I once described smoking as romantic. Not the lovey-dovey kind of romance, but romance rooted in the traditions of 18th and 19th century Romanticism.
According to philosopher and historian Isaiah Berlin, Romanticism embodied “a new and restless spirit, seeking violently to burst through old and cramping forms, a nervous preoccupation with perpetually changing inner states of consciousness, a longing for the unbounded and the indefinable, for perpetual movement and change, an effort to return to the forgotten sources of life, a passionate effort at self-assertion both individual and collective, a search after means of expressing an unappeasable yearning for unattainable goals.”
Now, picture a “new and restless” 20-something, standing on the precipice of Expectations in “old and cramping” shoes that don’t quite fit. Nervous. Longing. Searching.
What does she do? She asserts her independence by running to the nearest cigarette vending machine — yes, there were vending machines, yes, inside a Dairy Queen — and kick-starts a habit she wouldn’t quit for more than 20 years.
It was placebo, pacifier, and partner-in-crime through some of the most brilliant and terrifying moments of my life. And some of the most benign.
As a matter of fact, it is the benign smoking moments I miss most, now 10 years quit:
The 5 a.m. drive down an early-winter highway, twilight barely on the horizon, coffee at the ready, window down, and that first, long drag.
Smoke swirling around Orion’s belt from a midnight parking lot, the only sound a slow approach of a car across the West Texas desert.
I will forever miss those romantic moments…painted with warm undertones of memory.
But they hide the truth: the panic of running out of supplies; the exhausted, frantic dash to the store to stock up, the cough that never really passed as allergies; the addiction with its hands around my throat; and the ever-present sense that I was — with every inhale — killing myself.
It’s been ten years now — ten years today! — since I took my last first, long drag. Every now and then I miss it. Every now and then I think about those romantic moments, and then…and then, it passes, “departing dream, and shadowy form of midnight vision.”
Light-winged Smoke! Icarian bird,
Melting thy pinions in thy upward flight;
Lark without song, and messenger of dawn,
Circling above the hamlets as thy nest;
Or else, departing dream, and shadowy form
Of midnight vision, gathering up thy skirts;
By night star-veiling, and by day
Darkening the light and blotting out the sun;
Go thou, my incense, upward from this hearth,
And ask the gods to pardon this clear flame.
— Henry David Thoreau, American Romantic