Beyond The Pale

The First Cigarette of the Day

I’m back. Well, not exactly. Actually, I’m the furthest thing in the world from back if you are counting in miles, but things seem to be settling into a routine here, and that means that in the curiously disembodied manner possible only on the internet, I might be more back than I ever would be were I home in North Carolina, or Ohio, Missouri, or wherever I happen to be claiming at the moment.
But what to write about? Those writers who actually get paid to write probably feel like they should either jump back into whatever project they were working on when they left or give some accounting for where they have been. I tend to feel neither of those necessities. Rather, I prefer to lube the gears, as it were, with a first post by writing about, well, nothing. To be more specific, my First Post Back type posts tend to be what I have historically called Journal Type Entries, and consisted of nothing but, well, journal type entries. Today, I’m breaking from this pattern.
Instead, I’m going to talk about Cigarettes.
I’ve been doing some research lately, and I’ve come to the conclusion that The First Cigarette of the Day isn’t, for the introspective practitioner the same thing that it is depicted to be in novels where the protagonist wakes up with the taste of last night’s pre-sleep stogy on his breath and the rasp of forty more still turning his voice into the voice of an old lady who says “doll” much too frequently.
That first cigarette doesn’t uncurl nicotine-starved fingers, doesn’t relieve some itching burning longing that a mother or father or unfortunately-not-pedophilic teacher, baby sitter, camp counselor, or friend’s parent never satisfied, leaving a void that must, therefore, be filled with carcinogenic vapor, doesn’t make the day worth living, doesn’t make the rain go away or the birds sing a little louder. But it is something special nonetheless.
For my source, it’s a moment of serenity, a moment for him and no one else. Purely Randian. A moment that he uses to remind himself that no matter how far he is from everything that he holds dear, he was always really alone all along anyway and even now is never really alone at all.
He says this holds true even if other smokers surround him, talking about the things they talk about, which fall under one of two headings: nothing and women.
It’s a ritual. Almost a sacrament. The rote actions of folding back the lambskin pouch in which he keeps a handful of loose tobacco and papers, taking out a crumpled package of Smoking Black 1 ¼, peeling one away from the others, with its semi translucent picture of a cartoon top hat and the one cursive word that says it all: smoking, holding that single leaf carefully weaved among the thumb index and middle fingers of his right hand while his left thumb and index fingers pinch around in the tobacco, looking for whatever bit the arid desert air hasn’t dehydrated too much yet, finding just enough between the folds of soft hide, spreading the shredded leaves evenly along the middle fold in the paper and wrapping the whole arrangement between the newly formed unity of three fingers-cum-dowels, each one meeting its opposite tip to tip, rolling, compacting the tobacco gently, aiming for density that will let the cigarette draw hard enough for a thick, cool, toasted tasting smoke: these are the rites of this sacrament. And they require some care, for any mistake will make for a bad cigarette. If the tobacco is too loose the smoke will burn like coffee left in the pot too long, too tight and the cigarette will go out again and again and again. He let this happen yesterday, and his goatee hairs are still shriveled and crispy looking from where he lit them on fire while trying to relight the stumpy-yet-not-cached cigarette.
Finally, the fold. The thumbs bow out, leaving the work for more delicate digits, which flip the side of the paper closet to him down behind the gummed edge. Then the mouth gets involved, and the tongue darts out to lightly caress the exposed gum strip. Some people who roll their own cigarettes start at one side and work their way across. He doesn’t. He starts in the middle, licks left, licks right, and folds the paper down.
The cigarette complete, he digs around in his pocket for a lighter. He says that he tries to always have on with him, even if he isn’t smoking, because so many smokers always seem to need to bum one. I asked if matches wouldn’t match his leitmotif better, and he said they would, but they weren’t practical.
He flicks the flint with the left hand while protecting the flame with the right, applies the flame to the tip of the cigarette and puffs a bit until it catches. He says that Dutch or hand-rolled cigarettes don’t burn as readily as pre-packaged cigarettes because the tobacco he buys doesn’t have as many nasty chemicals in it, so getting lit and staying that way can be something of a dance. Just another part of the ritual.
At last, he actually draws the smoke into his mouth and holds it there, pauses almost imperceptibly, closes his eyes, and inhales. He tries not to talk. He says that one of the spiritual disciplines is silence, a fasting from speech, not only verbal, but internal. He believes that this internal silence is as important as prayer, that this is the moment in which God speaks, the still small voice. For the American mind, the discipline if silence has almost been completely lost, and it is terribly difficult to find true solitude in a world where we are constantly bombarded with noise. That First Cigarette is the time that he has set aside to just exist, silently, without words, without conscious thought.
This ritual is not the construction and consumption of a cigarette, but an ordering of the world, a taking of the time to disconnect from the goings on around him and in him and focus his conscious mind on a simple action and a simple pleasure, and in the process to give his unconscious mind the opportunity to find its center, set its bearing, reconnect with God.
Perhaps as a habit, it isn’t the healthiest of physical rituals, but as an expression of a spiritual discipline, a sacrament, well, that’s something else entirely.

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August 1, 2009 - Posted by | Army, Christianity, Travel

6 Comments »

  1. I was struggling with smoking last November, and now that we are staying with my rolls-his-own-cigarettes-at-least-40-times-a-day father-in-law and my pack-a-day mother-in-law that desire is coming back. I shouldn’t have read this post when I saw it in my feed reader. I should have just MAARed it. Great. 😛

    Hopefully I’ll get to start writing again now that I am d-o-n-e with work for a while. Always like what you write, David!

    Comment by xgravity23 | August 1, 2009 | Reply

    • Sorry to cause temptation. They really are delicious little packets of carcinogens. Keep your run time in mind. They say that helps (I haven’t found it to be true, but that’s what they say).

      Comment by davidjgross | August 2, 2009 | Reply

      • I think I’m strong enough to avoid them for six weeks, and then it should be easy. I’m still glad you wrote it–it’s very good.

        Comment by xgravity23 | August 2, 2009

  2. I have a mental picture for my new second story balcony. We sit together looking out over the street below and the large tree in the front yard while the sun goes down and the day cools off. We roll up some cigarettes of good tobacco (the quality kind fit for enjoyment rather than enslavement), and we burn them down as the sun burns out. We’ve faced the setting sun before an infinite dream horizon many times, and though the circumstances may differ, the spirit is essentially the same. Like different portions of the matrices of space that form a globe. Different sides and hemispheres on the same planet. And really that’s true about the space our physical bodies inhabit right now. You’re there, and I’m here; really, though, you’re here, and I’m here. You’re there and I’m there.

    Comment by wordorgy | August 9, 2009 | Reply

  3. Ugh. I gave in. I think the only downside I’m worried about right now is that Rob doesn’t want to kiss me…

    Comment by xgravity23 | August 9, 2009 | Reply

    • LOL. I always get that same result whenever I smoke my pipe around Andrea. We have reached an armistice though, in which I smoke my pipe all I want when she isn’t around and I lay off when she is. Unfortunately, for the last year this has meant that I get to smoke pretty much all the time.

      Comment by davidjgross | August 12, 2009 | Reply


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