[pullquote]“We die to each other daily. What we know of other people is only our memory of the moments during which we knew them. And they have changed since then. To pretend that they and we are the same is a useful and convenient social convention which must sometimes be broken. We must also remember that at every meeting we are meeting a stranger.” – T.S. Eliot[/pullquote] Last week’s exploration of musk perfumes made me consider for the first time musk wasn’t just a sensual, skanky fun factory. Inside or of in spite of that overt sexuality is a tenderness and raw, aching vulnerability. Musk was the stranger I thought I knew.
Realizing I didn’t know musk at all launched me on a long, winding path of thinking I’ve not nearly finished. I need to warn y’all – this is all sorting out in my head still. By the time I need to hit Publish, it may not be completely unwound. It occurs to me very late in writing this a few/all of you may be scratching your heads by the time you get to the end, thinking – “She’s a little dense, isn’t she? I thought about this in my first month of perfume school.” If that’s the case, yeah!!! You can help me finish my thought process.
What I have loved about perfume over these many years – besides the wonderful smells and discoveries – has been the ability to go further inside myself with just a whiff of something familiar or foreign or perplexing. Finding something new or the unexplained old that now makes sense.
Eliot could have also said: Every time we meet ourselves, we are meeting a stranger.
For me, “meeting yourself” is when you look at a place you thought you knew, preferences you believed you always had, then discard the layers of habit and expectation and find something else there. Smell helps me “meet myself.”
Let’s go back to how this began…
Writing the perfume notes articles started because I wanted to look at all of my gardenia perfumes and sort through them – simple enough! The sorting became compelling, addictive and not just a little OCD. After I sorted the gardenias, I found this need to then sort the roses, then jasmines and on and on. All of the perfume smells I’ve taken in over these many years/decades want to be ordered so my mind makes sense of them and how they fit in with one another and how they feel in relation to me.
Sorting has created some wonderful surprises and disappointments, but always finding more in the note I’ve been exploring than I believed existed. Maybe this need is important now because of how I started in perfume 7 years ago – sniffing everything I could get my hands on, reaching for the next new thing before I’d really thought much about the one I had in my hand. Basically the greedy little kid from Willy Wonka.
As I approached a note for the guides, I would immerse in it, and often my mood would change. Some days were all blissful sunshine because I was working on a joyous note I love that fits my personality, like orange blossom or rose. Some days were just dread because I was working in a note that didn’t fit me or my mood – either that day or most of the time.
I learned the most on those dread mood days as I slowly covered myself in perfumes making me deeply uncomfortable, fidgety and irritable. When I started on musk, listening closely to my mood cues, I found some of the reason. There is a vulnerability in musk. The note is intimate, reminding us of the close smell of another person – sometimes the not so good and sometimes the lovely salty skin that is exquisite. If your mind doesn’t want to be vulnerable, wearing a scent that feels like it is speaking for you, telling your secrets to others, is more than a little agonizing. I felt like I was running around in a tornado wearing only a circle skirt and no underwear.
My thinking used to be – we wear fragrance to express a mood or a facet of our personality – perfume for flirting, perfume for business, fragrance for cocktails, fragrance for sorrow, and so on. My new revelation says it’s deeper than that. It is partly mood, but the perfume we choose also speaks to the sense that feels – in us and in everyone we come in contact with.
Do we choose fragrances because they say something we are afraid to speak out loud? Alternatively, do we choose other fragrances when we want an emotional shield from the world – a smell barrier? Do we do both subconsciously?
I think we do. When you are standing in front of your perfumes waiting for one to speak to you, there are the easy favorites that you know will always fit. Then there are the more difficult perfumes that you also love, but you won’t wear them unless… unless what? And have you been wrong, went against instinct and picked the one your gut said not to wear and then felt like you wanted to jump out of your skin all day or crawl inside of it?
Maybe it’s just me. Writing about perfume is synonymous with my experience of it. It deepened my love of it as I stretched for a way to describe how something smelled and the feeling or memory it attached itself to. Explaining smell made me venture back into time’s ruins, sorting through what was real, what was projection by others and what was really me. And I loved it until the day came when I didn’t.
When I separated in early 2008 and went through a divorce for the next year and a half, it was hard to write about perfume. I’d sit down to write and something like this would appear on my screen —
Best Perfumes for Betrayal
Best Fragrances for a Cheatin’ Husband and His Ugly ‘Ho.
You know, those are articles I could write now without a problem (scribbling note to self to put them on the Editorial Calendar, once I get an Editorial Calendar – nobody.better.steal.these)!
I was reading a book then, and I could never read past the first page – still can’t. It went like this –
“We think we know the ones we love. Our husbands, our wives. We know them — we are them, sometimes, when separated at a party we find ourselves voicing their opinions, their taste in food or books, telling an anecdote that never happened to us but happened to them. We watch their tics of conversation, of driving and dressing, how they touch a sugar cube to their coffee and stare as it turns white to brown, then drop it, satisfied, into the cup. I watched my own husband do that every morning; I was a vigilant wife.
“We think we know them. We think we love them. But what we love turns out to be a poor translation, a translation we ourselves have made, from a language we barely know. We try to get past it to the original, but we never can. We have seen it all. But what have we really understood?”
That’s what I wanted to write about then – how we never really know anyone – they are like the wisps of perfume we smell. We experience them through our lens, focusing until they come into a view conforming to our reality. People, perfume? It’s the same, they all get the filter of our life and memories and expectations. It is incredibly unfair to blame them when they don’t turn out to be who we invented.
Musk or lyin’, cheatin’ ex-husbands, it’s the same.
I couldn’t have written that, though. My best intentions would have deteriorated into some self-indulgent maudlin piece that fueled my demons. I knew as I sat down to write that I had to pick safe things to write about, blaming the wall I erected on the process of writing. Now? I think it was mostly about the perfume.
Fragrance makes me feel things, at least the best ones do. As you enter into them and explore what they are, you drag your sorry soul and all the emotional detritus in life’s suitcases. Perfumes that fuel emotion, if we allow it – and I say we should! – makes us open up those battered suitcases and explore who or what we’ve put in them. When we do that, we play Emotional Show and Tell.
The only question is – Are you in the Mood to Play?
Do I have it wrong? Or right?
Does our willingness to be vulnerable on any given day dictate what perfumes we can wear and be comfortable with?
Do we use some scent as armor?
Have you ever gotten it wrong?
Am I really this dense that I didn’t think about this before?
Okay, sharing time! You can answer all of the above or just tell me a time that you got it dead wrong and wound up in a scent that you did NOT want on you. Or are you just thinking – hey, Patty, seriously, it’s just perfume! I want to wear it because it smells good!
Let’s see, a good giveaway for this. Oh! I know, a good one, but you’ll have to wait until I have it in my hot little musky hands. Four samples of Parfum d’Empire Musk Tonkin will be given away to four lucky commenters – here or on Facebook. Drawing is open until… until i have the prizes!