19 December 2010

the smell of December mornings

I have this new morning ritual to keep me on my toes, feet, brain, whatever. I try to write something raw as prompted by passages from the book I'm reading lately called A Natural History of the Senses. I termed this prompt-writing exercise as "The Ackerman Prompts" after its author Diane Ackerman. It's an old book, published n 1990 but the writing and content is blowing my mind! I should have read this a long time ago.

The reason why I started this activity is because every so often, I catch myself stopping from reading a
nd my mind wanders off and entertains thoughts that are nice to jot down. Yes, I get inspired to write that way sometimes. So here we go.

I usually get the passage that prompted me to write and then go straight to my writing. This one particular piece I want to share here, as raw as it is. Feel free to comment.

Buckets of light
One of the real tests of writers, especially poets, is how well they write about smells. If they can’t describe the scent of sanctity in a church, can you trust them to describe the suburbs of the heart? (p. 18)

The gall of the mass(es)

How do I write of a smell I do not want remembered, especially since the memories that it triggers harks me back to some of the happiest days of my childhood, happy days which would eventually turn sour as I get older, and thus harking back to them overrides their ability to invoke happiness?

Yes, my thought processes are complicated like that.

But still, we try.


It’s funny that I wake up now at an hour or so after sunrise. I am not a morning person. Never was.
Until maybe I transferred to this place, this new abode of mine, one I am keeping for keeps, hopefully, for good. That, or maybe my body clock changes as I grow old. I’ll theorize about that more some other time.

As my senses slowly take charge of me, my window catches a glimpse of the changing hues of the horizon, from dark to light, but it’s not sunshine that really wakes me up, especially during this time of the year – it’s the smell. The smell of early morning, like cool moss, misty dew, some light heaviness in the atmosphere brought about by the December cold, traveling into the air, carried by clouds, traveling down through mist and fog. This year, though, there seems to be no mist to accompany the smell of December mornings. Climate change, anyone?

I wake up at aroun
d six in the morning, sometimes a few minutes earlier, sometimes a few minutes later. Sometimes it’s still dark, sometimes the cracking of dawn syncs with the opening of my eyes. It differs. But the smell is constant. These kinds of smells in the morning remind me of mornings I have had before, during Decembers, too, with my grandmother, my paternal lola, and a whole bunch of people, making their way to church and coming from church at the wee hours of nine December mornings, leading up to the birthday of this baby deity we revere here.

At age seven, eight or nine, I remember being dragged to hear mass at these ungodly hours. My face was still buried in my favorite white pillow, the small one swiped by my Lola from the country’s airline carrier. Its logo was embroidered at the bottom corner of the pillowcase and I loved smelling it, maybe because I love the smell of crispy clean sheets, or once-crispy clean sheets, pillowcases included. Or maybe because one day, I wanted to ride it as it would take me to places I never imagined going. And it did, but that’s another memory recall.

Getting up was a struggle for me to attend misa de gallo, the early morning mass, that leads up to C
hristmas, but since Lola was a devout Catholic, we practically had no choice. I was dragged to hear mass, sleepyhead that I was, and perhaps it was the smell of the early December mornings that somehow stimulated me to wake up. That, and the smell of native delicacies sold during this time of the year on the street sidewalks – bibingka and puto bumbong.

Bibingka is a round but somewhat flat bread, usually colored yellow. One could think that this is a Filipino distant relative of the pancake, but I think its ingredients are more complicated than its wester
n kin. It is usually cooked on round earthenware, the surface of which is covered with fresh banana leaves, and then placed atop another earthenware contraption that houses the hot charcoal that cooks it. Thus, when the bibingka is cooked, the banana leaves form part of its package at the bottom. I’m not sure if it’s made of rice or flour, but its smell reminds me of bakery smells nonetheless.

The smell of bread baking, any type of bread, always brings me back to my childhood, since this is an aroma I smell from the ovens of our neighborhood street bakery or served on the breakfast table. The smell of bibingka does the same thing for me, that yellow-colored smell of rice or flour mixing with the fresh green scent of the banana leaves, and the semi-sweet smell of the coconut shavings that come with it, along with the small slab of butter or margarine on it, take your dairy pick, and that whole aromatic package permeating the coolness and coldness of our December mornings. That, there, is the smell of December for me, the smell of upcoming Christmas, the smell of a happy childhood.

But as the years went by, the aromatic package changed over time. As I turned my back on the religion that once brainwashed me, I turned my back on that ritual that hypnotized near-zombie masses into waking up and going through the motions of that designated ungodly hour ritual. As the knowledge of capitalism also crept into my being, I also dislodged from celebrating this ritual we call Christmas and stopped associating December mornings with that holiday. But that’s another slab of discourse altogether. Some other time. And o
f course, I grew up and moved out, never again smelling the lovely smells of neighborhood bakeries since I now live a few floors above streets. Bibingka is now more mass manufactured and I can get my fix, if I wanted to, at the nearest mall that says they got it all for you, but the bibingka there smells different than the ones prepared over earthenware and banana leaves. Imagine a microwave and tin foil. It smells now of technology, not food. Ah, the smell of progress.

And so, what is left? The smell of December mornings. The smell of early morning, like cool moss, misty dew, some light heaviness in the atmosphere brought about by the December cold, traveling into the air, carried by clouds, traveling down through mist and fog. This year, no mist and fog. But still, it smells like December morning. Without the rituals. Without the aroma of bibingka. Without the holiday commercialism. Without early memories. Just new ones.

I can live with that.


I’m not sure if I achieved the challenge that prompted me to write about December morning smells, but at least I tried.

It’s just funny to realize that I might be more visual than anything, since what I distinctly remember from those early morning December masses, more than the smell of bibingka and misty dew actually, is an image, this one particular recycled paper made to carry the bibingka we buy from the street vendors. Image over smell.

Before one mass, we passed by to place our order so we could avoid the after-mass madness of bibingka buying.

The nice lady vendor asked for my name. “Sige, isang bibingka. Ano’ng pangalan mo, hija?”

“Libay po,” I answered while handing her the payment.

She smiled. “Sige, pagkatapos ng misa, daanan mo na lang.”

I nodded. “Thank you po.”

After the mass, I went up to her and picked up my order. She handed it to me with a smile. But when I looked closely at the label on the recycled paper bag, I laughed and showed my Lola how the lady vendor spelled my name: it said “Lhivhy.”

Ah, the spelling of my name, and how it gets massacred from time to time, is another story yet to be told.

Some other time.

(19dec2010 sun)

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