Smell Your Way to Deep Care

This article is coming to you as a special series of posts that were made available in May of 2019 exclusively for the subscribers to SongNotes From the Birds.

In light of the craziness of this pandemic season, as well as various shifts in our own approach to creating these offerings of songs and notes, we will be sharing last year’s words to our wider audience this year.

Thank you so much to the supporters who have sustained us, little by little and a lot by a lot, so that we can keep stirring our art into the spaces we all share.

The Barber, the Baker, and the Open Space Maker

(featuring “The Daisies” by Samuel Barber)

by Nathan Bird, originally published May 4, 2019 via email


It was a beautiful blue sky day. The afternoon sun was getting tired. The air was rich with the scent of life as the roses in the rose garden at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum declared their Maker’s praise.

I was probably 10, and I thought it would be a good idea to stop and smell the roses because that’s the line that I’d heard all the grown-ups say…so I did.  

Every. Single. Rose. 

red garden plant green
Photo by Pixabay on

I learned that sometimes bugs like to hide inside the flowers, and if said bugs happen to fly up your nose, incredible discomfort, and usually a crazy-dance, ensues.  

I also learned that not all roses smell lovely.  Some roses have a scent that’s more akin to a thorn than a swirl of lovely velvet petals. 

As a blooming hopeless romantic, I knew there was something to this saying, but also found it odd.  What does it really mean?

abstract beautiful bright close up
Photo by Jess Bailey on

The song of this week is “The Daisies,” written by the American composer Samuel Barber (1910-1981) when he was just 17.  The text is by Irish writer James Stephens (1880-1950). 

Take a moment to listen through it here. It’s brief. Go ahead.

Barber set Stephens’ poem using incredible lyricism indicative of the trademark style that he’d be known for in his compositions later in life.  I love the simple elegance of this poem.  Its lean narrative evokes young love and the rapture of nature.  When you ask friends about how they met, their memories are FULL of the smallest details.   (As I said, me = hopeless romantic.) In Stephens’ poem, that small love-enveloped detail is the daisies.

flowers bloom blossom flora
Photo by Pixabay on

As a voice teacher, there is a game I like to play that helps students create space for resonance.  

Healthy classical singing requires a great deal of resonance, and students often believe they’re using as much space as they have available.  But I know they have more.

I ask the student to imagine her favorite baked good fresh from the oven.  (I need to pause and share that my favorite olfactory memory was our homemade whole wheat bread.  We’d grind the wheat berries into flour and bake them into perfection.  A HEAVENLY scent.  Let that linger while I bring us back to the voice lesson.)

The student and I then pretend that we’re smelling that favorite baked good, and we draw in a deep breath through now-flared nostrils. (Can you feel it?  Are you joining us?) 

baked baking bread breakfast
Photo by Leigh Patrick on

Now “MMMMM” through that deliciously-induced space and notice the expansive resonance. More often than not, this exercise results in the student opening her throat space to an extent that she didn’t even know was possible.

Afterwards, I’ll contrast this with pretending to sniff a dirty diaper and notice how the throat tenses up as we’re thinking, “Ew, gross.”  Undeniably horrendous. 

woman disgusted face expression

Photo by Polina Zimmerman on

The body adjusts according to how much we do or don’t want to receive something. 

When we are smelling something we like, our throats open up.  The soft pallet raises.  The larynx drops.  The tongue relaxes.  The body is saying “More of THAT please.” 

Here’s where this gets really cool.  Can you guess the other times in life when we naturally open our throats?  When you are relaxed and about to yawn, you’ll feel your larynx drop and your body seeks to let in more oxygen.  If you are an empathizer like me, you get this sensation even when you’re listening to someone share about something painful.  As your mind considers taking on tender emotions, your physiology complies.

Care equals opening up.  Opening up requires care. 

tilt shift lens photo of infant s hand holding index finger of adult
Photo by Dominika Roseclay on

Whether it’s your nose, your mouth, or your heart that you are opening, you are choosing to care about something, to let something in.

I’m going to make the bold assertion that –  in Stephens’ words – to “walk slow in the field where daisies are” or to “kiss your dear on either cheek” are simply variations of stopping to smell the roses.  “Stopping to smell the roses” is making the choice to open up yourself to value and receive the beauty around you.