Thursday, April 19, 2012

P is for Petrichor

"Magic Street" by Leonid Afremov. This guy, while kind of a
one-trick pony compositionally, nevertheless paints in
exactly the way I saw things in my head as a child.
"Petrichor" is the scent of rain on dry earth. Is this an inspiration for a museum? Absolutely. What would a museum of joy have in it but the smell of the rain, the sound that snow makes as it silences the night, the pulped sunlight taste of fresh nectarines, the pleasure of a tiny wind-up toy? What makes these things joyous is that they can't be kept. They are absolutely and completely transient. That fragrance, that particular musty sharp hot smell rising up from the dirt, the loveliness of it - gone within minutes, sometimes seconds. The snow, the way it almost creaks but doesn't quite, how it disappears the horizon and turns the world into the quaint close dome of an ornament - if you're lucky, a few hours. The nectarine might linger on the tongue but you can only take so many bites. The toy - well, if you're anything like me, a great part of the joy is the longing for the toy, either before it is yours or long afterwards, when you are remembering it, and wondering what happened to it, and if anything so wonderful actually even existed and maybe you made it up, or read it in a book, or had it in a dream.

(One of the best desserts I've ever eaten was in a dream. It was a roughly coconut-sized ball of a really perfect macaroon, subtle and smoky-tasting and coated in chocolate, and filled with something that was like what whipped cream might dream of being on a night of glory. I was so upset it wasn't real. To further complicate things, when I was in Venice at the age of 18 I found a tiny little bakery that sold something almost like it. It was a sweltering hot evening and they had these slices of a perfect chocolate shell filled with a cool, dense stuff that was like mousse and like buttercream but better. I devoured it with great joy. The funny thing was, I could not find the bakery again. Not the next day and not the next. We retraced the entirety of Venice, which is, may I remind you, an island, and not a large one. It was gone, as if - yes - I had dreamed it too.)

Here is a sunlit piece of jellyfish I found while camping in
Point Reyes last summer. Seriously, what's not to like?
There are other things that begin with P that are also profound inspirations for the Museum - Point Reyes National Seashore, for example, on the Northern California coast. First the youth hostel and then the backpacking campgrounds there were the destination of choice for our family vacations. (I made up a song around the age of ten about going there, the refrain of which was This is the life for meeeee - yipeee! It had a lot of verses, mainly about snacks.) I mention it mostly because it;s the first piece of land I remember loving, the first time I felt like I might want to put my hands into the dirt and say, this is home. Then, too, there's playfulness. Playfulness is important both in the sense of having a sense of levity and humor as well as in the sense of playing like a child, which can be very serious stuff indeed. In either sense, what you're doing is allowing the substance of the universe to be malleable. When you allow things to be funny and weird and childlike, you're allowing wonder to creep back in, and possibility, and peculiarity, and open-mindedness, and it's there that the world starts to bend and melt and things that seemed totally out of the question become possible and colorful and start to float up around you. It keeps out the bad kinds of darkness.

This is what my dad calls elf money - stuff for propitiating
the spirits of the weird and the playful. You need this.
When you play the way a kid plays - which can be almost opposite from the other kind of playful, in that kids at play can be complete serious and grave in their absorption - it becomes your job to be in charge of a complete reality. Sometimes you're in it (I spent a lot of my childhood as a magical queen with a stable of unicorns and a harem of husbands picked from my favorite books - Odysseus was one of them, and so was Gwydion from the Lloyd Alexander books) and sometimes you're not (my dollhouse had a total backstory complete with seafaring merchant father and bustling town full of cottage industry and completely unconscious Big House snobbery) but the details are yours to perfect, to hone, to sharpen.Either way, play is where imagination comes up naturally within us, with no point or purpose other than to amuse and entertain. Each of us plays a little differently; some of us are narrative, others constructive, or mathematical, or associative, or precise, messy, colorful, sober, gregarious, withdrawn. Play is an acceptable place in which to leave the acknowledged rules of reality in suspension for a while so you can mess around in the guts 'n' rainbows of possibility. That's where really magical stuff starts to happen. Our head meets our hands, and we begin to light ourselves up. Building a museum with an exhibit dedicated to the sound of the rain? Crazy idea. Nuts. But ask a dozen kids to come up with an idea for a museum, any museum they want, and that won't sound so far-fetched. And if we, as adults, think playfully, we might be able to imagine a museum in which the sound of the rain is an exhibit after all.

And somehow, for me, knowing someone else loves that sound the way I do, wants to immerse us back in it like that, well - it makes the world just a  few shades more marvelous. And what's a museum for of not for that?


  1. jellyfish are gross and terrifying...but that is a beautiful picture of them :) Not quite so scary there!

    1. I would agree that they're terrifying when they're in the water with you, but I have to say I find them spectacular when they are safely separated from me by the glass of a nice clean tank...especially the glow-in-the-dark ones!

  2. First, I love nectarines. Possibly my favorite fruit. But, then, there's mangoes. And, also, plumcotts. Or pluots. Or whatever you want to call them since there are some other names for them I'm not remembering.
    And they're a good example of all of this (at least, in my mind), because I always -want- to like plums, but they're never as good as they look like they're going to be. But pluots -are-.

    1. Oh my god, yes. Mangoes and pluots. And you are utterly correct about plums never being quite as good as you think they're going to be. Although I've had a few tragically mushy pluots in my time, too...

      Plumcots and pluots are DIFFERENT KINDS of fruit, as it turns out (I got curious) - plumcots being natural hybrids between apricots & plums, and pluots being engineered to have more plum-y characteristics. There are ALSO apriplums, which are (no surprise here) engineered to be more apricot than plum. Whoa, fruit. You're getting a little too awesome for me.

    2. The grocery store out here call the same thing by different names. There are these mottled pluots that Safeway has that I love, but Trader Joe's calls them mottled plumcots. But they're from the same distributor, so I know they're the same thing. And Oliver's sometimes has them, and they call them something else entirely. A few sources I've seen said the names are really interchangeable, because they are all plum/apricot crosses.
      At any rate, I -like- them.

      In other news, we just got a new ice cream maker, so we've been out discussing what kinds of ice cream we can make with it.


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