Cleopatra’s ship had perfumed sails. Incense burners surrounded her throne, and she was scented from head to toe with oil of roses and violets, almond and honey.

Here, where I live in Marin County, California, she would be a social outcast. We live in a fragrance-free zone.

Not in terms of nature—the woods are alive with the fresh menthol scent of eucalyptus and the spicy fragrance of pine. Gardens sing with rosemary and lavender, roses and star jasmine. But when it comes to man-made smells, there are a lot of imaginary red circles with diagonal slashes through them. Signs posted on locker doors and conference rooms ask us refrain from scented lotions and shampoos. In some places we are forbidden from wearing clothes washed in detergents that are not fragrance free.

I am not unsympathetic. When a man or woman doused in cologne sits near me in a movie theater, I am forced change my seat. I wouldn’t be able to concentrate on the film with the uninvited odor invading my space. Choosing not to sit for hours inhaling someone else’s perfume is like choosing not to listen to certain kinds of music or to watch films that disturb.

Like Cleopatra, I’d like to control my environment. Only let in scents that make me feel good, such as lavender and rose, and ban those I find unpleasant—think stinky socks and narcissus.

But to cleanse our environment of smell shuts a door on memory and imagination, critical tools for writing more deeply. The scent of pastry in the oven can take you back to the day your grandmother taught you to bake your first apple pie. The smell of dirty socks can remind you what it was like to raise your sons. Smell bypasses thought and can excavate memories and emotions long forgotten. It’s a sense worth keeping around.

Writing prompts

Crush a clove of garlic and inhale. How would you describe the smell? What story comes to mind?

On the sweeter side, take a whiff of baby powder or smell a peppermint tea bag. Write whatever comes up.

Copyright © 2012 by Laura Deutsch

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