I was raised to be a Catholic Christian Woman (I could be more of all three, but that’s fodder for another post) and inherently, prayerfulness is simply part of who I am. In fact, I’m certain prayers were being delivered to me in utero by the same great women who helped guide my faith, even before I knew what faith was. For many, discussing religion might garner a similar reaction to what I expect many of you thought upon observing the title of this post and specifically, the spelling of “Marys” above. I’m guessing you thought something just doesn’t seem right about that, and I get it. But, one’s dedication to spelling and/or religion is significantly shaped by what we’ve learned and how much effort we’re willing to spend on education and growth. I confess that I’ve foolishly spent too much time learning about one and not the other and thus, despite its strange appearance, I can assure you that ‘Marys‘ is spelled correctly. But, I digress.
My to-do list of self-improvement tasks is longer than winter 2017 in New York (and almost as long as this post –Reader, beware) and however counterintuitive it may seem, I am both daunted and motivated in equal measure. Challenging myself to be better at something always offers greater motivation when the end result stands to benefit a recipient other than myself -simply because failure seems less of an option. Such was/is the case with my latest foray into making soap at home. I have a long history with soap- fifteen years in the making (or not making as was the case), but the making part didn’t occur until I finally succumbed to the formidable and mysterious lye. For those of you with science brains and nerves of steel, I envy you. For those of you, like me, who shy away from the possibility of maiming the first recipients of your efforts, I suggest you reconsider and employ the help of a fearless husband or friend, and invest in a reliable set of goggles and face mask (if you own a Bible, you might want to keep that handy).
Lye, also known as sodium hydroxide (NaOH) is a metal hydroxide (derived from leaching ashes) and it’s required in the making of solid (cold process) soap. When mixed with water (also required), it creates a caustic solution that eventually, when mixed properly with base oils/butters -according to a carefully calculated recipe, will survive a gradual chemical reaction and (hopefully) result in a more neutral, solid, luxurious bar of homemade soap. As you can see, there is a great margin for error and unlike my failed culinary experiments, soap making has the potential to burn and blind innocent bathers (and sadly, you probably won’t want to eat the mistakes). For the soap making hopeful, he/she is exposed to a host of liabilities, not the least of which include a potentially failed marriage/friendship and the occasional death by lye ingestion. So, it shouldn’t surprise you when I tell you that my very first soap making book (twice read) sat on a shelf for fifteen years. It wasn’t until an unforgiving skin ailment on my mother’s arm prompted me to dip my toe in the wild (and now web-based) pool of artisanal soap making. Mid life has a funny way of quelling old fears ,perhaps because the closer we are to death, the less we worry about things like permanent injuries and lawsuits, and so my reawakened interest (thank you, Pinterest) drove me to revisit the calling. The gracious and talented soap makers of the twenty-first century share many of their soap making recipes and instructions online for free. One of the very first sites I visited (soap-made-easy.com) had this to offer:
“Fear of lye is the biggest reason that people avoid making lye soap. It’s understandable – lye is a dangerous, corrosive chemical. It can burn your skin, blind you, and kill you if ingested. But, it’s necessary to make soap, and easy to manage if you are careful.”
Subsequently, prayer also found its way into my soap making endeavors.
I read and researched soap tutorials and recipes and after careful consideration, I chose the method known as cold process soap making which, if you ask me, can be misleading. The reaction when lye meets water is a hot and bothered one, requiring the soap maker to wear head to toe protection from hot splatters, wayward lye crystals, and caustic fumes. Sounds like good clean fun, doesn’t it?
I reached out to the online community of soap makers for referrals to suppliers and finally placed my first large order for pure, organic soap making ingredients. If there was any part of this process about which I was completely confident, it was in my uncanny ability to seek out the most expensive materials because my soap making fund was quite literally, drained after just one order. Alas, I could not justify cutting corners when this soap’s intended recipient was none other than Mary Ann, the woman who birthed me (and the same woman who, for more than a decade, threatened to wash my mouth out with a bar of soap- even greater motivation for me to make a bar so pure, technically, one could eat it). Creating a usable bar of soap was only one of many hurdles to come; I was hopeful to avoid creating a soap that exacerbated her condition, and I fully anticipated resistance by my mother to try any type of beauty product made by my own hands, and not because she didn’t trust my ambition or creativity. After all, she was- and still remains- the inspiration behind many of my crafting endeavors. She introduced me to sewing at a very young age and taught me that anything was possible with fabric and thread (with perhaps one exception- home sewn darts in a dress bodice will never ever ever allow the wearer to have anything other than bullet-point boobs- insert awkward photo here). Where beauty products are concerned, my mother unlike me, has an intolerance for anything scented of any kind. Even the most benign products like commercial baby washes and shampoos are too heavily scented for her and trigger allergy symptoms and brain fog (a state I am intimately familiar with, but one likely unrelated to my perfume. If my mother reads this post, it is precisely at this juncture she will say ‘bullshit on that’). Willingly and knowingly, I walked into what might have become an impossible task (since even the purest ingredients bestowed upon us by Mother Nature herself often carry some detectable scent). Nonetheless, I was determined to gift her with skin soothing soap and I was hopeful to learn a few things in the process. I researched (obsessively) herbs commonly and effectively used to treat surface skin conditions and discovered that Calendula earns high praise for its ability to combat eczema, some psoriasis, cradle cap, and a host of other skin ailments (not to mention a list of cures unrelated to skin). As an added bonus, I found a connection between Calendula and another favorite Mary of mine (the one to whom I pray regularly for much more than solid soap making). It turns out Calendula was given the nickname “Mary’s Gold” and thus, the more recognizable marigold. A number of resources offer a similar history to this one from mercola.com:
The common name “marigold” refers to the Virgin Mary, with whom it has been associated since the 14th century, when it was included as an ingredient in an English recipe for fighting plague. Apart from also being used to honor Mary during Catholic events, marigold was also considered by ancient Egyptians to have rejuvenating properties. Hindus used the flowers to adorn statues of gods in their temples, as well as to color their food, fabrics and cosmetics. Pot marigold or C. officinalis is the most commonly cultivated and used species, and is the source of the herbal oil.
“Calendula” comes from the Latin word “calendae,” meaning “little calendar,” because the flower blooms on the calends or the first of most months.
It seems worth mentioning that my mother is a daily churchgoer, so reasonably, one might consider that she is in the same ballpark with both Godliness and cleanliness.
Calendula, as both a soap ingredient and a motivating factor for my mother to try the soap was seemingly, a home run for me, or-if you don’t object to mixing sports idioms (although, I was hoping to keep things in the same ballpark) a slam dunk might be more appropriate (and by dunk, I mean more bathtub than net- since we are talking about soap here).
In soap making as in life, cure can mean many things; in this case, it applies to both remedy for a skin ailment, as well as the very very very very long time it takes for soap to set up and actually become hard, usable soap (yes, even longer than this blog post). Thankfully, the cleanliness of my faithful mother (to whom I’ve been known to refer as Father Mother– not kidding, feel free to ask her because you know she won’t lie) afforded me plenty of time to create an herbaceous, flaxen loaf of soap I appropriately named “Mary’s Gold.”
And so I waited. And waited. And waited (longer than you).
About six weeks later, my inaugural loaf was finally ready for cutting. Since that time, I’ve honed my skills and even tried out a few original recipes. Many of the bars were gifted to family and a few just left the curing rack. I’m happy to share that my mom loved her soap and reports a great improvement in her skin condition (and no associated brain fog). The ‘Mary’s Gold’ soap can be clearly identified by the wisps of calendula petals embedded in the bars. The photo below also includes a ginger citrus soap (square-ish bars) and a rice milk and rosewater soap (heart shaped). The latter was no small feat because milk based soaps are prone to scorching (and worth noting for the sake of impressing you further -when milk and lye mix, it smells really, really bad). So determined to use Jasmine rice milk because Japanese women have been using rice milk in their beauty regimens for years with great success (and who doesn’t want skin like a Geisha?), I actually made my own. Yes, you read that correctly, I made my own organic rice milk. You’re welcome, skin.
And, as with any moment of glory, there is always risk to the celebrant that something can, and likely will go wrong. I failed to mention a niggling concern that befalls even the most seasoned soap makers- a little thing called pH testing. Soap must be tested to ensure its usability and safety, and there are several ways to complete the task. One popular, though somewhat unreliable method (endured across the globe by unsuspecting husbands whose wives simply say “lick this” while handing them a freshly cured bar of soap–and…they do!
Suckkaahhhh!) is referred to as the “tongue test.” Not unlike the Neanderthal method of battery testing, the ‘licker’ will get tongue zapped if the pH is too high- or in soap lingo- harsh or lye-heavy. Instead, I opted for the less abusive chemical called phenolphthalein (try saying that with a bar of soap in your mouth) which, when dropped (carefully) on a slice of cured soap, will indicate whether or not the pH level is in the normal range for safe soaping. I won’t bore you with technicalities (since I’m keeping this post brief) but let’s just say the kimono was not yet ready to come out of the closet.
It occurred to me that a similarity exists between soap and spirit; most of us aspire to have both rank (when tested) among those that are clean and gentle. Careful monitoring is one way to improve one’s chances for success. Fallibility, a pitfall common to both, affords great opportunity for growth- if and when the Creator facilitates the removal of those variables contributing to harshness and/or a heavy lye (ya feel me?).
To say that I was frustrated is an understatement, but the facts gleaned from my mishap will not likely be forgotten. I allowed the soap to cure for several more weeks and much to my delight, the soap (which I now recognize as having too high a percentage of moisturizing oils) finally tested in the normal range (but by industry standards, is soft). And perhaps the failures we soap makers endure are poetic justice for the zapped tongues of unsuspecting husbands. If there is one thing a soap maker understands, it is the importance of balance. Any good soap recipe (or person) worth its (his/her) salt, must counteract harshness (lye) with the addition of more gentle ingredients and thus, allow for the cleansing of one’s body (mind/spirit).
And as I wax poetic, I’d like to share with you a bit of poetry written by Marie, a dear friend and colleague. Months ago, Marie received a bar of Mary’s Gold from me and her kind and positive feedback encouraged me to continue my efforts. She shared with me her frustration with dry (NY) winter skin and affirmed the soap’s exfoliating and moisturizing benefits. Last week, to my surprise and delight, Marie gifted me with her clever poem about my soap, and I am happy to share it with you.
I can’t help but replay the event in my mind because it is no less significant today than the day she gave it to me. The simple act of one human humbly offering another something borne of kindness and creativity is what, Dear Readers, sets us apart from wild things. And perhaps it is by no coincidence that all of the Marys with whom I am connected and acquainted, have individually taught me the importance of nurturing and sharing my creative spirit; they are gracious women indeed.