Are you selling your senses short?

Tonight I was looking through some amazing photographs by George Holz, his artistic attempt to capture the various senses in his images.

It is a subject that strikes a chord in me. I was raised by a woman who was legally blind, and over time, I came to see her disability not so much for the particular sense that she was missing, but for the one she was able to create to compensate.

She would close her eyes and tell me what she saw – in the dead of winter, amazing gardens with flowers of such extraordinary colors and tiny creatures so detailed that I could scarcely get my mind around her descriptions. Each spring, she would grow them in her little yard on First North in Fort Dodge too, though she never really saw them. She would listen to her beloved Yankees’ games, and describe the whipping sinew and oak, driving the ball in a beautifully spinning arc into an clamoring throng of colorful folk residing in the lower deck.

To this day, I can’t watch a ball game on TV without thinking that how she saw it was so much better – without ever seeing it at all.

There was a lovely young woman, completely blind, who performed in the Buena Vista University music programs not long ago. As I watched one of their choir concerts this past year, I was enthralled.

Using a cane, and sensing her fellow performers around her, she climbed the risers, a daring task in itself. The only one in the room who could not see her conductor, she never missed a beat.

After a time, I was able to sort her voice out from the scores of others. It was strong and clear, and had some indescribable depth to it – a joy, a feeling that the music she sang also sang to her. To Rachel, it seemed, they were not notes to be read on paper, but emotions. It was almost as if you could see what she felt, through her voice.

Another day, I watched a young area athlete who happened to be deaf practice with the her volleyball team. I imagined she would be at a severe disadvantage – hearing no service whistle, none of the strategic shouts from teammates or coaches; not even able to capture the resounding smack of flesh against rubber.

Taking some time, however, I realized that she in fact created for herself an advantage. She didn’t wait for sound, she saw the court as no one else could, anticipated every subtle motion to meet every ball.

It strikes me that in fact, our senses are a form of art, which can be savored in a talented New York artist’s photographs, or in the equally dramatic living form of human art. Time, misfortune, accident of birth can rob us of some sensory skills, but not necessarily of our will to find other ways to feel and celebrate life, drawing from a wellspring somewhere inside us that most of us will never know exists.

Imagine yourself without each of the senses. Can you?

The vision – without it, what would we know? Would we know ourselves as well without ever seeing our own faces? Could we detect the subtle messages that speak within a smile? How would we process the memories of what we have never seen?

Who have you loved? Really loved … to the extent that years later, you can remember every their subtle scar and how you had wondered what had hurt them … every shade within their eyes that no one else could get to. Where inside us is the unused ability to process a world we cannot see? Could that be the soul?

The hearing – our very bodies are built to respond to the vibrations of sound, like tuning forks, as mysterious and wonderful as the moon driving the ocean’s waves. What if you could never hear someone telling you they love you, never experience the blast of fireworks, the rush of waves on a lake, the ring of your father’s laugh, the voice of a mother singing a low lullaby, or the happy gurgle of your own baby?

Touch – isn’t it what we miss the most dearly in those we have loved and lost? A touch is a person’s signature – protective or romantic, rugged or feathery, it speaks of the character and mood of those who we know best. It is not a sense we are likely to lose, but one we often fail to fully utilize and appreciate while we have the chance. We won’t lose our physical sense of touch, but we will lose too many of those who have touched us, and miss it dearly.

Smell – I’ve had people try to explain how they can smell rain in the air, with a soft summer squall soon proving them dead on. Perhaps you can recognize the smell of a loved one’s hair or skin – or, unfortunately, pick the olfactory fingerprint of a certain little loved one’s diaper out of a whole room full of little someones. Someday, walk the Rue Saint-Honore, Carnaby Street, Bourbon Street, Duval Street or ride the subway below Times Square and try to sort out the impossible tangle of smells of an old, bustling city. I think smell is our most underused sense, perhaps because its moments are so fleeting … people move on, flowers die … how many smells are a part of your journal of memories?

Taste – is there any more numbing feeling than when a slobberknocker of a cold wipes away this sense from you? It is our gift of gratification – be it a fattening cone of ice cream or a cherry Chapstick kiss. A professor once told me never to trust a women who does not eat with passion, and while I’m not sure I totally understand that yet, it seems like fair enough advice.

Our unique senses partly define who we are – and yet, in people who have to be without, in the process of creating a compensation, they in a way become something more of themselves.

I did not inherit my mother’s skill for painting unseen vision in colorful brush strokes of words. Nor do I have any artistic skills to create a visionary sensory exhibit like the artist I just perused tonight. I’m afraid it isn’t in me.

A challenge

What I can do, however, is to challenge you. Today, if for only one day, use your senses as you never have before.

See more deeply into the shadow and the light and the eyes of your loved ones and file the views away to keep forever.

Hear the music, in a song, or in nature, or in the breathing of a baby. Listen hard – it is there in places we usually miss.

Touch someone who needs it. Feel the nerve ends fire like a Ferrari engine. And when you are touched by someone who matters, preserve the feeling for the fine art it is – so thoroughly that you would be able to describe the feeling to me 50 years from now.

Smell, and I’m not talking about the local animal confinements. Breathe deep, of dirt and sky and water and skin, and test yourself to see what you can learn of it all.

Taste. If a kiss isn’t available, I recommend Paul Newman’s Sockarooni pasta sauce, which is nearly as damn good.

For years and years, I used to wish my mother could see. Now, I only wish I could see as clearly as she.

Dana Larsen is editor of the Pilot Tribune in Storm Lakes and a former staff writer at The Messenger.