A few weeks ago, I started doing something I thought I’d left behind many years ago: I took up smoking again. (Before you jump to conclusions, let me say I’ve quit already.)
Since I quit all those years ago, I’ve smoked about one cigarette a year. But the brain is a funny thing: for years after, I had dreams that included finding cigarettes in my purse, feeling shocked at not having quit after all.
Unlike Betty Draper, who appallingly and provocatively smoked straight through her pregnancies, I stopped smoking in 1985 when I became pregnant with our son, Keenan. I cut way back immediately upon learning I was pregnant and shortly after, had my last drag. I didn’t touch a cigarette for at least ten years.
I started smoking in Europe in my teens. In college, smoking became part of my study process and part of my being. In those days we could smoke almost anywhere except the library. We didn’t have to brave the cold, rain or snow. We smoked in our dorms, in bars and in coffee houses. We smoked in our cars, carefully blowing the smoke out the window when circumstances dictated.
But altogether for the past 28 years, I’d not smoked even one pack of cigarettes. The cost, the mess, the smell, and the public shame deterred me.
Some friends convinced me to join them on an overnight canoe trip a few weekends ago. I’d had a couple of puffs off a cigarette ten days earlier on another trip, and thought I’d buy a little pouch of tobacco and some papers to bring on the canoe trip. Just for fun.
Never in my life had I successfully rolled a cigarette, however. That evening I practiced and gradually came to do a respectable enough job. Naturally I smoked them all, even the imperfect ones. The other travelers had hiked up to the hot springs for an evening soak, but I was warm and dry, and not inclined to get wet again. I stayed by the fire and kept the dog company. I sat and smoked, and contemplated the stars, waiting for the full moon to crest the canyon wall.
Smokers now are relegated to back alleys, sequestered away from doors and intake vents. Their camaraderie is strange, but palpable, as they stand around like packs of errant juvenile delinquents waiting for an opportunity for mischief.
When I got back home, I finished the first pouch, smoking in the back yard in the evening after dinner. I had to rush inside and wash my hands and brush my teeth immediately. The taste and smell were disgusting.
I bought another pouch after that one was finished. I got much better at rolling my own.
Smoking slowed me down. I stood in the back yard and noticed a woodpecker going up and down a Ponderosa pine. I saw the clouds scudding across the sky, noticed the stillness of the air and the sounds of the snowmelt dripping off neighborhood roofs.
My elderly neighbor used to stand at the end of his driveway every morning, staring at the mountain, smoking a cigarette. (He’s banned from smoking in the house.) Now he sits on a white plastic chair near the front door. His deteriorating health reminds me why smoking is a bad idea. He can barely walk to the end of the street. His quality of life is not so good, in large part thanks to his addiction.
One day, I spent a little time on the internet looking at pictures of blackened lungs and websites that tell you in grim detail why smoking will make you old and sick and, eventually, dead. I promised myself: when I smoke the rest of this pouch, I will toss out the papers and give up this guilty pleasure.
But before I got to the end of the pouch, it was time to let go: I dumped the contents into the fire pit and lit some paper around it. Gone.
In the aftermath, I meditated on how vulnerable we are, and how fragile the status quo can be: you think you’ve made a change, but that old habit shows up on your doorstep months or years later, begging for a handout like an old boyfriend fallen on hard times. Don’t let him in, or you’ll be sorry.