No smoking is going to resolve the dread that seeps up into your bones in that house.
I mean: you could smoke lots of stuff, and temporarily visit some other realms, but not one of them is going to go right into the heart of the dread and say:
You’re part of me
And while I don’t like that one bit,
I recognize you.
Hello, smoking dread, like an eel steeped in the fumes of whatever smoldering fire cooked you up slowly.
Applewood-smoked dread, or hickory. Perhaps ancestral-mahogany-smoked. Smoke-and-mirrors-smoked. What’s that smell? Nothing. Stop being so sensitive. What’s that taste? I don’t know what you’re talking about. Why does everything have to be so complicated, with you?
No smoking means no gesture to deflect whatever is showing up like a hollow in the belly. I used to admire smokers on train platforms because they were the only ones who truly looked like they had something satisfying to do. Me, the reader, notebook-scribbler, photographer? None of those seemed nearly so self-contained. The smokers stood staring squint-eyed down the track, absorbed in their own slow cooking.
Smoking – casual smoking everywhere. I have childhood memories of almost all the men in my family smoking, and even occasionally my glamorous aunts and rebellious cousin. Pipes and cigarettes, hand-rolled and pre-made, in holders and between fingers. My father smoked till I was maybe eight, then quit one day without telling anyone. It was a while before we noticed. No more whirling ashtray with a central button to send smoking mess down into an inner compartment. No more smoky TV golf. My grandfather, though, never quit. It stayed with him till death, and through tuberculosis. A steady diet of Benson & Hedges Lights smoked through a black Bakelite holder.
Luckily, I hated the taste of these, even though I tried very hard to take them on as a rite of passage into adulthood. It was easy to steal a few from the square Swedish cut-glass holder on the dining room table, or from the sweet-smelling, red-felt lined silver box in the living room. Cigarettes were like fizzy water or butter: a condiment, a necessity of daily life. I lit them in the orchard and failed find any sense in which joy ensued. Plus, I knew my lungs were vulnerable to bronchitis. I quit before I started.
Smoking is now a blurred category. Timothy’s students vape in the back of the classroom, from devices they charge on their laptops. You don’t need to smoke, anymore, to get high. Chewable, skin-transmitted, ingested, snack-formed, cell-phone-analogue forms of high are increasingly everywhere, and in some sense that’s great. Physical pain and anxiety respond to these, and soothing comes to places that have never been other than jangled and horrified.
But still the dread. What about it? This morning I didn’t want to leave the house, didn’t want to deal with the snow-covered car or the slick roads, but the dogs are non-negotiable. You can’t give them something to smoke and expect them to feel satisfied without real forest-time. So I skidded up the hill, released the monsters into their beloved freedom, and spent a long while walking, listening to the snowfall, noticing how very joyful the whole thing was. And surprising. My moods are by now fairly well-known to me, but the world continues to be full of wonder. If I'd stayed home, if I’d gone into some other kind of work-pattern, I would have missed the opportunity to be with this moment of surrender to snow, animal-nature, and quiet. I might have tried to smoke my dread away, when all it really wanted was to get outside of itself and touch the world.
Non-smoking is relatively new. When I was little, you could smoke on the plane, as a matter of course. I don’t have clear memories of what that was like, but it must’ve been awful. You could smoke in the airport, in a restaurant, at someone else’s house. You could smoke in a meeting with your kid’s teacher? Maybe not, and not in church either. But basically, it was assumed that smoking was strongly related to breathing for some people, so you just had to put up with it.
Smoking was standing up for yourself as a woman. My mother read Redbook, and among the cookie recipes and child-rearing tips, the Virginia Slims ads were lone beacons of feminist rebellion. I’m smoking to show them they can’t boss me around. In Time magazine, which my dad read, it was more like, I’m smoking because your rules can’t contain this rugged outdoor man. Or, We smoke together because we are just that kind of irrepressibly fun bunch!
When Stephanie went to Ireland as an exchange student at Trinity, she started smoking in earnest. Marlboro reds, unfiltered. She lost a lot of weight, on her special cigarette/potato/butter/sex diet, and bought a beautiful golden satin dress, which looked amazing on her. Later, when she was ill, the oncologists wanted her to stop smoking, even though the cancer was in her brain, not her lungs. She did, but she asked them to tell her if or when it was clear enough that the cancer was killing her, so she could go back to smoking. They did. She smoked a lot in the last year of her life, squinting into the backyard with that same look I’d admired on the train-smokers, years before. It helped with the dread, I imagine. It brought her out into the backyard, where she could watch her dog Bettye enjoy the sunlight and the grass.
I wish smoking were something more people could do from a place of abundance, and less a place of compulsion. I have grown this plant, tended it, seen it go through its phases, and now I’m rolling it up, for soothing, for contemplation, and as an offering of gratitude to all that is good. In theory, that’s happening more often these days, in Vermont where people are allowed to grow two cannabis plants for personal use. (Is that a per person, per year quota? Do children count as part of the household? Does a single mom with a toddler get four plants?) There’s something forty-acres-and-a-mule about this scenario, or at least in my imagination there is. It feels different from the gas-station or grocery-store transactions I witness from time to time: expensive, impersonal, unsatisfying.
I don’t smoke, but that doesn’t make me immune from compulsive patterns. Listening for the various alert sounds my phone makes, triple-checking Facebook after I post a story. These are reflexive gestures overlaid on some deeper need for soothing and connection. I come back to belly-center, heart-center, wisdom-eye-center. All of it is smoking with the fires of birth, old age, and death – and simultaneously radiant with What Is. I dive back into the roots and span of this awake body, and find vastness to contain whatever dread has come a-calling.
Julie Püttgen is an artist, expressive arts therapist, and meditation teacher.