Sometimes I wonder if my interest in perfume is a waste of time, or even immoral, given the turmoil of the world these days. I wonder if I should take the money I plow into perfume and send it to Mercy Corps instead. Why do I spend more time thinking about a good story or the smell of wood smoke than about the fate of the Endangered Species Act? Why do I spend part of each morning reading my favorite perfume blogs instead of reading The Nation?
I used to be more serious. I had a job as a congressional investigator, a Master’s degree in Public Administration, and a subscription to the Economist. But when I interviewed government officials, I was more interested in the wedding pictures on their desks or their rumpled lunch bags than how well the Czech Republic monitored its air. While my colleagues speculated on senate races, I congratulated myself on the masterful blend of my egg salad that day. I started to suspect that my base nature was to be superficial and that I didn’t have the character to do important work.
Then, on a vacation in the south of France I was briefly lost in the Old Town neighborhood of Nice, back when it was a little less savory than it is now. I looked up at a decrepit apartment building with laundry hung on rope, and I saw a window box full of bright geraniums. They were startlingly beautiful against the yellowed stucco of the building. I started to understand that almost every one of us, rich, poor, hungry, sick, or wallowing in luxury can taste, touch, see, feel, and — yes — smell.
One of the things I love most about perfume is how it encourages me to pay attention. No matter how scattered the rest of my day, I can tune into scent and be in the moment for a little while. Not only is it a sort of meditation, as a beautiful scent unfurls, it’s a deep pleasure. It may not be the cure for polio, but the reward of tuning in to our senses is profound.
If you can appreciate the crazy beauty of a lopsided mutt wagging his tail, the chatter of crows on a telephone wire, or the weight of a gathering storm, then you are paying attention and have access to one of the richest sources of joy I know: your senses. You are engaged in the world. Then, when you take it a step further and act on a love for beauty, as did the person in Nice who planted her window box with flowers, you spread that good feeling to others who are paying attention.
I know that eradicating hunger, disease, and war are vitally important, but I have to leave the biggest part of that work to people who are more talented that way than I am. It’s my job to tell stories that make people look at their surroundings and really see them. I believe that the more you pay attention, the more life has to offer you. For me, perfume is part of that.
Note: image via Touten Parfum.