Associations

Blogging is narcissistic, but just for fun, I want to talk about associations.

There is a colleague of mine whose hair smells like apples. This matters because I once bought apple-scented shampoo from a grocery store I found somewhere in Pnom Penh, Cambodia while traveling alone for the first time. When I first got a whiff of her apple hair out here in Peru, I couldn’t place it. The memory it evoked was so vague that I couldn’t even tell if it was positive or negative. Just some distant sensation that I was blindly groping for in the back of my mind. Kind of like déjà vu, when you know you know something, when some strange flicker of a memory flashes in front of you, and then it’s gone.

But lucky for me, the apple scent was strong enough (or maybe the memory was strong enough?) that I was finally able to trace it back to Cambodia. The jungle. A weird feeling of displacement, disorientation, distance, but ultimately relief and exhilaration. At the risk of sounding creepy, I must admit I love when she passes by me and the scent follows. I love the mix of feelings that the simple scent invariably triggers.

But I guess that’s not that weird. Humans are animals, after all. And scents are not the only stimuli that stir up these kinds of visceral associations. I imagine that every time I hear a horrendous (yet secretly delightful) Nene Malo song in the future, I will be transported back to this place, for better or worse. I think about music’s power to affect us in this way all the time.

Sometimes I hear really well-written love songs and wish I had someone with whom I could associate them. Like “As Simple as This” by Jake Bugg, a 19-year-old no less. I wish I could hear that song and think back on someone who was my simple answer during some complicated time.

Not to get too personal, but I once loved a person for his character and thought that was enough to make him the one I should be with. We went and saw The Lumineers in a small bar in San Diego, (I won tickets on the radio) and I really wanted him to hear the song “The Dead Sea“. I wanted that to be the song I would associate him with. I imagined him hearing the song live and for the first time, and understanding immediately that it was written for us. That every word represented the mutual support we provided each other. I imagined him, such a strong man, reaching some kind of emotional epiphany and responding to it in the same way I did when I first heard it. But he took a work call right before “The Dead Sea” was played, and spent the duration of the song outside on his cellphone. To be fair, he has an important job that involves protecting people’s lives, but I remember standing alone in the dark on tip-toe trying to see the band as they sang, “You’ll never sink while you are with me,” and I realized he probably was not the one I should be with.

But that’s OK too. You can’t force associations. The best ones are those that are formed spontaneously. I love the unexpected way in which they sneak up on you and temporarily displace you when you are grounded in your current reality. Like the smell of artificial apples that stopped me in my tracks and carried me away for a moment. Temporary relief from the day-to-day that too often becomes banal without you even realizing it.