For the last month or so, I’ve been possessed with a passionate interest in the sense of smell. I follow the resolution to cultivate good smells — I’ve read lots of books, I’ve started disciplining myself to be more aware of the smells that I encounter in my day, I’ve been eliminating sources of bad smell in my home (a very worthwhile endeavor, by the way), and I’ve also become interested in perfume.
I’ve never had much interest in perfume, but suddenly I am, because so much of the energy and writing around the subject of smell is related to perfume.
I’m newly fascinated by perfume, but I’m also fascinated by my own process of becoming fascinated. As Virginia Woolf noted in her Diary: “I must remember to write about my clothes next time I have an impulse to write. My love of clothes interests me profoundly: only it is not love, & what it is I must discover.”
Because of the happiness project, I spend a lot of time asking, “What elements are necessary for a happy life?” I’ve become convinced that one of the greatest supports to a person’s happiness is passion — whether for musical theater, video games, constitutional history, camping, stamps, shoe-shopping, teaching English as a second language, or whatever.
Now, it might seem that some passions are “better” than others — they help other people, or they’re of a “higher” nature, or they’re more healthy or wholesome. Maybe. But any passion is a great boon to happiness.
A passion gives you a reason to keep learning and to work toward mastery. It can often give you a reason to have the new experiences so key to happiness. It gives you something in common with other people, and so fosters social bonds. It gives you purpose. It often has a satisfying physical aspect — rock-climbing, fly-fishing, knitting, smelling. It gives meaningful structure to your time. It makes the world a richer place. When you’re in pain, it can be a refuge, a distraction, a solace.
So now, when I feel a flicker of interest, I pursue it. I used to fight these impulses, because I thought they were distractions from my “real” work, but now I know what joy they can bring.
So I let myself go. I’m swamped with work right now, but I reckon I’ve read more than a dozen books about the sense of smell and perfume in the last few weeks. I’ve dog-eared my copy of Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez’s Perfumes: The A-Z Guide. I’ve made special trips to wonderful stores (very unusual for me, an inveterate under-buyer) like CB I Hate Perfume and Frederic Malle, and there are more places I want to go. I’ve spent way too much time on sites like Now Smell This and Michael Edwards’s Fragrances of the World. I’ve ordered so many samples from Perfumed Court — really, a lot. In a short time, although I’m no expert of course, I’ve become knowledgeable enough that when I was reading a particular book (I won’t name the title), I thought, gosh, isn’t this full of factual errors? I looked at online reviews and, indeed, reviewers had noted the many mistakes. I felt so pleased with myself!
But yet again, I find myself battling the same foolish impulses:
- My impulse to convince myself that I like what I “ought” to like: “Of course I love L’Heure Bleue. Everyone loves L’Heure Bleue.”
- My desire to be very grown-up: “Is it babyish of me to love soliflore perfumes so much? shouldn’t I prefer more complex scents?” (A soliflore is a fragrance that captures the scent of a single flower, like rose or lily of the valley.)
- Should I squelch my interest in smell because it’s embarrassingly primal and therefore awkward to talk about?
- Should I squelch my interest in perfume because it makes me seem materialistic?
- Would it be cooler not to be interested in perfume, because so many people now make a point of not wearing it, or at least cooler to insist on a perfume that doesn’t use any synthetic ingredients? (Even though in my heart I embrace the use of synthetics. Bring it on! More smells!)
- Isn’t it kind of goofy to be so enthusiastic about this? Shouldn’t I be less easy to please? Or least, shouldn’t my interests be more…original?
- Is perfume a subject worthy of my precious attention, time, energy, and money?
- When I find a perfume I love, shouldn’t I save it for special occasions? (otherwise known as the spend out problem).
- On the other hand, is it wasteful to acquire “smells” that can’t be used as perfume? Like CB I Hate Perfume’s Black March. Gorgeous, but what can I do with it?
Over and over, I remind myself of my first personal commandment: Be Gretchen. Follow my interest as far as it leads. Stay true to what I actually love, not what I think I “ought” to love or what others tell me is “better.” Allow myself to be swept away by enthusiasm, and in a way that lifts up other people, rather than trying to maintain my dignity. Imitate the spiritual master and patron saint of enthusiasts, Julia Child.
It’s a Secret of Adulthood: I can choose what I do, but I can’t choose what I like to do. I can decide not to pursue my interest in perfume, but I can’t make myself develop an interest in chess. One of the sadnesses of a happiness project is recognizing my limitations, the truth about who I really am. But it doesn’t matter who I wish I were. I am Gretchen.
And the thing is, every time I keep my resolution to “Be Gretchen,” I find my life enlarged, my pleasures deepened, my knowledge expanded, my ties to other people strengthened. Ah, the smell of Lys Mediterranee! How happy that beautiful fragrance makes me. How sad it would have been if I’d missed the chance to discover it.
If you love to read, be sure to check out Slightly Foxed, “the real reader’s quarterly.” It’s a delightful quarterly magazine filled with book essays — not reviews of recent books, but writing about books beloved by the writers. I never read an issue without making several terrific discoveries. Also, it’s a great gift for a book-lover, if you’re not sure what books to buy — that’s how I found it.
Sometimes people ask me to contribute a copy of The Happiness Project for auctions or benefits for non-profit organizations, and I’m very happy to do that. Just email me at gretchenrubin1 at gmail dot com.