I have not often seen this written about, and I don’t know why it happens, but from time to time I am travelling either by bike or on foot, and I am transported completely to an experience of “being” in another country. The trigger seems to be usually olfactory – the smell of the air, or a combination of a smell and the light, or occasionally the light and the temperature. Very occasionally it is just the sight of something, but those “transportations” do not last very long. I used to experience it a lot whilst cycling between my house in Bradwell and the school I worked at in Grange Farm. I would be biking along and suddenly I was in Holland – the air, the light, the scent on the wind – all my senses told me I was in the Netherlands. Sometimes I am “transported” to places that I have not been to, and only read about, but such has been the power of the imagination deriving from whatever it was I read that I am immediately assaulted by sensations, smells, light subtleties that are triggered, probably, from my own imagination. For a while the sensation was of being in western Canada – perhaps the pines growing alongside the A5 on my journey acted as a trigger.
This morning I had an episode of this transportation that lasted almost all the way from my house to Milton Keynes hospital (the hospital of course has its own way of bringing you back to reality). The light, the low sun, the beautiful blueness of the sky and the coldness of the air on my skin while I cycled – and I was, suddenly and without warning, in the US. And nothing I looked at, nothing I could consider, would shake the sensation of being not in Milton Keynes but in rural America. The landscape of our city is of course very beautiful and handsomely crafted, but today the trees and shrubs, pathways and buildings, were not the same ones I have cycled past a thousand times.
The Dutch and the Danish experiences are somehow the most vivid, and in those cases I think it is the smell of the air. Even sitting in my house, in my upstairs office this afternoon, looking out of the window at the rain, took me immediately to Wales.
I do not understand this at all, but when it happens, it is one of my headiest and most beautiful experiences. It makes me long to be in the country that has “manifested itself” to me. This morning, cycling down V6 toward the hospital turn near St Paul’s, the sensation was almost addictive.
The strong olfactory impact of childhood smells is well known and documented, and for me, the strongest remains the smell of pipe-smoke that takes me back to a small terrace in Catton, near Hexham, where my granddad and gran used to live.
We are fearfully made, and wonderfully too. Evolutionary psychologists will have some sort of explanation for this, but I would tentatively advance something else. There is a multi-dimensionality about our human experience. We do not live only in 3D, but live our lives in the intersection of the heavens (as the bible calls them) and the earthly reality. Both realities overlap, and there are, as the Celtic church understood, thin spaces where heaven is made manifest. Time and space bend in such a dispensation and I live my life, as do we all, in this flexible arrangement of dimensions. What we see, and what we experience, depends to an extent on how much we long for that which we seek. I think that the accompanying experience of desire to be in the country I am imagining myself in may be important. Often there is a homesickness for the imagined country that accompanies my “transportation.”
In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, CS Lewis has a wonderful insight, which the film of the book completely misses. As Edmund and Lucy and Eustace and Caspian head for the western seas (Lewis’ allegory for the country of the heavenly places), they find themselves getting stronger, fitter, able to cope with the overpowering western light more, aware of the reality of Aslan, more aware of the power of being his followers. I did not really see the significance of this when I first read this at age 9 (I think!), but now, and in the light of this curious repetition of “transportations,” I am less and less worried by the interpenetration of heaven and earth that Dallas Willard taught and wrote about for a long time. This interpenetration of heaven and earth is vital to our spiritual wellbeing. It is what enables us to “live the life of the kingdom,” or as Willard puts it, “live the eternal kind of life.” Jamie Smith spoke to us last month about “People [who] long for a transcendent experience of the divine that they cannot control.”
I have no idea whether these olfactory-driven experiences of mine are anything to do with this, or just a set of sense-driven triggers acting upon old memories in my hippocampus. But either way, they are a source of delight and wonder to me, and a reminder of my multi-dimensional self, and the glory, mystery and beauty of the God and King I adore.