The romantic allure of soap

Friday’s writing prompt was soap. This is a revised version of my 15-minute freewrite.

I love soap. Not the plain, cheaply perfumed, overly drying bars you have to stoop to pick up from low shelves in the supermarket. For years I’ve been buying my soap several bars at a time on Etsy, or at the farmers’ market. I like substantial handmade bars, heavy with their promises of natural ingredients, clean skin and rich lather.

savon de marseille (Marseille soap)

I usually get the kind made from olive oil, not those made from goat milk which never seem to last as long. I opt for bars colored in rustic hues and fragrant with essential oils. I love almond, lavender, rose geranium, and lemon verbena, and I’m a sucker for intriguing blends like the classic-novel-inspired ones by a New York maker called Latherati (“Thornfield,” inspired by Jane Eyre: “A complex blend of bergamot, pine and wild violets with hints of tangerine, neroli, green moss, heather, hyacinth and jasmine. Whispers of pear and chamomile. Base notes of fall leaves and Mr. Rochester’s cigar.”). Before I got into fragranced handmade soaps I bought chunky bars of savon de Marseille online and from Body Time in Berkeley, big mustard- or olive-colored rough-edged cubes embossed with their weight in grams. Those lasted a little too long for my liking, to tell the truth; before they were anywhere close to finished I was already ready to move on to something new. Recently Erik bought a heavy, glycerin-rich, fragrance-free, color-free bar from Whole Foods. It has lasted longer than any of my fancy ones, and the lather is smooth too. He wants to buy more so he can use that kind exclusively. If only I didn’t adore variety so much, I must confess, I’d do the same. It’s just soap, after all.

Four brioches

Brioches. Photo from an old issue of Martha Stewart Living.

Soap is one of a short list of items I adore buying because they indulge my passion for never-ending novelty and simple luxury at relatively low expense. Sweet spreads are another: jams, preserves, marmalade, lemon curd, chocolate-hazelnut butter. Also on the list are journals and notebooks, imported fine-point pens with colored inks, pastries and bars of chocolate. I suppose other people feed this need with costlier items like fresh flowers or shoes or bottles of perfume. Where does it come from, this love for small pretty things? Or is it that we surround ourselves with whatever perfection we can afford, which in most cases translates to single items rather than to our daily surroundings? I dream of living in a haven of gorgeous comfort, with walls decorated and furniture chosen to appeal to all my senses. I long for everything around me to be both lovely and useful, and have a unique story behind it as well.

Set breakfast table in an old hacienda

San Augustín de Callo hacienda, Ecuador, from a magazine

I have read two wonderful books lately (from Sherry’s suggestion about domestic fiction), in which the protagonists’ exquisite homes are an expression of their desire for all life to be controllable and pleasant. I saw myself in these characters. Why is homemaking so much a female (and often gay male) thing? I have never met a straight guy with this obsession. I know some who aspire to nice homes,  some who do notice small details of object and design, and many who are much cleaner and tidier than their female counterparts — but none who take beautiful home to equal everything is right in the world as deeply and desperately as we women often do. It’s a hobby with them, not a hunger.

A quirky modernist room

Home of photographer and stylist Anita Calero, from Domino magazine 2007

I read those two novels (Laurie Colwin’s Happy All the Time and Victoria Clayton’s Out of Love) with their thorough and loving descriptions of homes and objects — the beautifully set tea tray, the vase of flowers — with greedy sensual pleasure, as if they were erotica… which on some level they were. Put me in a well-balanced, thoughtfully composed room when the light is just perfect, and I feel as thrilled and as satisfied as if my naked skin were being touched by strong, warm hands. Martha Stewart understands this, of course; it’s much of the secret to her success. Attractive, original, comfortable surroundings speak with the language of romance: you are cared for, you are special, you are loved. I did this all for you. Although on principle I’m opposed to such luxury, and realistically would probably start to take it for granted after the first few ecstatic months, I still crave it, and advertisers know this and can manipulate me at will.

Colonial American ballroom

18th-century withdrawing room, Drayton Hall, Charleston, SC (from Smithsonian magazine 2007)

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