Smoke & Fears:

Or How I Learned to Love the Stogie

(This article originally appeared in Sacred Fire magazine, Issue #2)

But this same poyson, steeped India weede
In head, hart, lunges, do the soote and cobwebs breede
With that he gasp'd, and breath'd out such a smoke
That all the standers by were like to choke.
 – Samuel Rowlands, c. 1601

I have to make a confession: I am an inveterate tobacco lover. Some of my fondest memories are of sitting around a fire at night, lost in a smokey haze, surrounded by faces of friends only dimly recognizable, all of us puffing away on cigars or hand-rolled cigarettes. On such occasions, tobacco is nothing less than a sacrament: A divine spirit which is intimately associated with the elemental grace of Fire. Used in the right way, tobacco can help foster connection–whether to others, or to all of nature around us. Perhaps all addicts are wont to speak in such lofty and loving terms of their addictions! But tobacco truly has a sacred aspect that native people throughout the Americas recognize.

I started out more as a fundamentalist: A child crusader against tobacco use; or at least so far as the immediate world of my family was concerned. My mother was a two pack a day cigarette smoker for much of her young adult life. One of my earliest childhood memories is of my sister and I sitting in the back seat of my mother’s white Corvair as she puffs away on her Pall Malls. Her window is cracked open only ever so slightly. We could be a poster family for public safety hazards: Riding a car that Ralph Nader considered “unsafe at any speed,” breathing in a toxic cloud of second-hand smoke, and probably tumbling around un-tethered at that; for who even bothered with seat belts in those days–let alone child car seats, which were not yet invented! Life seemed to have less value back in the deep, dark days of the early 60’s!

Somehow we survived such harrowing dangers. When we were older, my sister Karen and I struck back. Well, actually it was mostly my sister’s idea, although I passively went along. At age 9 or so, she took to heart the Surgeon General’s warning and began a sustained campaign to stop my mother from smoking. Her tools were subtle–at least to a nine year old. Karen would hide my mother’s cigarettes or simply throw them away. My sister acted with the kind of naïve virtue that only young children (and some nations) can effect. But however clever and well-intentioned, the efforts did not have their intended effect My mother was furious–particularly when on a dreary winter day, my sister flushed her last pack of cigarettes down the toilet. Perhaps it was some form of poetic justice that saw both Karen and I go on to become smokers many years after our mother finally kicked the habit.

As I grew older, my relationship with tobacco started to change. As I entered my adolescent years, my earlier wariness of smoking began to soften: Smoking took on a kind of mystique. It was one of those peculiar rituals like drinking, driving, or swearing–that we associated with being an adult. (We did not know much about either sex or paying taxes yet.) Friends began to steal cigarettes from their parents and experiment. I never took to cigarettes, but cigars held a whole other fascination for me.

In those adolescent years, I was particularly close to my mother’s father. Charlie was short and powerful, and when he spoke, his voiced boomed forth, quickly filling any around him. Although a successful businessman, Charlie’s heart was always connected to the earth. Nearly every weekend, I joined him to head off to the small farm in the Cleveland suburbs where he boarded both horses and ponies. I spent many happy hours with Charlie, feeding the animals, grooming them, and of course going riding.

Charlie’s green Dodge Monaco was like a farmer’s work vehicle: Full of bits of halters, shoeing equipment, odd tools and a liberal sprinkling of oats here and there. Although he had long given up smoking, the dusty interior that cavernous Dodge still carried the scent of cigars smoked long ago. Charlie’s doctor had put an end to that habit. Sort of. Because Charlie continued to use cigars as a kind of adult pacifier: He often drove with an unlit cigar dangling in his mouth, chewing on it ever so slightly, and occasionally spitting out flecks of tobacco which would come to rest helter-skelter on the windshield, the dashboard, or carried forth by the breeze coming in the window, took wing and landed on the back seat of the car. Needless to say, my grandmother rarely set foot in my grandfather’s car. But I loved it!

In some unspoken way, I associated cigars with the old-world earthiness of my grandfather–a swarthy immigrant from Lithuania who smelled of Old Spice and horses, and whose confident way in the world I deeply admired.

The years rolled by. I have up horses for a bicycle, and then finally a car. In high school, I took up an entirely different kind of smoking. And unlike certain former presidents, I confess to having inhaled--repeatedly. Otherwise, why bother?! But I digress. At least as far as tobacco goes, I never smoked more than an occasional cigar or cigarette in my early adult years. And then my dance with tobacco became something entirely different. At first it was nothing more than a reaction to…well, big cigar envy. My mentor in all matters shamanic looks deceptively mild-mannered. He could easily be mistaken for an accountant or podiatrist rather than the man  of uncommon stamina, courage, and deep spiritual wisdom that he is.

On this particular path, tobacco is one of the sacred substances offered to a fire in order to consecrate it. Invariably, after making offerings to the fire, my mentor sit down and pull out a thick, long cigar light up, and begin to puff contentedly away. As he described it, smoking was a kind of “extra credit”: A way of connecting one more deeply to the grace of Fire.

I have come to see how we live in a time of great coldness. We are part of a culture that puts great stock on the mind. Good ideas take precedence over the simple wisdom of experience, and we are led to believe that staring into a computer screen, we can take in the whole world. In contrast, our ancestors would gather around the fire, tell stories, seek council, and look to signs of the Divine that were everywhere in nature. We have forgotten how to sit quietly and truly listen to one another. Our stories–traded via e-mail perhaps--lack the mythic depth of those that were once shared around the fire. We feel lonely, alienated, and afraid.

Fire is the antidote to this coldness. Sitting around the fire with friends, I have felt a kind of wordless joy that was largely absent from my life before. Fire is about Heart and connection. Fire is laughter, creativity, and passion. Fire is what makes life more than just a good idea; Fire makes life juicy! When used with reverence, tobacco can bring one into communion with these deep qualities of Fire.

It was not long before I went from buying an occasional cheap cigar at the liquor store to ordering boxes of cigars on-line and lovingly skimming through the tobacco catalogues that started arriving by mail. Perhaps cigars became something of a fetish amongst the friends that I met around the fire. We acquired cigar cutters and “wind-proof” butane lighters, and we could chatter endlessly about the virtues of one cigar over another.

The more I sat by the fire, the more my love of tobacco deepened. Aside from smoking at sacred fires, I began to use tobacco in moments of contemplation, when I wanted to connect more deeply with nature. My wife Jessica and I developed a weekend ritual of hiking to some cliffs above a fairly remote stretch of beach near our home. We would plant our beach chairs near the edge of the cliffs, then sit, light up (she a hand-rolled cigarette, me a cigar), and just take in the vast beauty of the ocean. I can think of no better way to spend the afternoon: Puffing on a cigar, sitting with a loved one, and contemplating the exquisite play of light between clouds, sun, and the water!

I wish I could say that tobacco and I lived happily ever after. But a year ago, I began to experience signs that my relationship with tobacco needed to change. Colds invariably ended up in my lungs and I began to experience on-going twinges in my chest. Making a visit to the doctor, I found that I have a mild asthmatic condition. When I sought higher guidance, I was told to take a break from smoking. Whether the moratorium will be permanent or not remains to be seen. For now, I find myself eating a lot more chocolate around the fire–a kind of compensation I guess. No doubt I could still plant my beach chair at the cliffs and sit for long, langourous hours just staring at the ocean and the clouds. But for some reason I do not.

To me at least, it appears that being in “right relationship” with tobacco is a complicated matter: Everyone needs to find their own place with it. There are of course certain guidelines: As native Americans know, tobacco is a sacred substance. It is a gift from the gods that can help us connect. Contrary to popular wisdom, it can be a powerful medicine of the Heart: Deepening our awareness of how we too are part of the web of life that connects all of nature to the Divine. But like any sacred substance, tobacco can be easily abused, and in that way quite dangerous. A “casual smoke” is an affront to a very powerful spirit which demands respect.

Smoke-filled bars have no allure for me. But some nights when I am seated by a fire, staring upward at the moon and the stars, I feel a deep urge to light up again. I still keep a few cigars stashed away in my humidor–just in case the time is right.