Summer Reading: Camomile, Sea Salt and Love
‘You used to smell like camomile and sea salt’ is one of my favourite sentences ever written. It makes me think of warm summer evenings by the ocean, perpetually bare feet and the strange thrill of wearing huge jumpers with tiny, denim shorts.
The quote comes from Mary Wesley’s The Camomile Lawn, written in 1984, when Wesley was in her 70s. Wesley, known by her friends as Wild Mary for a variety of reasons, recounts the thrill and horror of being young in the years of WWII. And while none of us can imagine what that was like, there’s a universality in her books that speaks to us of the essentials of life. Her characters fall in love, fall into bed and pick themselves back up again. Wesley deals with sex, love and death and how easy is it to get muddled up as we ricochet between the three.
Twelve year old me probably smelt like pine needles and fresh laundry. Eighteen year old me smelt like new perfume and that vague sweetness that seems to come from hot weather. It’s easy to miss them, the younger parts of you. They were easier to spend time with, they had less baggage. Less notches on the bed post, less things to worry about.
As I’ve grown up, I haven’t found it easy to discard the past versions of myself. There are parts of me that have changed beyond recognition and others that never seem to have altered. But it’s less about getting rid of the old parts of you and more about growing up around them. I feel like a Russian doll sometimes, full of different past-selves, all clicked into place and waiting to be taken out when I need them.
The world seems to run in a series of patterns. The needle slides into the grooves and life crackles into action. People rarely surprise me, I’m not shocked by tragedy anymore. But, we all seem so willing to recognise the sad patterns that we ignore the beautiful ones. If life runs in circles, then you probably will fall in love again. If life runs in circles, you’ll get up and make tea and you’ll be okay.
The younger versions of me jostle for space, brush out their hair and remind me that I still smell like camomile and sea salt and that we’ve all been making mistakes since the dawn of time. And isn’t there something reassuring in knowing that young people have been doing this for decades? Being young has always been an absolute disaster, even in the 40s with Spitfires roaring overheard. People were still confused, still scared of growing up and scared of being hurt. People might have been brave, but there were still just human beings desperate to be loved.
Wesley’s The Camomile Lawn serves to remind us that while youth might be impermanent for individuals, the patterns of youthfulness will carry on. And if life is just recycling old themes, then you have as much chance of being incandescently happy as anything else.