With less daylight this time of year, I like to use my seasonally enforced hibernation time to reconnect with my higher consciousness and tap into a deeper artistic flow. I meditate more. I spend more time alone. I write. I pretend to draw. This year I’ve been indulging in a mild obsession with works of Austin Osman Spare. I’ve even been known to employ a little divination here and there, although I shy away from calling it that to avoid incurring the wrath of the online extramundane die-hards. Sometimes, they can be a tad judgy. I find it best not to agitate them.
This year, my annual spiritual reboot has proven to be more challenging than in years past. So, my partner and consummate mischief-maker, Katherine, offered an idea. Instead of relying entirely on our typical practices, she suggested that we throw caution to the wind and seek a little outside help. This was the year for absinthe.
For us, chemical enhancements are typically outside the bounds of our ritual practices. While we aren’t exactly strangers to the idea, it’s been years since either of us has ventured near an artificial door without a prescription. We left recreational alteration (other than caffeine and occasional social drinking) far behind once our real adult lives started. Even so, I’m usually up for a little adventure, as long as it’s legal and within reason, of course.
Absinthe was the perfect fit. An established ritual is baked right into the experience. So, with visions of Wilde, Poe, and a two-eared van Gogh dancing in our heads, we dusted off some vintage glassware and got down to it. We measured the absinthe. We perched a sugar cube atop the slotted spoon. As the water flowed slowly through, the louche swirled, and we knew la fée verte was with us.
Katherine went first. She touched the glass to her lips and took a gentle sip. Stone-faced, she handed it to me. I closed my eyes and inhaled deeply. Its aroma was magical, like the past made manifest in a small etched-glass chalice. This nectar was swallowed by some of the world’s most creative minds. I was embarking on a path to the hidden knowledge of the universe, or at the very least, some profound creative inspiration. It was all finally happening.
I pressed the glass to my lips and let the liquid alchemy flow onto my tongue…
and then I sensed it…
Rotten fennel and burning rubber with gentle notes of industrial disinfectant... It was very detritus-forward.
It seemed to me that the green fairy hadn’t showered in a coupled of millennia.
Good God! I thought to myself, Could this really be what all the fuss was about? How desperate do you have to be for this to be your drink of choice? Katherine looked at me expectantly. We had talked about absinthe for years. We both had so many expectations. Was I really going to let a little swill stand between us and profound mystical experience? The answer had to be no. It was terrible, but I couldn’t ruin it for her. The next thing I knew I blurted out, “That was strong!”
“Huh…” Katherine said thoughtfully. I couldn’t quite hear where she was going with it. “That was unexpected,” she went on slowly.
As she spoke, a memory of my childhood slammed into my mind. My mother and I had gone to a movie at the old Polk Theater, an elegant 20’s-era edifice that then screened major motion pictures and the occasional musical touring company. The building was a gem. I used to love arriving early and contemplating the artfully painted ceiling as everyone else shuffled in to find their seats. It looked like a starry, endless night sky. On this particular day, we were early (as usual) and I was bubbling over with my distinctly engaging demeanor (as usual). As I gazed at the ceiling and despite having a whole box of Junior Mints all to myself, I obsessively nagged my mother to give me some of the candy she had bought for herself. I simply had to know what it tasted like. To my mind, if an adult wanted it, it had to be special, and the words on the box told me everything I needed to know—its contents were both Good and Plenty—which meant I would like them and there was enough to share. I was a generally relentless child. Eventually, Mom caved and put several pink and white pellets in the palm of my hand. Without hesitation, I popped them into my mouth…
Ten minutes later, I was puking into the lobby trash can.
My moment with absinthe was freakishly similar to that fateful day at the Polk Theater—the anticipation, the historical aesthetic, the smacks of rancid licorice and burning rubber flooding my mouth. (To fans of the stuff, I humbly apologize, and I mean no offense. This is merely my experience.) As a child, it was more than my stomach could bear.
After sipping the absinthe, I feared it would be the same. It’s not like I’m allergic to licorice. I don’t harbor any aggressive anti-anise agendas. I’ve enjoyed a little sambuca and ouzo here and there in my life. I even survived an obligatory Jägermeister shot once to avoid committing a horrible college party foul. As I stood there in my kitchen holding that glass, I thought maybe I just needed to “nut up and keep drinking” as my bad influence of a brother used to say. In his own misguided way, he was right—greatness does tend to flow to those who persevere.
Then my mother’s voice cut through my mind, “Just think about what those talented young artists could have created if they hadn’t been so strung out… It’s such a waste of talent.” That was what she used to tell me when I was 16 and on my way to arts school. It was meant as a cautionary tale to keep me from succumbing to peer pressure. In the end, her words didn’t keep me from experimenting, but then again, experimenting didn’t really make me more creative, it just made me hungry for late night cheese steak hoagie deliveries and Double-Stuf Oreos.
But I could feel my stomach start to rebel. I feared that this moment might have its own projectile splattering ending.
Katherine, still thoughtful and stone-faced, took another drink and then looked down at the glass in her hand. “Do you want anymore?” she asked hesitantly as she held the glass out to me.
“Uh, no…” I said, trying to breathe through it. “What about you?”
“Not really,” she said, “that was…” She seemed to be at a loss for words.
“Medicinal?” I offered.
“Yes, that’s it! Medicinal is what I was reaching for,” she said as she gingerly set the glass down like it was going to explode if she jostled it too much.
“That was terrible,” I went on. My concerns about appearances and destroyed fantasies had disappeared.
Katherine burst out with laughter, “It really is awful!” and for the next 15 minutes, we stood at the counter laughing and attempting to find all of the words to aptly describe the terrible experience.
In the end, it turned out that absinthe was not for either of us. Like so many things we have experimented with over the years, the reality didn’t live up to the hype. It makes me wonder, why do so many rituals have to be so gross? Stinky incense…unpalatable concoctions that never seem to deliver the promised result…patchouli….
Once again, we were betrayed by mythos. For me, it turned out that the green fairy was mostly just green around the gills. So much for a ritual shared across time. If it was worth it to endure the taste of absinthe back then, then life must have been nearly unbearable. As for today’s absinthe, my experience was memorable, just not in the way I had hoped. I guess my bougie snifter of CÎROC VS will have to act as my liquid muse. If that means artistic greatness will remain forever out of my grasp, then c’est la vie.
And to la fée verte…
I bid you adieu, with fondness and a healthy swig of Pepto-Bismol.
**Title image created from Jean Béraud’s The Drinkers