Like writing, smoking belongs to that category of action that falls in between the states of activity and passivity—a somewhat embarrassed, embarrassing condition, unclean, unproductive, a mere gesture.
Richard Klein, Cigarettes Are Sublime
It's Sunday night, nine-ish. Today was the first in many that afforded me the mental release from accumulated and neglected duties, a release that had been denied me ever since I returned from the Christmas break. I shared a home-cooked meal with a few of my fellow seminarians, prepared by a native Indian priest working on his doctorate. Curry, tandoori chicken, pickled mango, nan and paratha bread, all washed down with an IPA for an imperial finish. I had to beg off from the ice cream run.
The Chicago frost has not broken for weeks. Just the right time to burn one on the balcony. The little handroller is right where it always is, top drawer of the dresser in my neighbor’s room. I consider myself justified in taking the liberty of a pinch from the jar of Norwegian shag on his shelf, though I couldn’t tell you why. He’s an understanding guy. Considering he also provided the IPAs for dinner, he won’t take the news about the tobacco so hard. The paper twists in the roller but it’s not worth making another one so I sweep the dresser clean with the edge of my hand and snag the zippo on my way out the door.
There’s three inches of snow on the balcony so I have to stand by the wall to keep the cold from seeping into my shoes, which means I can’t see as much of the sky as if were sitting on the balustrade with my legs hanging over the edge. A blue spruce towers over me, even up here on the third story. Behind him splay Orion and the Twins, still bright through the suburban glow to the southeast. Smudgy contrails trace out the ecliptic. The lighter rings, and my crippled cigarette surges to life.
The first woody mouthful of smoke is on my lips and gone before I have the time to savor it. The first pull is always the best, especially on a night such as this one. A cigarette in the cold (preferably February cold) is vastly superior to those enjoyed in other seasons. Every time I taste that first fresh glaze on my tongue, with a touch of grease from the lighter, I am in a stand of oaks and cedars on a little piece of land in southeast Kansas, where I once partook of the finest inhalation I can remember. Like tonight, it was solitary. Smoking in the company of others focuses one upon one’s companions and conversation, and distracts from the awareness of that which is smoked and its cosmic environs. That night my companions were only present to me in the raucous sound of male voices singing fast in unison, with a few hours of melodies behind them and several more to come. It must have been ninety degrees in the teepee, for as I strolled a few yards to stretch my legs, the crystalline prairie stillness seemed to hover just above the naked skin on my arms and face, unable to penetrate the invisible layer of heat and woodsmoke that clung to me. Then, as now, Orion and the Twins stood with me as I drew, and I watched them with watery eyes as smoke belched from a flap in the canvas.
It is a moment of solitude to think over the coming week. As the quarter draws to a close, it’s time to start putting together my schedule for the next one, a task that requires familiarity with the academic program and a facility in drawing the most efficient line from point A to point B—point A being were I am now and point B being ordination day with an “S.T.L.” after my name. I have neither of these gifts. Hence, I seek recourse from those further along the same path. They usually have prior academic backgrounds and seem to be a good deal smarter than I am. The fellow I’m seeking counsel from this evening has a mind capable of untold miserable hours of drudgery in the fruitful service of his understanding, and wouldn’t sacrifice any of it for such frivolous pastimes as blogging.
I, on the other hand, have needs.
In the course of the conversation with this impromptu guidance counselor, it becomes clear that I have a choice: take the courses that most interest me from the professors from whom I learn the most, or plot that most efficient path from A to B, and hope for the best. One or the other.
My reverie is interrupted by muffled machine gun fire and hollering from the common room just inside. Some of us manage to pick more frivolous pastimes than others.
As the joints in my fingers stiffen and the ember crawls along toward them, there is a moment of absurdity, in which my bewilderment and indecision reflect back upon me from the firmament. People once believed the stars determined the course of one’s life, a desperate attempt to find order in a situation where there appears to be none. There were some in the more recent past who were convinced that each choice, each motion, every last detail of life was the result of the playing out of immutable laws, so that whether Socrates sat or stood was inscribed in the motion of atoms and molecules billions of years ago that, by acting upon one another in predictable patterns, brought about the set of circumstances that made him choose one or the other. Though neither solution would offer me much consolation or hope, one can sympathize with the predicament. What’s left to me, indeed, what is the greater part, is trust in One who has made all out of Love.
The cherry singes the skin between my knuckles, signaling that the final hot breath is ready. I take one last draw, allowing a little cold air through my lips so it doesn’t scorch, drop the butt in the planter, and step back in to get some studying done for the week ahead.
When I get back to my room, I write a blog entry instead.