I wrote a short post on social media this year saying that Mother’s Day bothers me less than it used to.
In contrast, though, the anniversary of my mom’s death, on May 26, affects me more, and more deeply, every year, the farther I get away from it. This year, I’m 30 years away from it. I’m sure that a lot of the nature of my reaction is that I’m finally safe enough to feel, in my body, the overwhelming sadness and confusion of it, in a way that I couldn’t at 8 or 18 or 28.
So, in one sense, that’s great. That means I have a great life. That means I’m thriving. But it also means that I’ve been having panic attacks all week.
I’ve always been an extremely trusting (some might say gullible) person. I take things at face value; I believe what people tell me. I have believed it, for my whole life, when people tell me that I’m strong, that I’m brave, that I’m a big help to my family.
And yes, it’s true–I am strong, I am brave, and I am a big help to my family. But the new revelation to me is how much I needed to hear from someone, and never did, that things were not OK. A lot of things sucked, and were hard, and were sad. But because I never heard that, because I believed that I was supposed to be strong and brave and helpful, I experienced my own not-OKness as wrong, and therefore profoundly isolating. And, empathetic little sponge that I was, I also then felt responsible for trying to process and make everyone else’s not-OKness OK because…it was all supposed to be OK. All that processing has been exhausting for me. Trying to be nice and polite and not make anyone around me wrong takes an awful lot of effort.
And I get it, I do. Who wants to tell an eight year old whose mother just died, “hey, guess what? The bad things that are bad? They will continue to be bad.” But, all I can see now is how much that wish to save me pain in the moment has only postponed, prolonged, and obscured it.
Writer and tarot reader Angeliska Polacheck wrote a stunning blog post this Mother’s Day about her own experience as a motherless daughter. Our stories are quite divergent in many ways. I’ve never wanted to have children the way that she has; my dad never remarried, so I didn’t have the complexities of a stepmom relationship to negotiate; I know with absolute certainty how much my mother loved me. But so much more is remarkably similar–our mothers’ difficult labors, the young age at which we experienced that irrevocable loss, the bottomless pit of longing to be loved and resulting anxious attachment, the years of persistent effort that have gone into making sense of what’s true and what’s not in the tangle of memories that dictate how that lack has shaped us. I sobbed while reading her words the first time and have kept the post bookmarked for the past two weeks, just because I find it comforting to know that someone else out there knows what it’s been like to survive this, emotionally.
I do my best to comfort my friends who are losing their mothers now. I do my best to sit, and listen, and let them know that their not-OKness is OK. I try not to rush to spiritual or philosophical commentary or bullshit platitudes. I also know that I fail in this often. Because, what do I know about what it’s like to have had a genuine relationship, no matter how potentially fraught, with a mother? I’m hamstrung by the fact that my loss is a child’s loss, not an adult’s. My frame of reference is in growing up without that bond, not in having had it and then needing to remake my world without it.
My devastation is a major part of me. But I hate having to learn to live with it. I hate that I don’t get to be a shimmering rainbow of unicorn sparkles all the time, or a coolly detached scientist of emotions who sees and understands Human Feelings without needing to deal with them personally.
The other story that always sticks with me from the time that I spent with extended family in rural Indiana in the immediate aftermath of my mother’s death is that, one night, I fell asleep watching a movie with the other kids. I awoke to being carried up to bed by my dad’s cousin’s husband. Desperately embarrassed, I faked being asleep until he tucked me in, turned out the light, and left the room.
All I can see now is the kindness of it, how natural it would be for a father of two girls of his own to extend his care to poor, bereaved little me. The fact that this family had let me stay with them for however many days, cared for me, included me in their daily goings-on, attempted to give me some normalcy after the chaos of the previous days, all the while certainly managing their own grief, completely floors me with its generosity when I think about it now.
But at the time, I was obsessed with the idea that I needed to leave no trace of myself, and my human needs, behind me. Over the course of my mother’s cancer treatment and multiple hospital stays, I’d clearly internalized that the highest virtue, my greatest contribution to the family, was self-reliance. Not being tough enough to stay awake while watching a movie meant I was a failure, that I was vulnerable. I hated that I needed help doing something as simple as going to bed. I would have preferred to have been shaken awake and told to walk upstairs on my own.
When I was in clairvoyant training, I once explained to my classmates that the way I psychically visualized my own emotional range was like a piano with all the middle keys missing. My feelings were all the high tinkly notes and low boomy ones–not so much in a manic depressive or bipolar way, as that I didn’t really know how to live into my own everyday humanity. It’s a combination of denial, and repression, and profound embarrassment.
The tears and yowls and hiccuping sobs and red-faced keening that I’ve unleashed on my boyfriend in this week leading up to the 30th anniversary of my mother’s death have been unavoidably human and horrifyingly embarrassing. They are also the long held-back truth of my life. I am slowly, painfully, necessarily learning to be OK with my own not-OKness. I am slowly, painfully, necessarily learning to let myself be carried.
Leaving my office for a quick walk to get some fresh air and clear my head after lunch, I eschew my usual path, heading east on busy Chicago Avenue rather than north up relatively quiet Franklin. I don’t put my headphones on like I normally do. I cross the intersection at Wells. About half way up the next block, I see a man stumbling as he walks across the middle of the street. He raises his right foot to the curb but loses his balance and falls back into the street, flat, prone. Instinctively I call out, “can I give you a hand?!” and hear a guy’s voice a few paces behind me ask the same almost simultaneously.
I also hear my mother’s voice, in memory. I see her the way I saw her as a tiny child, opening the driver’s side door of our van while we’re stopped at a stoplight, yelling across the street to a man crossing on foot at the intersection, asking if he needs help. After a few moments, she ducks back into the vehicle and closes her door. “Why did you do that? Did you know him?” I ask. “He’s blind,” she says, her moral compass firm and direct.
The guy and I rush into the street and each grab one of the man’s hands. We help him to his feet and walk him slowly up onto the sidewalk and get him leaning, then sitting, against the wall of the building on the corner. A third man sees all this happening and approaches us, asking if he should call 911. While he does that, we ask the man if he’s OK, if he needs anything. He mumbles, and I can’t understand what he’s saying. I don’t know how to help. It’s cold, and I’m bundled in my overcoat, hat, scarf, and gloves; the man has a hoodie on underneath his jacket but no gloves. He’s wearing a Streetwise ID on a lanyard. His head slumps against his chest as he dozes off or passes out.
The man with the phone says 911 is sending a squad car to the scene, and I blanch inwardly a bit. It’s Chicago. I wish there were some other option available besides the cops. The first guy makes a move to keep going on his way, and, glancing back down at the man on the sidewalk before walking away, he sagely intones to me, “probably heroin.” I’m taken aback by this confident assumption. Maybe he knows more about drug symptoms than I do, and yes, there’s a methadone clinic up the street, but . . . to just jump right to that conclusion?
The man with the phone says he’s going to wait until the police arrive; I say that I’ll stand and wait with him too. A tall man walks past us and then turns around and looks down at the man on the sidewalk. “Adrian, is that you?” he asks, stooping down to flip over the Streetwise ID dangling at his midsection. “I know him,” he tells us, and we give a short narration of what happened. “Probably drunk,” the tall man shrugs and walks away.
The man with the phone and I make polite chit-chat as we scan Chicago Avenue for the arrival of the police cruiser. He asks if I’m a student at Moody Bible Institute; I say, no, that I work at an office down the street and was just out for a walk. He says he was doing the same. I don’t tell him that I actually recognize him from the train; I see him periodically getting off the brown line around the same time as I do in the morning. He says how not that long ago he and his wife had called 911 to report something happening in their neighborhood, but that by the time anyone drove up, it was quiet again. I’ve definitely called 911 before in response to noises that sounded like gunshots or other violent altercations, so I get it, I do, but the assumption that the police are automatically the right people to call when things go bump in the night is . . . complicated. His trust seems, yes, privileged, but also naïve, suburban. Which, I suppose, can be much the same thing. I benignly assent that, yes, sometimes the cops are overworked and can’t get to all their calls in a timely manner.
A young woman approaches us and asks, in a heavy accent, where a certain address is. He and I stammer a bit while we mentally orient ourselves on the grid, trying to figure out if it’s walkable or not, and which direction she should head in. “You should get on this bus,” the man instructs her as the 66 pulls up in front of us, into the spot where the man had tumbled just a few minutes earlier. The bus door opens and the woman shouts her question to the driver; she gets on and I can see them trying to communicate as the bus pulls off. “I think she’s gotta go all the way to, like, Ashland,” I say to the man with the phone, recalling the address that she was asking us about. “That’s way too far to walk from here, especially in the cold.”
We hear a siren in the distance, approaching rapidly. It speeds past and turns a corner a block west of us. A second cruiser blows a stoplight and turns to follow. Then a police van trundles by going in the other direction, driving past us as well. We nervously check the time, wondering if we’ve been blown off. The man is still sitting slumped against the wall, though he’s starting to stir and incoherently mumble again. Neither of us try to engage him, nor does he seem particularly aware of our presence. Another crowd gathers at the bus stop. Another bus pulls up to load them all on.
Finally we see a cop car slow down across the street from us. We wave to them and then they turn around and park in the bus stop. An older woman who’d been intermittently pacing the sidewalk in front of us suddenly stops and asks if we’ve seen her keys. I guess we seemed legitimate now that the police were approaching us.
The cops were both African American women and I felt a small twinge of relief, hopeful that they probably weren’t going to rough this guy up or otherwise unduly hassle him. I also wondered, though, about how they’re treated on the job. Does their supervisor send them out on calls like this that are perceived to be relatively unimportant? Do they get sent out to calls that need “a woman’s touch”?
The man with the phone immediately begins explaining to one of the cops what happened, and I stand by attentively to be sure he’s getting all the details right. The second cop approaches the man sitting on the ground, who by this time had pulled his hoodie up over his head. “Let me see your face, sir,” she asks him, with something like a sense of humor in her voice. Drunk or high as he was, he’s almost acting like a child.
Once we explain to the first officer what happened, and once it seems like I probably won’t be witnessing any human rights violations, the man and I start to walk our separate ways. I thank him for calling 911, he thanks me for sticking around. Genuinely, warmly. I wonder what the social contract between us will be when and if we ever notice each other on the train platform in the future.
“I love you too,” the second cop says back to the man on the ground, and I finally feel OK enough to walk away.
Heading out for a walk after lunch another day, I point myself in the direction of a raw food restaurant a couple blocks away from my office where I want to get something to drink. I leave my headphones off again. I cut down to Superior via Wells, and I feel sad that the old Howard Johnson diner has been knocked down and replaced by an enormous high rise. The last time I ate there was the Fourth of July in 2012 when Brian and I were on our way to see the first Magic Mike in the theater. I had a BLT with real B that day, because freedom. Now there’s gonna be some kind of smoothie place on the ground floor of the building, which, frankly, I’m not not looking forward to. I admit I’m fancy enough to get excited about convenient access to health food.
As I approach LaSalle, I see a line of people on the sidewalk waiting outside the Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago. I’m pretty sure they run a midday soup kitchen or food pantry there. I often see a line stretching around the corner when I’m out running errands on my lunch hour. I continue walking east on Superior toward Clark. I see two men walking toward me from the far end of the block, and a dude comes up behind me and zips past, continuing toward them at a much faster pace. As he gets to the end of the block, one of the men asks him something that I can’t hear, and the dude blatantly ignores them and continues walking. When I finally approach them, I smile. About a beat later, just as they’ve walked past me, one of them asks, “are you smiling at my husband or are you smiling at me?” I turn around and chirp, “I was smiling at you both!” The second man continues walking, but I can hear him laughing, which makes the man who called out to me laugh too.
“I don’t know why I said that,” he says to me, trying to pull himself together. “He’s laughing,” he says, looking back at his friend.
“And now you’re laughing too,” I say.
“All we need is a cigarette,” he implores me with a smile on his face.
“Oh, I don’t smoke,” I say lightly, as if it just occurred to me.
“Can I have a hug then?” he asks.
If I were in a worse mood, or if I’d felt threatened at all by the interaction, this would have become complicated. Could this be considered harassment? I realize I do feel slightly pressured not to say no, but I also don’t in any way feel endangered by the request. I wonder if I’m setting a bad precedent, allowing this guy to think he can just ask women on the street for hugs whenever he wants, like their physical affection and attention is owed to him. But also, I feel like, as a human, who asks for a hug unless they just really, really need a hug? And I am nothing if not an enthusiastic hugger. In the split second that it takes me to scan through that analysis mentally, I say, “of course” and reach up to wrap my arms around his shoulders.
“Good luck,” I say to him, in the neutral way I try to end most of my interactions with strangers who stop to ask me for directions or other information.
As we part, he shouts back one more time, “who do you think is going to win—the Bulls or the Bulls?”
Remembering my youthful pride at living in the suburbs of Chicago during Michael Jordan’s heyday, one of the only times in my life that I took any remote interest in sports, I call back, “the Bulls, of course!”
“Duh!” he shouts in response, slightly teasing my girlish affect.
I round the corner onto Clark, heading south, and see a guy who works in my building standing in the middle of the next intersection, leaning into the open window of a fancy car idling at the stoplight. “Congratulations!” he shouts in to driver and other passenger.
At the conclusion of Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, Samuel R. Delany writes,
Interclass contact conducted in a mode of good will is the locus of democracy as visible social drama, a drama that must be supported and sustained by political, education, medical, job, and cultural equality of opportunity if democracy is to mean to most people any more than an annual or quatra-annual visit to a voting booth; if democracy is to animate both infrastructure and superstructure. . . . It is not too much to say, then, that contact—interclass contact—is the lymphatic system of a democratic metropolis. . . . Contact fights the networking notion that the only “safe” friends we can ever have must be met through school, work, or preselected special interest groups: from gyms and health clubs to reading groups and volunteer work. Contact and its human rewards are fundamental to cosmopolitan culture, to its art and its literature, to its politics and its economics; to its quality of life.
I’ve often spoken about how I feel myself to be a committed city person, but lately I’ve felt ground down by urban life. Not because it’s dirty or because there’s no privacy or because it’s simply too much; because it’s become too clean and because people are too isolated and because certain areas are becoming too much the same. The building where my beloved Thai restaurant Panang used to be is now being converted into Flats apartments; fancy people at Whole Foods would rather avoid eye contact and literally reach around my physical body rather than acknowledging my existence and simply saying “excuse me” as they grab a box of gluten-free crackers.
The city is mutable; of course I know that and of course it has to be. But when I examine my heart for any patriotic impulse and can’t seem to find one, I find in its place a devotion to people. And I cling to an expectation that cities are the best and most reliable places where I can practice my devotion. When my ability to feel connected to the pulse of city life feels compromised for whatever reason, I feel not only concerned, but unmoored. And that’s what I find myself hungering for, as I launch myself back out into the city streets seeking to redress that lack and enjoy what remains.
The building that my boyfriend and I moved into a little over a year ago houses an incredibly tight-knit little community.
A bunch of the folks who live there have owned their condos for years, if not decades, and we’re lucky to rent our place from a lovely couple who live just a short distance away in a different building that’s more convenient for them. They and the other long-time residents have welcomed us with incredible openness and for that we are grateful.
One of their most beloved events is the yearly summer barbecue that’s held in the backyard. A couple of the residents are majorly talented and dedicated gardeners, so in addition to the backyard simply being a lovely place to sit for a few hours on a weekend afternoon, many of the dishes made to share invariably include fresh vegetables grown on the premises—kale for salads, a variety of pestos and caprese salads made with recently picked basil, etc. Everyone usually invites over a few friends and other neighbors from nearby buildings for a true community-style gathering.
This year, we met a couple, mostly in passing, who live just around the corner. “By the way,” one of our downstairs neighbors nudged us emphatically, “they sell honey made by the bees they keep in their yard. Some of the pollen they gather probably came from the plants in this garden. If you see the ‘for sale’ sign in their yard, just ring the bell and they’ll sell some to you.” Our eyes grew big and greedy in our heads and we nearly started salivating at the idea of this fabulous-sounding treat.
For what felt like weeks after, we’d find any excuse to walk past the couple’s magical little home, hoping to see the “honey for sale” sign in the yard, to no avail. We were worried we’d missed out on the surplus completely. But one particularly gorgeous Saturday afternoon, I was coming home from getting my hair cut, and even though my route back from the train didn’t take me past their house, I felt the intuitive pull to go out of my way. As usual, my intuition was right on the money—the elusive sign was out front at last. I even had extra cash in my purse left over from the amount I’d pulled out of the ATM earlier in order to tip my hair stylist.
Barbara met me at the door after I rang the bell and she offered me a choice of different size jars and a choice of creamed or liquid honey. I happily opted for the biggest possible jar of the creamed honey and practically threw my money at her, so happy was I that she was home, that we’d finally connected, and that she was keeping freaking bees in the first place.
“Guess what I just did!” I howled in triumph as I walked into my apartment, raising the golden jar over my head like a trophy for my boyfriend to admire. We instantly headed to the kitchen and set upon the jar with teaspoons. It was, quite literally, the best honey I’ve ever had in my life. It’s delicately floral in a way that I’d never tasted before, even with other local honeys that I’ve bought or tried from the farmers’ market. And of course there’s that indefinable something that flavored it even more subtly, considering that the bees who made it did probably visit our yard and garden on their flights of pollination and considering that I’d just shaken the (sticky) hand of the woman who helped make it all possible.
Y’all, I fucking love living in Rogers Park, if that’s not already abundantly apparent.
So, in the spirit of that local honey, I’m just gathering some bits of sweetness for you this month, hoping the combination of it all might add up to something similarly surprising and nourishing.
I subscribe to a lot of newsletters and I buy a lot of natural products, but I could probably easily eliminate most of them as long as I got to keep Kings Road Apothecary. The newsletter that shopkeeper Rebecca Altman sends out on the weekends is beautifully written and filled with keen insights and observations about the natural world and our relationship to it.
The products she creates—teas, tinctures, body oils, and whatnot—are a joy to use. Not to mention her monthly surprise boxes, based around a theme or specific ingredient, are one of the remaining subscription-style delivery services that I happily continue to spend money on on a regular basis. This stuff is the real deal—sustainably harvested, organic healing wisdom. I’m super nerdy about how much I love her stuff and everyone else I’ve ever introduced to her work has become similarly obsessed. Catch her on Instagram to start and allow yourself to become smitten.
Earlier this fall I started singing with the Chicago Artists Chorale, and I forgot how much my brain and ears change when I’m regularly reading music, singing in four (or more) part harmony, and following the guidance of a genius conductor (in this case, the inestimable Tom Vendafreddo). Recorded music always just sounds different after I’ve been in that choral headspace for a two-and-a-half-hour rehearsal, so when I’m taking the train home afterwards, I don’t want to squander that heightened aural sensitivity on the same old indie rock stuff I listen to most mornings on my commute to work. After a recent rehearsal, I decided to really sink my ears into local jazz guitarist John Moulder’s album Bifröst.
I must have listened to the title track at least two times in a row, if not three, and I’m usually not the type of person to put a song on repeat. It’s a stunning pas de deux between Moulder on electric guitar and Bendik Hofseth on tenor sax, which rides a tight groove for most of its eight minutes before exploding into an incredibly exciting freak-out at the end. Over the next few days, I kept demanding my boyfriend listen back to the track with me and help me pick apart all the technical nuances of what Moulder was playing. “Did you hear that? How did he do that dive bomb thing??” My ears keep craving the sonic intelligence of what they’re doing together. Fantastic stuff.
Whenever the weather starts to shift and the cooler temperatures start to blow in, I get excited about being able to reach for my dense, sweet, and warm perfumes again. In this kind of mood, sometimes I want my vanilla perfumes, sometimes amber, sometimes incense; right now, I want chocolate. An initial idle grab for my decant of Cadavre Exquis somehow turned into a full-blown chocolate obsession.
My Olympic Orchids scents are the first obvious ones I pull out: California Chocolate, Seattle Chocolate, and Cafe V. But Orto Parisi’s Boccanera got a rave compliment from my boss as I was walking past her desk. (I felt almost embarrassed to send her the link to the fragrance’s description on Lucky Scent’s website: “Boccanera means ‘dark mouth’ in Italian. Nature offers dark holes that express sensuality in an erotic dark way, and this fragrance is no exception.” Yikes!) Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab’s Centzon Totochtin is an old favorite that I’d nearly forgotten about, and Keith Urban’s Phoenix is a cheap thrill that always delights me. Haus of Gloi’s Dank Chocolate scented pumpkin body butter is an insanely rich treat after a shower or just before bed. Now I just need to order a new decant of Arquiste’s Anima Dulcis and I’ll be completely armed for a delicious smelling autumn.
For a long time, beginning in my teens, my signature smell was vanilla.
I’d read The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter for school and became obsessed with the detail that Mick Kelly would wear “a drop of vanilla” so that she would smell good in case she happened to run into John Singer.
I resolved to adopt this strategy immediately; lucky for me, vanilla perfumes had already started gaining popularity then in the early/mid-’90s, so I wouldn’t have to sneak into my family’s spice cabinet. In some way I’d hoped that the thick, rich, ambery scent of vanilla would advertise my cuteness, my sweetness, my fundamental harmlessness, while still conveying an indefinable allure. I wanted desperately to be loved and admired, without having to ask for it.
After a dalliance with the omnipresent Vanilla Fields, I became devoted to Victoria’s Secret Vanilla Lace scented body lotion. I wore the scent for years, until it was discontinued. The company briefly resuscitated it, after customer outcry, I believe, and though I tried to go back to it, the moment was over. I lived scentless for a little while, save for maybe a highly scented shower gel here or there.
For a variety of reasons, I managed not to date much throughout my twenties, but at a certain point I finally determined to have a bit of a spree to make up for lost time. The relationships, if you can call them that, were mostly light and short-term, though I eventually fell harder than expected for a long-haired artist named Jake. Most likely sensing my insta-intensity, he of course broke up with me after a little over a month. I was more crushed about it than I should have been; unreasonable expectations will do that. Knowing I could easily spiral into a dark, obsessive depression about it, I vowed to try to do something constructive with my mourning. I signed up for six weeks of sessions with a personal trainer, whom I ended up despising, and then also became obsessed with perfume. Specifically, at first, with Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab’s oils.
In the beginning of my new infatuation, simply reading about their scent descriptions and reviews was enough. (BPAL’s online catalog is extremely extensive and borderline confusing for a newcomer; it actually kind of invites a lot of reading/research to even understand what you’re getting into.) Then, of course, I wanted to try a few samples, telling myself I mostly wanted to find a substitute vanilla scent, one that would hopefully be a little more mature but still warm and sweet and sultry. I wanted to recapture the certainty that came with slathering myself in a signature scent every morning, while imperceptibly inching toward a more refined version of myself that I felt like I’d earned by becoming a Responsible Adult with a Grown-Up Job in a Big City. Even though nothing hit the exact spot I thought I was looking for, I was kind of surprised that it ended up not mattering. I loved ordering samples and playing around with the temporary personas I felt I magically inherited with each new fragrance.
For a long time, despite my scented attempts to tell a story about who I really was, I never actually felt like a solid person. I always was sort of waiting to connect with something external that would somehow solve the problem of my personhood for me. (In a recent reading with her, the wonderful astrologer Aeolian Heart chalked this up to my sun sign being in Aquarius on the cusp of Pisces, an astrological placement that she says is considered weak in terms of its ability to fully express an ego identity, but not in its abilities to study, contemplate, meditate, and investigate Mysteries.) A new activity or interest was always redolent with the promise that maybe some latent part of me would be activated in a way that would draw together the disparate parts of my life into a suddenly unified, cohesive whole that finally made sense.
This is partly, of course, the seduction of consumer capitalism, but I think it was also just an extension of the way I’d always felt obliged to make other people happy, always contorting myself into shapes that were meant to gain approval and approbation; if I was responsible for other people’s happiness, safety, and well-being, then surely someone or something was responsible for mine, right? No one ever really pointed out to me that there was maybe an overlap between the two—that it was possible to self-actualize in ways that would connect with and inspire other people’s own self-actualization in ways that weren’t so co-dependent.
At any rate, as I experimented with the temporary personas that arose from my smelling like, say, graveyard dirt, a burnt-out candle, a jewel-toned vase full of rotting flowers, or a strong cup of tea surrounded by sugar cookies, I realized I was also developing the more long-term persona of a Perfume Person. The message board connected to the main Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab site was frequented by other smell obsessives, and though I never developed the kind of deep friendships through that space that I know plenty of other people have, I enjoyed lurking and eavesdropping, especially on reviews of new scents that I hadn’t had a chance to try yet. The written descriptions of how strong the notes were, what emotions and flights of fancy they inspired, and how they were similar (or not) to other scents delighted my imagination and often evoked my writer’s envy.
Naturally, of course, I eventually stumbled upon Turin & Sanchez’s Perfumes: The A-Z Guide, which dealt with mainstream classics and niche perfumery. Aside from having known that my dad’s signature scent had been Eau Sauvage, I’d never really previously considered exploring, you know, actual perfume. Reading that book, though, led me to the decant sites like Surrender to Chance and The Perfumed Court and The Posh Peasant, where I could buy tiny samples of all these famous perfumes I was newly discovering, which then led me to the profusion of perfume review blogs, which led me to Alyssa Harad and Denyse Beaulieu’s books, which led me back to the decant sites, and on and on.
If I really became enamored of a particular scent, I would likely upgrade from a 1 ml decant to a 3 or 5 ml. But I instinctively shied away from full-bottle purchases. Full bottles were far too expensive, especially given that I knew my tastes would continue to be promiscuous and that I’d inevitably get bored before I had a chance to drain any of them. I was also suddenly scared of being tied down to one idea of myself. I wanted the permission to change who I was at the drop of the hat, as easily as I could spray on a new perfume every morning.
But even though the idea of finding a replacement signature scent had definitely fallen by the wayside, I found myself circling certain scent categories again and again—sweet scents of course, but also vetivers, cologne-y citruses, leathers, musks, incenses, and what I thought of as “grown-up lady” florals (the apotheosis of which, for me, was Neela Vermeire’s heavenly rose perfume Mohur . . . which is actually more of a gourmand scent anyway).
But then one category I would have never expected started dominating my preferences without my consciously realizing it: wet wood.
Yes, specifically wet-smelling wood scents.
I’m not joking—dry woods were often too screechy on me, and anything just straight-up aquatic was, of course, anathema after my teenage memories of the Cool Water and Aqua di Gio overdoses of the ’90s. But somehow the exact combination of wet wood drew me back to certain perfumes over and over again: Profumi del Forte’s Tirrenico, Byredo’s Encens Chembur, and Comme des Garcon’s Hinoki.
Hinoki was a recent find, so I feel like I know it the least well at this point. It’s fairly light, the way so many of the Comme des Garcons scents are on me, but surprisingly tenacious. It smells, not unpleasantly, of an unmistakably musty humidity, like it’s a stormy midsummer day and you’ve just come home to an un-air-conditioned house and made your way directly to the basement, where condensation is lightly stippling the grey-painted concrete walls and the wooden beams of the ceiling swell and creak with all the moisture in the air, where maybe the dusty old couch that’s been sitting down there forever exhales a cloud of sweet dust whenever anyone sinks into the cushions. I’m making it sound horribly creepy and claustrophobic and dank, but it’s incredibly light and comforting to me.
Encens Chembur, on the other hand, is much more spacious. Perfumer Ben Gorham’s ostensible inspiration for the scent was a park in India near where his mother grew up, and I’ve willingly let that description affect my perception of it. There is of course incense in it, but not in an overpowering way, like gales of smoke. It’s more like the ambient sweet spiciness that infuses the walls of your standard Indian buffet restaurant. Here the wet wood aspect is sweeter and warmer, like a sun-warmed dock extending out into a small lake, its continually soaked planks exhaling fresh dampness as the sun hits them, almost shaking the fragrance out of its very grain like an enthusiastic dog. For all its spaciousness and exuberance, though, it’s a soft scent on me that stays quietly close to my skin.
Tirrenico, though, is my absolute favorite. I first discovered it thanks to my subscription to beloved monthly perfume sample service Olfactif. I savored the small sample that came to me in the summer of 2014, and ordered a second smaller sample from Lucky Scent some time later, and then finally ponied up for a full bottle once it seemed like it was becoming more difficult to find online, for fear of its being discontinued and disappearing entirely. The initial blast is a bitter exhalation of licorice (or, if you really scrutinize it, more likely fennel). As the scent begins to evolve on my skin, it becomes downright briny—like oily, washed-up seaweed curlicuing along a desolate stretch of sandy beach. The bitterness eventually fades back enough to reveal, as befitting the scene, a creamy, bleached-out driftwood, as if the stumps are dotting the shoreline like wise old troll spirits, while salty mist dances fairy-like above it all. It’s the strongest of the three scents, with the most shifts and surprises. It’s an almost entirely different perfume by the end of the day, when the strong, dark chewiness of the opening is a distant memory and all I can smell are the fresh, open spaces between mineral-heavy stony cliffs.
I grew up a land-locked Midwesterner and have little to no experience with coastal life. But, I did spend many happy summers at my great-aunt and -uncle’s lake house in Michigan, and as a teenager I of course spent more than enough time in various musty basements of my various dirtbag friends, so I feel like my emotional entry point into these perfumes is mostly private, rather than performative.
It’s somewhat of a cliché these days to say, “I wear make-up for me!” or “I dress this way because I like it; I don’t care what other people think!” but perfume actually is one of the few areas of my life where I feel like I can get away with this kind of attitude. (People, I’ve worn Absolue Pour le Soir to my day job before. Not the best idea I’ve ever had in my life, but still—my perfume really and truly is for me.)
So I guess it only makes sense that I would gravitate so readily to these odd, atmospheric scents, as I continue to investigate the Mystery of my own selfhood, in true Aquarian fashion. In so many unexpected ways, I find that they in fact allow me access to the memories and emotions of the person I actually was during all those years I was attempting to hide my own odd, atmospheric weirdness in a cloud of misguidedly benign vanilla sweetness.
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As I’ve written about elsewhere, the summer that I graduated from Indiana University, I ended up staying in Bloomington a few months longer because I had the opportunity to housesit for two married professors who had gone out of town on a research trip.
I was mainly only responsible for feeding their two cats Bato and Santewa (whom my younger sister renamed Bono and Santana when she came to visit me for a few days), so, other than the few hours a week I spent working a temp gig in a storage facility on the edge of town helping the university catalog the contents of a newly acquired film archive, I had a lot of time left over to sit around and write in my journal.
Obviously, I had just completed the four years of my undergraduate degree (which the student loan center tells me I will finally be finished paying for by the end of 2016, at long last), so even though it’s my nature to think Big Thoughts about most changing phases of life, this felt even more momentous than usual. I had finally finished school! I was becoming an adult! I was entering the Real World! There was lots to journal about.
Of course, top of the list was figuring out what I was going to do, professionally, which in turn, I silently assumed was going to dictate who I was going to become. I had accidentally stumbled into a great internship the summer before while I was studying abroad in London, so I had a vague sense I should probably get another one that related more closely to . . . whatever it was I thought I wanted to be employed doing. Luckily at that point in 2001, there wasn’t quite the professional tyranny of the internship the way there is now, so even though I didn’t have anything lined up, it also didn’t really signal a career death knell the way it would if I were in that situation today.
I felt pretty confident that I might want to become a film critic—it combined two of my major loves, movies and writing—so I applied to the internship program at Entertainment Weekly magazine and they sort of halfheartedly wait-listed me, telling me I should be sure to stop by the office if I ever found myself in New York. This small bit of encouragement of course immediately precipitated my first-ever trip to Manhattan, which had been scheduled for something like September 22, 2001, but that’s another story for another time.
But in the course of my journaling about the shape my life might take going forward, one of the best and funniest things I ended up writing down for some insane reason was a list of all the things I would never do or be by the time I turned 21, since I had already blown past that milestone a year back.
I guess maybe I considered it some sort of gesture toward the process of elimination? Like, if I could just get out of my brain all the things I’d never do and never be, it might somehow help me discover all the things I could do and might be? I need to scrounge up that old notebook at some point to see what I actually put on the list, but as I recall it was mostly things with physical impossibilities—I’d never be a dancer or a gymnast or an athlete. But, I’d also never be precociously successful—I’d never release an album of immaculately wrought chamber pop to critical acclaim by the time I turned 21.
See, I’d recently become obsessed with Neil Hannon of the band The Divine Comedy, and I loved his album Liberation, which he released when he was 23, so much that I probably would have physically ingested it if I could have figured out a way to bake the CD into a pie. So this was definitely some sort of morosely self-deprecating reference to my regret that, despite the fact that I’d never written an original song in my life, I hadn’t managed to make any music as brilliant as his by that point (even if he has disowned the first-ever album he made when he was 20).
As I’ve said before, I have always had an obsession with simultaneity—wanting to know what someone was doing at the same time I was doing something else, somewhere else. But the dark side of what’s usually just a fun, friendly, getting-to-know-you kinda cocktail party conversation is when I start trying to measure myself against someone else’s life journey. I used to measure myself, emotionally, against my father’s life path, telling myself that if he could handle something challenging, then I should be able to handle it too. But I also used to do it, chronologically, with my mother.
I know it’s not uncommon for people who have lost a family member at a young age to feel the rest of their lives ticking along a secret clock counting down to the age their relative was when they passed away. My mom was only 31 when she died, so the chunk of time I had to work with was not only pretty small but also neatly coincided with the years that fucking everything feels most urgent and dramatic in a person’s life.
In high school, I wondered if I was destined to fall in love with a student teacher, the way my mom and dad had met and fallen in love through the theater department.
When I turned 19, I realized there was no way I was going to end up married young, like she had, seeing as how, after I’d broken up with my high school boyfriend, I wouldn’t end up dating anyone at all again (unbeknownst to me at that point) until my late 20s.
When I turned 23, I was extremely glad I was not giving birth to my first child.
But 30, though, I had a slightly tougher time with. For whatever reason, 31, the actual age that she was when she died, wasn’t that big a problem for me. But in the last few months of my 20s, leading up to my 30th birthday, I found myself jangling with nervousness.
It felt trivializing and banal when people tried to joke with me that I was just stressing the carefree end of my 20s, that it was a right of passage that everyone goes through when they realize they have to really get down to the business of making a life for themselves in their 30s. “Ha ha, yeah, I’m sure getting old!” I would meekly joke, while I had this goddamn countdown timer that no one else could see or hear, insistently reminding me of loss, and death, and irrevocable change, constantly buzzing just at the threshold of my awareness.
It’s not that I thought I was going to die too, necessarily. It’s more that I was scared that I wasn’t going to know how to live my life if I didn’t have someone to emulate.
When I finally turned 31 and there were no more of my mother’s milestones to measure myself against, I wish I could say I felt a tremendous surge of liberation. That I finally dropped into my body and into an awareness of my own life force, that I stepped out onto the street, reborn into my own wholeness, like at the end of Hedwig and the Angry Inch.
Though I may not have consciously felt it as a surge, it . . . actually kinda did happen, almost in spite of myself. I closed down the blog that I’d been keeping since my mid-20s that was initially designed as a way for me to pretend that I actually had become the film critic I’d aspired to be at 22. I went into training as a clairvoyant and joined a band and fell into an amazing romance. The past six years of my life have been beautiful and challenging and creatively fulfilling in ways that I never could have predicted if I were still trying to shoehorn my narrative into a sequel of my mother’s.
But, having just turned 37 a little over a week ago, I won’t pretend that I don’t still secretly kind of long for that yardstick to measure myself against. Being one’s own person is hard. Forging an independent path is scary, especially as someone with perfectionist tendencies who mostly just craves the knowledge and validation that I’m “doing it right.”
And though, yes, my ambitions are constantly driving me toward wanting to define who I am, and what I want to do, and what my path is through this world, I’ve also finally begun to realize the value of focusing on the simpler, quieter, truer, more honest, more direct, more elemental parts of myself—that I love to communicate, I love to observe, and I love to change things, particularly if they can be changed through delight. That’s a list that I’ll look forward to growing into, not out of, or away from, or alongside.
I’ve always been a night owl.
Somewhat mystically, I tend to credit this to having grown up as a theater kid. On nights after attending local musical theater productions with my dad, he’d hang out backstage chatting with the actors and musicians and directors, laughing and sharing compliments and general show talk. I have a distinct memory of being about seven years old, tagging along with him after a closing night performance, and being aware of the clock ticking over to midnight and then making the connection—oh yeah, this is where tomorrow starts.
(Not for nothing is this one of my favorite passages from Fitzgerald’s novel Tender Is the Night:
Later she was homeward bound at last in broad daylight, with the pigeons already breaking over Saint-Sulpice. All of them began to laugh spontaneously because they knew it was still last night while the people in the streets had the delusion that it was bright hot morning.)
Well over a decade later, while attending Indiana University as an undergraduate, I took this preference to its logical extreme, claiming that my brain didn’t really start working properly until the sun went down. I have a similarly distinct memory of a winter weekend afternoon spent torturing myself in the library over a paper that was due imminently that I only finally cracked open once twilight descended. Looking down at my notebook suddenly alive with scribbles, I looked up again to notice the blackness outside and felt like it couldn’t possibly be that simple, that the time of day could make such a huge difference to my productivity. I always joked about my penchant for late nights, but there really was seemingly something to it.
My good pal Brendon, also prone to pulling all-nighters, had a car in Bloomington, and he’d often pick me up at my dorm to run off on errands together in the wee hours, buying blank CDs and notebooks and Pilot pens in the middle of the night at the 24-hour Office Max. “I really respect that this store honors the preferred schedules of people like us,” we’d nod sagely to each other.
Even after college graduation, if I happened to have a few extra days off work, over the holidays or somesuch, my body clock would start to naturally revert to its nocturnal rhythms, writing and reading and watching movies until all hours, then sleeping as late as was socially acceptable as an adult human.
(Although, my friend Casey learned to double-check the time of day that I watched any movie that I gave a bad review to. “I dunno, I just didn’t care for it,” I’d shrug. “The acting all seemed wooden and disjointed.” “Wait a minute,” he’d interrupt me. “When did you put it in the DVD player?” “Um, about 2:30 in the morning,” I’d have to sheepishly admit. “You always think anything you watch after 2 am is wooden and disjointed!” he’d remind me. He . . . wasn’t wrong about that. There was a point of diminishing returns with my late-night endeavors.)
Otherwise, I was always fairly unbothered by my habit of staying up late, figuring that the world was pretty evenly split between morning people and night people, and that someone’s natural inclinations just were what they were. After a while, though, I started reading more and more interviews with successful writers and other highly motivated people, mostly on mid-2000s productivity blogs, where they chalked a good portion of their accomplishments up to early mornings spent at their chosen tasks. “The world is quiet and peaceful,” they all seemed to universally agree. “No one is clamoring after my attention yet, so I can devote myself to transcribing what remains of the dreams still rolling around in my head before getting a jump on the work day. I could never be productive late at night! I’m too exhausted and my brain is too cluttered with detritus of the day!”
And, typical of my general insecurities, I started wondering if I was somehow bad at being a creative person because I liked staying up late. It started to feel like night owls were characterized as hopelessly irresponsible procrastinators, avoiding their tasks until the last minute, putting the burden of their creativity on their less-than-fresh selves. I felt like I must be steps away from developing a debilitating drug addiction or otherwise descending into a hellscape of wasted potential.
It wasn’t that I didn’t like being up early. When properly rested (or, still wired from the night before), the dawn hours are lovely and invigorating. It’s just that I don’t feel like my truest, most lucid self until I’ve had a nice long stretch of time to rev myself into coherence. Even now, in a reversal of what pretty much any given time management theory will advise, I don’t start my work day off with my most important tasks—I leisurely check e-mail and do other somewhat mindless gruntwork for the first few hours at my desk, knowing that it’s only toward lunchtime or after when I’ll feel truly alert enough to tackle bigger tasks that require more genuine brain power.
As a studious, curious person who loves learning about how other people do what they do (cf, my penchant for looking in other people’s medicine cabinets!), the idea of the wisdom of crowds is extremely seductive to me. Not because I want to be a sheep or because I’m necessarily afraid of standing up for myself or standing out from the pack, but because I have such a lust for life that I don’t want to myopically miss out on something that might actually be awesome just because I was so committed to doing things my own way. And hey, just because something’s popular doesn’t inherently mean that it’s bad, right? But, try as I might, being a morning person, in the way that the world typically defines it, just won’t stick.
Funny enough, I get up plenty early these days. I find it truly is the best way to sneak a bit of extra time into my day. But I know enough now not to force myself to try to be “on” in any meaningful way. I use the time to meditate and cuddle with the cats and maybe drink an extra cup of coffee on the weekends. But if something really exciting and important needs my attention, it’s best to come track me down after nightfall.
I am very good at figuring things out.
I always have been. And I am grateful for the combination of intelligence and intuition that I have been blessed with that makes it possible for me to teach myself a variety of things by process of elimination, rudimentary research, observation, etc.
Which, guess what? Makes it very, very easy for me to get super, super angry when I can’t figure out something on my own.
I read a study recently that found that “bright girls, when given something to learn that was particularly foreign or complex, were quick to give up—and the higher the girls’ IQ, the more likely they were to throw in the towel.” The article is more than a little gender essentialist and is problematic in a bunch of ways, but I find that it rings heartbreakingly true for me. I’ve long felt that if I can’t relatively quickly get into a groove with a new endeavor, it means I’m bad or wrong in some way, and that I shouldn’t bother trying to do whatever it is because it isn’t fated or otherwise in the cards for me.
One of the (many) problems with this approach comes up when the challenge is not so easily tossed aside, when it’s a thing that some deeper part of me is really drawn to. Which makes the thing even scarier because not knowing how to get it starts to feel that much more freighted with risk and peril and the possibility of not only failure and humiliation but also of not being able to satisfy a deep craving in my soul.
This is a very, very highfalutin preamble to my talking about the fact that I want to travel more than I currently do, and I haven’t yet been able to figure out how to make it happen.
I’ll need to write more at length at some point about the extremely formative trip I took to France when I was fourteen. Suffice to say, this first journey abroad lit up a longing for travel in me that was so acute it felt less like longing and more like necessity. I need to be a person who travels.
And though I’ve taken many wonderful, memorable trips in the years since, in some ways it feels like some sort of travel anorexia—like it’s the bare minimum that I can parcel out to myself to keep my traveler’s spirit alive. As I watch so many friends have amazing experiences adventuring, working, and relocating abroad, I feel like that little girl inside me, the little girl who will always be trying her hardest to get an A on the test, start to throw a tantrum because she can’t figure out how to get a piece of that for herself.
But, I’m realizing that the key for me at this point might be to stop silently stewing about this in private, allowing myself to feel like an epic failure as each month ticks by without my getting on a plane (or a train or, hell, even in a car for longer than an hour), and just admitting out loud that this is a thing I want but haven’t yet figured out how to get for myself.
I want to figure out how to budget more effectively so that I can afford airfare and accommodations for getting to and staying in the kinds of places I want to go.
I want to figure out the best combination of traveling solo versus going with a companion who’s as excited about these kinds of trips as I am.
I want to figure out how often is often enough, and how long is long enough, for me to feel happily well traveled without compromising the rest of my life and routine and responsibilities.
I want to figure out how to have the kind of soul-enriching, quirky, and unique travel experiences that I want to have without succumbing to the convenience of bland, Americanized, prepackaged tourist traps and clichéd sightseeing.
I want to view trips I haven’t taken and destinations I’ve yet to see as exciting, invigorating goals on a wishlist rather than as forbidden fruit I can’t touch, or, worse, as failing marks on some kind of cosmic test that’s being held against me.
So, if you’re a traveler at heart, too—let’s talk. If you’re feeling stuck in your ability to make it happen, let’s brainstorm ways we can all inch a little bit closer to our dreams. If you’re someone who has cracked the code and revels in a steady diet of journeys and excursions, help a girl out and let me know what kind of steps you took when you were first learning how to put these kinds of trips together for yourself.
My mother died in 1987, when I was eight years old.
My brother was five and my sister was two. Her breast cancer had been discovered too late by condescending doctors who had pooh-poohed her earlier complaints and symptoms, so by the time it was officially caught, the cancer had already begun doing a number on the rest of her body, including, eventually, her spinal fluid. There was chemotherapy, hair loss, weight gain, and the hallucinations I remember trying to calmly and rationally talk her out of while I stood meekly at her bedside.
The chronology of that year and a half and the exact circumstances of her diagnosis, treatment, and eventual death remain a blur to me. And now that all four of my grandparents and my father have died as well, there are precious few people around anymore who could tell me the objective details to set the record straight, if I even dared ask them. So, the story of that time remains an eight year old’s.
Part of that eight year old’s story is that, sometime not long after the wake and funeral, perhaps only a day or two, I was pulled aside by my uncle, my father’s brother, who told me quietly, “You know, it would be a big help to your dad right now if you could go stay with Barb and Steve for a little while.” Barb was their cousin and Steve was her husband, and at that time they had two daughters around my age and a third a bit younger. They lived about an hour and a half east of us, in a rural area near South Bend, Indiana.
Though my uncle’s tone made it sound like a suggestion, a task I might pursue in order to be even more the model daughter than I already was, the decision, of course, had already been made for me, the arrangements already set in motion. I had no choice but to assent, even though it felt, devastatingly, as if I were being sent away. Which, no matter what way I look at it even now, I was.
I could see no reason why I should be the one to be packed off. I was the oldest child, the one most capable of being helpful around the house, the one most able to be self-reliant, while my brother and sister, three and six years younger than I respectively, were true children who needed taking care of and looking after. Wouldn’t it have made more sense to jettison one of them?
The only remotely satisfying conclusion I’ve ever been able to come to is that I simply looked too much like my dead mother, with my brown eyes and then-curly dark hair and precocious maturity. Seeing me hovering at his elbow at that delicate time likely would have driven my father into inconvenient paroxysms of grief.
And so eastward I was driven, to a house I remember as enormous, on a piece of land I remember as sprawling, nestled near several actual working farms I remember as confounding and mysterious. Having grown up in a small town about 45 minutes away from Chicago, even at that age I felt divorced from any sense of belonging to Indiana’s Heartland heritage, casting my lot instead with the bustle and culture afforded by and associated with the big city.
The classic “stranger in a strange land” story I always tell about that sojourn in the country is about the time when Barb asked, by way of involving me in the family’s chores, if I would go get the mail. I went out onto the porch and looked for a mailbox mounted to the side of the house near the front door, the equivalent of where it would have been at my house in the suburbs, and saw nothing. So, I went to the back door and there, too, saw no mailbox. I recall then circumambulating the house, probably multiple times, and checking both doors again for good measure, looking for where the mailbox could possibly be hiding.
Eventually, feeling a horrible combination of frustration, shame, and defeat, I went back into the house after who knows how long and, burning with helplessness, confessed to Barb that I couldn’t find the mailbox, that I’d looked on the front porch and it wasn’t there. I remember her expression melting as she gently explained that it was at the end of the driveway. I got the mail, relieved to be of use once again.
I have no recollection of how long I stayed with them; my best guess is something like a week to ten days. I do know I would have been there through the end of May and likely into the beginning of June. In other words, it was the late spring—when manure gets spread on the cornfields.
One morning I remember waking and going outside into the rising heat of the day and being blasted with the worst smell I had ever smelled. It was like the odor of changing my baby sister’s diapers but writ large across the entire landscape. The stench was like a wet quilt wrapped around me, totally enveloping. I had no context for the enormity of it and, more alarmingly, no expectation of escaping it. As long as I was bound to that house and its immediate environs, that smell would be there. If there was a brief moment of blessed respite, the wind would shift direction and blow a fresh assault at me.
Once again, my hosts tried to compassionately explain that manure was just something to be expected out in the country, an inevitability of farm life, something to be borne at first and eventually habituated to. I didn’t, however, really feel like I needed any more lessons in life’s inevitabilities at that point, thank you very much, and inwardly seethed at what felt like a final, revolting insult, one more marker that I didn’t fit in, that I didn’t belong, that I didn’t understand the way things worked.
I don’t think I ever outright complained about the smell of the manure, though I suppose I didn’t have to. My poker face has never been the best, and I’m sure my initial, obvious revulsion was responsible for their launching into an explanation of the manure’s purpose in the first place. But, what I couldn’t have explained at that time, even if I’d wanted to, was that I was infatuated with the power and magic of smell, perhaps to an abnormal degree.
It just wasn’t in my nature to let a scent, even a horrendous one, fade into the background of my consciousness until I could figure it out. Even if figuring it out simply meant—as with the magnificence of soft, clean towels straight out of the dryer; fresh cut grass mixed with lawnmower fuel; chocolate chip cookies getting warm and gooey in the oven; the invisible, mineral approach of the lakeshore on a drive to the beach; and other familiar scent pleasures of childhood—figuring out how can I get more of this up my nose and into my brain?
And so, restless and fixated, my nose got stuck on the manure, essentially trying to solve the problem of it—circling the house, trying to find the mailbox. I was searching for a hint that maybe there was something appealing hidden inside it, the way rubbery skunk blast always secretly brought me joy. But I only ended up encountering, time and again, my own resistance to it, my outsider’s unfamiliarity with the way it worked. Its noxious, maddening persistence eventually beat me at my own game.
Well over ten years later, on a springtime road trip from the Bloomington campus of Indiana University north to Valparaiso with my best friend Mary and her fiancé Mike, we passed through a particularly pungent fog of manure that had evidently been recently laid in the fields along the highway, somewhere in central Indiana. As Mary caught a whiff and bellowed a knee-jerk “yuck!” from behind the wheel, Mike, perched in the front seat, cranked up the car stereo. “I’m sensory confusion guy!” he laughed, the idea being that he was drowning out the noise in our ears with music rather than rolling up the windows to stop the assault on our noses.
I’ve been delighted by the absurd elegance of that joke for over a decade now, despite the fact that I can never seem to accurately convey how extremely funny it was to me at the time. Partly it’s to do with the late-’90s brand of non-sequitur humor my group of friends cultivated in college, but mostly it’s to do with the implicit acknowledgment that the scent of manure is unresolvable, irreducible, in many ways impossible to “fix” and therefore ridiculous and best dealt with through mockery. The regime-toppling power of humor turned out to be the last, and best, recourse to dealing with the terror of its mute, brute force. That, and the ability to speed away from it at last, at 65 miles per hour, with friends who loved me, and understood me, and spoke my language, and also brought heavenly smelling, fresh-baked banana bread along for the ride.
With gratitude to Tara Swords of Olfactif for instigating and igniting my thinking on scent memories.
About four years ago, I stopped wearing pants.
Sure, I’ll wear yoga pants to the gym or pajama bottoms for lounging around the house, but in public, I don’t think I’ve worn anything but skirts and dresses with tights or leggings since the autumn of 2010. One of the last photos of me in jeans is this promo shot of the original line-up of my old band, Tiny Magnets.
I can’t recall the way I explained it to myself at the time. I only remember that I executed the plan swiftly and resolutely. In seemingly no time at all, I had dredged up the few skirts I had stuffed in the backs of my drawers and purchased a handful of new-to-me pieces from the thrift store and put them all into immediate, daily rotation. Suddenly, I was a Girl Who Wore Skirts.
I probably wouldn’t be described as fashionable or even very put-together by most people who pay attention to such things. Never have been. As a female-identified person who grew up middle class, in the Midwest, in the 80s and 90s, and has struggled with weight and body image almost as long as I can remember, clothing, while fascinating, has always also been fraught with mild terror.
Does this fit? Is it cute? Is it trendy? Will I fit in with the other girls? How much does it cost? How much wear will I be able to get out of it?
Being raised by a single father didn’t help matters either. When, as an awkward early adolescent, I wasn’t wearing the blousy tops left behind in my dead mother’s old closet, I was inevitably dressed in what can only be described as a kind of baby butch getup—oversized t-shirts to hide my pudgy tummy, or my dad’s cast-off suit vests, dress pants, button-down shirts, and even the occasional tie.
Even as I grew ever-so-slightly more comfortable with my female figure in my late teens and early twenties, occasionally wearing a more form-fitting dress for a special event or a shirt that showed the slightest bit of cleavage, my fall-back look mostly revolved around jeans and t-shirts, along with a few statement pieces, mostly tops in outlandish colors and bold patterns.
Even as recently as my late twenties, when my then-roommate suggested that shopping for clothes became easier when you could look for stuff that fit a self-designated Venn diagram (like “sporty”/ “sexy” / “sport-sexy”), I thought about it for a moment before declaring that my look was probably “little boy” / “circus” / “little boy at the circus.” It was a tongue-in-cheek response, and I always insisted that I liked the tension created by the visual of my very womanly curves dressed in, say, a stripy rugby shirt. But even then, there was always an element of my not quite feeling like I knew how to do “girl” right.
And so my complete switch to a no-pants wardrobe was an obvious attempt for me to reclaim my femininity on some level, even if it didn’t immediately read as such to anyone else. I figured I’d cracked some sort of code for myself, and didn’t give it much thought beyond that for quite some time.
Until I recently began reading Tess Whitehurst’s book Magical Fashionista. In her chapter on using specific articles of clothing to achieve specific, magical effects, she mentions that pants, obviously worn on the lower half of the body, in many ways align themselves symbolically with our ability to be grounded.
She points out three phrases that evoke other qualities as well:
“wears the pants” (determination and authority)
“flying by the sea of one’s pants” (intuition)
“fancy pants” (affluence)
It was that first one that really hit me, though.
As a child put in the position of being overly responsible, over-achieving, and over-vigilant about everyone’s needs and emotions but my own, I’d been wearing the pants in many different ways, in many different situations and relationships, for far too long. Thanks to that passage in the book, I suddenly saw my complete refusal to wear anything other than skirts and dresses as more than just a craving of femininity for its own sake—it was also a craving to be released from the burden of constant responsibility.
I didn’t want to be the one wearing the pants anymore!
I didn’t want to be in charge. I wanted to be doted on, to have someone fetch me the things I desired, to allow space for my silly whims and sudden cravings to not just be expressed but to be indulged. I wanted my female energy to be seen and prioritized and validated. I wanted to be worth more than just what I could do for other people. I wanted to be decorative, fanciful, flowing. I was exhausted by all the work required to keep up that facade of hyper-competence. I was ready to let it all go.
And so I’m doing my best to give that girly part of me room to breathe and play, to find freedom, and a very different kind of power, in femme expression.
My maternal grandmother (or Nanny, as we called her) was a radio dispatcher for our small-town police department until her retirement in the early 1990s.
She had actually worked, for a number of years, way before I was born, as a hairdresser (one of the great pleasures of my young life was getting my hair washed in the salon-style sink she’d had installed in the basement of her home), so I have no idea how or when she landed at the station. And now pretty much anyone I could have asked about it is either dead or all but estranged from me.
Nevertheless, she was a well-regarded fixture among the town’s various civil servants, their goodwill toward her extending well past her retirement. She even cashed in a favor on my behalf when, at 16, I begged her to get a police officer to fix the ticket he’d given me for blowing a stop sign late one night on a back country road, so that my dad wouldn’t lose his shit if he found out his precious, perfect daughter had fucked up so carelessly.
More than that, though, I remember, as an extremely small child, being taken by my mother to visit her on duty at the town’s small old police station, which buzzed with faintly green fluorescent lighting and smelled of stale coffee and enjoyed the then-novel feature of an enormous, wood-paneled pop machine near the front entrance.
I’m sure that many of these visits must have occurred while she was on a break. But I’m also pretty sure that the town was sleepy enough in the early ’80s—long before it became overrun with chain restaurants and strip malls built to appeal to exurban commuters to Chicago—that sitting with her in the control room while she was on duty wouldn’t have been that big a deal. It was normally quiet enough there that we could visit together casually, our conversation only interrupted by an occasional “10-4” spoken into the radio, or by hearty greetings from the burly, friendly cops on duty, just passing through.
My grandmother was far from mild-mannered, and she yelled at us plenty when my siblings and I got ourselves into trouble or started getting insolent and bratty with her. But my memories of her demeanor in her professional capacity at the station are consistently cool and even-tempered. There must have been countless emergencies she needed to attend to over the years, things that I certainly wouldn’t have been privy to both due to my age and my being a citizen off the street, and she had to have had a million other responsibilities beyond sitting at the desk and communicating via radio with the police cruisers. But the many times that I saw her at work, I recall no stress, no overwhelm—just steady, calm, alert command. 10-4, 10-4, over and out, she’d repeat quietly, almost flatly, with her dusty smoker’s voice, into the long metallic microphone affixed to the elaborate radio console.
I compare this, mentally, to my hot-tempered father, a high school music teacher and band conductor, who was reputed to have thrown a music stand in anger, either at a student or near a student, during an after-school rehearsal. (Called on this in later years, he hedged that the incident may have been exaggerated, that he likely just knocked the stand over accidentally while gesturing emphatically.) I compare this also to my own current job, managing book production at a midsized publishing house, where I’m constantly short-tempered, irritable, and prone to lashing out if I’m feeling over-stimulated or unnecessarily distracted by someone else’s demands on my time and attention.
Of course law enforcement, even in a small Midwestern town, would likely be very different today from what it was in the ’80s, and assuredly much more high stress, but I still find myself thinking about my grandmother, and the discrepancy in our respective workplace attitudes, a lot these days. Thoughts of her, in her light blue police shirt and clip-on earrings, pop into my head, almost unbidden, when I feel myself losing control of a given situation at my own office, when I find myself ashamed of my wild mood swings and pettiness. I try to channel something of her cool way of handling things, and of handling people. 10-4, 10-4, over and out, I’ll think to myself, remembering her dignity and her situational unflappability, not so much wishing that she’d answer me back as hoping to make contact with my own version of the oasis of calm that she was able to summon, night after night, shift after shift, helping keep the town as quiet as she’d found it.
I don’t fancy myself a crafty lady.
And I’ve always had a bit of a complex about it.
Long before Pinterest made it possible for us all to feel bad about not being clever enough to whip up 12 different meals with the dregs of last week’s grocery shopping or turn a few bits of cardboard and wire into an ingenious closet organizer or whatever, I always marveled at women who could show up at a Sunday brunch with a gorgeous, tasty quiche they whipped up at the last minute.
Or, women who were capable of assembling an intricate quilt, laden with graphic symbolism, completely from scratch, for a friend’s wedding. My store-bought container of cubed pineapple or blandly practical gift certificates always felt like they paled in comparison.
I inwardly defended myself, perhaps a bit overzealously, with the reminder that I grew up without a mother and thus didn’t have the kind of role modeling that would have subconsciously trained me to know how to pull off shit like that. I was raised by my dad who was short on time and imagination when it came to gift-giving and party organizing but would give hours of his time as a musician at church or help a friend record a special song for her husband for their anniversary or even rehearse me through a number or two for an upcoming audition.
So I likewise defaulted to sharing in this way—making mix CDs for friends’ parties, writing exceedingly detailed film and concert reviews on my old blog that would hopefully help readers steer clear of anything that would be a waste of their time, or just introducing cool people to each other so that they could go on to make cool art together. I figured this was about the best I could do since I felt shortchanged in the baking/decorating/crafting/girl-skills department.
And, perhaps what made it all even more painful for me is that I actually have tons of memories of my mother being crafty and helpful and generous. Aside from her cancer, that’s pretty much the primary way I remember her.
Leaning out the car window at a red light to ask a blind man if he needed assistance crossing at a busy intersection.
Spending hours creating elaborate counted cross-stitch pieces to give as gifts to friends and relatives, pieces that still hang, framed, in many of their houses to this day.
Winning a fat little pot at a bingo game then blowing most of it on toys for us kids and boxes of chocolates and other treats for close friends and family.
But, one of the most salient, instructive memories of her kindness is of a time when I was very small and being given a bath by my father. It was an otherwise unremarkable night, and as he was getting ready to finish up and towel me off, she stuck her head in the door and told us that she’d just made a batch of chocolate chip cookies.
“But whyyyyyyy?” I remember asking repeatedly.
In my child’s brain, freshly baked cookies were special treats for a special occasion—holidays or birthdays or parties. I couldn’t conceive of why she’d make them for us for no reason at all, just because she wanted to, just because she loved us, just because it was a nice thing to do.
This explains so much about my personality, even now—that inability to believe that anyone could do anything nice without a very specific reason.
On the one hand, I’m ego-centric enough to believe that of course I deserve special treatment and praise for my humor, my intelligence, my hard work. But when it comes to accepting kindness or affection that doesn’t stem from a “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” transaction, I find myself flummoxed, suspicious, or both.
I’m sure you can see where this is going—I tend to panic about being a good enough gift giver because some wormy little part of my brain feels that that’s the only way I can be assured of receiving love or affection or praise or care. And then I panic some more because I don’t want anyone else to feel that my lack of creativity in this area means I love them any less.
So, it always comes as a surprise, and no small relief, when I do happen upon a small project I can make with my hands and then genuinely enjoy giving away.
As I approach the end of my training to become a Certified Crystal Healer through the Hibiscus Moon Crystal Academy, I’ve found that I love creating gem elixirs. In addition to just adding them to my water or morning smoothies, I’ve also recently been creating room sprays with them. For instance, I just made a batch of a “negativity neutralizer” spray that can be used around the house instead of burning sage to refresh the energy of the space. I spent weeks making the tinctures and elixirs that go into it, and was delighted to discover I had a vast surplus beyond what I’d ever be able to use for just myself. So I bought several dozen tiny spray bottles and started gleefully giving the stuff away. Just because I wanted to. Just because I felt like it. Just because it made me happy to do so. No big deal.
I may not ever feel on par with those ladies that knit like banshees or throw together perfect cheesecakes with minimal prep. But, how funny that I would end up finding my DIY magic by tapping into what many folks would consider actual magic, full stop.
PS: Want to learn more about my actual magical offerings? Click here for information about booking me for a psychic reading, energy healing, or reiki treatment.
I can’t remember exactly how I got turned on to her writing. My best guess is that it was through Jami Attenberg’s blog or Twitter. Regardless, I’ve enjoyed Christensen’s food blogging for quite some time now, especially for the way it allows her to tell deeply intimate stories about her personal life. (This essay about traveling to Mexico as she and her then-husband were breaking up always sticks out in my mind.)
Thus, I absolutely devoured Blue Plate Special when it came out last year, not just for its exceptional writing and fearless truth-telling but also (gag) for the implicit permission I feel it gives me to reach for a similar level of craft and honesty in my own work.
Let me just pause here, though, and say that I totally bristle at the now widely disseminated platitude that speaking our truth gives other people permission to do the same. It’s not that I don’t believe that it’s true, to some extent, in some situations, it’s just that I don’t think it’s the sole justification for writing, especially women’s writing.
I mean, his depression notwithstanding, do you think anyone ever told David Foster Wallace that writing his truth gave other people permission to do the same? Was his bold insistence on writing about complex mathematical concepts in Everything and More giving anyone permission to do anything? No, his mind-boggling intellect and gift for expression was surely justification enough for that book to exist.
There has to be room for writing (even blog writing) to be smart, well-crafted, unique, challenging, even visionary. I want more for my own work than just telling stories for the sake of telling stories.
Even though—don’t get me wrong—I love reading other people’s stories! That’s one of my favorite things about the internet, this sanctioned eavesdropping on other people’s lives. I’m just still trying to figure out, for my own self, what makes one story intriguing while another is merely a recitation of facts that doesn’t hold my interest. It’s probably something really obvious that I’m just too daft to see.
All this is to say that I was blown away by Christensen’s recent essay for Elle detailing how her book helped bring to justice a former teacher from her high school that had been a serial molester of teenage girls throughout the ’70s and ’80s. I urge you to read it. Not just for the police procedural aspects that allow us the satisfaction of seeing a criminal caught after so many years, but also for the way she skillfully interrogates how her teenage experiences of abuse have informed her own sexuality and psychology.
Beyond the fact that, yes, literally, her writing served to help heal a whole community of people who had suffered in silence for decades, I was dazzled by the catharsis that her writing and self-exposure afforded her.
Reading it, I allowed myself to believe, for probably the first time ever, that really writing about the meat of my life—the darkness and the fear and the wounds that I’ve been futilely trying to protect or cover or distract from—might actually be useful. Not just for myself, but, like my experience of reading Christensen’s essay, for someone who might feel a kinship with my narration of my own life events, finding power in their disclosure.
I tend to flatter myself that I’m an open book, that my emotions are immediately perceptible to anyone with a modicum of sensitivity or powers of observation. But what I discount, at my peril, is the dark side of this truth—that everyone does see me and, with that, sees my fear, my death grip on my sanitized self-presentation.
I’m not entirely sure of everything that I’m hiding and why, but, at the risk of sounding overly dramatic about it, I am sure that I’m tired of hiding in general.