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mini-essay: rosa and the lighthouse
on soap, yearning, and happiness
Note: I’m trying something a little different today. The full July edition of small magic will be out soon, with links to other new writing and all the silly holidays you’ve come to expect. In the meantime, here’s a wee bonus essay.
In December of 2019 I visited Maine to see if it might be a good place for me to live. From the airport I drove straight to the sea. The sky was violet, the ground was covered in snow, and the only other person there was a young woman leaning against the railing, looking out over the water. She smiled at me and asked if I was local. When I said I was visiting, without providing any additional information about my reason for coming, she responded, simply, “You should move here.”
The rest of my visit would prove her right. By the time I got back to D.C., I already missed Maine. I went online and found a livestream from the top of Portland Head Light. At any hour, in any weather, you can be there, watching the waves pound the shore, or the rain lashing the lighthouse itself. In the middle of the night the stream is all black, save for the graceful, silent sweep of the lighthouse’s beam.
I tuned in often. Whenever I felt stressed, or sad, or in need of hope, the lighthouse was there. I felt a deep yearning for that place, as though I was a part of it, and it a part of me.
A few months later, I returned to Maine, to the cold sea, for good. I now live about 15 minutes away from the lighthouse. I visit it often, and bring my rare visitors there.
Here’s the thing: I haven’t stopped watching the livestream. And I haven’t stopped feeling the yearning.
One of my favorite haiku goes like this:
In Kyoto, hearing the cuckoo, I long for Kyoto. (Bashō, tr. Jane Hirshfield)
I love how neatly this verse encapsulates the strange, bittersweet longing that often accompanies joy. There’s an element of grief to it, as we detach and drift away from the present moment, anticipating the loss of whatever precious, life-giving thing is right in front of us, missing what we currently have. I couldn’t tell you what the other part of it is. Maybe that’s just joy.
A long time ago, an order from my favorite saponatrix* included a sample of a seasonal soap called Rosa Rugosa. I am not, generally, a rose person. I find the flowers overrated and most rose fragrances cloying and stale. But the shimmering little magenta square in the palm of my hand wasn’t like any of those. It smelled like living wild roses drenched in rain. Water and freshness and naked pink petals. The scent of it on my skin made me feel ungovernable. I ordered a bar immediately.
The seasons changed, and Rosa Rugosa rotated off the menu.
Years went by. I visited Maine, and then moved here, to the lighthouse, to the sea. To a home among feral-looking flowering bushes, each rumpled blossom bursting open like a dress on the cover of a romance novel.
One summer night at the salon I mentioned the exploding flowers. “Oh!” my stylist said. “The beach roses!” Beach roses, I thought. Of course I’d like those. When I got home, I looked them up and learned their Latin name: Rosa rugosa. Of course, of course.
The next morning I went outside and put my face in a flower. The scent was a perfect match: fresh, watery, wild, sweet. I nearly burst into song. Soon I was noticing Rosa everywhere: by the post office, by the library, by the lighthouse. Each time I saw beach roses I thought, How fortunate I am to be with them, here.
This spring, to my delight, my beloved soapmaker offered one more limited batch of Rosa Rugosa. I was good, and bought only a single bar, and waited until my current soap was completely used up to unwrap my new treasure. In the shower I lifted the jewel-bright bar from the soap dish and felt, first, a surge of joy, and then–so quickly on its heels!–the yearning. Before I’d even finished soaping up one full arm, I was already mourning my bar of soap’s gradual disappearance.
Suddenly I caught myself in the midst of this pre-grieving. I thought of Bashō, and laughed aloud. Then I gently set the yearning aside, and sniffed my perfect soap, and bathed in my gladness.
I’ve heard it said that happiness is wanting what you already have. But wanting’s always been a little difficult for me. Pining, though? Longing? Yearning? That I can do.
*Their word, and a good one.
Photos: Miki Jourdan (Portland Head Light), Agnieszka Kwiecień (beach roses).
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small magic will always be free.