There’s just something about incense. I realize that may sound strange from a middle-age man who is neither a Reiki practitioner, nor a musician, nor a Tarot card reader. I’m not even sure when I started appreciating a thick haze of aloeswood in my study. Incense, with its evocative fragrances, has the power to call up memories so distant or vague they almost feel like dreams. When I was a teenager, my friend Nelson used to wear patchouli oil, and it struck me as marvelously exotic for an urban Jewish kid from southeast Denver. Then there was the imports “bazaar” on South Colorado Boulevard, a cluttered emporium where they sold fishing nets, Japanese straw hats, and strangely shaped daggers. The air inside smelled of the Orient, or at least how I imagined the Orient to smell, redolent of sandalwood, clove, and ginger lily. I even remember the House of Wu, a shop on Colfax Avenue where, as a love-struck teenager, I bought a silver ring for a girl named Jenny. When I went inside, the air was so hazy with spice my eyes burned.
What did I know? My idea of exotic back then was ordering pickles on my hamburger at Azar’s Big Boy.
As a more enlightened adult, I’ve gone into stores with names like “Magic Moon” or “Mesa Sunrise” and found myself enjoying whatever incense they were burning. In Aspen, Colorado, at the very start of the Coronavirus pandemic, I went into a funky store where the owner was burning sage to “purify the air.” They call it “smudging.” Damn, that air smelled clean. Of course, within a couple days, the governor declared the ski slopes off limits and everyone went home. A week later I was burning sticks of sage in my study as I worked on my novel.
I haven’t had so much as a cold since then. Just sayin’.
Having experimented with various fragrances, I can confirm that I’m a patchouli, sandalwood, and sage guy. One incense I tried left the whole house smelling like Band Aids. Another was so strongly floral, you’d have thought Aunt Bee held a ladies’ luncheon in our living room. The fragrances I prefer have a sensory connection with an aspect of myself that I like or want to cultivate. For example, sage reminds me of my roots in Colorado: summer camp in Indian Hills, hiking in the Collegiate Peaks, walking the Rio Grande Trail outside Aspen. Patchouli taps into something new or, rather, emergent in me—a neo-Bohemian (if there is such a thing) who wants to sit barefoot on the porch, drink tequila, and listen to Crosby, Stills, and Nash. I can’t explain the sandalwood fascination, except to say it’s a cool-sounding word. Oh, and I once bought sandalwood shaving soap at a barber shop in London.
Speaking of London, if there were a 1980s-English-pub-beer-and-cigarettes incense, I’d buy it in a heartbeat.
Yep, there’s just something about incense. As I grow older and my stock of memories becomes more jumbled and ill-defined, I find that smell, more than any other sense, can rocket me back in time, or take me to a favorite place, better than conscious remembering. Like so many other forms of middle-aged “exploration,” my incense fascination has both reinforced who I thought I was—and what places and people influenced me—and marked my changing identity. When I was working long days building my marketing business, a cigar at the end of the day was my preferred way to make smoke. It made me feel successful, like a hard-charging entrepreneur. But as life has slowed and I become more patient, more reflective, watching the incense stick slowly turn to ash feels wonderfully indulgent. “There is time for this,” my mind seems to say. “It’s okay to be still.”
I suppose it’s no surprise that I’m burning a lot more incense these days than before the pandemic. You could measure the time I spend writing by the narrow berm of ash on my fireplace mantle. Its presence is both a reminder to get up occasionally and go for a run, and that life is sometimes enjoyed best from a comfortable chair.