After months of some pretty intense, personal topics, I’d like to post something a little more frivolous. This spring/summer I took a writing class along with some friends. One of the things we learned was about doing regular writing practice: sitting down for at least 10 minutes a day with some kind of writing prompt and just writing. The idea is to let things flow without censoring or editing them first. The teacher, Natalie Goldberg, also has other suggestions for letting loose and being able to write. One of her suggestions is to dress in some new way, go somewhere you’d never go, do something you wouldn’t normally do to see if that connects with something. She mentioned that she, although not a smoker, sits with a cigarette in her mouth. Her intent is to push past what feels normal to see where it takes you as a writer. If you’re a writer, I encourage you to try it! Sitting with a cigarette is so foreign to me that I decided to write about doing just that, not just to write about something else while holding a cigarette in my mouth. The piece below is the result of that exercise. I hope you at least chuckle somewhere along the way.
July 28, 2020
I have watched so many people smoke cigarettes, it’s a mundane sight. I have held pencils and pens like I’ve seen others hold cigarettes. It feels…cool? grown up? suave? I’m not sure exactly. I have experimented with it into adulthood. I’ve never told anyone that that’s what I’m doing, just felt it, played with it. I’m sitting in my backyard with a real cigarette between the fingers of my left hand. I’ve never held a cigarette like this before, looking like I’m going to smoke it, like I know what I’m doing. Although I’ve noticed different methods for holding a smoke, the most obviously natural one for me is between index and middle finger, right around the second knuckle. I tried pushing it down to the crotch of those fingers, but it feels weird. But, if I switch it over to my right hand, it doesn’t feel so strange. Bill Nighy holds a cigarette like that, at least in movies.
I feel nervous and a little silly. Like I’m out here playing with a cigarette. I’m 54 years old! I’ve never had even one drag on one of these things! For most people, taking a puff of a cigarette does not cause an existential crisis. But “I’ve never had even one puff of a cigarette” has been part of who I am my whole life. I’m a smoking virgin! So, I sit here, unlit smoke in hand, still wondering if I’m actually going to light it, and if I light it, will I inhale it? I feel a little ridiculous. But only the inner dialogue – the cigarette itself still makes me feel cool on the outside. Not sure where that comes from. I definitely grew up thinking that smokers went to hell. So, maybe the pencil between the fingers, the unlit cigarette in the same spot, is making some connection with that part of me that wants to be able to break the rules, that wants to give me freedom to not be so straight-laced and righteous all the time. Live a little! Experience some things! Maybe lighting up a cigarette in my own backyard with no one else around isn’t the most rebellious act on record, but it’s a step. Will this open the door to doing other things I don’t allow myself to do? I don’t know. I’ve already taken up swearing and dressing like a man. Maybe I’m going to hell now. Probably not, seeing as how I don’t even believe in that anymore (another reason I’m going there, according to some, I’m sure!).
I don’t even know the mechanics of how to light this thing. I know, I know, there has to be a flame, or something equally hot (thinking of you, car cigarette lighter that burnt my innocent finger when I was, like, 10 years old), but does it just catch? Do I have to breathe in? What if I start spluttering and coughing? What if it makes me feel sick? Worse, what if I like it? I don’t even have a proper lighter or match – all I’ve got is a big red barbecue lighter. The more I sit here, the more I feel like a 12-year-old whose parents have gone out to buy groceries. Well, Barry is out taking care of grandkids and Xavier is upstairs, so at my age, I guess that’s as close as I’ll get!
Enough stalling! Here goes…
Well, I am no longer a smoking virgin. Like my mother-in-law, Angie, apparently said about the same experience, “It was alright.” No coughing or gagging. It honestly didn’t taste like anything. When I inhaled deeply, I didn’t suddenly feel it in my lungs. The most dramatic feeling I got was when it had burnt down close to the filter, when I inhaled, it stung the inside of my nostrils. I took a picture of me holding it. I should have taken one of me exhaling smoke. That part’s kind of fun, actually. And it feels worldly, not self-righteous, not better-than-you, not stick-in-the-mud, wallflower, naïve, innocent Christian girl. I think that’s why I like the physical sensation of holding something cigarette-shaped as if it is a cigarette: I want to leave that person behind and this is a physical sensation that helps my brain go there. I might just have to borrow another one and keep it around to help wave good-bye to the goody-two-shoes girl that made everyone uncomfortable, including me.
Photo: me (taken by me, as mentioned above)
Ha ha, not a smoke virgin eh?
I can totally see you on the back step heather, all awkward and interested.
Thanks for the fun read.
I am going to try that 10 minute a day prompt writing.
Heather, I am laughing so hard because I had a very similar experience about a year ago! My flatmate’s an on-again, off-again smoker, and he always joked I should join him. So one day, processing all the ‘stuff’ you reference, I was like, ‘Yeah! Show me how to smoke!’
There were photos. There WAS some spluttering and coughing. I had the benefit of his guidance about how to hold the smoke in my mouth a moment to cool it down before inhaling, but I quickly realised that if I didn’t actually inhale, few people would actually realise. I felt like I was learning one of those worldly skills that many people who DIDN’T have my conservative religious upbringing already knew.
So I could now pass as a social smoker. I could take a role in a movie where I [fake-]smoke a cigarette. I still don’t really get the appeal, but I felt a similar sense of transgression / ridiculousness / cosmopolitanism. It was a great thought experiment, to be honest, to confront a few lingering old hang-ups…