Neither locale nor literature were my choice. When our old house sold before the new one was completely built, my family had been forced to relocate in a hot hurry. My great-aunt Floss1 had recently passed away, leaving behind a fully-furnished home in Holiday City2. Dim and sour-smelling, crammed with rotting silk lampshades and dusty furniture, this ranch-style mausoleum became our default emergency headquarters for the season.
Imagine row upon row of tiny houses, identical right down to their window-boxed pink geraniums. Behind every lace curtain lurks a full-time spy spoiling for a sidewalk fight; behind every door a powder keg of neighborly resentment sizzles. Into this surreal and stultifying Peyton Place, drop a restless teenager with no car, depressive tendencies, and only one book to read3. I could not rest serenely within this place, this body, this confounded SELF. I don't exaggerate when I say that my summer sojourn in Holiday City almost cost me my mind.
In the midst of isolation and loneliness, Anne Morrow Lindbergh's calm, reasonable voice seemed a lifeline for the drowning:
The shape of my life is, of course, determined by many other things; my background and childhood, my mind and its education, my conscience and its pressures, my heart and its desires. I want to give and take... to share with friends and community, to carry out my obligations to man and the world, as a woman, as an artist, as a citizen.All summer long, I pored over Lindbergh's precious words of wisdom, desperate to isolate the solution, the key, the secret to ending this claustrophobic misery. She overcame it. Couldn't I?
But I want first of all -- in fact as an end to these other desires -- to be at peace with myself (pg. 23).
My gift came not from the sea, but from the Board of Education. If my parents didn't want to drive miles to school twice a day, they'd have to farm me out from Seniorville. This they did, and I moved in with a friend's family just in time for the fall semester. Under a gloss of surface normality, I rejoined the flow of student life-- yet my sense of deep dissociation continued. But by then it was no good seeking relief from Anne Morrow Lindbergh. Try as I might, I could not resurrect the meaning her insights had held for me only a month earlier. Each powerful syllable now seemed woefully flimsy, as weightless and formulaic as the paper fortune inside a gumball machine prize. This time, I would have to pull myself from the quicksand and struggle toward answers of my own.
When we moved into the new house, I did not take Gifts from the Sea with me. Why should I? Life awaited me out in the world-- not within the flaking pages of a lousy old paperback.
I purchased my sample of Vanille Insensée (Foolish Vanilla) in February, just before my appendix blew. Curiosity had prompted me to secure this oft-reviewed fragrance; duress caused me to forget it. I found this perfectly simple to do. I had no prior connection to Vanille Insensée, and therefore no need of it; it was a total stranger, easy and guilt-free for me to abandon.
Towards the end of the summer, when I rescued Vanille Insensée from the depths of the Scent Cabinet, it was almost by accident-- I certainly hadn't gone looking for it. No sense of purpose or urgency drove me to it; nothing within me nagged, "Today I must wear Vanille Insensée, or nothing!" And when I did wear Vanille Insensée, no inner voice demanded an encore. It struck me as bland, featureless, nice-- so nice I forgot I was wearing it while I was wearing it; so nice I forgot to wear it again for a few months more.
Holiday notwithstanding, the last week or so was a pretty bleak stretch marked by the kind of sustained tension that makes time feel as though it has stopped cold. A brainless and comforting scent sounded right up my alley, and since I had a little bit of Vanille Insensée left, I naturally went in for a couple of desultory dabs. But this time, something did nag at me-- a strange, uncomfortable echo of the past.
Was it a familiar sense of inertia, of being paralyzed by circumstance and desperate for a deus ex machina to come and break me free?
Was it the suspicion that comfort is not to be trusted, or that a platitude offers the easiest -- but not most lasting -- refuge from pain?
Or was it simply that Vanille Insensée smells exactly like a yellowed paperback crumbling away to nothing in the suffocating solitude of an old lady's house?
1Her given name was Florence, but younger siblings found this impossible to pronounce. I have always found it supremely ironic that a woman so reminiscent of cold hard steel should have ever borne a name of such gossamer lightness.
2I have requested that my husband forcibly smother me if I ever seriously propose relocating to a 55+ community. For the express purpose of carrying out this wish, he keeps a bed pillow eternally at the ready. Occasionally he says, "Now?" and I reply, "Not just yet, my sweet."
3I'm waiting for Tim Burton to make THAT movie.
Scent Elements: Lime, citron, coriander, jasmine, vetiver, oakmoss, Madagascar vanilla, oakwood, amber