Those of you who still come by now and then will have noticed it’s been very quiet around here. Things slowed down last spring and summer and then this past August they came to complete stop. It took me longer to quiet down on Facebook, but I’ve been almost completely absent over there, too. (Though very present, for reasons I’ll explain, on Twitter.) Once I stopped posting I found it very difficult to resume. I even considered taking down the blog altogether.
But as soon as I let myself imagine quitting I began to have ideas for blog posts and other ways I wanted to continue communicating with you all, so I’m clearly not done over here. I do think, though, that the way I use this space is going to change, and I want to see if I can explain a bit about how and why and to say something about where I’ve been and where I’m going.
Here she is, as my editor said in her little note to me, freshly attired and coming to a bookstore (or website) near you on June 25th. I loved my hardback cover. It was striking and fresh. But the paperback cover, by designer Olga Grlic, makes me want to use words like elegant, and sumptuous. I would love to see it peeking out of someone’s beach bag, or airplane carry-on. It says: Go on. Take me into the bathtub.
I never loved The Wind in the Willows as a child. My version was abridged in the same way that many children’s copies are–it left out two chapters about Rat and Mole* and put the emphasis squarely on Toad, who baffled and frightened me. This year I picked it up again and I can’t seem to put it down. I still don’t understand Toad’s appeal, but I love Rat and Mole and their friendship with all my heart, and I have a definite crush on Badger, whose varsity sweater (as imagined above by Robert Ingpen) I’d like to borrow and never give back.
What I love best about the book, more than any one character or adventure, is the peculiar yearning sweetness of its tone. It’s a story that’s about longing and restlessness and fear as much as it is about friendship and gentleness. There’s a constant tension in the stories between risk and retreat, adventure and comfort. Toad is on the far end of the risk spectrum, happy-go-lucky, greedy for new experience, chaos personified. Mole is a homebody, worried and nervous, but just as often full of surprise and delight to find himself capable of traveling in a wider world. (And now you know which sort of animal I am most of the time.)
The passage I noticed for the first time today, and want to share with you here, is a moment when Mole is reminded–sharply, poignantly–of the home he leaves behind at the beginning of the book. He and Rat and have been on the road for some time. It’s pitch dark and they are
I’ve been under the weather for the past week with one of those awful colds that are going around (please everyone, rest up, wash your hands a lot and take your Vitamin C) so I haven’t been doing a lot of writing or smelling, but I’ve been doing plenty of reading. I first read Jeanette Winterson’s The Passion nearly ten years ago. I was dazzled, seduced–then disaffected. I wanted my literature to have a firm grip on the world’s pain and Winterson’s beautiful surfaces and playfulness struck me as cheating, somehow. Or maybe I just felt foolish for liking them so much…
I returned to The Passion this week because I’ve been thinking a lot about fairy tales–why and how we tell them, and what our modern versions look like. I feel differently about dazzle now, and this time around The Passion‘s gorgeous magic struck me as a poignant, necessary counterpart to the equally unbelievable extremes of war.
This time last year I was just beginning to send out advance review copies of Coming to My Senses to friends and family–to the people, that is, who were in the book or intimately connected to the world of perfume bloggers and collectors that meant so much to me.
I was nervous about it. Very nervous. For example, I brought a couple of copies home for my parents over Christmas. (Two! So they wouldn’t have to share!) My chicken-out plan had been to leave them behind to find after I was gone. But that seemed silly once I was there, so I bucked up and put them under the tree. Three hours later I became violently ill with the stomach flu and spent the rest of the vacation throwing up or asleep. Coincidence? (True, half the town had the same illness, but still.)
I spent so much time worrying that I was truly unprepared for the wave of help, goodwill, generosity and understanding that washed over me as the book began to circulate. I was completely undone by gratitude. A year later, I still am. Of all the things that happened in 2012 I think that’s the thing that will have changed me the most, the thing I’ll remember best as I go forward into the open field of this year with all its uncertainty and promise.
I wish all of you a Happy New Year. May all your fresh starts come to fruition, and may you find the luck, love, courage and beauty you need–and a little extra to give away.
P.S. In the background of the photo you can see the scrubby little plant that is my Osmanthus (Sweet Olive) tree/shrub. We’ve had freezing temps lately so I brought it inside. It has rewarded me by perfuming the living room with the most incredible waves of sweet apricot and fine leather scent. Half the time when I smell it I think it’s my perfume and then I remember…
First published in 1977, architect Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language is an odd, ambitious, humorous, deeply humane project rooted in a late 1960′s sense of possibility–the kind of thing it’s hard to imagine anyone attempting now. Alexander and his team spent years researching and observing the ways people most love to live and shelter themselves–the spaces and paths we bend toward even when we’re thwarted along the way. Then they tried to offer these up as replicable pieces or “patterns.” The book moves from macro to micro: a pattern can be large and fairly abstract (“Magic of the City,” “Identifiable Neighborhood,” “Old People Everywhere,”) or very small and specific (“Windows Which Open Wide,” “Seat Spots,” “Pools of Light”). The result is a book that is part manifesto, part practical handbook, part lyric meditation. It is both a dream of a better world and directions on how to build one, a single piece at a time.
I love all of Elizabeth’s posts, but my favorites are her Nosy Interviews. The concept is simple but powerful. Drawing from a pool of people that includes writers, artists, teachers, social workers and more, Elizabeth asks two questions: What do you smell like? What do you like to smell? The answers are sensuous, funny, poignant and often startlingly intimate. I always learn something. Browsing through the archives today, I discovered the heads of babies smell like potato chips, what it’s like to discover one has synaesthesia, and (with some trepidation) what the pleasures of an “extra, extra scent-free” space are for someone with severe allergies. This summer, when Nosy Girl interviewed Arielle Weinberg (who makes me laugh every single time she posts over on The Scents of Self) I learned about the scent of man rays. As if all that weren’t enough, Elizabeth asks her interviewees to submit a photo of themselves, preferably in profile (she wants to see your nose, people) so she can put them up in the stars.
I’m very excited to report that today it’s my turn. I’m up in the Cygnus Clouds with my favorite raspberry lipstick on, talking about the scent of scrumptiousness, midnight shadows, ferry boats and the beautiful cacophony of smells on a New York street, among other things. I hope you’ll drop by, tell me what you think, and take a look at Elizabeth’s archives while you’re there.
Image: Photo of me, by me. Collage created by Elizabeth Ames Staudt. Full credit for photo of star clouds on Elizabeth’s blog and at the Cygnus Clouds link.
I sort of fell off a cliff after that last post. Or, more truthfully, I began pacing back and forth at the edge of a cliff, taking measurements, biting my nails and making guesses about what will happen if I jump, trying to decide if I need more courage or more common sense–all the usual push-pull that happens when I’m thinking about a new project but not quite committed yet. It’s an absorbing, nerve-wracking process. I forget things. I lose time. I lost a whole day this week. It was only when my husband showed no signs of leaving for work that I realized, to my dismay, that it was Saturday, not Friday. And since I’m thinking all the time about something I can’t talk about yet, I have a tendency to get quiet.
But I can say this: among the many, many things that no one told me about writing is that every time you stretch toward a new beginning you have to change a little–sometimes a lot. You have to become the person who can do the work. You write the story, but it writes you, too. If that sounds spooky and a little magical, well, it is. But it’s an everyday kind of magic, like planting a garden, cooking a meal, or collecting stones and shells from a beach.
I’ve been amazed and overwhelmed by the response to my post on the perfume and art debate. The comments–including those that never made it on to the blog–were so rich and thoughtful it took me an extra day just to read and respond. Thank you all. My main aim was to broaden the conversation and I think we’ve made an excellent start. A few thoughts about our exchanges before we move on (for now):
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Is perfume art? Could it be? Or is it something else: a craft, a commercial product, an ornament, a luxury, a prosthetic, an aphrodisiac, a love letter, a prayer, a con? Why does it matter?
Until recently, these kinds of questions rarely made it out of the perfume world. The exceptions–stories about professional provocateurs, like Sissel Tolaas, who captured the scent of fear, or Christophe Laudamiel, who created scents for the world economic forum at Davos and put on a scent opera–suggested perfume is considered art only when it escapes the beauty counter and begins to look and smell like something barely recognizable as perfume.
But, as many of you already know, thanks to “The Art of Scent 1889-2012″ now on exhibit through February at New York’s Museum of Art and Design, the is-perfume-art discussion is having a mainstream moment. Today I’m using this space (A lot of it. I apologize in advance for the un-bloggish length of this post.) to outline a few broad points that I think have been missing from that conversation. I’m aware that this level of perfume geekery may not be of general interest. Do come back on Monday for those long-promised cocktails if it’s not.