Due to construction on the Western Theological Seminary campus, getting into my office has provided some daily doses of excitement this fall. Finding the correct pathway or entrance has occasionally been part of it, just as the ever-changing scenery of both holes in the dirt and subsequent piles of dirt have kept me curious. I’ve been astonished by the amount of water that can be properly “de-watered” from a basement site, evidenced by nonstop gushing into the drain that I’ve passed by for more than two months now. But, it has been the machinery that has really flipped a switch. There, in the crisp, early morning air, with the low grumbly sound of trucks and backhoes running, I am regularly overcome by the exhaust. Each time I walk through those heavy, almost tangy clouds of big machine exhaust, I am transported to Santiago, Chile.
In the fall of my junior year of college, I studied abroad in Chile for the semester. Though it was July when we arrived, it was winter, and it was cold. We first stayed in a hotel downtown for a few days of Orientation. It was my first time to leave the United States, and my first time in such a large city. In the mornings, I would walk along the main street outside the hotel with my roommates. I remember trying to understand the exchange rate by looking at small items for sale, watches and candy bars and the like. I was rather lost. We tried some puffy, yellow pastries one morning, but they didn’t taste very familiar or all that comforting in my adrift state. Overall, the most pervasive memory I have of this time is in my nose, and in my gut. In my nose, it is a smell that I associate primarily with cold, early mornings in a city. It is all exhaust. Cloying and metallic, the ripeness of so many cars and busses all going places but still everywhere, all around me. In my gut, there is the innervating feel of newness, the feel of being in a foreign place that I chose to go to and cannot leave. It is the unknown about to unfold. It is anxiousness and awesomeness all rolled into one. And then that memory, that is in my nose and my gut, quickly sweeps me back to another time and place, to Bair Middle School in Sunrise, Florida.
It is still the dark hours of morning as my mom drops me off in the Bair Middle parking lot. There is a line of tour busses pulled up along the curb where three hours later we were usually loitering around waiting for the first bell. This morning, though, we were headed to Disney World and the busses were running and ready. There is the exhaust, again, powerful in the cool morning air. Climbing aboard the bus fills my shy, quiet self with awe and trepidation all the way down to my gut, anticipating the day ahead. Even inside the bus it smelled of engines running, churning and waiting all at the same time. And it smelled like candy, the fruity, tart smell of Skittles and gummy things, Runts, Now and Laters, and Blow Pops. My gut was fascinated by the awareness that this wasn’t the normal time to be smelling busses, or candy for that matter, and yet there I was with goosebumps from both the chill of the morning and the thrill of what might come.
Most any time that I walk through a cloud of exhaust on a cool, early morning, I find myself spirited off and deposited on the misty, exhaust-laden city streets of Santiago. I’m eating a pastry or looking at trinket-y watches, and I’m feeling absurd and unclear about what will come next. That memory is just a quick hop-skip over to Florida and an unruly group of sugared up teens, anxious and awaiting an all day trip to Disney World. How is it that a memory can be so close to our noses, and how can it dive so quickly down into our quivery, uncertain guts? How many days this fall have I walked into my office at the seminary while my memory trips up the tread of the bus steps or lingers on the wide, bleary sidewalks of Santiago? It is remarkable, what memory can do for us.
We are on the verge of Advent, a season that, for many of us, is filled with all sorts of prompts and triggers (maybe even smells) that point us to Christmas and a messiah in a manger. Doesn’t the church calendar have such a nice way of directing our thinking and our doing in such a way that we end up in the right place time and again? Maybe the coming Advent season can be for us something so very distinct and familiar that it presses down into our guts. Perhaps this year if we let the vividness of Advent really capture us, we will know that anxious, longing feeling that Advent is all about. Let’s now turn our eyes to the season and see where it takes us.
Katy Sundararajan is the Th.M. Program Administrator and International Student Advisor at Western Theological Seminary.