Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Nosy Interview: Elizabeth Mathews

 Elizabeth in Galaxy NGC 474: Cosmic Blender, © P.-A. Duc

I was lucky to join a Seattle writing group that Elizabeth started, and though she was away at graduate school during much of the time I was in the group, I did gain the nickname Shiv to avoid the inevitable confusion associated with having two Elizabeths-who-go-by-Elizabeth in one group. 

What do you smell like?
When I smell myself, I smell like skin and oil and sweet, tangy sweat. I like to pretend that other people can't smell me, or that if they can, they smell my soap (lavender) or shampoo (peony, I would guess, not knowing what peony smells like). But really they probably smell sweat sunk deep into fabric and rewarmed, except when I wear jasmine essential oil, and then they probably smell jasmine floating deceptively over sweat. Last winter I think I smelled like mildewed sweaters for months. That was a tough time.

I just asked Nick what I smell like, and first he asked what he smells like (rich, good sweat and skin), then he hesitated and said he'd have to think about it (he knows that women are supposed to smell like flowers), but when I told him what I smell like to myself, he got really excited and said "Yeah! We both smell like sweat. But nice sweat." My sister told me about a study that said that women can smell when a man has the right kind of genetic makeup to boost their immunity and make strong babies. I don't know how scientific this is, or how it accounts for attraction to people when baby-making isn't the goal, but I like the idea that the body seeks out what it needs in another human being by smell. When Nick and I met, he was wrapping book gifts in a hot little room all day, and not wearing deodorant. I think a lot about how I knew instantly that I wanted to be with him, and it might have been simply because of his BO. I do get a lot fewer colds than I used to. I wonder what else can be communicated by smell. Body language gets a lot of credit for sending nonverbal signals, but do I sometimes like people for their scent alone? Do my favorite qualities transmit themselves chemically? Can I smell concern for animal welfare? Can I smell kindness or love of books by tormented authors?

What do you like to smell? 
I just smelled a woman at the grocery store who was wearing lots of musky vanilla perfume, and that was really nice. I like food smells in general-soaps and essential oils that smell like almond and coconut and cucumber, and smells attached to things that are actually consumable, like coffee, wine, bourbon, vanilla pipe tobacco, baked things, garlic and onions, cilantro, basil... I also like the smell of a lot of toxic things, like gasoline, which reminds me of being a little kid riding around in the backseat of my mom's huge blue Dodge Dart, or darkrooms, which smell like magic. There are scents that make my heart beat fast, like thrift stores and libraries and schools, and there are scents that make my heart expand, like my nieces' scalps when they were babies, or my cat Sam, who smells like woodsmoke. I have a pretty faulty memory, so I love walking down a street and being jarred by red cedar, which smells like my favorite elementary school teacher and the bent-wood boxes he taught us to make, or my first boyfriend's cologne, with its accompanying rush of teenage hormones and newness. I almost never smell dry pine needles since leaving Washington State, but when I do, I am full of nostalgia for my grandma's rickety little cabin that her father built in the mountains near Lake Wenatchee, for days of hiking and hunting for tree frogs and swimming and luxuriating in boredom while waiting for an adult to drive us to Leavenworth, the Disneyland of Eastern Washington. California bay trees are the smell of the campus at Mills College, of sleep deprivation and my brain opening up. Now that I've moved away from Oakland, I'm sure every time I smell night-blooming jasmine or lemon blossoms or marijuana in open air, I'll be homesick.

Even though I can remember liking certain scents as a kid (light blue Mr. Sketches, grape Bubble Yum, the perfume inserts in magazines) and as a teen ("Smells Like Opium" room spray, Clove cigarettes), I am only just now learning to be a curator of my own scent experience. I grew up in an unscented world. My dad had asthma, so we never burned candles or incense or made a fire in the fireplace, and he had sensitive skin, so we used unscented soap, unscented shampoo, unscented laundry detergent. And my mom is a supersmeller who is prone to headaches, so she banned any pungent scents (we had to go outside to chew gum). I learned to seek out a ghostly underscent, to love Dove unscented soap's thick sweetness and hate Ivory's astringency. When my beloved oldest sister started college and moved across the lake to Seattle, she began wearing Sung by Alfred Sung, and every time she opened the front door to pick up some of her things, the whoosh of citrus and flowers and mystery reached me all the way at the back of the house, and the overload to my scent-deprived brain was intoxicating. When I moved out years later, my older sisters gave me scent-gifts like a patchouli plant and apricot incense, but before long I lapsed into my native scentless state. I'm making progress, though. My most recent good scent choice was to move to Long Beach, where the sweet leafy air that gusts in my bedroom window has a trace of the ocean.


Janet Brown said...

This piece makes me miss you immensely--but even if I didn't know you, I'd still be greedy for more. So glad that you live in a world of smells now, Eliza!

Jessica Langlois said...

Elizabeth M:

I could read this forever. I love the memoir that came out of this second question. the sterile, scentless home, the alluring but painful pull of scents arriving from outside, the sharp memories that spring from a grove of trees or a passerby. this makes me want to write down everything i've ever smelled.

also, these probing questions: "Do my favorite qualities transmit themselves chemically? Can I smell concern for animal welfare? Can I smell kindness or love of books by tormented authors?" please say this is just the beginning of a new essay..

Elizabeth A.S. - fabulous blog.

nosy girl said...

Janet & Jessica, I share your hopes that Elizabeth will write more on the matter. A few past nosy interviewees have suggested they may write essays inspired by their responses; though this has yet to happen (to my knowledge), I can't wait to read them if they do!

And Jessica, thanks for your kind words! I've been really enjoying your blog ever since Elizabeth steered me in the direction of your "Leaving Sri Lanka..." post.

Britta said...

Elizabeth, it's so nice to meet you through this essay. (It is! an essay!) What a treat. You have reminded me how inextricable smell is to our personal memoir--to dig a little deeper in what I deem my boring childhood to remember some of my own whiffs. Thank you.

Also: the science you cite is totally true! The experiment, designed by Claus Wedekind, also known as the "sweaty t-shirt experiment," is to thank for the understanding of a large part of our innate immune system. Wikipedia does a decent job explaining it: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Claus_Wedekind

Elizabeth Mathews said...

Thanks, all, and especially thanks to Eshivabeth. I love how these questions stir up something unique and revealing in everyone who responds. Britta, I'm glad it's real science! The science of vibes.

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