Fear of Submerged Spaces

Assignment: Write a description of a place where you would feel trapped.

I’m not claustrophobic. Not really. The dictionary definition of claustrophobia is “an abnormal dread of being in closed or narrow spaces.” Medical definitions usually stipulate a condition that the fear stems from a perception that there is no way out, so it isn’t just a fear of small spaces, but a fear of being unable to escape. It would be logical for any individual to experience such feelings in certain situations, such as solitary confinement or being locked in a room without a key, but people with an anxiety disorder characterized by claustrophobia may experience such sensations in places like elevators, airplanes, or windowless rooms. Very often the feeling leads to a panic attack. Claustrophobia can thus be a very debilitating condition.

By the above definition, I do not have claustrophobia. What I have is a perfectly rational aversion to being confined.

I have no problem with elevators, even small ones. I’ve been in closed closets without incident. I am not concerned by tents, small cabins on boats, airplanes, or even crawlspaces filled with spiderwebs, dead mice, loose insulation, and leg cramps. But I have always been averse to certain types of spaces, particularly those that make me feel confined. Like submarines, for example.

One summer, my mother and sister and I visited the Submarine Force Museum in Groton, Connecticut. Admission to the museum included a live tour of the USS Nautilus, which was, according to the museum’s web site, “the world’s first nuclear powered vessel, first ship to go to the North Pole, and first submarine to journey ‘20,000 Leagues under the sea.’“ By any measure, this is a submarine worthy of exploration.

The USS Nautilus is an attack-class submarine, 320 feet long, with a 28 foot beam.  This seems pretty big if you imagine a 28-foot wide football field. But fill that space up with machinery, bunks, a galley, dining facilities, lavatories, instrumentation, control systems, ballast, fuel and water tanks, and a crew of 105, and the squeeze is on.

On the day of our visit, the boat was tied up a dozen feet from a jetty, in shallow water, connected to shore by a sturdy gangplank and thick mooring lines. There was no possibility that it would suddenly take off, or sink, or implode. Plenty of museum personnel were on hand to make sure visitors entered and exited safely and encountered no danger while aboard.

My mother and sister were eager to take the tour, and joined the line at the end of the gangplank.  To their surprise, I demurred. My mother, with her bad knees, bad hip, and bad heart, went on that boat and took the tour, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I don’t know why, I just didn’t want to go down there. This was the first time in my life that I had turned down an opportunity to board a boat.

Perhaps it was the movies that did me in. I have never liked movies that take place on submarines. The ubiquitous red lighting, the curved walls, the pinging and clanging, the oval doorways that must be ducked under and stepped over, bunks that are barely as wide as a man’s shoulders – it all adds up to an overwhelming sensation of confinement. And I imagine it smells pretty bad, too.

All in all, I’d rather be somewhere with elbow room, fresh air, rain, windows, sunrises and sunsets. But I’m not claustrophobic.

Gail Hunn ©2013

Why I Would Be a Terrible Crime Scene Witness

Assignment: Write about how you remember things.
(The original assignment was to write about why I remember things. I chose to write about how I remember them.)

Memory is an odd thing. Highly subjective, intensely personal, how we remember something can be as individual as what we remember. Science tells us that memory is closely linked to certain senses, like smell. Simply smelling a fragrance can trigger a memory. I know this is true because there is one odor that always sends me back to …not a particular time, nor a particular place, but to the way that time and place made me feel.

pelicans on pilings

Pelicans on pilings.

Creosote. I love that smell. Not because it is particularly pleasant, but because when I close my eyes with the scent of creosote in my nostrils, I am transported to a time and place where I was on or near a boat. Not a particular time and place, but any time when I was in a marina on a hot summer day, as the sun cooked the creosote-soaked pilings and wafted the aroma past my nose. The smell of creosote invades my ears with the sounds of seagulls honking, and halyards snapping on masts, and water lapping the bottoms of boats, and flip-flops flapping down the dock. It brings to my eyes the sight of my father sitting in the cockpit, pulling Maryland crabs from a greasy paper bag, using his pocket knife to dig the meat from the shell, dipping the meat in the melted butter and popping it into his mouth. Creosote evokes the feel of the wind and sun on my face as the old boat moves through the waves, the gentle rolling motion a lullaby, the slight vibration a caress.

Now, whether I’m walking along a railroad track or driving behind a roofing truck with a trailer of hot tar, the smell of creosote transports me back to those summer days when I felt so alive, so peaceful, so unencumbered.

But not all of my memories are related to smell. Many of the things I remember from childhood are associated with strong feelings. Embarrassment, loss, anger, love, joy, fear, pride, hurt. If I examine any of my strongest memories, I find at least one of these emotions behind it. Like sitting on a piling and finding myself covered with ants (fear, pain), then running to the group of women at the end of the dock and throwing my arms around my tall red-haired mother (comfort), only to look up and see that it wasn’t my mother at all (horror), and all the women laughing at the silly kid who can’t pick her own mom out of a crowd (embarrassment). Another emotion comes as I remember the moment: amusement.

In movies, people remember things as a movie: with clarity and detail they recall faces, dialogue, events. Most of my memories tend to be a series of impressions, tableaux, or snapshots, that fit together like one of those flipbooks that are sold in museum gift shops. I don’t know if the memories are in black and white, or if the color is absent simply because it didn’t register at the time. Occasionally a memory will feature a particular color because that color had some significance to the event itself, like the color of the dresses on the bridesmaids at a wedding.

While all of my memories are impressionistic, some are more vivid, and contain more detail, than others, like the time my father and I were stuck on the boat in Cara Cove during a bad storm. Or my mother’s birthday in 1963, when I came home from school and found her standing at the ironing board with tears running down her face, absently pushing the iron back and forth over the same spot, as she watched the events of President Kennedy’s assassination unfold on the TV.

But, generally speaking, my memories of childhood are sketchy. Unless an event had some profound significance in my life, or an unusual influence on my behavior or choices, most memories are severely edited and thrown, uncatalogued, into the dusty attic of my mind.

Gail Hunn ©2013

The Nose Knows What the Nose Likes

Assignment: Write at least 100 words about something you love to smell.

If you were to ask my nose, it would tell you that there is no better smell in the world than vanilla. Except maybe basil. Or lemon. or orange, or grapefruit, or almost any citrus. Each of these scents makes my nose twitch with delight.

Why am I so attracted to these vegetative odors? Is it that they actually smell edible? Or that they are so crisp, so clean, so unassuming, that what you smell is what you get? There are no layers upon layers of complexity to these fine natural bouquets. No lofty top note floating above a sultry bottom note. No manufactured mystery to confound the nasal receptors. Lemon is just lemon, basil offers no pretense, vanilla needs no explanation. These aromas whisper: “We were not made in a laboratory, but grew in the sunshine and the rain. We are simple and clean. We will nourish you.”

My soul is indeed nourished by these fragrances. A mere whiff of one induces me to inhale more deeply, to cleanse my nostrils of less inviting scents. I involuntarily close my eyes, the better to isolate and enjoy the experience. And now, I have induced myself to go and find a lemon to sniff.

Gail Hunn ©2013

The Chill is Gone

Assignment: Write at least 100 words about a piece of clothing

The air blowing out of the coal stove is cool, despite the red glow from within. No matter. The old serape folded across the chair warms my back, as it has done for three decades. As I pull the material tighter around my shoulders, I remember purchasing the serape from a booth in a farmer’s market for ten dollars. It was one of the first purchases I made with money I earned at my first job. I returned to the market several times after that to purchase a few more, in different patterns. I still have them all, save one I gave to my sister.

Made of acrylic, the serape is as warm as wool. But softer than wool. Somehow, it has never lost its smooth feel, never pilled the way most woven fabrics eventually do. It is made of two rectangular pieces, sewn together for half their length. The stiched half goes against the back, and the two free ends are pulled over the shoulder and crossed in the front.

As warm as it is, the serape is useful only when sitting or walking. It is impractical when cooking, or washing dishes, or playing the violin. It has no fastening, and so flops about with movement and gets in the way. But when the coal stove is blowing cool air over me as I type on a cold Winter’s evening, it is perfect for warming my back.

Gail Hunn ©2013