Some say the eyes are the window to the soul. But I wonder if the nose has it.
I love our puppy’s hazel-and-light-brown eyes. They have an old-soul quality that I point out to my son. Oliver’s ability to make a stick of butter vanish from the back of the kitchen counter is further evidence of his connection with deeper realms.
My son would have none of it. “No,” he said.
“Why not?” I asked. He walked away as if giving reasons was for 4th graders.
But I wasn’t done. I got curious about how Oliver could smell butter. My nostrils and yours have a single pipe both for air coming in and air going out. As we sniff at something, the air we inhale mixes with the air we exhale. This works okay, but the signal gets noisy.
Gurus tell us that being in the present is everything. Dogs do this with the engineering of their nostrils or nares. Each has a small wing on the side, and each wing has a slit underneath it. Oliver and many other animals can exhale old air out through the main nostril opening while separating that from incoming fresh air, which they take in through that slit.
That’s not even my favorite part. When I look straight at Oliver’s snout, those wings on the nostrils give them the shape of heavily lidded eyes gazing back. They give me an impression of an old, wise soul sitting in meditation. Below those lidded eyes is the philtrum, that vertical crease of the snout. Squint a little, and it takes the shape of a nose with a mouth underneath. Try it at home — I bet you can see the old soul in your best friend.
This time, when I showed him, my son said I was onto something.
Dads see things others miss. My dad would often tell the story of how I found God on my 10th birthday.
He meant it as a joke. He and my mom are atheists. But I feel he was more right than either of us knew at the time.
When I turned 10, my parents took me to Montréal for the weekend. I saw my first baseball game. The Reds, helmed by Pete Rose, beat the Expos 2–1 at Olympic Stadium. I also rode my first roller coaster.
At 131 feet high, Le Monstre (“The Monster”) is the tallest two-track wooden coaster in the world. My parents are into books and botanical gardens more than games and rides, and my dad has a fear of heights. So while I enjoyed our visit to the Montréal Botanical Garden, I was grateful when my dad offered to ride Le Monstre at my side.
All through the line at the ride, I teased him. “Look how tall it is,” I laughed. “You’re going to be so scared.”
After half an hour of this, we reached the head of the line and stepped into our car. The bar harness, the type that allows you to float over the hill, is locked into place. We inched up the first hill. I could hear gears under the track ratchet our car up to that first drop. Click. Click. Click.
As each click brought us closer to the top, I realized something. This was a two-seat car. My dad and his fear were only one of the occupants.
We came over the crest. The car plunged over that first hard drop. Any sense of having a past or a future fell away. And in that tiny hinge between them, I felt only terror.
“Oh. My. god. Oh my god. Oh my god.” My dad forgot his nerves and held his arms over me in comfort as I screamed “Oh my god” for the next minute, or maybe it was an eternity.
As we disembarked and met my mom, he smiled. He told my mom then, and many times since, about how his son found God.
With any dad story, meanings emerge over time. I’ve thought often in recent years of the emotion I had up at 131 feet up on that rickety wooden monstrosity. The thrill of being alive and at this moment — no other. The powerlessness to do anything to slow the passage of time, the ride of life, and the experience ahead. To have nothing to do but surrender to the moment. To choose to believe that despite the overwhelm of my senses as I dropped to the Earth at 60 miles per hour, the person who stepped onto that ride was enough.
Leaving work last Friday, I felt like I was starting to get the hang of my new job. I’m picking up how to navigate the State House and how to track an issue. I texted a buddy at home to share. He texted back, “Can you fix healthcare?”
“If only,” I thought. I began to feel jaded about the scope of our problems and the obstacles we face. “Besides,” I thought, “doesn’t he know I’m on the Corrections committee, not Healthcare?”
And just like that, I was back at the top of Le Monstre. The ground dropped out, and I was hanging in the air, in overwhelm, with no God or anything to light my path.
Archimedes told his friends in ancient Greece that he could move the Earth with a lever if only he had the right place to stand. While this quip ends up in textbooks that illustrate the mechanical advantage of a long lever, it’s useless. Where in outer space is Archimedes going to stand? What about a fulcrum?
Then I look again at Oliver’s snout. His olfactory sense, and indeed his entire being, sits on the fulcrum between the outgoing air of the past and the incoming air of the present.
One sniff at a time, he works at sensing butter. One sniff at a time, I work at sensing the future of Vermont.