Smells like home - #66
Cooking up some memories.
This week’s essay a little short after a very big week of road-tripping. But one brief thing first: I am so, so grateful to every single person who reads this newsletter. A few thousand of you open it every Sunday, and I want you to know I read every single comment and every single reply. It’s a gift to have you here.
The first thing we noticed when walking in after a week away was the scent. We’ve been living and stewing and sweating and toiling in this house for nearly a year and a half, and this is the second time we’ve come home to find it smelling like someone else. We looked at each other.
“Does it smell different to you?”
Had they burned the sage? Or some candle we never use? Did they wear colognes or perfumes or aftershave or lotion? Were they brewing tea or cooking with lavender? It didn’t smell unpleasant (honestly it smelled great) but it did not smell like our house and—
Ah, there it is. A new homeowner level unlocked: the house smells different after pet-sitters because the house now smells like us.
When we first walked in to tour this house, the scent was notable. It was a layered wine of incense, marijuana, cigarettes, beer, old men, and animal hide — those last two blending into or becoming one another over time. Line-dried clothes, an old dog, and somehow triple the plants we have now bringing fresh air and dirt to the buffet. And oh, oh how it smells of wood: of cedar and pine, of pecan and walnut, of countless fires driven by the fast burning heat of aspen. It smelled like someone lived exactly how they wanted to for 30 some years.
And then we showed up. We still find ourselves removing various oddities of the former owner — the fireplace screen, little pins scattered across the logs, a roll of ancient, glittery wrapping paper tucked into the top of the closet. Each item leaves with a sigh of relief, either finding itself in a new home or simply finding itself out of work. But for every item that leaves and every item that comes in, the house smells more and more like us. Like sage and arnica, cinnamon and clove, garlic and onions, cats and coffee.
The logs on the inside are untreated. They’re porous but generous, giving back what they soak in. Sometimes, I press my hands and my cheek against them, inhaling and intaking, to know their scent distinct from the stone and the furniture and animals among them.
Many moons ago, I found myself in the back of a sedan — a pile of us packed in like sardines to go to a party, and I packed in next to something new, something exciting. In the apartment we’d just been in, all drinking beers and doing shots, he’d been finding ways to be close to me: a knee leaned into mine, tucking a stray lock of hair, a hand on my shoulder, going so far as to ask one of my friends if I was single. All those electric touches, just one mistake away from blowing the whole grid. In the backseat, he put his arm around me, over my shoulders, drawing something indiscernible with his fingers across the skin of my arm. I turned my face toward him; toward his chest and his arm and his neck and I breathed in. I was so attracted to him and I wanted the memory burned into my clothes so I could return to the reverie, the idea of the before, should an after ever happen.
The after didn’t happen.
He turned to me and said, “ew, are you smelling me? What’s wrong with you, that’s gross.”
Even then I knew he was wrong. Even then, as he tried to shame me in the car revealing me to my friends, I knew that man would have been terrible to kiss, terrible to want, terrible to be with. Perhaps he’s changed. I have no way or care to know. I can’t remember what he looked like, I can’t remember his scent, and I can’t remember him because the things I can remember are dipped in Aqua Di Gio, Garnier Fructis Curl Scrunch Gel, the heavy scent of maple in Chardon, shoveling manure, tossing hay bales, burying my face in my horse’s musky coat, the popcorn shop overlooking the falls, running through patches of California Cudweed, campfire food, gasoline on hot pavement, cut grass just a day after the rain, my cat’s breath, my dog’s paws, candy canes melting in cocoa, Christmas Tree lots, aloe on sunburnt skin, and buttered shrimp swirling with the salted air.
We keep the windows cracked on road trips for Cooper, so he can find himself in the world. When we turn onto Topanga Canyon Boulevard, however deep he was sleeping, he awakes to the smell of the southern California chaparral, to the smell of what was once home. And he’s begun to do it again — stretching to catch the messages sent by the spruce and pinyon that he’s home again.
You can’t smell as well here. Olfactory function decreases at altitude. You wouldn’t know it though. I say I crack the windows for Cooper, but it’s for me too. To breathe in the world around me, to know it better. Are the wildflowers out? Is there fire in the West? Can I smell exhaust or tree trimming or wet mud or mag chloride? What can the air tell me that my eyes might miss? In February of this year, I shared my struggles with breathing. I was a mouth breather. My nose was the unpaid intern trying to look like it belonged on my face. And I went absolutely nuts attempting to fix it.
Now, some ten months later, I am sitting here writing this with my mouth closed, air passing as it pleases in and out of my nose. And I am still thinking of that jock in the back of that Honda who couldn’t appreciate lust, while I can appreciate the smell of leather and pepper in my wine, wet dirt in my freshly watered plants, and the subtle bewitching of camphor on a burnt match.
We grow accustomed to scent. Sitting in my house now, some five hours after arriving home, the scent of this cabin is lost on me. We have equalized to each other. But I smell the unlit candle as I pass by, I bury my face in each of the pets for their distinct and dirty and darling scents, and I stand outside the front door while food fries in the pan so I can experience the heft of it wafting from the vent to the street, getting lost in the thin night air.
My efforts to correct my breathing are working. It’s been reflected back to me in my resting heart rate, my HRV, my unchapped lips, the soundness of my sleep, and the sheer joy of being able to breathe in the places I used to find myself gasping: laying face down on a massage table, doing yoga, and just waking up in the morning not awash in my own charming but undesirable spit. All just in time for my favorite season of scents: December in the mountains. The crisp smell of pine, cinnamon lingering in the kitchen, eggnog, musty decorations, burning oak, nutmeg and peppermint and rosemary and sage. Everything smells so good and everything is so good to smell.
It’s a delight to walk into this home and know its scent, to know how it's been altered and to know when it’s returned. Scent is, after all, a reel of memories. And for something to smell like home? Well, that means we have one.
Share a scent memory in the comments that sticks with you, always.