My mother used to get The Christophers newsletter in the mail, which enabled her to harangue me at least once a month with a print copy of their watchword in hand: “It is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.” I’m better at cursing. Cursing darkness right now might even be useful, even if not so useful as candle-lighting. COVID-19 might give us an opportunity to practice both.
I haven’t been able to smell or taste for two weeks. I know this is not that big a deal, not when people are dying in emergency rooms; being unable to taste is not like being unable to breathe. But admitting to this symptom of the new virus now is like admitting one has tested positive. It reveals a kind of fellowship with people who end up in emergency rooms, and also with others who are probably infected but have been unable to get a test. I learned this after Googling “sudden loss of smell and taste” and found these were telltale signs in people otherwise asymptomatic. In fact, I did have some other symptoms. I had fatigue, a dry cough, a sore throat. For a few days, coinciding with frequent news stories about healthy forty-somethings who ended up intubated after contracting COVID-19, I cringed and wondered whether that would happen to me. Each day I tested myself with things I know have scents: mustard (nothing), vinegar (nothing), bleach (nothing), cinnamon (nothing), coffee (nothing), ammonia (I felt it but did not smell it).
My other symptoms eventually went away. But I still have anosmia, the inability to smell, and its sidekick ageusia, the inability to taste. Not being able to smell or taste does not harm one’s health immediately. It could hurt me, indirectly, if I drank milk gone sour because I didn’t smell spoilage. Or if my daughter were not home to yell, “Is something burning?” when I forgot the cast-iron pan I left seasoning on the stove. Or if gas leaks.
Before I noticed loss of taste and smell, we were pretty much in quarantine anyway. But without smell and taste I feel marooned. I don’t smell the dog, the shampoo in the shower, the toothpaste, the heat coming on. I can’t taste coffee, only bitterness. I wonder why I should eat at all if I can’t taste. Why not make anosmia and ageusia a virtue? Why not turn it into a help to fasting or weight loss? On some days inability to taste my food makes me eat more, as I try thing after thing in case the next one has flavor. I boss myself like a picky toddler. Eat it because you feel hungry. Eat it because that food has nourishment to make your body grow strong. Like others, I felt Lent get abruptly more rigorous this year. But I can’t claim any gain from my self-denial. Incapacity rather than volition stays the appetite.