Four years ago yesterday I smashed the windshield of an oncoming car with the back of my skull. I broke my pelvis, tore the tendons and ligaments in my left knee, and lost my sense of smell. I don’t remember much about the following weeks. Or months, really. I went from working in the kitchen of a restaurant, on the eve of beginning culinary school, to recovering on a bed in my mother’s living room, enveloped by a haze of pain killers and depression.
This year, yesterday, I baked a cake. It was a simple butter cake. I used brown sugar and eggs, cinnamon and baking soda and flour. I poured it in a pan and I nestled a few neat rows of deep purple plums, cut in half, on top. I popped it in the oven, and when it came out into the kitchen a half hour later the whole room smelled sweet and warm, like fruit and caramel and autumn. A deep purple, nutty brown autumn.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how lucky I am. I lost my sense of smell in a car accident four years ago. With it vanished my ability to taste and my plans to be a chef. But since then, it has slowly returned. It has returned in a curious and fantastic manner, one that ignites wonder almost every day. In fact now, after all these years of thinking and stressing and working on it, I think I can smell better than I ever did before.
I’m lucky because I experienced a traumatic accident, terrified my family and could have died. I could have lost so much more. But I didn’t. I’m here. I’m writing a book about smell and all that it means. The experience, in fact, has given me more than it ever took away. If I lost anything, it was the sense of immortality that at age 22 I really felt was mine. I lost some naivety, and the tendency to ignore the small things in life.
I baked that plum cake in the kitchen of a large, wood-planked house in Woodstock, New York. I’m here for the month of September, quietly tucked away in a small studio to write. There are nine others on the property —writers, painters and composers—all doing the same as part of a residency program up in the hills. It’s so quiet at night I can hear the crickets. I can hear water trickling from down the road. It gets so dark that the moon illuminates the trees, shimmering through the leaves like diamonds, and it’s not hard to imagine all sorts of ghosts waiting just behind the creek.