Because the most real things are not very real at all.
The half-marathon victory pint, circa 2018.
There is a part of you that is unchanging, no matter the years, existing outside the material. Yet your inner world is channeled through the outer one, and past and future flow perpetually through the present moment.
This is the power of sense memory: the things we see, hear, taste, touch and smell tether us to the now. In a way, they’re the only tangible things we ever experience. As real as your waking world may seem, it’s actually just a model built by your brain, constructed using sensory information. Building blocks of lines, dots, colors, flavors, textures, aromas, notes, and tones are received from your environment and assembled in higher-level areas to create the larger wholes that we’ve collectively defined, such as faces and animals, subjects and objects—even the concepts of self and others.
These sensory experiences occur in the present, yet they are portals to places, people, feelings, and times, transporting that eternal you-ness all over the bendy spectrum of space-time. When you bite into a crisp, raw green bean, suddenly you’re back in your grandmother’s garden, plucking with tiny fingers from clambering vines, and the experience is as real as it was back then—which is to say, not very real at all. When it happened, it was a projection that the model in your brain constructed based on a few raw sensory details, and it’s the same thing that’s happening now; the taste of the earth, crunch of the casing, and lungful of petrichor are enough for your mind to fill in the gaps.
With a mouthful of caramelly, bready malt and the cheery warmth that follows from your belly upwards, your brain sketches in the details of that cozy corner pub you stumbled upon one crisp, late-autumn London evening. The scent of hot humus mixed with cigarette smoke and grill-char snaps you back to a Texas morning of menacing temperatures. Even places you’ve never been morphically resonate when earthy cumin, floral saffron, and bright cardamom conjure collective memories of Kolkata’s crowded streets, vendors’ savory scents wafting from every alley.
Even more primal spaces than memory can be accessed through the senses, too. Raw emotions carefully buried by our conscious minds are so easily pried loose by a bite, a scent, or a few well-placed notes. Every time I hear those first raw chords of “King of Carrot Flowers, Pt. One,” its bare strings strum my limbic system and I’m back in freshman year of college, the infinite matrix of potential mistakes unfolding before me: guts churning, pulse quickening, all of me clutched in anticipatory dread, because for new things to begin, others must end. It’s a feeling I’m becoming reacquainted with, as healing exposes and reopens once paved-over paths.
A cavalcade of sense memories poured over me last week when I attended the soft opening of Stoup Brewing Kenmore: the new taproom and restaurant that joins some of the best things from Ballard. It brings together my favorite brewery with the team behind Bastille, the beloved French bistro and bar that morphed into something different during the pandemic. It was a night of new beginnings for both Stoup and my family, and these are both exciting and terrifying; your brain hasn’t yet built a model, which means anything is possible.
Stoup has been the backdrop for many of my fresh starts. The first time I attended an LGBTQIA+ event as an openly queer person, it was held in their brewery, a Double IPA sweating like my palms in the summer sun. My first half-marathon, on a drizzly fall day, was celebrated with a pint of roasty Robust Porter. When my friend and I started a cheese-pairing pop-up, Stoup co-hosted our celebratory inaugural event. The smell of sweet fermenting grain on a cold, bright morning still takes me back to “Beer Barre,” taught by a friend whose Meetup groups and fitness classes became my social world when I had to start my whole life over.
Even my first beer byline was telling Stoup’s story; three years later, the first piece I published on Eater Seattle was about their new space. All of it, a victory over the voice in my head that’s been playing an endless loop of you can’t my whole life.
So many chances not taken, opportunities given and turned down. I always had some cynical explanation, but the truth is, I was scared, the perpetual kid who couldn’t leave home. To give it all and find it lacking was my greatest fear, so I didn’t even try, and spent my whole life wondering what could have been. I lost myself in the sensory, draining bottles and sucking smoke; I clutched desperately to others, frantically searching their eyes in the hopes I’d find myself. It didn’t work, of course, but I don’t blame that kid for trying; given the circumstances, it couldn’t have turned out any other way.
For the negative narrative is also a product of your brain’s model: the prediction machine that builds your outer world also builds your inner one, using the sensory data coming in to construct familiar thoughts and trigger time-tested behaviors. Just like the green bean can transport you to the sun-dappled memory of grandma’s garden, a few choice sensations can take you right back to your father telling you that nothing you do is good enough. But the beauty is that this, too, is just a projection, no more real than it was back then. As spiritual and consciousness guides Rob and Trace Bell say, both memories of the past and fears about the future are simply thoughts you’re having in the now.
And the now can be changed.
Sometimes that means you have to break the model. There are a number of ways to do this (which a forthcoming piece will address at length). The ego-softening effect of a pint; the soul-stirring of a flavorful meal; the interdimensional portal opened by gazing into an Impressionist landscape; a few well-plucked strings; meditation and yoga; and the psychedelic superhighway all can redirect you, bringing you back to the only place where anything ever happens.
See it. Taste it. Feel it.
This is happening.
And it’s happening