These are not the best times to be a social medicine researcher focused on issues of health care access and equity. The political climate, the narrow definitions and agendas of what constitutes health equity research and social science funding agencies that don’t hold studies that cannot infer direct causation with high esteem. The continued push from major universities to bring in large extramural research grant funding to support your salary hangs over your head like the Sword of Damocles every day you go into work. Added to that, what happened in Charlottesville just two years after I arrived here to begin afresh shows the divisive bitterness of the social environment we live and work in. A research grant revision I had worked so hard on came back with another negative funding result. I was hurting and depressed and really struggling to find my direction. I know I did not have the liberty to do this given that I was still fairly new to my position and the university.
I made the decision to heal. In their seminal work on healing, Snyder talks about expressive art therapy as a means for healing. She says it is an engaging and effective way to become more aware of one self by creating more personal and emotional effect within the person. It relieves stress, pressures and tensions within oneself, often changing negative aggression into positive energy and harmony between one’s inner and outer worlds. I decided to take a plunge and start focusing on one of my hobbies of perfume collecting– a bit more seriously. I began working with a perfumer friend on developing a couple of ideas of mine for perfumes that I wanted to see in my large collection but could not find further. The goal was to bring new fragrance into a world that reminded people of the simpler and more spiritual world we lived in using natural ingredients. Natural perfumery, a long bucket list hobby of mine, seemed like the place to go to for healing.
We began with Aranyaka (The Forest), a perfume meant to invoke the aura of an ancient Indian forest where Vedic rituals were conducted during a time period two thousand years ago. I began researching ingredients used in Vedic ceremonies and the flora and fauna of forests and worked on a composition that would harken to a time and era of the past. The second composition Häxan (Witchcraft) was inspired by a very unique 1922 silent film on the history of witchcraft and an examination of the social fabric of society of the time of the middle ages that led to several women being accused of profane magical practices and being persecuted by religious zealots. Again I plunged headlong into the study of ingredients and herbs used in potions and elixirs and the flora and fauna of regions where occult ceremonies were said to be conducted. After six or seven painstaking exchanges of formulations across two continents, we agreed on the final compositions of the two perfumes. Both the perfumes were released this year, one in the early part of the year and the second just before Halloween. They have been reviewed by many in the fragrance appreciation community and purchased by folks who have liked them. There has been both appreciation and criticism much like our academic output in peer reviewed journals. The praise has been centered on the precise evocation of the ambience of the environments and the easy wearability of the final composition in spite of the many complex ingredients. Criticism has focused on some of the animalic musky elements in both the perfumes which many people find a bit disturbing.
It has been an exhilarating joyride. I have made many new friends and fans as well as caught the ire of a few folks as well. The process has given me new insights into the divided world we live in and a new appreciation for diversity in how we perceive things about us and the world through the sense of smell. Most importantly, I feel I feel a bit healed and rejuvenated. I feel I am at peace within myself and ready to face the challenges of day to day professional and personal life. I surprisingly find myself healed.
My creative spirits were at great risk for total extinction before this plunge into a world of hitherto unknown and strange smells seem to have been revived. The fear of failure and professional mediocrity does not seem to faze me anymore. I am ready to take on multiple challenges as they come and continue to do what I think will leave my footprint in this world, however small or insignificant it is. I think I can take more risks in my academic research directions and collaborations and feel a renewed sense of purpose in life. It took me a while to break out of my shell and do something really risky and different but in the end, it has all been worthwhile. Keeping ones optimism about a better future for all of us is about the best thing one can do for oneself these days.
Snyder BA. Expressive Art Therapy Techniques: Healing the Soul through creativity Journal of Humanistic Education and Development. 36(1): 74-82, 1997.