All the Good Soaps

all the good soapsSometime in my teens The Body Shop arrived at the local mall. Today, on the rare occasion I am forced to enter such a place, I steer clear this trendy little cosmetic store. The fumes it emits make my head swim and eyes water. I can no longer tolerate the perfumes. For a while I could not even enter stores like Bed, Bath, and Beyond. The invisible barrier of scents was like a wall of fire.

When I was a kid, though, The Body Shop offered me the perfect place where I could buy my mother Christmas gifts on the little bits of money I scratched together. I found those bright oval soaps so cheery, and I loved the scents of kiwi, mandarin orange, and satsuma. For just a few dollars those soaps filled out my mother’s stocking well.

They looked great and smelled nice, but as soap they were hardly practical. In the shower they melted into a sudsy green or orange pool of chemical cream. The while film in the dish reminded me of a rainbow with glaucoma. On the sink they left a hard wax crust. Honestly, I could never shake the feeling that they weren’t actually soaps—that they didn’t so much clean the body as coat it with a microthin layer of wax. All these years later we still have some of those bars of soap around, and dig them out from time to time to watch them melt in the shower or cement themselves to the sink.

What The Body Shop did, though, was open up a market for beautiful soaps. Not long after, much like the microbrew sensation of today or the hipster tea movement of yesteryear, artisan soaps began filling the farmer’s markets and Christmas craft sales. Bathrooms were soon decorated with rough hewn blocks of soap fashioned from free range goat’s milk or Himalayan glacier salt or Arctic seal blubber. You can see a gorge-raising parody in Fight Club if you want to remember the trends of the times.

The problem was that these well-loved products of the artisans’ hands gave us soaps that were simply too good to use. Like the Scotch that is too old to share, or the leather-bound journal that is too epic to write in, these artisan soaps were too precious to use on something as mundane as removing dirt from skin. So, all across North American, bathrooms were adorned with tiny pastel inukshuks of beautifully smelling soaps.

I think I knew my mother was really going to die when I pulled out one of her artisan soaps. This one had a spicy smell, more like an herb garden than a flower monger’s stall. I don’t know where mom ever picked it up, but I would guess it was a Christmas gift or farewell party token of some kind. I pulled off the craftsman’s seal and washed my hands.

It was time to use all the good soaps.

Now I am at my mother’s hospital bed. As she sleeps, head tilted forward on her collapsing chest, she is still for a moment. When moments become seconds, she heaves in a great breath of air. At night I watch, sometimes, wondering which one of these breaths will be the last one. For some reason I want to see her last breath.

It has happened quickly. I am still using that same bar of soap in my mother’s bathroom, the bar I opened when I knew the chemo wouldn’t work. As my mother’s body wastes away, I am amazed at how little of the soap is used. Life can be spent so quickly.

Even now, as we are enjoying favourite wines and meals for the last time, using the artisan soap seems like wanton luxury—a billion dollar yacht in a five dollar room. As I breath in the fragrance and role the hard-edged milky bar in my hand, I cannot help but ask this absurd question: what are we saving the good soaps for?

Best,
Brenton

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About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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30 Responses to All the Good Soaps

  1. robstroud says:

    Quite moving. Brought to mind my own bedside vigil with my mother. Yes, let us enjoy the good soaps the Lord has given to us while we are able.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Diana Hebenik says:

    Beautifully said Brenton! & I am so in agreement with you. Time and time again I wished my mom would want to have our family dinners at the dining room table with the China even just for lunch. Had she survived I would be setting that table for her. Blessings and prayers to my friend.

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  3. Using the good soaps our oldest now gives me on joyous occasions. The first one was like a jewel,reddish with metallic sparks flying through it and cut rough but perfectly fit my hand with every wash. The last is packaged prettily and with a whispered, ‘Take A Chance’ printed on the handmade paper. My mother’s last breath. Yes. I know that need. She saved soaps from places she and my Dad ventured, and just last month I opened the one from Hawaii. It sits in our bathroom, and doesn’t smell all that great anymore. It’s been 35 years since she was there. I’ve had it for 12. Though I don’t need much reminding, I do think of her- it’s funny how that it is- every time I use the soap. Cheers to your mum; all the best to you

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    • Thanks for this note, Karen.
      I think of you to as an artist-artisan. In your case, you make entirely “useless” things–in the best way that a lack of use can represent for us. It is art, made for beauty and allure and intrigue and provocation, and sometimes to inspire worship. A triple pained glazed R2000 window is sure more efficient than stained glass, but it isn’t much to look at–it is there to look through, not look at.

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  4. Craig Gallaway says:

    A fine reflection, Brenton. Blessings to you as you stand with her in these last days. And by the way, the smell of that soap might become a strong link in memory with her, and that could be one reason to keep a bar or two.

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    • Thanks for the note, Craig.
      I grew up on a farm, and the smell of cow manure still has a good connotation. When I am teaching and I want students to capture a particularly poignant moment, I will sometimes peal an orange or grapefruit. Nasal memory is powerful.

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  5. Becka Choat says:

    Beautiful. Grace and peace to you and your mom.

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  6. Linda Nicholson says:

    Saddened to hear such a relentless disease has entered into your lives. Peace and strength to you on this precious and sacred journey.

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  7. Hannah says:

    May God’s nearness and comfort be with you at this difficult time!

    Your beautiful blog on soap reminded me of 17th century Dutch & Flemish art with its many layers of symbolic meaning e.g.:
    – the soap bubble as a symbol of a.o. life’s fragility and that “Life can be spent só quickly”
    Webinks to some paintings with explanations:
    https://www.nga.gov/collection/gallery/gg53/gg53-994.html
    http://www.kunstdirekt.net/Symbole/emblem/vanitas/emblemvanitas.htm

    – but then you also often see a glass of wine with oysters, admonishing the viewer to enjoy life’s pleasures and a half peeled lemons to live in the present moment with its sourness and freshness;
    – the butterfly as an early Christian symbol of the Resurrection gives hope of life after death and is a good balance to the vanity symbols of skulls and soap bubbles
    e.g. see: https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/en/collection/SK-A-1107?slug=glas-2d
    (Still Life with Lemon and Cut Glass, Maria Margaretha van Os)

    Like

    • I could have expected (but didn’t) that I was tapping into a large conversation of symbols. It is the magic of art, how it vibrates with the work of others.
      Thank you for this blessing Hannah. I will take it.

      Like

  8. Diana Dahart says:

    Beautifully written, Brenton. I’m carrying your mom, you and Tina in my prayers every day.

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  9. Beautifully written. As a soap-maker – who tries to make soaps that people will actually use – I would add that handmade soap needs to be well-drained after use in order to avoid it disintegrating into a gooey blob.

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  10. L.A. Smith says:

    I am learning to use up the good soaps! It is true, our lives are so short, really, so we may as well enjoy our little luxuries while we can. Which is what a nice handmade soap is, a little luxury.

    I will be praying for you as you sit by your mom. Giving her the gift of your presence in these final days can be very emotional but also a good time for reflection, prayer, and even joy. Blessings on you and yours.

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  11. God bless you and your mom as you represent Christ to her in this important time in your lives. Your wisdom in using the good soaps reminds me of a decision my parents made as newlyweds. They were given a set of fine Rosenthal china, but refrained from using it, deciding instead to save it for an occasion special enough–one that never seemed to come. When they heard that the couple who gave them that china in Germany were killed in an accident while on a skiing holiday, they immediately took out that Rosenthal set and started using it.

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  12. Barb Marsh says:

    Aww Brenton our prayers are with you . I enjoyed reading this very much . A lot can be taken from that. I think we all save things we should be using. Prayers for you and your family

    Like

  13. A wonderful post and reminder! Comfort and peace to you and your family!

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  14. Barbara says:

    This is lovely, and I am so sorry. I get it; I (someone you will not know at all on this side of Heaven’s veil) will be praying for you.

    Like

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