Cigarettes Taught Me How To Breathe

I was probably 14 when I first tried a real cigarette. It was so disgusting, there was no chance I was going to become addicted.

I grew up surrounded by cancer and second-hand smoke. Both my maternal grandparents and my uncle died of lung cancer. Everyone on my mom’s side of the family smoked. My mom didn’t but my dad did. As kids we hunted through the gully of milkweeds beside our trailer in search of the dry, hollow stalks left from the previous season. These, we would light by the campfire, sit back and join the night-time conversations while maturely puffing away. 

In the late 70s, early 80s, cigarette ads were sexy, and we wanted to be part of the adult experience around the fire. Smoke would waft from our neighbours across the gully along with the pure sound of an acoustic guitar and the drunken wails of summertime fun. Our campfire, was often a mix of several generations, but we all “smoked,” as we told stories and shared laughter. I’ve embellished this mental image because of my love for the innocence of youth, campfires and cigarettes, and my heart now holds these mostly true memories as fact. 

The first time I inhaled tobacco, I was overcome with a woozy feeling of lightheaded nausea. It felt like getting high, but only lasted a second—I was hooked.

What I did not immediately realize, was that smoking gave me a unique way to experience the union of my body and mind. The sweet, earthy aroma of an unlit cigarette was a direct line to my grandparents, who smoked so much they rolled their own, on a wobbly tv table in the living room.

Initially, I had to choke through the sensation of smoke entering my lungs, tickling the inner walls of my chest so close to my heart. It felt different to become aware of myself from the inside. Inevitably a cough would force my lungs to purge, smoke scratching my throat in a powerful release. Then the swoon. A floating sensation that could have been lifting or falling. No breath had ever felt like that!

All the smokers in our high school congregated in the smoking area between classes, hidden away from the street at the back of the building. In wintertime we’d huddle up, coatless, and pass a cigarette between us. It was social. We’d make plans, share experiences. The divide of grade or social status did not exist in the school smoking section. Bangers, preps, druggies, misfits, jocks, nerds—there was at least one representative of each, and nicotine was our bonding agent. Sometimes even a teacher would show up for a quick puff. 

Back then you could pretty much smoke anywhere. Smoking was like pressing pause, and I was addicted to that ritual. The steam off my first coffee of the day mingled with the smoke stream off the end of my duMaurier extra light king size, putting me in a trance. I smoked for less than a dozen years but the grooves in the skin around my lips are evidence of how much I enjoyed pulling breath through the amber filtre and into my lungs.

Smoking taught me how to breathe. Once a cigarette was between my lips, my breath became slow and deliberate. Drawing an inhale from the brightening ember several inches away from my face, deep into my lungs where a regular breath would not reach, pausing in preparation for the exhale—the exhale was the best. Compressing my abdomen, controlling the shape, direction and speed of release, my mind would be captivated by the jet stream of this exhale’s journey. The breath, forgotten between drags, as sound and sight once again overwhelmed my system just to fall away for the next purposeful interaction with my cigarette. 

Quitting was hard because it meant losing so much. No one steps outside for a breath break while serving tables on a busy Friday night. You wouldn’t likely hear someone at the bus stop asking to bum a moment of presence, or requesting a flint to fill some time, or to make the bus arrive sooner.

I quit several times, but the one that stuck was 24 years ago today. I started doing yoga in March of that same year and it was not at all sexy to sweat out the toxins of my habit in the communal air of the studio. Self-imposed shame made me do it, but truthfully, yoga showed me the joy of intentional breath—sans fag—and the presence that came with it. 

Nearly ten years later I learned in a dream—awoken by panic—that I had been smoking in my sleep for a decade. I love everything about smoking. I miss it still, and while writing this my breath has been exquisitely that of a smoker’s and I feel kind of high. The clean kind.

*No lungs were harmed in the taking of this photo (but I did get an instant headache from being with the smoke.)

**The snapshot is everything I love about photography. I always take full-frame images (no cropping or editing after-the-fact): Floyd’s curiosity, the absence of the great maple shading the deck, the reminder of how cold the spring was because my garden pots are still inside at the end of May. There’s so much to look at, it might take you a sec to see that I’m blowing a smoke ring. I can’t wait to see the grain on the analogue version once it’s out of the camera.

***The joyful creativity of the image, the time it took to write it all down, edit and post, has been incubating inside of me for years, sparking its way closer to the surface all because of my deep longing to enjoy another cigarette—a pleasure that was surrendered when I became a quitter. Every great love affair that ends before it goes bad is better in memory, non?