Drift off and smell the jasmine

March 21, 2010

We can wake up and smell the coffee, and we can stop and smell the roses but this time of year in Los Angeles always enchants me with the seductive perfume of night blooming jasmine.

I had never smelled anything like jasmine growing up in Chicago.  There, lilacs, roses and geraniums rose above a palate of cut grass and wet leaves; but in March it was often still the smell of melting dirty snow and fog rolling in off the lake.

Smells are so powerful, and emotional.  Scent triggers memory, attraction and repulsion.  We have smells that take us right back to childhood, a hint of perfume that reminds us of a past romance—or of an old aunt.

We all have our personal labyrinths of smell—those that bring to mind love, sorrow, freedom, fun and of course parenting.  So many things can be analyzed, defined, packaged and marketed, but beyond all that, smell is deeply personal and so vivid a part of life.

There is a wonderful old film by Hal Ashby, Harold and Maude in which an enchanting older woman has a relationship with a suicidal young man and ultimately releases him from his lugubrious angst.  There’s a scene in the film where Maude, played by Ruth Gordon, uses a case of scents in vials to evoke feelings in her blocked young friend—a sort of proto-aromatherapy.

Strange random scents can be transporting, like that of old carpets, stale soup and dust in my Buby’s apartment building when I was a kid that was like depression and melancholy; or the subtle scent of rust in old screen windows that evoke twilight and crickets and fireflies; or how certain strains of diesel exhaust make me feel a free man in Paris, walking into the adventure of a summer holiday; or how rumbly summer rain on hot concrete smells like longing lapping at the shores of innocence.

Night blooming jasmine smells like The Big Sleep, and Farewell my Lovely.  It smells like black sedans winding up Laurel canyon with tires hissing over wet blacktop; it smells like men in fedoras and trench-coats and women in silk kimonos, whiskey, cigarettes and cool spring air perfumed by the fleshy white blossoms sobering and intoxicating.

The season of the night blooming jasmine is not Mayfly short, but it comes and goes in a matter of weeks, only further intensifying my association of life in LA—life on the edges of the movie business, the smell of hope and promise; other Marches brought the paired associations of group home kids and cooking in cheap apartments, but the jasmine blooms all night and all over and infuses every corner of this wide yet Dickensian city.  When I finally was able to buy a house, in my forties, Andy planted night blooming jasmine and trained it up the post by the front door.  This week, to come home is to walk beneath a fireworks display of blossoms after a long day and my nose fills with this evocative smell that is for me more distinctly LA than any other; it has become the smell of my home… my city of lost angels, laborers, writers, movie actors, shrinks, bankers, gardeners and so vastly many others… all united this week under a subtle blanket of scent.

What smells transport you?  Which ones take you back or fix you in the present moment?  Which smells bond you to your kids?  Can you remember the smell of your baby’s breath?  Or are you more in the chapter of locker-room car after the soccer match?

Let’s dedicate today (and tonight) to following our noses, perhaps into our good feelings that have lasted and which can bloom again in the here and now—and in the service of all our collective kids.

Namaste, Bruce

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

BigLittleWolf March 21, 2010 at 6:36 pm

What a delicious reminiscence. I can close my eyes and smell your jasmine.


privilegeofparenting March 21, 2010 at 8:39 pm

Thanks for joining… it fades so fast that I’ll soon be merely conjuring once again.


Lindsey March 21, 2010 at 6:57 pm

Pipe smoke brings me instantly back to being a child and watching my father, sitting in a pool of light reading, his pipe clenched between his lips. It is immediate and visceral. The smell of cut grass reminds me of being a kid in the summer. Laundry smells like home.


privilegeofparenting March 21, 2010 at 8:43 pm

Yes I like the pipe smell as well, and a good friend of the family who also brought the smell of winter and tweed with his coat from the cold, and then I think also of that distinct pipe-in-the-middle-of-the-next-day without the smoker… a strange echo of warmth.


Kristen @ Motherese March 21, 2010 at 8:35 pm

There is a distinct aroma – part Spaghetti-O, part mystery-meatball – of institutional kitchens that always transports me back to the cafeteria of my elementary school, the scene of many morality plays of my youth. Not quite as lovely as jasmine, I imagine.


privilegeofparenting March 21, 2010 at 8:46 pm

I can see the linoleum in my mind’s eye… by Friday the smell of fish sticks could be in the air.


Stephanie March 22, 2010 at 9:33 pm

my dad used to use a deodorant called “mum” every day.

That’s a little odd…

I like the Jasmine too – when I first moved here the flowers amazed me – and they still do.


privilegeofparenting March 22, 2010 at 9:55 pm

I guess sometimes mum’s the pits, but then sometimes a mum’s just a blossom dearie :)


Beth K March 23, 2010 at 5:57 am

I loved the smell of my grandmother’s house in Miami — it was sort of fruity, but not sweet. My children’s baby smell was another favorite.


privilegeofparenting March 23, 2010 at 2:33 pm

It’s nice when grandmotherly love gets paired with a scent… and when those we love most come with a scent all their own.


krk March 24, 2010 at 1:00 pm

Cinnamon and vanilla are the smells that transport me to my grandmother’s
kitchen Where it was warm and safe, and happy. How nice of you to help us
recall the power of scent.


privilegeofparenting March 24, 2010 at 7:39 pm

And I think of the smells of your kitchen, especially when we all cook together—the sweetness of pies and the sizzle of chicken a la Krob.


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