Peggy in a portion of Star Cluster R136 Bursts Out, © NASA et al.
Did Peggy and I meet in Ann Arbor or in a past life? Either way, I know her better, now, courtesy of Facebook, than I know anyone on my street. That is strange in a way, I know, and I should put down my iPhone sometimes, but it's heart-expanding online-only friendships like hers that keep me from quitting Facebook, as I so often idly threaten to do. You could wonder later how you met her, too; start by visiting her blog.
What do you smell like?
Oh, Nosy Girl, you have asked me questions I long to be able to answer Like most humans, my memory is triggered more by scent than anything else, even more than music. I can be walking down the street, and bam, I’m in my grandmother’s bathroom, with my high school boyfriend, at a college party. But, what did my grandmother’s bathroom smell like? Last year I was in Ethiopia and suddenly I smelled my Bedouin friend’s farm back in the Negev—the desert in southern Israel I call home. This connection felt profound, but what did I smell? And, does it matter? As a fiction writer, I understand that to bring our readers into place, sensory detail is the magic door, yet nothing makes me feel more false than when I’m writing sensory detail about scent. My grandmother’s bathroom smelled like powder, brown soap, and (because you need a third) Lysol. It may be true, it may help the reader, but I feel like a fraud. The sentence is overworked; the author more present than place. What did it smell like? My grandmother’s bathroom, dammit.
So, what do I smell like? Really, Nosy Girl? Really? I can tell you what I don’t smell like: Perfumes. They irritate my eyes.The most scent you’ll find on me is from a cucumber soap or a grapefruit facial scrub.I also really believe that we find our mates like primates, via scent. I want to end up in the right cave. I want us to find each other sexier and more at home when we haven’t showered than when we have. I know that when I find my cave-mate, and you ask me what he smells like, I will have only one answer: his name. I also know that when we’re very old and I’m losing my mind and a nurse asks me if I remember him by stating his name, I’ll look blank. If he stands before me where I can see him, I still may not remember. But if he comes and lies beside me, close enough for me to smell, I’ll know it’s him.
What do you like to smell?
Others here have already beautifully described the splash of white wine into risotto, the smells of fall, of fire in winter. Yet something called me to the Negev, void of turning leaves and snow on pine. When I first moved here, I could only have described an absence of scent. Certainly the desert was lacking every smell from my childhood: pine, hyacinths, dogwood; nothing grows that effortlessly, here. Soon, however, I understood how much the desert smells like salt, which makes sense since when I look out at the desert, all I see is water. This is not only because I’m an optimist; water has, in fact, shaped, carved every bit of this landscape which is full of dry riverbeds, streams, the exposed roots of shrubs still leaning from the momentum of past floods. Every rock holds water; if only we would learn from Moses’ mistake and talk to the rock, not hit it, to quench our thirst. This place used to be ocean: ask anyone, whether they take their cues from Noah or Geology; it is still strewn with shells. But there I go, not describing scents. You see, Nosy Girl? Here’s what I can tell you: when it rains here, and particularly when it floods, the water awakens an orchestra of smells; a Chopin’s Nocturne meets whale’s song meets wolves’ howl meets heartbeat in the center of the earth’s womb concerto. What, can’t smell that? I’m only an hour and a half drive from the Dead Sea, the lowest place on earth, and the saltiest. Even closer to me is the Machtesh Ramon—a geological formation described as a crater though it’s formed by water, not volcanic activity—and it holds 260 million year old sand. The collective memory awoken here by water might be why this is my cave.
The most identifiable scent after the rain here is silt. This is very different than the smell of ocean. Ocean sand is refined, frequently wet, frequently in motion. Desert rock, however, holds every possible record; there is nothing it doesn’t remember. The ocean’s sand can’t imagine a meditation sit as long and deep as a desert rock’s. Talk to the rocks, listen; they’ll tell you anything you need to know. Sometimes I lick them, offering them water, watching how the wetness brings out their shininess, detail, depth. Then I smell them and I’m transported.
In Bedouin tradition, mothers rub their newborns in a pungent mixture of herbs from the land and water. Then they don’t bathe the baby for a few days. They do this so the child will always know where he comes from, so that when he’s older, if he gets lost, he will always be able to find his way back.
Just a few weeks ago, I was at a drum-making workshop in a place called Ma’agen Michael in Northern Israel not far from the Mediterranean coast. Something amazing about this country is the diversity in topography, and when I drove just a few hours and walked in, I was surprised to find myself immediately crying. At first I thought that maybe I felt something spiritually powerful; the workshop, though it hadn’t begun, was of Native American orientation. Then I realized what it was: cedar chips. I smelled forest, and it awakened such a longing in me, such a homesickness, I wondered if I’d have to move, to be closer to trees I can climb, in whose branches I can sit. Yet I’ve tried not living here before, so I know that when I’m not here, the homesickness I feel for the Negev is something like, perhaps, we all feel, longing to see the stars through the electrical lights, to remember how to make a fire without gas, to hear our own heartbeat, breathe our own breath, listen to the rock. I may not be able to describe for you the rock’s smell, but when I lick it and breathe it in, everything—no, really, everything—comes back.