the quantum fizz taking place within our own heads. As we put words into juxtaposition, with some reasonable expectation that others may decipher our intention as they replay our constructions, calling forth similar resonances within their own consciousness; we function in much the same way as the universe itself as it creates the reality we strive to take in. This last thought hits us like the scent of a Lilac. It is powerful, pregnant and dizzying in its implications of things not yet unraveled. It draws us to it and then repels by its intensity. We marvel at its mystery as well as at its implications. Our desire, as with the Lilac, to hold it, keep it, control it; is thwarted – as it must be.

Lilacs bloom for such a short time and they carry such a weight on their fragile blooms, in their bold, yet evanescent aroma….

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