Why I Want To Be A Smoker

[BY JENNIFER ASHLEY]

No—I don’t want lung cancer. I don’t want stale breath and stinky clothes. Or second hand anything.

And it’s not for holding with my hip out, the added sophistication. It’s not for 50s cool or a shred of rebel yell. I don’t even crave it after sex. But, yes—alright, a week doesn’t go by when I don’t think to myself, If only I were a smoker. Some would say I have a problem, and they may be right. But, please let me explain.

I was working last week, counseling freshmen composition students about their essays, 10 students in a row, 20 minutes each. It’s intense work, trying to be present, friendly, cautious and yet brutally honest, student after student. Then, one started crying and I knew I needed a break. So after he left, I stepped outside my office to get some air and sat down the only place available, the curb. A place socially reserved for only two people: punks and homeless. So, even on a college campus with students sprawled out on lawns and studying on benches, I started to get some looks. All I was doing was sitting, not humming, not rocking. Just sitting. A friend drove by, slowed down and asked if I needed a ride. "No, thanks, just relaxing," I said. Another walked by and asked what was wrong. "Oh nothing, just taking a break." Finally I got up and went back to my office. What was with this harassment—can’t a person sit down and do nothing?

So, the next day, I tried again. I thought, maybe I need a prop. Something to keep me occupied and give me a purpose. So, I brought a shiny green apple with me to the curb, took a seat, stretched my legs. And there you had it, the scenario started over: Was I okay? Was I waiting for the bus?

Then, a student sat down near me and asked if I had a light. "No, I’m sorry, I don’t smoke," I said. I went back to my office, defeated, and thought, man, I should just take up smoking. That would make it all so easy. There he sat with the only socially acceptable reason to do everything I wanted: step out of a situation, clear my head, and breathe deep. Stop moving, watch the world go by, and take it in. Smokers have license to do practically nothing. They can ponder, contemplate, exhale. But without a cigarette in hand, try doing that in an everyday situation and not have it not be an alarming threat—I dare you.

At work, for years, what did our parents have? Smoke breaks. Not think breaks. Not prayer breaks. Not talk breaks. No, mandatory smoke breaks. Try sitting in your break room at work today with nothing in your hand, no food, book, devotional, nothing. Just sit there and think. You’ll start to feel strange and guilty. People will walk by and wonder. Maybe they’ll offer you some change for the vending machine.

This used to be more acceptable and in some parts of our country, like the South where my husband’s family lives, it still is. I have friends who live on the outskirts of our town on a ranch. Wooden chairs line their porch, just like the bleached porches of my in-laws overlooking cornfields and orchards. You can drive up in the afternoon, after the sweat of the day’s work is done, and there they are: sitting, drinking sweet tea, sometimes not even talking. They have license to do nothing.

But what an anomaly! Most of us have no socially acceptable reason at all to simply sit. We only do nothing while we’re doing something else: showering, sitting in traffic, zoning out in front of the TV, or riding the subway. If we can’t block off time for it in our computerized calendar or mask it as a task, doing nothing just doesn’t get done. Which frankly, makes us into a generation of robots. A people out of touch with their own thoughts. A group who is willing do anything but slow down and is scared to be alone. Lest we do something as dangerous as think.

We had a day off of work not too long ago, the Fourth of July. It was the middle of the week, sort of snuck up on me, and I didn’t make any plans until that evening to see fireworks with friends. So, my husband and I trotted around downtown, in and out of bookstores. I came home empty handed while he relaxed with two new magazines. We don’t have cable, so that wasn’t an option. I didn’t have any phone calls to return. No work I brought home. Nothing pressing and no new book to occupy my thoughts. So, I sat on the stoop of our apartment door, feet in the sun and did some thinking. My husband immediately wanted to know "what I was thinking about" (another threat in and of itself) but I asked him to be patient, that I would tell him tonight, and moved to our back porch so I could think with more freedom.

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Overall, as scary as thinking may be (I realized I’m not happy with my job, I miss creative things like writing, and I am not as close in spirit to God as I thought I’d be by this point in my life), I do recommend it. Sit. Take breaks. Block everything out and simply ponder. Otherwise, you may wake up one day, completely unaware if you’re happy or numb. Instead of reading a plotted-out devotion, think about doing some thinking for your quiet time. God may move you, speak to you, or even offer you a light.

[Jenny Ashley’s essays, poetry and fiction have also appeared in Re:Generation Quarterly, The Peralta Press and Oxford Magazine. She lives in San Luis Obispo, Calif.]

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