The birth of a sniffaholic


perfume-1I remember vividly the first time I was mortified in front of a stranger. I was 14 years old and my mother had taken me to our pediatrician for a routine check-up. I remember sitting in the waiting room and wondering how  I — with my softly rounded beignet breasts, my tall-for-my-age height and Stephen King readings tastes — belonged in this room of Parents magazine, rattle toys and grimy babies.

But no bother. I was already getting used to pulling away — to having a life of my own not recognized by the adults around me, secrets of my own, an inner self that was exploring and learning and discovering without the burden of being conscious about it.

People talk a lot about how terrible it is to be a teenager, but remembering it now I know it was a great time to be  a person in a body.

My check-up was normal and I had already edged forward in my chair when my mother brought up something she hadn’t even talked about with me yet.

“Emily, do you think we should talk about your little problem?” she said.

“Um… what problem.”

Teenagers talk in declarations, by the way, not questions.

“You know, the soap sniffing.”

I had been taking a lot of baths. How much is a lot? Every night, for an hour and a half to two hours, I had been submersing myself in about two feet of water in our upstairs bathroom. What in the world was I doing up there?  Well, looking back I think I might have been watching my breasts grow until they were two floating islands poking out through the top of the water. Or maybe I was seeing how far my big toe would fit into the water spout. Or perhaps I was memorizing the ingredients of on a bottle of shampoo and saying methylchloroisothiazolinone until it became something of a mantra, or at the very least spoken-word poetry.

I was doing all of these things, but more than anything else, I was smelling a bar of Safeguard.

Safeguard is a pretty harsh soap to use on your skin. But at the time it was all I knew, and I was completely in love with it. It was clean and the texture was just slightly rough in my hands. I developed a way of massaging a bar of Safeguard with my hands, rolling it between my palms in order to produce a mass of bubbles as large as a hydrangea bouquet. Then I would pop them with my nose and inhale the scent.

Lather. Pop. Repeat.

There is a perfect moment in the life of a bar of Safeguard, by the way. When your hands have rounded the curves on the four corners, reduced the volume by about half and made it into an almost flattened egg shape, that’s when you know the soap is at the perfect phase for making scent bubbles.

“I don’t have a soap problem, mom,” I whispered to her in the doctor’s office.

“She’s carrying a bar of soap around with her,” Mom said.

“Really, I just like the smell.”

I liked the smell so much that when the bars of Safeguard got beyond their ideal size and shape for popping soap bubbles I would dry them out on the counter and then carry them in my pocket at school.

I was a girl with a C-cup in eighth grade. Enough said.

Soon, my friends knew me as the girl with the soap. I started getting soap gifts from people and amassed a small collection — Cherry bath beads, pristine, paper-wrapped Crabtree & Evelyn soaps shaped like shells and a green glycerin hippo. But it was always the bar of Safeguard I had in my pocket, ready to be whipped out at a moment’s, notice, a teenager’s talisman.

It was never about the shape, and I didn’t have any unfortunate OCD obsession with cleanliness. It was the smell — the act of inhaling, of finding the best way to get that scent, of smelling that scent when I really needed it, of where that scent took me, which in this case was back to the bathtub, and total, complete, unadulterated solitude.

“I think she’ll grow out of it,” Dr. Boben told my mother.

Guess what.

I grew out of Safeguard. But I didn’t grow out of the traveling through smell.

How to Make a Lavender Tincture


perfume-1The lavender bush outside of my kitchen window has been buzzing for more than a month. I can barely get close enough to snip some of the fragrant purple buds extended over the tops of the leaves for all of the bees. I like them there. I like the idea of them alighting just feet away from where I prepare our food, gathering what they need and then disappearing to who knows where.

All beautiful things are fleeting. All beautiful things are beauty for a moment and then wither into something else. All beautiful things peak and fade.

I think it’s natural to want to capture that beauty of an instant. All good art can do this. But with scents its a little trickier. It makes sense that capturing a scent would make you feel a little bit like you are a magician.

I’ve been practicing my magic on the 8 x 4 ft. lavender bush. I’ve been making potions, starting with lavender.

Lavender, as you might imagine from the smell, has all kinds of lovely uses, the most important of which is relaxation. The only thing in my head right now is how I’m going to use my tincture to add to the baths I get to take after the boys go to sleep, but I’m also envisioning some air freshening spray, maybe a skin toner. Anything where I can inhale its sharp floral essence.

Good Lord, by the time I’m done even the clocks in my house will have fallen asleep.

You can preserve lavender and other herbs in a tincture, a simple process by which the essential oils are extracted and preserved in alcohol. This is how you do it.

1. Get some booze

Vodka, with its minimal flavor, is the best alcohol to preserve herbs with. It needs to be at least 80 proof to prevent mildewing in the bottle.

2. Get the right container

The best containers for tinctures are ceramic or dark glass. I have a lot of mason jars laying around, so I’m using that to make the tincture, but they are best stored in dark bottles that can be stopped with cork or sealed with a screw-top lid. Make sure they are sterilized.

3. Prepare your lavender tincture

Rough chop your lavender harvest, including your stems, enough to fill the container you are making your tincture in. Cover with the alcohol.

4. Remove bubbles

Use a knife to stir around the edge of the glass jar to make sure there are no bubbles in the tincture.

5. Store the container

Place it in a dark place for as few as 7 days or as long as a month. Shake it regularly.

6. Strain

After your tincture has been seeping for as long as a month, strain it into a separate container through muslin cloth, cheesecloth or any other straining material to filter out the lavender stems and flowers. You see in the image that I used a coffee filter. Press into the material to ensure all of the good oils have left the plant.

7. Decant

Pour the tincture into your desired tincture bottle.

8. Label

Lavender tinctures can last as long as 5 years. Label your bottle and store it in a cool, dark place.

And…. done! I feel more relaxed already.

Cut from The Family Cloth


airstreamParenting in Oregon can be like a natural mothering chat board crossed with a Wild West variety show.

In my state, you don’t get any points for using cloth diapers. It’s pretty much expected. In fact, you should be making your own. Actually, you should probably sew your own and then launch a side business selling vintage 30s-inspired organic cotton diaper covers.

Making your own organic baby food? Maybe you should let your child forage in your backyard instead.

We do all these things because they feel right. Because we know every word to the intro to Tiny Toons, we turn off the TV.

But once you’ve taken the natural mothering route, it’s easy to let it creep into other parts of your life.

“So I’ve been thinking about this Family Cloth stuff,” I say to Adam one night. I was hand-quilting a throw and he was trimming a tiny, fragrant santalina bush at the kitchen table.

I first heard about The Family Cloth when I was hanging out with my home-schooling, CSA-growing, quilting friends talking about cloth diapering. They dropped it into conversation as if it were a regular turn of phrase, like “going to get milk” or “changing the baby.”

“We do family cloth,” my dear friend Katie said. “It’s just easier than buying toilet paper when you’re already doing cloth diapers.”

I knew what it was immediately. A giant roll of cloth being dispensed from the wall facing the toilet that you pull towards yourself and then through your legs like you’re flossing your buttocks with your sweetest burlesque.

Family cloth! It is definitely something that you “do.”

This is what Family cloth actually is: A basket filled with pieces of flannel or other soft squares of material that you use as toilet paper and then discard into a separate receptacle to be washed with your Bum Geniuses, G Diapers or Fuzzy Bunz.

“No,” Adam said.

“No, really, I’ve been reading about it and it doesn’t sound that bad,” I said.


“I was on this blog that explained all of the reasons it’s a great idea,” I said.

“Absolutely not.”

“But it’s supposed to feel AMAZING,” I said. “Once you do it, you never go back.”

“Emily, I don’t care what they said about it, it’s still poop on cloth.”

We went back to our quilting and trimming for a few minutes, the evening light dimming just a few shades more.

“You never get your toilet clogged with paper again,” I said.

“Or you could stop wrapping a poop mitt around your hand and just use two squares like I do,” he said.

“It gets you cleaner,” I said.

“Actually, I like my toilet paper a little rough so it feels really clean,” he said.

“Well let’s just get some burlap then,” I said.

“Or we could just use toilet paper,” he said. “Really, if you want to save the world, this is not the way to do it. Plastic diapers take hundreds of years to degrade. Toilet paper takes, what, a couple of months?”

“Well, I’m not going to try it if you’re not on board,” I said, crossing my arms.

“Good,” Adam said, snipping a tiny branch off the tree.

Too bad. I already had the felt picked out (see above).

The whole time I was writing a book


HouseI’m writing a book. There, I said it. And I can pinpoint the moment when I realized I have been writing this book for four years, ever since we were driving out of Idaho and into Oregon and somehow ended up on a road that was snaking towards the Columbia River  on top of the clouds.

It looked like a scene out of Highway to Heaven.

I’ve been thinking about the same things I always seem to think about — place, character, the love affair between the two — and have been wondering if there wasn’t something lurking inside me, something ready to be born, something that has been waiting a long time to come out. The realization came to me after a lot of immersing myself in a ton of books about writing nonfiction books.

I highly recommend books about books, by the way. It’s gloriously meta. Book-on-book action.

So I’ve been spending the last few weeks reading a lot about writing. It never gets old. I can read the same old advice told differently and laid out in different typeset, but  it never fails to fire me up. I can’t stop revisiting the stories about story.

And wouldn’t you know it —  I was floored when I discovered something new while clicking through — yes, Kindle version — a book by Marion Roach Smith called The Memoir Project: A Thoroughly Non-Standardized Text for Writing & Life.  The author mentioned something I had not heard of before as a way to inspire yourself when you’re writing a book.

Well, I’m not writing a book, I said to myself, but I’d like to. Let’s try it out.

The advice said: Make a book cover for yourself and put it on the wall as inspiration.

Now, to my mind, all you really need for a book cover whose sole purpose is to inspire is an image, a title, a subtitle and your sweet little byline. So I took one of my favorite images from an amazing Salem artist, Alexandra Opie, who is doing a project where she layers tin-type photographic portraits over images of modern-day people.

They are stunning. And they reminded me of what it felt like to move to Oregon — to believe you are somehow stepping into the narrative of the West, even if the only thing pioneer-y about you is all the things you left behind.

So I made a crude cover with one of Alexandra’s portraits and I thought about one of my favorite lessons from the feature writing course that I teach — sum up your story in just two words. It wasn’t too difficult.

Pioneer — You leave, you forge something new, sometimes you do it alone. You go West. You go to Oregon.

Perfume — You breathe, you connect, you suck the world in with your wild, insatiable heart.

Pioneer Perfume. It might smell like the sweat of canning all of the tomatoes from your garden. It might smell like a young woman who is a migratory songbird learning how to nest. It might smell like the terroir of a well-aged pinot that has absorbed all of the elements the earth offered up to it. It might smell funny, like a new mom wondering what in the world her new friends in Oregon mean by “family cloth.”

Whatever it is, it smells like a book.