All summer I’ve been riding my bike. At first, I felt guilty, taking a ride in the middle of the day, but then I decided there’s no time for guilty feelings, not with all the other bad feelings competing for time in my head, so I just go for a ride and say that it’s part of my process.
This summer hasn’t turned out to be the joyful free-for-all a lot of us hoped it would be, and with the Delta variant surge, somehow things are scarier than ever. But when I am out on my bike, I get 45 minutes of thinking and feeling time, listening to my music on shuffle, mostly riding along Portland’s Johnson Creek on the Springwater Corridor.
Since COVID anxiety has come roaring back, I’ve spent most of the ride reveling in something I usually take for granted — smell.
Smell is a subtle sense. It’s always listed alongside sight and hearing and taste and touch but doesn’t seem so important. Maybe if COVID made people unable to see or hear or feel a hot stove it would be harder for the deniers to write it off. It’s just your smell (and taste, too) that you could lose, so what’s the fuss all about?
Out on the bike trail, when you breathe in, it feels important though. The blackberries are ripe, some too ripe, and the idea, when you smell that sweet, August scent, that you might never smell it again, makes it sweeter but also, that idea is crushing.
On the day it rained for the first time in 51 days, the drizzle amplified the smells of the trail. Two charred patches that burned earlier this summer seemed to smoke, sizzle and pop again and the blackberries … it felt like swimming through a warm blackberry pie.
More than any other sense, smell is a time machine. I smell the berries and I can taste the pie my dad made from foraged blackberries that we picked in an alley in Eugene when I was 6 years old.
When I think about COVID, which is constantly, I don’t want to die from it and I don’t want anyone I know to die. I don’t want a lung transplant, and I don’t want ongoing physical problems for the rest of my life. But also? I don’t want to lose those surprise time trips or the moments of just being in it, smelling the wildflowers all around you.
We are all going to die. That’s just one of the lessons COVID keeps hammering home. But taking the time to be in the world as it is, in this moment, in the late summer, with a hazy sky and the smell of overripe berries giving way to the smell of sewage giving way to the smell of smoke giving way to the smell of ripe tomatoes, is one way to be alive right now.
It’s a privilege, I know, that I have the time to ride my bike, that I have a bike, that I have a body that can ride a bike and safe place to do it. But almost all of us can go outside or open a window. So pick yourself up, open a portal to the outdoors and breathe in. Smell the air, if you still can, or feel the breeze on your face. For now, at least, you’re alive.