Denver, CO, 1969: I am a tomboy who loves to play in the mud and pretend I am a wild horse. The scents of grass and nearby Cherry Creek are sweet and comforting to me. I try to "cook" grass--mashing it in a bucket with mud and water-- because I like the smell. I hate dolls; I behead my Barbies and throw them at the ceiling. However, the Liddle Kiddles Kologne dolls are different. I treasure these tiny fairy dolls with their flower headpieces, elegant perfume bottle cases, and floral perfumes. I have Violet, Honeysuckle, and Lily of the Valley. I keep them in a safe drawer, away from my other toys. I keep them until they lose their scent, and thus, my interest.
Denver, 1971: I am the fat kid with glasses and braces. Traumatized, beaten, and emotionally tortured by my schoolmates, I retreat to my hideout under the stairs (which my father had carefully cleaned and carpeted for me) and journey to the peaceful sanctuary in my mind. This journey can only be undertaken by opening my precious shoebox of soap slivers. When my parents' scented soap is used to a sliver, it becomes my private property, to be stored in that shoebox in the dark under the stairs. In my childhood misery, those soap slivers open the gateway to a fantasy world where everything is as beautiful and magical as those scents.
Denver, 1977: I shatter my school's standardized test records and unseat the reigning "brains," making me once again terribly unpopular. I am driven to be perfect and am constantly anxious. In an effort to soothe us both, my mother and I go for training in Transcendental Meditation with disciples of the Maharishi. The trainers are impressed. I take to meditation easily. The Nag Champa incense burning in the meditation training rooms transports me out of my adolescent fears. To avoid the rougher sports (at which I am terrible), I learn yoga and research an obscure yogic practice for cleaning the olfactory apparatus which involves inhaling dental floss up my nose. It clears my head in a mind-altering way and allows me to smell even more clearly. Another scent which transports me is fresh lilacs. I pick enough to fill a saucepan and heat them gently in olive oil. I create a nauseating mess which needs to be thrown out. (Later I learn that lilacs are too fragile for any scent extraction process and that all lilac oil is synthetic.)
Denver, 1980: I loathe high school. Preppy is in, but I prefer Indian import skirts, huge silver earrings, and trench coats. I want to look like Kate Bush or Apollonia. I can't wait to get as far away from Denver as I can. I enjoy going to the office with my architect father. I admire the way he combines art and science to make something both beautiful and functional. There is another reason I like to go there though. Nearby, past abandoned warehouses with broken windows, and drunk, homeless men strewn in doorways, is a store called "Castle Rising." The walls are lined with jars of colored incense with coordinating oils and bath salts. How obvious this is to me! Scents have colors! Yellow is happy, like honeysuckle and lemon. Red is passionate, like rose and cinnamon. Blue is calm, like chamomile and still water. Nobody in the store ever talks to me and I am too shy to prod them. Besides, I somehow know how to use everything I take home. My shoebox of soap slivers morphs into a larger, sturdier shoebox of brightly colored powdered incense and the charcoal on which to burn them. I read tarot cards with my few friends. My boyfriend's mother teaches me about Jung, and I occasionally study symbols with her. I also haunt the "hippie" section of the local mall and buy Patchouli oil. I don't really like it, but it intrigues me because it's different. A few drops in my bath one night overwhelms the entire lower floor of my parents' house, and my mother gives me hell. The top of my dresser is a forest of tiny vials of oils.
Cambridge, MA, 1984: I buy every Betsey Johnson and Norma Kamali high fashion creation I can afford or fit into. I write my senior thesis "The Reality in Reflections: Public and Private Motivations in Contemporary China as seen through New Realism Literature" in between spasms of my frenetic social life at Harvard. One day, menstrual cramps make walking up several flights of stairs to my favorite anthropology class into an exercise in withstanding torture. I walk to metaphysical book stores and buy several tomes of herbal lore. I write notes and buy supplies. Next month when I feel like curling up in fetal position, I brew a tea. My cramps are gone in a matter of 10 minutes. I read "Jitterbug Perfume" by Tom Robbins and want my life to be as crazily fascinating as that book. I take the subway to Copley Square in Boston to find oils at the venerable Caswell Massey store, planning to make a perfume as a birthday present for a friend. She is Chinese and I know that jasmine tea comes from China. (Scents have ethnicities, of course.) I know she loves rose. Her recent break up gives me vanilla to comfort her and her mordant sense of humor gives me the crispness of Cucumber. I mix the oils without measuring, knowing that this will be a unique fragrance for her. She loves it. Other people smell it and declare I have a talent. I mix more jasmine with musk, bitter almond, more flowers and a few spices. The idea of the English renaissance under Queen Elizabeth I fascinates me, so I call it Faery Queen after Spenser's ode to her. It is my signature scent for years.
Tangshan, China, 1985: The town is still recovering from the 1976 earthquake. No foreign aid, 8.2 on the Richter scale, and the week-later arrival of any aid at all mean that staggering numbers of people have died here. The locals say one million. Official sources say 242,000. I am the first foreigner ever to live here. People literally freeze in their tracks to stare at me when I walk or bicycle past them. A city once known for its elegant porcelain factories and ample coal reserves bravely struggles to rise from the rubble. The predominant scent is coal. Laundry hung out to dry for over 3 hours develops black streaks from the coal-laden air. The people are wonderful and resilient, but I am disenchanted with my ambition of joining the diplomatic corps. I am in an existential crisis. I read "The Mists of Avalon" by Marion Zimmer Bradley and feel called back to paganism, which I had set aside during college. Infrequent excursions to Tianjin reward me with exotic oils like Osmanthus and "Hundred Flower" which I buy by the gallon. Loyal Chinese friends help me build wooden crates in which to ship them home.
India, 1986: I journey into Old Delhi. Every sense is assaulted by every sensation it can possibly feel. I smell cardamom, keora, frying meat with cumin, rotting garbage, sandalwood, champa, excrement, ginger, jasmine, rose, exhaust, marigold, coriander, sweat, garlic, and so much more! Dizzy with olfactory stimulation, a friend guides me into a dark market stall where two turbaned men beckon me to sit on a filthy mattress. The men begin to quiz me on scent mixing. Why do you use Bergamot? What do you mix with Vetiver? How much Cardamom should you use in a blend? I answer guilelessly. I am totally present in the moment and don't care what happens next. I'm just deliriously happy to be here. Before I realize it, they take me up a flight of stairs and into a clean, modern office, where I begin to build the backbone of my fledgling fragrant dream.
Lynn, MA, 1988: Fifty-one stairs lead to my top floor apartment. I convert my large dining room into an oil workshop. In my eyrie above the drab and somewhat dangerous neighborhood, I read aromatherapy authors Jeanne Rose, Jean Valnet, Marcel Lavabre, and Robert Tisserand. I also read pagan authors Scott Cunningham, Scott Beyerl, Starhawk, Laurie Cabot, Szuszanna Budapest, and Margot Adler. Although I work full time at a book exporting business and spend my weekends traveling all over New England selling my wares at fairs, I find time to begin a daily practice of ritual and meditation. Just as I am poised to accept my first publishing job, I am offered a "trial run" at King Richard's Faire. The world of the renaissance fair is both intoxicating and lucrative for me. I make a blend of every aphrodisiac essential oil. I call it Love Potion (later called Potion of Luuv). During the next month, I get three proposals of marriage. I feel life speeding up and perform a ritual to ask for a slowing of the pace. The next day the muffler falls off my car on my way to a fair in Connecticut. I feel a profound disconnection between my spirituality and my business ambitions though. Elders in the Craft reassure me that success will come from my ability to fuse the two together, but that path remains unclear.
Champaign, IL, 1996: I own a retail store full of zany pagan friends in campus town. I sell my wares at the Colorado Renaissance Festival, the Bristol Renaissance Faire, the Ohio Renaissance Festival, and the Virginia Renaissance Faire. Those around me declare me High Priestess so I lead group rituals. I begin blending perfumes for each god and goddess who calls my name. Every day I am a blur of activity. More and more, the needs of people around me develop into sacred blends of essential oils. Each has its story and its personality. My blends are my babies. I feel as blessed with fertility as the rich, velvety earth of the Midwest, where I grow six foot high Valerian, Mugwort, and other herbs. When emotional circumstances threaten to overwhelm me, I strengthen my psychic shields by imagining spinning blades around my body. This reinforcement of my shielding process affects my synesthesia. The miasma of odors which constantly swirl around me, sometimes distracting me from everyday conversation, are controlled. I let in only the useful scents. The transformation is nuanced and subtle; I barely notice it myself in the din of my accelerating life. I take an aromatherapy intensive with Marcel Lavabre in Chicago. I learn basic chemistry of essential oils, and other tools of my trade. The Bristol Renaissance Faire has become a major source of income and creativity. The summer of 1995 is brutal. Clad in the restrictive layers of the 16th century, friends collapse of heat stroke and I want to help. I combine Peppermint essential oil with other cooling essential oils to soften the effect on the skin, and call it Coolth. I win the Faire Spirit award for saving the day.
Chicago, IL, 2002: My store is now in downtown Evanston, IL. I am still a blur of activity, but less so, since I have learned to delegate more to my employees. I read Valerie Worwood, Julia Lawless,Gabriel Mojay, Phillipe Mailhebiau, and Light Miller. I become a Reiki Master, which helps me better focus my intention when I am blending oils. In my Reiki practice, I deal with the Chakra system which leads to the development of essential oil blends to open and balance each Chakra. When I am in my workshop, I am always sure of my knowledge and experience. In my store or at a fair, I still sometimes lack confidence in front of an audience. One day at the Chicago Merchandise Mart, I run into the woman who generously taught me her soap-making wisdom. She remarks on how I always know exactly what each customer needs before they even open their mouths. Stunned at the truth of her words, I vow to start using my talents more thoroughly. Not long after my silent vow, I find myself giving presentations to Unilever (whose brands include Dove, Pond's, and Axe) and to the wonderful women of Gaia's Womb. These experiences prompt me to make essential oil blends to hormonally harmonize with each phase of a woman's life: Maiden, Mother, Queen, and Crone.
Denver, CO, 2007: I am thrilled to briefly escape my disintegrating marriage to house sit for my cousin over the winter holidays. After researching Kabbalah for several months, I feel ready to make a set of essential oil blends for each sephiroth on the Kabbalistic Tree of Life. A snowstorm traps me in the house for several days. I draw a big diagram of the Tree of Life and start writing essential oil names inside sephiroth circles. I read different interpretations of the lessons of the sephiroth, email a few friends about my ideas, and design scents to express the complex concepts coalescing in my mind. On a particularly icy day, my cousin's large dogs happily bound down the street and drag me after them. Because of the minor frostbite I acquired in China, I don't feel it when dog leashes tear off my thumbnail. I arrive back at my cousin's house to find my hand covered in blood; the pain easing in as my hand thaws. Alone and snowed in, I am calm and efficient as I clean my hand. I find the small bottles of Tea Tree, Clove, and Lavender oils in my purse, where I keep an essential oil first aid kit. I soak bandages with the oils before wrapping my thumb. The blood offering for my hubris in trying to understand Kabbalah has been made. I can now finish the sacred recipes in peace before I must return home.
Colorado Springs, CO, 2012: Love and laughter fill my home, but my loved ones are out running errands so I have my precious, creative solitude. I am blending an oil for a new client who does hot stone massage and clairvoyant work. I clean and reorganize my work table, wash bottles in rubbing alcohol, and bring out my scale. The ingredients have been selected during a consultation session with my client. The scent has been mulling in my head for three days. I can smell it in my mind. I know that its color is a deep brownish green. I know that its song sounds like Shadowfax, so I start that music in my workshop. I weigh each ingredient carefully and record each weight in my recipe. Larger quantities, I pour. I trust my hands after so many years of experience. For smaller quantities, I use droppers. For tiny quantities, I count drops. I revel in the beauty of the liquid in the light, and how each drop changes the scent.
The base note forms under my hands. It will linger on in time long after the rest of the scent has disappeared, so it must be pleasant and deep, but not overbearing. Precious woods, rich resins, and dark roots combine to create an earthy, velvety tone resonant with heavier herbs and grasses. I use nothing as cliche as Patchouli, but nothing as jarring as Labdanum. The base needs to rest now, so that each individual oil will start to "marry" with the others, before I begin blending the middle. I walk away from my work table and let the music carry me. I dance slowly around my workshop, raising my arms in supplication to the goddess and drawing down the energy which I instinctually recognize as my own. I have always known how to do this; it just took years to trust my muse and my communication skills.
Hours later (sometimes I wait days), I begin measuring out the middle note. This layer of scent is the main personality of the blend. Fresh leaves and sweet flowers combine in the bottle in front of me. I see the live plants in my head, entwined and sensual. As I let this note rest and sink into the base, I begin to sing a wordless song. It is the song of the emerging scent; a melody called up from my soul for this blend alone. Sometimes my scents have humorous, silly songs, but this one is deep, slow, and elegant.
Later, I focus my mind for the top note of the blend. The top note is the snap judgement--that first impression which makes or breaks a client's perception of the scent. The ingredients in the top note are measured in tiny amounts. My hand must be steady, my nose must be clear, and my head clearer still. Sharp, pungent spices and herbs with scents that reach to the heavens like great, gothic arches take shape in my modest, brown bottle. A smidgin of Yarrow essential oil gets on my hands. I rub them together and exult in the healing power of this deep blue oil. I envision the use of this blend in hot stone massage: how it will smell when mixed with the earthiness of the stones, the musk of a client, the residue of detergent in their clothing. The blend will now age for a day or two before I make the few adjustments which make me confident about its ability to heal. I go to my computer to print a label. I pause to smile in silent gratitude at the tiny flower fairy dolls which occupy sacred space on my desk.