Monday, May 05, 2008


When I finally got to Watsonville, where my mom lives, I let down. The anxiety of LA, the press of mid-life issues faded. I had time to myself. One of my rituals when I'm in California is to get alone, just me and a beach.

So my second morning at my mom's, I borrowed her old stick shift and drove to Manresa State Beach. I flipped on 1970s rock on the radio, rolled down the driver's side window, and drove like I used to when I was 16: down windy roads, steering easily, shifting confidently. It was unbelievably wonderful to drive like that. "Freebird" was playing and I laughed about it. Such an old standard that I usually would turn off. I didn't that day.

I switched stations as I swung into my parking space and Linkin Park sang: "And the shadow of the day, will embrace the world in grey... and the sun will set for you."

And because Linkin Park sang it, it was so: overcast and cold (which is just how I like the coastline sometimes when it fits my mood). I wore a brown sweater over a light blue turtleneck. I parked in the lot that overlooked the ocean. I strolled down the ramp to the wet sand below and stopped to watch the dozens of sand piper babies and their mothers scatter across the shore.

But I had come to the beach with a purpose so I set out to make it happen.

Several years ago, Claire, an online friend, gave me a pack of cigarettes as a joke sort of. Being one of the most drug resistant teens to ever have walked the face of the earth, cigarettes were never on my radar for experimentation. But midlife peer pressure exerted itself on me. Her gift became this taunt, this tease. Will you ever smoke me? the cigarettes nagged. And somehow, that invitation became a fantasy: I imagined myself smoking on the beach all alone some day in the future. Living in Ohio, that opportunity never came. And to be honest, I don't think I had the internal nerve to carry it out anyway.

But as I packed my clothes for the trip, my hand accidentally knocked against the little red and brown pack in my underwear drawer. On a whim, I tossed it into my suitcase with a book of matches... just in case.

By the time I got to Watsonville, I knew I had to, wanted to smoke, even though I wasn't quite sure why.

I can hardly express how weird it is that I would want to smoke, to light up, to put a cigarette to my mouth. I've been such a non-smoker, don't like how it smells on clothes or people's breath, always want the non-smoking section in a restaurant, saw smoking as something rebels or weak people did, etc.

But this was different.

It felt like one of those Sue Monk Kidd moments. She's the one who wrote Dance of the Dissident Daughter and is all about feminist spirituality. She cobbled together a spirituality of touch stone events and rituals that are personally meaningful to her using items like seashells, statuettes of the goddess Nike, candles and driftwood. I haven't related to that at all as I'm such a pragmatist at heart (not contemplative).

But I swear - that day - smoking on the beach was my spiritual act—a claiming of me for me—a refusal to allow conventions and fear to dictate my life. I smoked so that I could stare down the pride of non-smoking and the anxiety that goes with smoking. I smoked because it seemed like it might feel good to do it. I smoked because no one would expect me to. I smoked so I could simply have the experience and write about it authentically. I smoked because, dammit, I wanted to.

So of course, the lofty intention of smoking was immediately humbled when the first cigarette broke in two between my fingers. Six matches flared and went out before I even got them near a cigarette; my fumbling fingers knocked the book of matches to a wet sandy floor, nearly ruining their ability to ignite. It took me repeated attempts to protect the little match flame from the strong breeze that came from the north across my back before it singed the tobacco at the end. I tried to inhale but couldn't coordinate the flame, my cupped hand and my breathing over the course of the next three matches.

Persistence paid off, however, and I finally managed to draw the flame into the end of my very first cigarette and it lit—a soft orange glow. I turned around on the driftwood log to face the enormous grey-green ocean, rolling softly with waves. I sucked in the smoke; didn't inhale for a bit. I just got used to dragging smoke into my mouth, holding it, and blowing it out (like a pipe smoker might). I watched the ocean and then I'd watch my exhaled smoke float away in curlicues. My mouth felt tingly and tarry.

Exhilarating. I liked it. I crossed my arms, let the cigarette hang off my fingers like I'd been chain smoking for twenty years and took in the whole world. I could see the distant horizon as I blew smoke at it.

The next drag, I drew smoke into my lungs and that burned a bit and felt suffocating. So I went back to just sucking the smoke into my mouth, then holding it a moment and finally blowing it out. I loved to watch it float away.

My whole body unwound. The tension, drained. I rested, for the first time all week. I sat, staring, relaxing, thinking private thoughts and being unaccountably happy... while I smoked. I felt a quiet power—a secret I shared with myself... a breaking with the little legalisms of my past. I did not die.

Once I finished my cigarette, I took a really long walk and watched the sand pipers run up and down the shore. I passed two hot 20-something surfers, zipped up in wetsuits. The iceplant on the hills popped with yellow-orange and light purple flowers glowing against the green. The surf didn't roar, but raced quietly on and off the shore in a low hiss. The clouds burst into a shower so I worked my way back toward where my car was parked, not caring that I was getting wet. I lit a second cigarette, easily this time, and smoked it slowly all the way back. Inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale... wisps wafting away in the rain.

I have now officially smoked two cigarettes by myself on the beach. Unforgettable, matched only by the strange, emotional week. Seemed to be the right symbol of who I am about now. For the rest of the day, any time my fingers were near my face, I could smell the lingering tobacco scent and it made me smile.

Bruce Springsteen says that sometimes we need to break our own narrative to find out what would happen, to surprise ourselves. That is exactly what smoking represented for me - a break with the good girl, the predictable, transparent, orderly Julie. I don't plan to smoke as a habit. But I needed to that day, for whatever reason, to make a mess of me. And it was good. I may smoke again; I may not. Who knows?


Susanne Barrett said...

I can so totally imagine you doing this. In fact, I feel like I just smoked one with you. LIke you, I've never smoked, never liked it, never wanted to. But I so absolutely lived through your experience as related here that I feel as though I did. I swear I feel more relaxed.... :P

Pungent writing, as always. Loved it.

Watchman said...

Once we awaken to the fact that smoking, like many other acts of pleasure, are really not about the act itself, we understand for what it is the heart is longing.

as a fellow mid-lifer, i really connect with your writings. thanks for sharing your story.


Sandie said...

Great experience and I love the way you wrote about it. Yes, very Sue Monk Kidd :)

RedGypsie said...

So ironic to me that you wrote/lived this. There have been many instances over the past few months when I've absolutely been convinced that what I needed was a if I could feel it between my fingers and needed to raise it to my lips and blow out so intentionally. *But* I'm allergic to cigarette smoke and have never touched one! The craving confounds me! It was relieving to experience it a little vicariously through your writing. And so funny to me too that Claire was the one who gave them to you...just exactly perfect!

gerbmom said...

ha ha - that is so me. Soooooo me. I think if I ever followed through and smoked I'd be addicted for life. That is why I haven't. I remember my hubby was outta town about 15 years ago and I thought - yay, good time to buy a pack and have fun. Then I found out I was pregnant. Foiled again.
And so I sit - still pulled toward the cigarette and somehow, for some reason fighting tooth and nail....

rmkton said...

I have never read or heard smoking used as a metaphor as well as you have done in this piece. It reads like a scene from a movie...most likely with Julia Roberts.

R. Michael

Sentient Marrow said...

Hah- you will smoke again if we get together because you know, I don't really smoke... only when I am in good company and only if the stars are aligned. The way you described it is exactly how it feels... well done. I guess that's why it was always a useful thing to do while creating art because it always provided that moment to step back and ponder, to allow the next movement to materialize before proceeding.

Now, next time, I forbade you from smoking such an old pack of cigs.

jo(e) said...

As I was reading this, the whole thing seemed so much like the scene out of a movie. I love that.

And of course, I'm a big fan of Sue Monk Kidd. I bring that book with me every time I go on retreat.

Jon said...


First Mother,
I want to thank you
for choosing knowledge in the Garden.
It is tragic that you are yet scapegoated
for sin and death,
as we crush and pave over true life
and sentence ourselves to existence in a concrete jungle.
But still blame you for the end of life in Paradise.
Your holy name has been appropriated
And used to silence your
Quest for Truth.
We have forgotten your maternal instinct
which called you to gain knowledge for all humanity.
You only wanted to be more God-like,
not with power-lust but admiration.

poem by Karen McKenna

WordyKaren said...

I'm smiling! I'm surprised and not––and love that you wrote about it and shared it and admitted it. I'm reminded of my own 'first smoke' in the girls' bathroom in my senior year of high school. But unlike you I did not manage it so gracefully! I threw up. But I did try it again and managed to look 'cool' the second time around. Then I gave it up in college because your dad didn't like to see girls smoke. And I wanted to be the kind he liked!

Love you and respect you for your honesty and integrity and good writing too. Mom

iluka said...

Loved your story. Although somehow, for me, cigarettes go with a glass on single malt, blues on the stereo at midnight and a group of good friends, all wishing we could on to that elusive something created out of that mix. Good reason that a pipe is part of many religious rituals. Should be saved for special occasions though.

Kansas Bob said...

You are a hoot - just don't tell your insurance guy :)

Heidi Renee said...

Thank you for this. I have always wondered at it's lure and my mother died before I could ask her.

patrickehare said...

While you're up in Watsonville, drop down to eat at Phil's 4 Fish in Moss Landing, if you get a chance! Although there's a no smoking sign on the patio. ;o)

Carrie said...

I loved this essay. It's been years since I've had a cigarette, but I always enjoyed an occasional smoke.Thanks for sharing your spiritual moment alone on the beach. I am there with you. I'm in a mid-life blizzard hoping I'm still headed in the right direction.

Colleen said...

I *love* this entry and it came to mind often these past two weeks while my brother-in-law was here from CH. Something there is about a cigarette in the right time and place...Is it wrong of me to say I'm glad to have you on board? ;-)