The Smell of Books: Aromatherapy

In my freshman honors seminar on current health issues, a discussion of the impacts of screen time on sleep and stress digressed into a discussion of paper. My eighteen year old students all declared a liking for paper. They found the increasing tendency of professors, myself included, to put all assignments and syllabi online and to accept all “papers” only though an online course management system frustrating. These students want to read as much they can on paper. They say they understand it better. Some also need to write outlines and first drafts by hand. Computers are for revisions, for them, not for creativity. They like the tactile quality of paper, the way it looks when you read outdoors, the peaceful energy of holding a book, and the smell of bookstores.

Their sense of community and happiness when they shared this last thing fascinated me. The smell of books in second hand bookstores and libraries, as well as the smell of new books, is a kind of aromatherapy for them. It takes them into the world of quiet pages where all the stress and intrusion of electronics stops.

How often have you heard that young people are overly attached to their phones and live by technology? This group liked places and events where they had to be phone-free, whether it was going to church, or spending two weeks at a camp where phones weren’t allowed, or simply turning the phone off and settling down with a paper book.

I just packed up five paperbacks of Shaman’s Blues to ship to winners in my Goodreads giveaway. It was somehow special to see each book and wrap it up. The love of paper is alive and well. When I gave away the same novel as an e-book on Booklikes twelve people entered. When I gave away the paperback on Goodreads, close to eight hundred people entered. That could have to do with the price difference—a free paperback feels freer—but it might also have to do with the smell.

For a lot of people, paper is alive in some way that plastic is not. Perhaps the energy essence of a tree comes through in its reincarnation as words. I read e-books and paper books, but I only read the paper ones in bed.







Sacred Dirt

As anyone who has read my books and this blog knows, I’m intrigued by healing and mysterious phenomena. Something I found in a closet a few weeks ago got me thinking about miracles.


El Santuario de Chimayo in northern New Mexico was built on a site sacred to the native Tewa people. It is known as the Lourdes of the Southwest. In keeping with the nature of this part of the world, it does not have healing waters like Lourdes, but healing dirt. The architecture is simple and beautiful, like all old churches in New Mexico. A fence around the churchyard is covered with testimonials, tiny crosses and other small works of art, placed there by grateful people who were healed. Inside a small room to the side of the main sanctuary is a hole in the ground. Legend says that with a loaves-and-fishes kind of abundance, this hole never gets deeper, though year after year people have been scooping small amounts of the dirt from it for healing. The priest who was there the day I visited told me that skeptics suspected him of filling it up with dirt from somewhere else while no one was watching. He said he didn’t. According to the Santuario’s own web site, though, the sacred dirt is in fact replenished from nearby hillsides.

I packed my little plastic bag of Chimayo dirt when I moved from Santa Fe and forgot about it. This winter I was cleaning a closet and found it in a box. Hm. My sprained left middle toe was taking way too long to get well. Placebo or not, a little dust bath of this soft beige earth did wonders. The next day it didn’t hurt to walk.

My experience wasn’t a miracle, more like a placebo-induced acceleration. I was due to recover. But real miracles apparently do happen.  Dr. Larry Dossey wrote a fascinating editorial on documented miracles, some of which took place at Lourdes. Miracles don’t seem to happen to a particular person for any clear reason. Devout people who are suffering are not always healed, but some are.  Those who are healed don’t always have patterns of faith or behavior that predict susceptibility to miracles.

“These cures happen not just to those who have saintly dispositions, fierce determination, or positive thoughts, but to reprobates and passive quitters as well. Exceptions can be found to any psychological pattern yet advanced. I rather like this confused state of affairs. It suggests that no one has a monopoly on miracle cures … We ought to come clean and admit the obvious: we don’t know why spontaneous healings happen.”

What we  do know with certainty is that they happen. The International Medical Commission of Lourdes keeps meticulous records of its healings, and of before and after diagnoses of those who receive them. The miracles have to be proven by modern medicine.

Dossey describes the case of man who was apparently cured by a sham treatment in modern medicine as miraculously as others were cured at Lourdes. Mr. G., an elderly man with advanced lymphoma that had spread to his bone marrow, chest, abdomen and lymph nodes was beyond treatment, but so debilitated his physicians wanted to admit to him to the hospital. To justify admission they had to come up with a treatment so they  “began irradiating a single lymph node in his groin, knowing this was a sham treatment that would satisfy the hospital authorities.”

Though he seemed ready to die at first, Mr. G gradually got stronger and gained weight. His pain subsided. He was discharged to a nursing home. Over subsequent months the masses in his body shrank. 83 at the time of his hospitalization, he lived several years  longer in the nursing home, and his physical condition returned to normal. He said he felt better than ever.

If Lourdes and Chimayo healings are placebo responses, some people must have more faith in the sacred power behind the water and the dirt than in the treatments they’ve been given by health care professionals—unlike Mr. G.

Imagine being so powerful in your own mind that you can change your physiology just by belief. This belief, as far as I can tell, though, is seldom if ever a belief in one’s own power but in something beyond the self, whether medical or divine. Every drug trial includes a placebo arm. The medicine has to prove that it’s more effective than belief alone in healing the body. A body which is made, in essence, of water and dirt.

When the laws of nature appear to be occasionally broken, what’s going on? Can something or Someone reach in from another aspect of reality and move molecules, or are these phenomena natural but not fully understood? Maybe some events are spiritual and others psycho-physiological—or maybe there’s no difference between the two except in our perceptions and our labels.

That’s a mystery I am content not to solve. Like Dr. Dossey, I like this uncertainty.


Work cited: Dossey, L. Canceled Funerals: A Look at Miracle Cures, Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine, 1998; 4 (2)10-18,116-119

Santuario web site:

Virtual Tour of New Mexico, Part Two: Music in Santa Fe, a trip to T or C, and Desert Beauty

This started as a virtual tour of Santa Fe last week, but I decided to expand it to other locations as well.

First stop, music. Santa Fe Bandstand is one of the highlights of my summer. I enjoy the atmosphere and the range of artists, and as a writer of course I especially like watching the audience. Every summer I come up from T or C for a week or a few days, timing my trip for the performers I most want to see and hear.

Bandstand plays a key role in Shaman’s Blues. If you’ve read the book, see if reality matches your imagination.

Photo gallery

Not many videos available right now, but here are a few. My personal favorite among the bands in these videos—Felix Y Los Gatos. Love the blues accordion!

This next stop on the tour is part of the “on location” visit for Shaman’s Blues. New Mexico Magazine recently featured an article on my beloved Truth or Consequences, where Mae moves in the beginning of the book. Read the article and you’ll see how an off-beat artist like Niall fits right in, and how a place like Dada Café just might happen. (I located it on Broadway in a building that has had a high rate of restaurant turnover.)

Turtleback Mountain is prominent in the picture that accompanies this article, and it’s in Mae’s view from her back yard.

If my book or this “tour” made you fall in love with New Mexico, I recommend New Mexico Magazine as a way to keep the virtual tour going year round. They cover art, music, books, food, history, recreation, and their photography alone is enough to make the publication worth my subscription.

The final part of this tour is immersion in the natural beauty of the state. These pictures are not related to scenes in the book, other than the fact that one can’t drive on the interstate in NM without seeing something breathtaking, and that is part of Mae’s experience in her new home.

I discovered this photographer’s work at an outdoor art show in Santa Fe a few years ago. His way of seeing the world is attentive to grand vistas and subtle details, often in the same picture, and makes me feel the sacredness of the land.  He has a name that somehow suits his work—Amadeus Leitner.

The photo gallery could keep you in a state of exalted bliss for quite some time. Imagine the smells of sage and juniper, the breath of the wind, the texture of a rock heated by the sun, and you’ll be there.

Welcome to the Land of Enchantment.