Smell Your Way to Wellness
In a world of been-there, done-that, seen-it-all, our blogger created a scent and sensibility that’s uniquely hers
-Melina Gerosa Bellows
The Artist Cottage at the Ojai Valley Inn and Spa is a beautiful, Spanish-style studio, filled with light and decorated with botanical prints. I’m here at a Custom Blending class in the Cottage’s Apothecary to smell my way to wellness.
“I’m relying on your unconscious to know what you need,” says my healer, Artist-in-Residence Renate Collins. “You are going to smell a scent and say ‘I like it’ or ‘I don’t.’ Then we’ll go to the next. It’s a very childlike approach.”
Collins is a tall, blond, handsome woman, originally from Germany, where she earned her pharmaceutical degree. Widowed very early with three small children, Collins went to make a successful career in many alternative approaches to healing, including Jungian Psychotherapy, traditional native medicine, Bach flower remedies, Reiki, essential oils, and art.
I don an apron and seat myself at the apothecary bar. There’s a silver tray of 50 little bottles containing essential oils. My job is to sniff and rate the scents on a scale of 1 to 5. We will do this blind, and only after I score each scent will Renate identify the scent so that I can write it down.
“Ready?” Renate asks.
Two things come to mind: a recent article written by Life Coach Martha Beck, who does an exercise called “Warmer/Colder” to teach clients how to use their intuition, rather than their intellect, to find their true calling. The idea is to bypass the busy, critical mind (which is very good at keeping people in a good, safe rut), to explore the unknown of what our authentic selves truly desire.
The other thing that comes to mind is the scene in the 1976 movie Sybil. The doctor (Joanne Woodward) gives split-personality wackjob (Sally Field) different things to smell to determine the level of disassociation. One of the things is water, and when Sybil says she doesn’t smell anything, I think she’s a genius. I know that I would’ve strained until I smelled something (anything!) rather than come up dry.
“Close your eyes,” says Renate, brandishing the first mystery vial.
As I’m sniffing away, particular memories come zinging to me. Neroli vividly takes me back to first grade, and a pink bottle of Cinderella perfume, which broke on the bus en route to school. Vetiver calls to mind an old photographer boyfriend, and also Jodie Foster, who, during an interview, admitted she wears vetiver because it reminds her of her very first boyfriend. (I won’t do the Pavlovian math, but I did have a crush on her for a minute.)
Anyway, we spend about half an hour narrowing down the list. While part of me is fully engaged, another part is screaming I”D LIKE SOME CHOCOLATE NOW! I WANT TO GO HOME AND LIE DOWN! OR YOU CAN JUST GIVE ME SOME CHOCOLATE, AND I’LL STAY!
“Shush,” I tell that part of myself. I didn’t leave my kids and get on a plane for six hours to enjoy this experience only to be distracted by a whiny chocolate craving. I turn down the volume on the voice to a malcontent grumble and get back to what I was doing.
“Now it’s time for the interesting part,” says Renate. With our scents narrowed down, it’s time to build our perfume. A perfume has a main body (usually herbal or spicy or citrusy), plus a blend of top notes (florals), and base notes (earthy, musky scents). The tricky part is that a successful blend is a drop of this and a few drops of that. It’s all in the alchemy.
We drip and sniff and drip and sniff and drip some more, and finally, we have it.
Renate smiles broadly at the effect of our new scent, which is unique and unlike any that any other person has concocted here at the Apothecary. With 50 bottles to choose from, and the variations in drops, the combinations are practically endless.
Yet the one I’ve fashioned is exactly the one I need to heal, according to my subconscious. “The olfactory gland sends the information to the neurotransmitters in the brain, and from there is sends back a signal to the body,” Renate explains. “Then the response comes back, yes if you like it, no if you don’t. The end result is an answer to your needs on all levels, physically, spiritually, emotionally and mentally.”
My healing potion contains one drop of Chinese Geranium (releases negative emotion, nervous tension and stress, uplifts the spirit), four drops of bergamot (relieves anxiety and depression, helped the heart chokra and love energy), one drop of vetiver (grounding, balances sexual energy, brings peace) two drops of gardenia (uplifts), and one drop of violet (soothes). I love it and can’t stop smelling myself.
When we’re finished, Renate beautifully gift-wraps my little vial in purple paper with green ribbon. With her varied bag of tricks ranging from Reiki to Art to Psychotherapy, I can’t help but ask her if she has any advice for a woman with two little kids and a busy job who feels like she’s been given a wonderful opportunity to start over in life.
“Listen to yourself,” she says, emphatically. “Your body is sensitive, and it knows what it needs, especially on an emotional level.”
And in fact, the past hour has been an exercise in doing just that. Instead of Beck’s “Warmer/Colder” game, ours could be called The Nose Knows.
“I don’t trust my body,” I admit. “It has giving me some very bad advice in the past.”
“Like what?” Renate asks.
“Like an hour ago. My body is screaming GIVE ME CHOCOLATE when I’m trying to do this with you,” I say, ratting myself out.
“Hmm, chocolate is associated with sexuality,” she says. “It could be that during this exercise some desires are pulling up others.”
I don’t really want to go there. I make a face.
“So have a truffle, what’s wrong with that,” Renate says.
“One truffle is not enough,” I say. “In fact one is too many. I have one, and I need the whole box.”
“Look, your body is like a little kid, saying ‘Mom I want that,’ ” she explains. “Give yourself one and savor it. Then no more, because you wouldn’t give in to a child, you would take care of it.”
It’s time to name my cocktail, so it can be filed in the recipe box for safekeeping and future reference (clients can have their custom blends rendered in lotions, potions, and soaps).
Sarah Jessica Parker has Lovely, Gwyneth Paltrow has Pleasures, and now I have my own signature scent. “Let’s call it Melina,” I say.
That evening I’m at a special dinner hosted by the hotel. Guest Bartender Mr. Mohito has come down from San Francisco to play with another type of alchemy. He’s mixing special cocktails to go with each course of a tasting menu. I’m tired, still on East Coast time, and don’t feel like going. But I dab on a little of my new essence, go, and have a wonderful time meeting new people.
At the end of the evening, everyone is saying goodbye. I’m shaking the hand of a man who was seated one away from me, when he leans toward me.
“What are you doing?” I say, taking a giant step back.
“Smelling your hair,” he says.
I turn away and walk back to my room, laughing in amazement, and looking forward to the chocolates on my pillow.
For more information on the Artist Cottage and The Ojai Valley Inn & Spa or reservations toll-free 888-697-8780; 905 Country Club Road, Ojai, CA 93023