52 Ways to Shift Your Focus: Good Scents

Shift #47: Good Scents

I just returned from a trip to Santa Barbara, California, to celebrate twenty years of being married to my husband Jim Mickelson. Mick (the nickname he’s gone by since grad school) and I decided that we wanted to go to a place where we knew no one, where there was ocean and mountains and good wine and warmer weather than in our own back yard. We didn’t keep a schedule. We didn’t plan our days ahead of time. We showed up, got a car, found the Santa Barbara Inn (okay, we did reserve a room there, so maybe there was a little planning ahead), and settled into a state of just being there. We left our computers at home. We didn’t read email. We didn’t post photos to Facebook. We didn’t even have the radio on in the car when we drove down the coast to Ventura or up into the hills to the Bridlewood Winery.

One of the things that stays with me the most from this trip is the smell of the ocean air. There’s a fresh salty something that marks coastal locations, the smell of the ocean and washed-up seaweed and fish, that permeates everything. It smells utterly foreign to those of us who live in the middle of the continent. I love that smell, love calling it up in my memory to go with the few photos I took on our trip.

The smell of ocean air makes me happy.

There were other smells that struck me. At the various wine tasting rooms we visited, there was a musty, oaky, sour mix of smells from all the different wines that passed through. There was the complicated scent of the wines I swirled in my glass, for which I have never learned to detect individual notes. There was the light sweet scent of the yellow wild flowers that grew en masse along the path near the Carpinteria Seal Sanctuary. There was a mingling of food scents along State Street in Santa Barbara’s Old Town; we detected Indian spices, steak, Italian delicacies, and fish.

All these smells call up specific images. They are powerful memory prods.

As I think about the work in from of me, about the ways stories grab the reader or how poems connect with a special audience, the use of scent as a prompt for writing or art is one I have used many times. Scents are primal tools that can instantly put us in a new frame of mind.

Just last night, I read a section from Gretchen Rubin’s book, Happier at Home, about this very thing. She writes about using good scents as a way to influence how home feels. I was intrigued with her description of ordering scents from an online site, Demeter Fragrance, that specializes in unusual scents of things as varied as soap, grass, snow, and salt air. Would I order the salt air scent to call up Santa Barbara in the middle of next winter? Would it be anything like what I experienced? I did look around their website, completely amused to find something called, “Zombie for Him,” and, “Zombie for Her.” Not ordering that, thanks.

If I simply look around my own home, there are plenty of scents that I could use to invoke memory, change my mood, nudge my creativity. In fact, the first thing I went to find while thinking about this today was the seaweed soap my friend Oonah brought with her from England when she visited us last fall. It’s not quite the scent of the air in Santa Barbara, but it does call up that coastal feeling as well as warm memories of friends who shared my private space for a little while.

Good scents. Got any of your own?

Carpinteria Seal Sanctuary

Mick in Ventura


  1. Happy 20th anniversary to you and Mick! Sounds like you had a marvelous time just meandering. Now back to reality in Minnesota, huh?

    I love the scent of freshly-mown alfalfa. I can't get enough of that on a summer day. Completely takes me back to my rural roots.


  2. Thank you, Audrey! Yes, I was thinking fondly of California this morning as I drove to the dentist in a wintery mix. Ish! But that's okay; storms are temporary. And they, too, contribute to what I consider a great smell outside when the storm is over.


  3. Jim looks so relaxed 🙂 Come to Northumberland and smell the North Sea. I love the scents of the sea too and pine woods this tie of year rain on flowering blackcurrant and freshly opened earth.


  4. This is as wonderful posting, Kathleen! One of my current favorite scents is a basil/lemon lotion. It makes me hope for spring!


  5. He was relaxed! And Northumberland is definitely in our future. I'm waiting for that “freshly opened earth” scent here – we are having a winter storm warning today. Spring is reluctant to come to Minnesota.


  6. Maple is the scent that has filled our yard and house the past ten days. As sap evaporates on its journey to syrup and the concentration of maple sugar increases the smell is permeating and incredible. I think there just might be a pome in there. Thanks for the inspiration.


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