Sandalwood Love: Heart(wood) in a Bottle

Sandalwood reminds me of entering homes with objects from faraway lands. My aunt and uncle had such a home as this, with artifacts collected in world travels scenting the almost sacred space. When I entered the familiar yet exotic realm, my child’s imagination and consciousness expanded to include worlds beyond the tiny one I occupied.

 

As Deniz Ataman, managing editor at Perfumer & Flavorist put it in an email, “At the root of it, perfumery is about sharing the essence of the Earth’s spirit and creating beauty for others to enjoy.”
Earlier this year, Perfumer & Flavorist teamed up with The American Society of Perfumers (ASP) and TFS (an Australian company sustainably growing and harvesting Santalum album) in a perfume contest using this precious commodity. It was in fact this competition that inspired me to write about sandalwood, because, as I mentioned in Aroma Victoriana, it is an unfortunate age-old tradition in perfumery to be secretive, and the World Perfumery Congress (WPC) is one of the few places where the spotlight shines on the perfumer, instead of the hype of a brand or celebrity so common in the fragrance industry.

 

Ataman attests to the excitement of this unique competition, “Working with the American Society of Perfumers and TFS Corporation for the perfume contest was one of the highlights of my career. Our team was fortunate enough to participate in the judging with five other perfumers. It was quite an experience to watch a perfumer in action–it’s not just about smelling. It’s about experiencing, it’s about unlocking your memory and traveling to forgotten places.”

Jennifer Jambon, a perfumer at Molton Brown (London), won the competition. In its announcement article, TFS quoted The president of ASP, Chris Diienno, explaining her win:

 

“Jennifer Jambon’s winning fragrance topped a world class selection of contenders by striking a delectable balance of complimentary notes. Capturing the magic of the TFS sandalwood, she exposed it just enough to allow it to peek out and blend with the beautiful orris accord she had developed. This gave an elegance to the creation that became the determining factor for the judges,”

 

Sandalwood is one of the building block materials in both men’s and women’s fragrances. In fact, the oft quoted figure from Michael Edwards “the perfume experts’ expert,” is that approximately 47 percent of all fragrances since 1790 contain sandalwood notes.

 

Considering the demand, it’s no wonder Sandalwood (Santalum album) has been for decades overharvested and endangered. Thus, the WPC’s 2016 theme of Scents and Sustainability had a focal point in the work of TFS.

 

Sandalwood oil derives from the heartwood of a mature tree. There is much oil in the roots, so in order to yield the full potential of oil, the tree must be uprooted, the outer bark and branches stripped away, the inner pulverized and then steam distilled. In India, Santalum album is endangered and even threatened with extinction. Although the Indian government has done much to regulate the buying and selling of the oil which sells at upwards of $2000 per kilo, poaching is obviously a problem, and enforcement difficult.

 

As Keville and Green put it in Aromatherapy, “Sandalwood has a long history of being overharvested everywhere it grows, and it is difficult to cultivate and grows very slowly, taking twenty to fifty years to reach maturity.”

 

The time it takes to grow sandalwood is clearly at odds with the desire to be a profitable business. Keville and Green conclude their section on sandalwood as a “threatened essential oil plant” (alongside rosewood and spikenard) thus: “India’s sandalwood trade dropped in half during the 1980s. Replanting efforts and the control of poaching have been difficult. Some landowners actually cut down the trees rather than risk poachers, who often arrive armed and dangerous.”

 

In fact, according to a 2014 article at the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), rangers are killed for protecting nature’s pricey offerings: “Almost 60% of all rangers killed this year are from Asia, with the majority of those from India. India, Thailand, Kenya and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) have seen the sharpest increase in ranger deaths caused by poachers in recent years. Areas rich in elephants, rhinos, sandalwood, rosewood and other valuable resources are most affected.”

 

Besides being a precious commodity for which people have been killed, sandalwood takes time and special effort to grow. Sandalwood, like its relative the European mistletoe, is hemiparasitic. The hemi means that the plant contains chlorophyll, and therefore carries out some photosynthesis, but derives a great deal of nutrients from neighboring trees. So, while human poachers are after sandalwood’s heartwood, the sandalwood tree is sucking the life out of its neighbors!

 

Hemiparasitic trees have specialized roots called haustoria that attached themselves to the root systems of other trees and pilfer their nutrients. Emma Mende, a forester who works with the TFS team in Australia’s tropical north, growing over 4.5 million Indian sandalwood trees and 10 million host trees, describes the endeavor in a brief Q&A:

 

“Over the course of an Indian sandalwood tree’s life it will use around 3 different host trees. While we plant all of the host trees in the plantations at the same time, the Indian sandalwood tree will move from the pot host to the fast growing medium-term host which is strong enough to support the nutrient requirements of the Indian sandalwood tree. Once the medium-term host tree dies at around 3 years of age, the Indian sandalwood tree will move to the long-term host which by that stage is strong enough to sustain the Indian sandalwood tree’s growth. The Indian sandalwood (Santalum album) will then host on this tree for the rest of its life.”

 

She concludes by making the connection between the forester’s job and oil production:

 

“To achieve the best yields this parasitic relationship needs to be carefully managed even from the seedling stage. This is because the development of heartwood in a stem is largely dependent upon diameter growth early in an Indian sandalwood tree’s life. This is important since fatter (larger diameter) trees generally have more heartwood and therefore offer more oil yield.”

Since the original publication of this article in my Distill My Heart column at Quail Bell Magazine, I have had the privilege of smelling TFS Sandalwood, and it is glorious! But as I’d not yet got my nose on the TFS Santalum album and in order to learn some distinction between species, I travelled to NYC’s West Village to the beautiful aromatherapy supply store Enfleurage, where I purchased a tiny vile–2ml–of Santalum album from Indonesia.

I also got to do a little comparison contrast with another species of sandalwood native to Australia, Santalum spicatum, which was much stronger and in some ways seemed more familiar, more easily recognizable, intellectually anyway, as sandalwood. It poked me in the nose and announced itself, “I’m sandalwood!” In other words, not a terrible smell, just a little over-friendly, bordering on aggressively pleasant, like an ambitious salesperson.

On the other hand, the Santalum album drifted into my consciousness as if from a tiny box of exotic treasures rarely opened. When I got it home I put a drop in my palm and rubbed the woodsy warmth around. Creamy sweet and softly spicy, this lingering scent is ambiguously seductive, being neither too feminine nor too masculine. I’m smelling myself right now, and I smell delicious!

In response to my follow-up email, Joe Richkus (who teaches many of the free classes at Enfleurage) wrote that the Indonesian trees that provide the oil they carry are left to grow for forty years before they are harvested and added, “It could be a lot better, but that’s a happy medium given the climate for fast profit today.  The older the tree, the better the oil.”

Hence, sandalwood is necessarily expensive. My little 2ml vile of deliciousness cost me $25 at Enfleurage, and at Organic Infusions I see they are selling Santalum album (CO2 extracted) for $94 for 5ml. One of my favorite aromatherapy shops, Stillpoint Aromatics does not carry S. album, but carries Royal Hawaiian (Santalum paniculatum for $300/oz.

In other words, if the stuff is cheap, chances are it is not sandalwood at all but another genus altogether, such as Amyris. Also, real sandalwood may be adulterated with a synthetic, such as Sandela or Javanol, which can work, albeit with much fussing, in perfumery, but may run you into trouble if you try to use it medicinally or in aromatherapy.

Sandalwood has had many uses through the ages, and so the peddling of fake or adulterated sandalwood is nothing new. In Sandalwood and Carrion, James McHugh writes, “Sandalwood is arguably as important a raw material to South Asian religions and civilization as jade is to China or porphyry was to the Roman Empire at certain times. … Taking sandalwood as an example, I present several texts on the evaluation and artifice of aromatics and conclude that faking this costly material was clearly both common and very profitable.”

 

There is so much to say about a product of nature prized for millennia, that I will wind this potentially book-length subject down with this insightful comment from McHugh, “things smelled differently in early and medieval South Asia than they do today: not only were there many different odorants to smell (more elephants and sandalwood for example, at least in certain circles), but, more important, things smelled differently because of what was in people’s heads when they smelled things.”

 

In conclusion, I offer this thought: When an exotic fragrance is, by ingenuity and cunning, distilled and transported so far from its natural and cultural habitat, to land like an arrow from nowhere into our noses, we skirt the dangers of simple appropriation. A quick Google search for “sandalwood” will find you thousands of posts about the marvelously spiritual effects of sandalwood, which appeal I think to our sometimes untethered experience of modernity. Perhaps learning a little bit about the tree that gives its life for our pleasure will help us to feel less greedy about having it in our lives, and realize that our demands for natural must necessarily be costly. It is up to us to decide if the costs should be suffered by our pocketbooks or the environment. If we are ok with taking the hit financially, then a 2ml vile of the essence of Santalum album’s heartwood offers an olfactory expansion of our personal smellscape that is not otherwise quantifiable.

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Resonating With the Visible, genesis of a Poem

I was sewing–I hand-sew, as you can read about in Sewing Blind–and listening to the series of interviews Bill Moyers had with Joseph Campbell in the last year of his life (1987), collectively called The Power of Myth, when I heard Moyers preface his next question with this:

“We talked about the effect of the hunting plain on mythology, this space clearly bounded by a circular horizon with the great dome of heaven above. But what about the people who lived in the dense foliage of the jungle? There’s no dome of the sky, no horizon, no sense of perspective–just trees, trees, trees.”

I paused the interview and continued stitching. Occasionally sewing becomes a kind of active meditation for me. I thought about that phrase “circular horizon with the great dome of heaven above.” It resonated. I allowed the associations to ripple gently on the lake of consciousness. I’m not sure how long before the rings of “circular horizon with the great dome of heaven above” met those of a visual memory of a desert sunrise , but when they did the opening lines of “Never Be Sorry” emerged.

The memory began in the predawn desert of Joshua Tree National Park. My UC Santa Cruz roommates and I had driven down the day before and arrived at night to the campground. I awoke before dawn to a cold so cold that I still compare all colds to that one. Surely it was not actually as cold as some recent winters in NYC, but sleeping on the ground in a flimsy down sleeping bag my feet and hands were painfully frozen, almost burning so that tears started to my eyes. My companions were somehow still sleeping while I stared at the millions of sharp cold stars. Perhaps I could have forgotten my pain if I had been able to pick out constellations, but having lost my central vision when I was in high school, I had never been able to make them out–I could see the stars just as I could see inked letters on a printed page, but without the detail rendered by the fovea, the words and pictures refused me their intelligibility.

So I stared at those frozen chips of light and thought they might enter my heart and freeze my soul, like what happened to the little boy in The Snow Queen. The sleep breathing of my companions assured me I was not alone, but sometimes that is not enough–one yearns in this lonely universe for conscious companions to witness the pain and creeping fear.

The hours or only minutes passed. Perhaps I closed my eyes for a moment. When they reopened, I found a new scene, one that so took my breath away that the cold seemed almost to disappear.

Rolling my eyes around that great expanse of sky–that exalted dome–I saw a pale silver lightening rising up from the horizon, silhouetting the sharp rocks, which appeared heaped into crazy formations as if by an abstract-expressionist deity.

And finally, just above the silver ring of impending sunrise, hung a sliver-moon risen, it seemed, just to complicate the transition from night to day, and create the illusion of a metamorphosis arrested, the dome of night suspended forever in the bowl of rising day.

My poem of sight and blindness would be about the beauty and more than beauty–sublimity–of the visible world. I wanted to celebrate the visible, celebrate my participation in the appreciation of that world from a perspective of one who no longer participates physically in that appreciation, but who, in her mind’s eye via memory and art, still attempts to participate in the glorious materiality of sight.

The poem would resonate with the visible, with ambiguous regret–how can I regret having seen such beauty? How can I not regret, when the having-seen causes a painful desire for more?

The fleeting quality of the visible world had no better analogy than a sight once seen of butterflies falling from the skies in coupling torrents, falling into our hands and into our hair and all around, a frenzy of mating butterflies in an improbable grove of eucalyptus trees. It had been a memory ripe for art picking for many years.

According to the Natural Bridges State Beach website, ” From late fall into winter, the Monarchs form a ‘city in the trees.’ The area’s mild seaside climate and eucalyptus grove provide a safe place for monarchs to roost until spring.”

In my time at UC Santa Cruz, I often brought visiting friends and family to see the monarchs, but never had I seen it like that. Most times I went the weather was not warm enough for them to fly much and they clustered in the trees, wings folded, so that I, with my poor vision, would never have recognized them as butterflies if they’d not been pointed out to me.

The day the butterflies fell from the sky in copulating pairs is so crystalline a memory that I sometimes fear it was a dream. A dream of nature that, as a child, I often experienced as an extension of my waking life–a dream set in a specific and quotidian event or outing–a field trip that really did take place in a verifiable way–but so improbable as to force the memory into the taxonomical mental space of a dream, but nonetheless differing not at all from the memories of autobiographical reality.

As I am writing, I grow more fearful that my mating butterflies memory is not real. For the first time I am trying to situate it in a day, trying to give context–who was I with, for example? We, laughing and stunned, opened our hands to catch them as they fell, but the other hasn’t an identity , just a presence, a guy but not a lover. Sounds rather fishily like a dream, no? And yet I’m positive it happened. And yet I’m disturbed.

I wonder, for the first time, if essaying the story of a poem can destroy its reality? Can a poem even be destroyed in such a way?

Unsure of my answers to the above, I rush on to present my real point: I loved seeing and yet I think being in love with seeing is a danger all seeing mortals face. That to see constantly without a lens, aesthetic or philosophical, or from the perspective of impending blindness, or recovered sight, or religious ecstasy, or even scientific curiosity, is to see without anything but one’s eyes, and thus to render oneself a mere gawker or dumb tourist.

As Campbell puts it in the opening lines of The Power of Myth:

“People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances within our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive .”

And so with this idea of resonance in mind, I will not be disturbed by the possible unreality of the mating butterflies falling from the sky. If it is but a dream vision, its purity as memory speaks to the power of imagination to endow sad inert brown clusters of cold insects hanging from eucalyptus trees in a Santa Cruz grove, with the flight and life-frenzy of mating monarchs in all their sun dappled orange and black magic.

If I held one of these coupling double-creatures in my hand only in my dreams, is it not enough?

Never Be Sorry

 

 

I Will Never Be Sorry

To have seen that jagged desert,

Encircled by horizon,

Topped with that great dome

Of exalted blue heavens above,

Or that lovely cool sliver of a moon.

 

And I will never be sorry

To have seen that ragged face

(that great last love

That blazed so quick)

Or to have loved it

With spit and fire.

 

And I will never be sorry

To have Seen these fucking butterflies–

Literally, fucking butterflies–

Falling from the sky

(It’s hard to fly   when you’re fucking)

So they drop

Into the hand of one

Who will never be sorry she sees them

Drop dancing into the palm of her

And dance till they rocket apart.

 

Up and away

Into that close slab of sky,

Chipped away by these eucalyptuses–

These Eucalypti?

Whatever they are called,

THEY DO NOT BELONG HERE:

Australian trees on a Santa Cruz

Draw the monarchs from

God only knows where.

 

This is an impossible grove

With its accessible walks

And its stupid visitors hut–

Winds might yet blow it all away.

 

And on that ocean

Sit those natural bridges,

Carved out by a thousand years of pounding,

Had I like them

Energy enough   and time

I would never, never,

Never be sorry.

 

*This revised version of “Never Be Sorry” was published at Quail Bell Magazine. Here also is the original version, with photographic visionscape by Todd Jackson…

 

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The Sea Spells, Helen Keller’s Favorite Books

“Books have been my most intimate companions,” wrote Helen Keller in a letter to a suitor in 1922.

There can be little doubt that Helen derived much pleasure from the solitary communion of reading. That much of this pleasure was escapist in the extreme, she freely admits, “More than at any other time, when I hold a beloved book in my hand my limitations fall from me, my spirit is free. Books are my compensation for the harms of fate. They give me a world for a lost world, and for mortals who have disappointed me they give me gods.”

Books supplied what Helen’s missing senses could not, but they also supplemented the world’s lack. Failure and frailty, greed and indifference could never be totally got over in this world, but in the world of books men and women could live the lives of heroes. Helen was by no means misanthropic, but neither was she a Pollyanna. She was a card-carrying Socialist and political activist. In 1913, she published a book of essays called Out of the Dark, which railed against capitalist greed and demanded social reformation. Her decidedly leftist outspokenness angered many people who saw her radical politics as abhorrent, and antithetical to their angelic ideal of her.

If her politics were radical, her literary tastes were perhaps less so, and yet…. And yet, there were so few books available to her. She did not have the luxury of electronic books or of searching vast databases. She necessarily relied heavily on others to tell her about new books and authors. Often she had to have them transcribed for her, a costly and time consuming effort. Sometimes the easiest, if least satisfactory, method was simply to have someone read a book to her by spelling into her hand. This meant she would not be able to refer back to it. Once read, it was lost. I can only wish she had more books at her disposal.

She writes in her second and less famous autobiography Midstream: My Later Life, that her most beloved book is the Bible:

“I cannot take space to name here all the books that have enriched my life, but there are a few that I cannot pass over. The one I have read most is the Bible. I have read and reread it until in many parts the pages have faded out – I mean, my fingers have rubbed off the dots, and I must supply whole verses from memory, especially the Psalms, the Prophets, and the Gospels. To the Bible I always go for confidence when waves of doubt rush over me and no voice is near to reassure me.”

Though The Bible is a singular case, she says something similar when she writes about Walt Whitman:

“He has been an inspiration to me in a very special way. I began to read his poetry years ago at a time when I was almost overwhelmed by a sense of isolation and self-doubt. It was when I read the Song of the Open Road that my spirit leaped up to meet him. For me his verses have the quality of exquisite physical sensations. They wave like flowers; they quiver like fountains, or rush on like mountain torrents. He sings unconquerable life. He is in the middle of the stream. He marches with the world’s thought, not against it.”

For Helen, the authorial voice of Whitman seems almost to take the place of a friend’s comforting voice, and her tribute apparently acknowledges Whitman as the inspiration for the title Midstream in which the quote may be found.

The degree to which she must have sometimes felt isolated is something I can only imagine, but still I completely relate to the compensatory pleasure she found in books. They offer worlds not ordinarily perceived by us. And more, they urge us to make analogies, which at their best serve to wash over the irreconcilable individuation of experience.

I will let her own beautiful words about Joseph Conrad (also found in Midstream) read us out:

“I did not really make his acquaintance until 1920 – I did not have any of his books in Braille until then. I cannot define the peculiar fascination he has for me, but he took possession of me at once. I had always loved books of the sea, and the days I have spent along the shore have been happy ones. I love the dunes and the sea weeds that drift and crawl up on the sands, the little waves that creep through shell and pebbles like fingers seeking to spell a message to me. We used to be friends when you were the beginning of a fish – do you remember? I love winds and storms and sailors, tropical dawns leaping out of the east, and billows that like mighty tusked mastodons crunch the land. It may be that I am especially alive to the spell of the sea because it is so much like darkness that is my element. The dark too, has its deep silent currents and dangerous reefs, its monsters, its creatures of beauty, its derelicts and ships. In the dark too, there is a star to steer by, and no matter how far I travel there are always before me vast oceans of experience that I have not yet explored.”

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Disability Pride Parades Matter

Disability Pride Parades celebrate difference, explode stigma and combat shame!

 

If you did not know that Disability Pride Month came to a close yesterday, you would be forgiven as, in NYC at least, it is only a year old. Mayor de Blasio declared July to be Disability Pride Month last year in honor of the 25th anniversary of the passing of the ADA. In a 2015 article by the NY Daily News, de Blasio was quoted as saying, “The Americans with Disabilities Act is one of the most important civil rights laws in history.”

And yet, although many improvements have been made in education, job opportunities and accessibility, disability seems not to be part of a larger celebration of diversity.

Literary and disability critic Lennard J. Davis puts it like this in his entry “Diversity” in the 2015 book Keywords in Disability Studies:

 

“Disability would seem naturally to fall under the rubric of diversity. Yet much of the time, when one sees lists of those included under the diversity banner, disability is either left off or comes along as the caboose on the diversity train. One could explain this negligence by saying that disability is just not that well known as an identity category; and that, when it is, disability will then take its rightful place along with more familiar identity markers such as race, gender, nationality, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and citizenship. One could say it will just take time and more activism and eventually people will be educated. Or one could say the problem is structural.”

 

Davis’ article explicitly takes up the latter thread, arguing that activism might not be enough to allow for disability to be fully embraced in the celebration of diversity.

A major reason for this is the perception that disability is something that, if possible, ought to be cured immediately, and avoided in future generations. Obviously this latter calls to mind some very unsavory issues of eugenics, but the point is that, for most people, celebrating diversity means celebrating a healthy body and mind, whose functions fall within the “normal” range–most people would not wish disability on anyone they loved.

Here again is Davis:

“The idea presented by diversity is that any identity is one we all could imagine having, and all identities are worthy of choosing. But the one identity one cannot (and, given the ethos of diversity, should not) choose is to be disabled.”

If diversity is a kind of empowerment, then disability would seem to represent its opposite. The very word “disability” suggests the powerlessness of limited possibilities for manipulating one’s world. As Davis puts it, “disability seems to be the poster student for disempowerment.”

Before leaving Davis, I’d like to say a little something about him. I first encountered his writings as a grad student studying 18th-century English literature, as that was his original field of interest also. From his work on the early English novel, he came to think about representations of disability in literature and began theorizing a field of study that he helped to create. The first Disability Studies program was founded at Syracuse University in 1994, and since then, many more have blossomed in the US, Canada, and beyond.

In 1996 Davis edited the first edition of The Disability Studies Reader, now in its 4th edition. That book, along with his Enforcing Normalcy: Disability, Deafness and the Body were my first encounters with an academic discipline that connected to my own work in fundamental ways.

Since my late undergrad days, I’d had the idea of studying blindness as both a metaphorical construct and a social phenomenon. Back then there seemed to be few people in the humanities working on disability as anything more than a literary trope., so I was pretty excited when I discovered Davis.

In the years since, I have left a traditional academic path and merely let that training inform and complicate my artistic/writerly work, and have only thought tangentially of my work as being related to the discipline of Disability Studies. Likewise, in the past ten or twenty years, the scope and, dare I say, diversity, of Disability Studies has blossomed. It is this blossoming as well as its difficulties that has in large degree reformed my work, though not my core artistic impulses.

I did not identify with a disabled community until recently–I barely even thought of myself as part of a blind community. A simple explanation for this is that I grew up as a visually impaired person who lived in a sighted world and, for many years, shame was a determining aspect of my sense of self. I launched out of being a visually impaired person (with no visual markers) into looking like a blind person when I was paired up with my first guide dog, Millennium. Even though I was visually impaired and probably could have done fine with a blind person cane, I refused that stigma, thinking people would treat me too differently. As it turned out, the world still treated me like a disabled person for the first time in my life and it made me very angry.

The “somewhat slutty, almost always drunken, angry blind chick shtick” was mine when I first started performing and of the three aspects of that crazy time, I would say the anger and its debilitating effects was most true. My poem, A Pain Named Dog is really about those long years when shame and anger ruled my life. It took many years and a lot of discipline to wrangle the pain into something worthwhile and not destructive.

The first time I embraced the blind cane was in my Yes we have no bananas dance sequence in The Star of Happiness, my one-woman show about Helen Keller’s time performing on vaudeville. Since then I’ve come to love my blind cane (Moses!) precisely because it is so unsexy and symbolic of helplessness, as I wrote about in Exploding Stigma.

I would certainly not wish my long and strange path into blindness on anyone, but I can’t say it’s not been a good learning experience! Likewise, I can’t say I prefer the pain of a long-degenerating eye disease to an imagined life without it, but I will say with Nietzsche, “I doubt that such pain makes us ‘better’ – but I know that it makes us deeper.”

This is all to say that although I am among those people who hope there will someday be a point when there will be no such thing as blindness, disability, degeneration of mind or body, for now, why not celebrate the chimerical nature of human bodies and minds?

That’s why I wanted to write about the Disability Pride Parade movement.

According to A Brief History of Disability Pride parades, the first Disability Pride Parade took place in Boston back in 1990, but they did not continue their pioneering work. Chicago jumped on the Disability Pride Parade bandwagon in 2004 and it is still going strong. Its 13th just took place on July 23rd, 2016. Other cities and towns which hosted (or will host) a Disability Pride Parade in 2016 include Philadelphia, PA (June 11), Trenton, NJ (October 7), and Nacogdoches, TX (April 16).

NYC celebrated its first Disability Pride Parade in 2015, and its 2nd took place this year on July 10. It was started by jazz musician Mike LeDonne, whose daughter was born in 2004 with multiple disabilities. On the DisabilityPrideNYC.org website LeDonne describes his inspiration thus:

“Even though she faces different challenges because of her disabilities she is the most beautiful creature on God’s green earth. It’s through my love for her that I started to want the rest of the world to see what I see and know what I know. One day a few years back, right after NYC celebrated Gay Pride Day, I asked myself why there isn’t a Disability Pride Day? Little did I know at the time that Disability Pride was already a national movement and an international one as well. I found that Chicago and other places already had a parade but not New York City? That just seemed wrong so I started making calls and taking it one step at a time learning as I went…. I’m hoping for a big party that not only celebrates people with disabilities but includes all people. A day to reject able-ism and worn-out stereotypes and replace them with a feeling of pride in who and what people with disabilities really are – just another diverse and beautiful aspect of humanity.”

This year it held the event in tandem with Sicily’s Disability Pride Parade, which perhaps suggests a future where the event will be celebrated internationally, lending it a universal solidity.

There can be no doubt that the Disability Pride parade movement is gathering momentum, but it seems to be in fits and starts. According to the Wikipedia page only 13 cities in the US have ever had a Disability Pride Parade, and sadly, many of these took place only one or two years (especially on the 20th anniversary of ADA in 2010) and then fizzled.

Perhaps the reason for this gets back to the structural difficulties of having Diversity embrace Disability. It sure would be nice if at least each state had a Disability Pride parade and even better if every town and city celebrated with a Disability Pride parade on the same day each year, like the 4th of July!

As the author of What’s Next? What’s the Point? Writes, the popularity of Disability Pride Parades is not a goal in itself, but a necessary step in a larger quest for acceptance on the one hand and self-worth on the other:

“Yes, popularity is important. We are happy to have the abled attend; we want them to attend and even participate. But the reason we want that is for them to hear the messages in those parades about acceptance and inclusion, because these attitudes and actions give birth to civil rights. Popularity serves our political purpose, thus we parade.

Beyond the parade that serves our political purposes with the abled audience lays a disabled audience that serves our social devotions. Ultimately, we parade for other disabled people, for they are our true audience. If disabled people who feel bad about themselves because society has taught them to feel that way see disabled people proudly parading down main street, then maybe they can learn to be proud of themselves as disabled people, and maybe even parade themselves someday.”

Cheers to that!

I knew no disability pride when I was growing into being a disabled person. These days, accessibility and disability seem to be almost hot topics, but not quite. Although There is a growing interest in people with disabilities–from memoires of people with disabilities writing their own life perspective to people with disabilities representing themselves in the media–there is still a long way to go. Marching in a parade with cool outfits, floats and different bodies and minds, is just one more way to enable one’s human power and joy.

 

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Aroma Victoriana

Often we associate the Victorian Era with a degree of primness that falls helplessly into parody–nowhere better illustrated than in Oscar Wilde‘s The Importance of Being Earnest (1895)–but as with all eras, the Victorian presents a dark underbelly as well as a laced-up exterior. I shan’t elaborate on the entirety of this dichotomy, but content myself with the extremities of Victorian perfumery, from the nosegay to the nether regions of the civet, and from the ancient coaxing of flowers by enfleurage to the explosive manipulations of chemical compounds.

Let’s start with the era’s namesake, who set the tone for the ladies in her realm and beyond. As the Perfume Society says in a delightful article called The Victorians, From Violet Posies to Va-Va-Voom, “Queen Victoria was ‘not amused’ by plenty of things, including the over-lavish use of fragrance. Anything too ‘sexy’ – along with the use of cosmetics and wearing of make-up – was associated with ‘fallen’ women, prostitutes, those of questionable morals.”

 

Hence, simple fragrances suggesting a single flower such as rose or lily were often preferred (even if the formulas were complex and sometimes, as we shall see, artificial).

 

However, as the Perfume Society goes on to relate, even Queen Victoria enjoyed a racy scent when it was given her: “Creed actually presented Victoria with a surprisingly heady scent, in 1845, ‘Fleurs de Bulgarie’, which she wore throughout her illustrious reign:  a waltz of Bulgarian rose, musk, ambergris and bergamot.”

 

Fleurs de Bulgarie still exists today, though it is unlikely all the ingredients are the same as they once were…

 

Unlike many of its familiar citrus kin, Bergamot (Citrus bergamia), is not generally consumed, though its peel gives Earl Grey tea its distinct flavor, and its essential oil offers a bright uplifting scent that has been used extensively in perfumery for centuries. It was a key component of the original Eau de Cologne (1709).

 

As G.W. Septimus Piesse puts it in The Art of Perfumery (1857), “When bergamot is mixed with other essential oils it greatly adds to their richness, and gives a sweetness to spice oils attainable by no other means, and such compounds are much used in the most highly scented soaps. Mixed with rectified spirit in the proportions of about four ounces of bergamot to a gallon, it forms what is called “extract of bergamot,” and in this state is used for the handkerchief.”

 

As we shall see, a great deal of aroma Victoriana went into the hanky, and hence the lasting power of a dearly bought fragrance elevated its value.

 

Our Victorian perfumer, Septimus Piesse, writes this of Rose (Rosa damascena, R centifolia): ” This queen of the garden loses not its diadem in the perfuming world.”

 

Rose may be thanked for the development of modern perfumery, as it was likely one of the first materials to be distilled by the Medieval Arab alchemists. The authors of Aromatherapy summarize:

 

“Rosewater purified the mosque, scented gloves, flavored sherbet, and Turkish delight, and was sprinkled on guests from a flask called a gulabdan. Prayer beads made from gum Arabic and rose petals released their scent when handled. … Following the translation of the Western classics into Arabic in the seventh century, Arab alchemists in search of the “quintessence” of plants found it represented in essential oils.”

 

As I discussed in Distill My Heart 2, spirits, whether of alcohol or plant matter, symbolized a pure and incorruptible manifestation of the mundane and corruptible world. Hence, the Medieval alchemists took a great interest in distillation, which crossed the disciplines of perfumery, medicine and booze-making. It is likely that rosewater/oil, along with distillation and Greco-Roman learning, (re)entered Western Europe as one of the many treasures brought back during the Crusades, which in turn sparked the Renaissance.

 

Ambergris is not for the faint-hearted! In his section on “Perfumes of Animal Origin, Septimus Piesse explains that there is still in his time a great debate concerning the origins of these foul-smelling lumps which periodically wash onto shores from Ireland to Japan, but offers this first: “[Ambergris] has been particularly found in the intestines of the spermaceti whale, and most commonly in sickly fish, whence it is supposed to be the cause or effect of the disease.”

 

The stuff is then puked by the whale into the ocean where it floats for a long time and is pickled by the salt water and finally washes ashore.

 

As Wikipedia tells it:

 

“Ambergris occurs as a bile duct secretion of the intestines of the sperm whale and can be found floating upon the sea, or lying on the coast. It is also sometimes found in the abdomens of whales. Because the beaks of giant squids have been found embedded within lumps of ambergris, scientists have theorized that the substance is produced by the whale’s gastrointestinal tract to ease the passage of hard, sharp objects that the whale might have eaten. The sperm whale usually vomits these, but if one travels further down the gut, it will be covered in ambergris.”

 

Now that we know what it is, we must ask (with less auspicious results) what clever bloke thought of using the stuff for perfume, for it seems not to smell very nice. In fact, using the assertions of others, Piesse suggests it smells like shit. Literally…

 

“A modern compiler, speaking of ambergris, says, ‘It smells like dried cow-dung.’ Never having smelled this latter substance, we cannot say whether the simile be correct; but we certainly consider that its perfume is most incredibly overrated; nor can we forget that Homberg found that ‘a vessel in which he had made a long digestion of the human fæces had acquired a very strong and perfect smell of ambergris, insomuch that any one would have thought that a great quantity of essence of ambergris had been made in it. The perfume (odor!) was so strong that the vessel was obliged to be moved out of the laboratory.’ (Mem. Acad. Paris, 1711.)”

 

Hence, our friend Septimus includes ambergris in his book not because he uses it himself, but because other perfumers do:

 

“Nevertheless, as ambergris is extensively used as a perfume, in deference to those who admire its odor, we presume that it has to many an agreeable smell.

 

“Like bodies of this kind undergoing a slow decomposition and possessing little volatility, it, when mixed with other very fleeting scents, gives permanence to them on the handkerchief, and for this quality the perfumer esteems it much.

 

“Essence of Ambergris is only kept for mixing; when retailed it has to be sweetened up to the public nose…”

 

The “sweetening” apparently adds rose and vanilla, which make sense, and musk, which does not, as it too derives from the interstices of an animal–from a glandular sack located near the anus of the poor little male musk deer.

 

The animal secretions apparently find their use as fixatives on the hanky:

 

“This perfume has such a lasting odor, that a handkerchief being well perfumed with it, will still retain an odor even after it has been washed.

 

“The fact is, that both musk and ambergris contain a substance which clings pertinaciously to woven fabrics, and not being soluble in weak alkaline lyes, is still found upon the material after passing through the lavatory ordeal.

 

While we’re on the unsavory subject of animal secretions as fixatives, we might as well pay homage also to the harried civet cat whose butt was scraped for its odorous secretion and used similarly to ambergris and musk.

 

Happily, by the end of the Victorian Era, chemistry figured out how to create synthetic fixatives. In 1888, Albert Baur discovered a musk-like odor while attempting to create a more effective form of TNT, and the first synthetic musk blasted into the world of perfumery! As musk is one of the foundational base notes in perfumery, and because today the killing or torturing of animals is no longer tolerated–for cosmetic purposes anyway, synthetic musks are used almost universally in modern fragrance. In this case, I think we can all agree that synthetic trumps all-natural!

 

Septimus Piesse tells us that it was fashionable even in his day to pooh-pooh the use of musk, though “nevertheless, from great experience in one of the largest manufacturing perfumatories in Europe, we are of opinion that the public taste for musk is as great as any perfumer desires,” and he assures his readers that “Those substances containing it always take the preference in ready sale—so long as the vendor takes care to assure his customer ‘that there is no musk in it.'”

 

Besides telling customers that an ingredient that they believe themselves not to like is not present, the Victorian perfumer mangled truth in advertising by creating fragrances named for flowers that are reluctant to give up their scent. For example, “The Parisian perfumers sell a mixture which they call ‘extract of jonquil.’ The plant, however, only plays the part of a godfather to the offspring, giving it its name.” He goes on to give a recipe for this “Jonquil” which includes jasmine, tuberose, vanilla, and fleur d’orange (orange blossom).

 

Likewise Lily perfume is but imitation:

 

“The manufacturing perfumer rejects the advice of the inspired writer, to ‘consider the lilies of the field.’ Rich as they are in odor, they are not cultivated for their perfume. If lilies are thrown into oil of sweet almonds, or ben oil, they impart to it their sweet smell; but to obtain anything like fragrance, the infusion must be repeated a dozen times with the same oil, using fresh flowers for each infusion, after standing a day or so. The oil being shaken with an equal quantity of spirit for a week, gives up its odor to the alcohol, and thus extract of lilies may be made. But how it is made is thus…”

 

Septimus Piesse gives a recipe for “Imitation Lily of the Valley which adds rose, cassie and otto of almonds to the fake jonquil recipe. Interestingly, he does not shy from imitations, or from sharing the recipes of deceit.

 

Before leaving you and Aroma Victoriana, I wish to impart a bit of wisdom found in two books separated in time by nearly a hundred and fifty years that convey nearly the same criticism of the historically secretive perfume/fragrance industry.

 

First, I’d like to quote the entirety of the introduction of Perfumes, wherein the case is made for treating fragrance like we do other art forms (in order that perfumes be critiqued and analyzed with all the vigor we do films, books, cuisine, etc.), but I will content myself with this:

 

” the perfume industry, in a hoary, unbroken tradition of self-defeating behavior, has done everything it can to avoid viewing its work as art. Perfume companies do not generally keep archives. They change formulas without telling customers. They discontinue their classics. They lie about contents. They hide the perfumers and art directors responsible. They shill shameless copies of great ideas and hope no one notices. They’ve even withdrawn advertising from magazines that criticized their work.”

 

As the book’s authors suggest, with the help of the internet, where recipes for natural perfumes and critiques of industry standards are the norm, the fragrance industry will (have to) bust out of its dark laboratory and join in on all the scrutiny and exhilaration the public sphere has to offer.

 

I will leave you with our Victorian perfumer, Septimus Piesse, who saw this necessity even back in 1857:

 

“As an art, in England, perfumery has attained little or no distinction. This has arisen from those who follow it as a trade, maintaining a mysterious secrecy about their processes. No manufacture can ever become great or important to the community that is carried on under a veil of mystery.”

 

*First published at Quail Bell Magazine for Distill My Heart, a column about all things aromatic and alcoholic*

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Exploding Stigma with Heidi Latsky Dance

#MeOnDisplay means exploding stigma!

Earlier this week, I received information about an open rehearsal/audition with Heidi Latsky Dance and thought it sounded fun; I haven’t danced in a while and I decided that, whether or not I’d be accepted into the performance, it would be a cool experience. I did not realize the experience would begin before I even got there…

After emailing the coordinator my headshot and resume, I visited the company’s website. I did not get very far when I encountered a link called #MeOnDisplay. I clicked on it and read:

“Every day we see people on display on magazine covers and billboards and we KNOW we are not reflected in those images. It’s time we own our truths, imperfections, and fierceness.

Join us in redefining beauty one image at a time.

Take a STAND. Take a PHOTO.

Tell the world what being On Display means to you…”

So before finding out more about the company, I injected myself into their “Social Media Revolution!”

After thinking for a moment about what photo to use–I knew I wanted to use one featuring my blind cane–I decided on “Behold my Unisphere!” a photo of me pointing at a giant metal structure of the Earth constructed for the 1964 World’s Fair in Queens, as if I were a general indicating my territory, lately conquered.

I uploaded it to Twitter, but In my excitement I’d neglected one of the directions, so @HLatskyDance urged, “@DrMLGodin loving this! To us #MeOnDisplay means taking risks. What does it mean to you?! Let us know and we’ll add it to our gallery TwoHearts emoji [I don’t know how to make emoji on my PC!]”

My first thought was to write #MeOnDisplay means reveling in difference, but then I thought that might be too flabby, or worse, that someone else had already said it or something similar–I am a little OCD about uniqueness! So I read through a few of what others had said, then did a search for difference and sure enough I found something–wasn’t mine, but it was close enough, so I thought some more…

I’ve been reading Martha Nussbaum’s book Frontiers of Justice: Disability, Nationality, Species Membership, and my ears pricked up at her use of the word stigma. Referring to work by Erving Goffman she writes that “a central feature of the operation of stigma, especially toward people with impairments and disabilities, is the denial of individuality: the entire encounter with such a person is articulated in terms of the stigmatized trait, and we come to believe that the person with the stigma is not fully or really human.”

Ouch! But I take her point as she develops it into the recognition of the age-old amazement people who do not perceive themselves as disabled have when they discover something quotidian in the behavior of one they perceived as wholly different:

When such a person performs the most normal actions of a human life, “normals” often express surprise, as if they were saying, “Fancy that! In some ways you’re just like a human being!”

Though she is not speaking specifically of blind people here, it has certainly been my experience that sighted people get excited about the dumbest things with respect to my behavior and congratulate me on things they would ordinarily reserve for children. In other words, one who is disabled often feels the impressing people bar to be rather low.

I’m the first to admit that if you are going to judge me according to whether I do a bang-up job of walking a straight line or eating politely with a fork and knife, I will likely fail. But frankly, my expectations of leaving a mark on this world have absolutely nothing to do with the quotidian. Though I sometimes feel bad about my lameness at using my blind cane, mobilitying oneself to the bodega does not a genius make.

To take an extreme case, if we judge Stephen Hawking on the basis of normalcy, he too will fail, but of course, we do not. I’m not a (physics) genius and I shudder to think of the bodily sufferings he’s gone through, but when it comes down to it, there have been countless humans birthed into this world and deathed out again, and greatness is not always measured in physical ability.

Despite my shortcomings in using him, I love my blind cane, who, you should know by now is named Moses! My boyfriend and I do not agree who awesomely dubbed him Moses, thereby conjuring powers to part the endless Red Seas of New York City, but we agree there is magic in naming a stigmatized object–the lowly government issued white cane with red stripe and reflective tape–after a biblical man of power.

A couple years back, I was lucky enough to find myself in LA on a national commercial set and it was positively charming to see how the crew, when introduced to Moses, referred to him with no small reverence, and even, in some darkly fantastic way, seemed privileged to hang with him. This is what exploding stigma means: using the mark of shame to blow up perceptions!

I’m thrilled that Heidi Latsky’s #MeOnDisplay helped me articulate a thought that’s been rattling around my head for some time.

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