Nonfiction / Caitlin Cowan

:: Smoke::

        In 1989, I lit myself on fire, just a lit­tle bit. At a Fourth of July bar­be­cue, some­one gave me a sparkler and it caught the hem of my dress on fire. Every year the sto­ry looms like smoke, is smoke, made of and by its fog­gy tongues. I was three. I was on fire. I’ve nev­er for­got­ten that day, though I’ve for­got­ten every fire­works dis­play I’ve ever watched. It’s easy to remem­ber the first time you ever felt tru­ly alone.  


        My father liked to smoke a cig­ar on the Fourth of July. More than any­thing, he liked to light the fire­works with their glow­ing tips. No—most of all, he liked run­ning away from the spark­ing promise of their explo­sion, cig­ar in hand, boat shoes on his feet though the lake was neigh­bor­hoods away and we nev­er used it any­way. One day, years from now, he’ll run our boat up on some rocks in Lake Michigan—my moth­er will say he did it to ensure it would have no val­ue when it was ordered to be sold in their divorce. But that blaze comes lat­er. For now, a con­trolled burn. 

        The Fourth was the only time my moth­er allowed him to smoke. Or at least the only time when her protests were qui­et enough for him to ignore them. An occa­sion­al cig­ar seemed like a mid­dle-class indul­gence, not a lethal habit. I expect that he looked for­ward to this hol­i­day very much. Mos­qui­tos, smoke, sparkling, and the tang of tobac­co. 

        The way he feigned his fear: that’s what I remem­ber most. After bend­ing low in the grass to light the puny legal fire­works we’d pro­cure in a mul­ti­pack from a local Mei­jer, he would anoint the fuse with a kiss of his cig­ar. He would run, mut­ter­ing a lit­tle too loud­ly, oh shit! He would com­i­cal­ly dart away from the siz­zling dis­play as fast as he could, as if he were actu­al­ly in dan­ger, as if the great­est dan­gers he would face were behind, not ahead of him. He would smile, almost imper­cep­ti­bly, as he ran. All mem­o­ries I have of his per­for­mance on the Fourth are now, so many years into his absence, the same mem­o­ry. 

        Allen Carr, author of The Easy Way to Stop Smok­ing, says that the occa­sion­al smok­er suf­fers much more than the habit­u­al one. The habit­u­al smok­er is able to assuage his crav­ings on a near-con­stant basis if he choos­es, while the social or occa­sion­al smok­er must dis­ci­pline him­self ter­ri­bly. Think of how hard he must work, Carr says, to sus­tain him­self between smokes. I think that my father was this kind of smok­er. No, he was not the pious reformed smok­er my moth­er imag­ined him to be nor the invet­er­ate liar, furtive­ly smok­ing at every oppor­tu­ni­ty, steal­ing away in the night to crouch behind the garage with a Marl­boro, as I once imag­ined him to be. I think he abstained most of the time in order to smoke some of the time, assur­ing him­self that his dark­er impuls­es could be con­trolled. But some­thing that can com­bust will always com­bust. If you can burn, you burn. 


        Gestalt psy­chol­o­gist Fritz Perls, an invet­er­ate smok­er for all of his 76 years on earth, once wrote that smok­ing sep­a­rates the self from oth­ers. When I heard this wis­dom for the first time, it star­tled me like a sud­den crack­ling in the sky. I knew it to be true in every sinew. 

        Smok­ing sur­rounds you with a lit­er­al bar­ri­er, if an eas­i­ly pen­e­tra­ble one: a cur­tain of gray pol­lu­tion that’s all your own. Even smok­ers pre­fer not to be enveloped in some­one else’s smoke, choos­ing to stay safe­ly ensconced in their own. It’s pri­vate. Blow­ing smoke in someone’s face can be con­sid­ered bat­tery in some places in the world; in oth­ers, it’s an invi­ta­tion to fuck. There is inti­ma­cy in that cor­rupt­ed air: the smoke enters your body, gets to know you inside, then makes itself vis­i­ble out­side, hav­ing absorbed some­thing essen­tial from you. Per­haps it’s even stolen a lit­tle piece of your life. 

        Though I bare­ly remem­ber the moment of my first cig­a­rette, I remem­ber the path that led me there acute­ly. It wasn’t pouty-lipped celebri­ties let­ting them dan­gle beau­ti­ful­ly from their lips or the allure of being trans­gres­sive. It was their emo­tion­al short­hand, I think, that I admired the most. 

        Before my senior year of high school, I had to decide whether or not to take AP Cal­cu­lus. I’m only a lit­tle ashamed to say that I took it out of arro­gance, out of a sense of chal­lenge. I earned two A+ grades on the first two exams. Then, hav­ing already got­ten into the Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan, I let the heavy man­tle of aca­d­e­mics go. I fin­ished the year with a D in AP Calc. I then received a let­ter from the uni­ver­si­ty say­ing that my offer of admis­sion might be revoked because my senior-year grades had slipped.  

        Gripped by ter­ror, uncer­tain­ty, and res­ig­na­tion, I became a fist of pain. I had not secured admis­sion to any oth­er schools. I had been raised to val­ue edu­ca­tion over every­thing else, and when I found out that I might not go to col­lege, I felt as if I’d been hand­ed a death sen­tence. It was, I can see now, my first inter­ac­tion with grief since my par­ents had split up when I was 12. But an 18-year-old can do a lot of things that a 12-year-old can’t. And one of them is pur­chas­ing a pack of cig­a­rettes at a gas sta­tion, as I did after receiv­ing that let­ter from the aca­d­e­m­ic review board. 

        An 18-year-old can find a phys­i­cal out­let for her pain. She can find a spot under a tree. That tree will not be in a park or a qui­et for­est. It will jut out from some com­mer­cial land­scap­ing near a strip mall or park­ing lot, because that’s what the vis­tas of sub­ur­bia are. She will sit and smoke cig­a­rette after cig­a­rette, bare­ly inhal­ing at first, but brav­ing up to inhale deep­er and deep­er as she goes along. Sick­ness will set­tle in.  

        She can think to her­self, You are no longer alive. Your life, brief as it has been, is over. You do not serve a pur­pose. You are not as smart as every­one says you are, as you think you are, you arro­gant lit­tle shit. You will nev­er escape this sor­did town, your mother’s house, your reach that per­pet­u­al­ly exceeds your grasp. Cig­a­rettes seemed to be the best way to tele­graph to myself a sin­gu­lar, per­verse mes­sage: I am bad and fucked up. And though I would get into U of M after my teach­ers wrote let­ters on my behalf, I would hold onto my smok­ing habit for anoth­er 15 years. It helped me keep myself separate—separate from myself. 


        Dusk. Chok­ing. The Fourth of July. And yes, the run­ning. This is the fire and the rest is the tinder—two years lat­er, my moth­er made me hold an unlit cig­a­rette to shame my father. Six years lat­er I would write an award-win­ning school essay about avoid­ing cig­a­rettes, drugs, and alco­hol, though I would not be offered any for two more years beyond that. Four­teen years lat­er, I would buy my first pack of cig­a­rettes, and when I tried on that shroud of smoke, it felt like it was made just for me. I wore its nox­ious lace for decades, always smelling vague­ly of burn­ing.  

        Why couldn’t they see I was on fire? I was burn­ing and they didn’t know. No one could help me. Every breath choked me so my brain said run. I had to keep run­ning. If I stopped: pain. Like I always would, when some­thing went wrong I ran away from oth­ers, ran toward myself, into myself. My moth­er insists that it was a minor inci­dent: noth­ing more than a singe. A scorched dress. But to a child, there is no sense of rel­a­tiv­i­ty: not now and not ever. I have so few mem­o­ries of my ear­ly child­hood. This one pulsates—has its own heat.  


        One thing I know for cer­tain is that I start­ed smok­ing because it seemed like the adult thing to do at that pre­cise junc­ture in my life. Look­ing back, I think that young girl, crouch­ing under a tree and won­der­ing how she would get the stink of cig­a­rettes off her hands before she went home, want­ed some­one, an actu­al adult, to see that mes­sage and send help. 

        But no one saw it. My moth­er saw my aca­d­e­m­ic fail­ure but did not see my pain. I think she would con­tin­ue to turn a blind eye, and a blind nose, on my pain in its var­i­ous forms for years. When I ran out to grab bak­ing pow­der from the store on Christ­mas Eve for a pie, when I got up ear­ly to go to Star­bucks to buy us both lat­tés, run­ning out to the car at the mall to drop off our bags because they were “too heavy.” I think to myself now, she must have known. Though I’ve now quit for good, my part­ner was able to smell my only slip-up on me even though I hadn’t smoked in eight hours, had brushed my teeth, and had washed my face. If he could tell, then so could she. She had so many more chances to see, and smell, the truth.  

        Some part of me thought I was get­ting away with my furtive smok­ing, dous­ing myself in Design­er Imposters Coco Made­moi­selle, rolling the win­dows down to let the wind have its way with my hair, stud­ding my cheeks with sug­ared mint gum so strong it made my teeth ache. The oth­er part of me wished to god that I would get caught. I remem­ber a friend of a friend in high school say­ing that her moth­er issued her the fol­low­ing warn­ing: If you come home smellin’ up of spray with gum in your mouth, you’re ground­ed. She was smart enough, as I assume most human beings are, to rec­og­nize the smell of the cov­er-up as eas­i­ly as the smell of the crime. 

        There were times when my moth­er would say “Give me a hug!” soon after I walked through the door after a night out with friends while I was home from col­lege for the sum­mer or vis­it­ing over Christ­mas dur­ing grad school. I used to think this was a test. Maybe it was. I don’t under­stand why she didn’t explode with anger when she smelled it, if she did. I kept think­ing, sure­ly, this time… But I got to keep my secret for years. Some­how, it stayed down there with every­thing else, ready as kin­dling. 


        I didn’t tell my moth­er about the let­ter that came from U of M at first. I sim­ply sweat­ed it out, held my fear like anoth­er body, breath­ing life into it with every pass­ing day. This pat­tern of rely­ing only on myself, of hid­ing the most dif­fi­cult parts of my life from my moth­er, of retreat­ing, Scor­pi­onic, into my hole, fos­so­r­i­al like the star sign I was born under, nev­er abat­ed. A divorce, a breakup, a trau­mat­ic cross-coun­try move… I dealt with these things alone, smok­ing my way through them, wreathed in gray, dis­si­pat­ing gar­lands that kept me apart from oth­ers.  

        But the smok­ing itself, of course, was the thing I hid most ardent­ly from my moth­er. Even after she caught me smok­ing one day out­side the Tar­get I worked at dur­ing the sum­mers between semes­ters, even after she tear­ful­ly invoked the child­hood asth­ma that had hos­pi­tal­ized me count­less times in my child­hood, her own father’s col­lapsed lung, her best friend’s death from lung can­cer. 

        It was as if noth­ing she said and noth­ing I did had any mean­ing at all. We were both locked in a dance, out of breath. One night, when I admit­ted to her that I had been smok­ing while on the phone with her, she said “I can’t believe I’m your ash­tray.” She sobbed. Sobbed. To this day I do not under­stand her histri­on­ic reac­tion. It’s so sil­ly it makes me laugh. What does it even mean? It is, like most things, not about me. It’s about her. Some­times I think she is angry at her own par­ents, who smoked for decades. That night, and so many nights after, I stared into her inex­plic­a­ble pain, look­ing into the black abyss of the tele­phone con­nec­tion. I lived in that void for­ev­er, inured myself to real­i­ty and to my own body, burn­ing myself in earnest, mak­ing up for the mere scorch­ing I’d suf­fered as a child. I had made myself into her worst night­mare. And for a long time, it felt so, so good.  


        I remem­ber my baby thoughts, far away from the adults assem­bled on the lawn, can still taste the sour­ness of the smoke. It burned: some tiny, styl­ish frock my moth­er had prob­a­bly pur­chased at Jacobsen’s in down­town Birm­ing­ham, a ring of burnt umber seared into the fab­ric over my tiny thigh.  

        The dif­fer­ence between the truth absolute and the truth of the mind is burned away, here, and per­haps is burned away always. There was no pan­ic about the burn­ing dress. That’s what I remem­ber. My moth­er says they didn’t know it was hap­pen­ing. I feel for my moth­er on the oth­er side of the divide: She did not intend to make me feel alone as I choked on the fumes of my lit­tle burn­ing dress. And yet alone I felt. My truth as good, as heavy as hers. As hot. 

        What chem­istry did I taste in that first fear? Alu­minum, zinc, a mil­lion mag­ne­sium stars I swal­lowed. Unsuit­able for birth­day cakes; do not con­sume the ash. Dear read­er, I con­sumed the ash. Con­sumed the smoke, the binder, the oxi­diz­er, the fuel, the wire, and my own hand hold­ing it. As the years go by I can’t see it as well but I can feel it: the back­yard hazy with cit­ronel­la, the boozed-up grand­par­ents who could not see me, the par­ents who still laugh about that day, the lawn, the evening sky, my sick lungs that would nev­er let me run until I ran.  

        I run now, am run­ning, towards a man who seems both new and famil­iar, who sends me pho­tographs of his nephew on his lap, pulling his face into a beau­ti­ful gri­mace before the fire­works explode. Some­times he looks like my father, the one who lit a cig­ar every Fourth to det­o­nate the horde, would run from its sput­ter­ing once he start­ed some­thing that he could not stop: fire, new love, a child’s heart. I won­der if the film will soon start over again from the begin­ning. Maybe this time it won’t end in flames. 


        Pyrotech­nics are born to blow up, but sparklers are born to burn. It’s slow­er. It takes time. Like Nat­ur­al Amer­i­can Spir­its: my brand of choice through­out grad­u­ate school and right up until the bit­ter end. But before that first sparkler and before the Spir­its, it was Par­lia­ment Lights in my under­grad years at Michi­gan. When my moth­er found a pack of those in my purse back then, she scoffed, “that was your grandmother’s brand.” My friends and I used to make jokes about sniff­ing coke because of their recessed fil­ter. I had nev­er tried cocaine but still brought it up at par­ties to seem like I was in the know. I did not know any­thing, least of all how much con­sump­tion and addic­tion dic­tat­ed my young life.  

        When I start­ed smok­ing Spir­its, the hip­ster cig­a­rette of choice for all free-think­ing starv­ing artists in Den­ton, TX, it meant that I was away for longer, out­side, hud­dled in alley­ways, shroud­ed in furtive cor­ners for sev­en, eight, maybe even ten min­utes. Smok­ing ulti­mate­ly iso­lates you from oth­er peo­ple. If you squint your eyes hard enough, it might feel for a moment, or a year, or a life­time, like it’s keep­ing you safe.  

        But we humans have a fun­ny mech­a­nism built right in. The more we are alone, the more our brains push us toward oth­er peo­ple. In “Evo­lu­tion­ary Mech­a­nisms for Lone­li­ness,” soci­ol­o­gists Caciop­po, Caciop­po, & Booms­ma argue that “lone­li­ness may serve as a sig­nal to increase social con­nec­tion and thus increase chances of sur­vival.” As in, I went out­side to smoke so I could come back in to the warm glow of my friends at the bar. Can you fuck­ing believe that lone­li­ness exists to keep us alive?  

        If we hold that in our hands along with the sparkler, an unlit cig­a­rette, and the bald fact that smok­ing phys­i­cal­ly sep­a­rates us from oth­ers, we might be able to ask this ques­tion: Did I smoke to dri­ve myself to the edge? And more impor­tant­ly, did I go there just so I could learn how to come back? 


        I was six the first time I touched a cig­a­rette. The details are veiled in a haze. We were parked in front of a McDonald’s on a fam­i­ly trip up north. My father had gone inside to use the restroom or order food. My moth­er, search­ing for some­thing in the car, had come across a pack of cig­a­rettes he had appar­ent­ly hid­den (though not very well). He had told her that he quit many times over. Could she already tell that he would hide oth­er things from her in the years to come? The bot­tle of pills I’d found in his suit coat pock­et, the false busi­ness trips… the oth­er woman?  

        That after­noon on the road, she didn’t explode. She smol­dered, a spark trav­el­ing down the wick of her anger. She pulled two cig­a­rettes from the pack and hand­ed me one. I didn’t under­stand. Just hold it, she kept say­ing. I vague­ly remem­ber her even try­ing to show me how to hold it, the verisimil­i­tude of an actu­al, adult, smok­ing hand. A deflat­ed peace sign. I obeyed. I did not know what I was doing or why, but I did it. 

        Mem­o­ry tells me that my moth­er rolled down her win­dow and went so far as to light hers, though she did not take a drag from it. And there we sat, one woman and one woman-in-train­ing, pre­tend­ing to smoke for a rea­son that, even now, three decades lat­er, smok­ing and quit­ting and smok­ing and quit­ting and smok­ing one last time after a set­back at work and then final­ly, bless­ed­ly, quit­ting again, I still scarce­ly under­stand.  

        What was she try­ing to prove? She want­ed my father to return to the car and see it. I sup­pose she want­ed to cause him alarm. But what was the mes­sage? What would the equiv­a­lent be if it were a gun she had found and not a pack of cigarettes—something that kills you quick­ly rather than over the years? Would she have point­ed it at my head? Asked me to hold it? Maybe she could have torn open some ketchup pack­ets, told me to close my eyes, daub­ing her paint­ing with alizarin crim­son, could have wrapped my limp fin­gers around the bar­rel.  

        Her anger stoked her cre­ativ­i­ty, like mine does now. She mor­phed from moth­er to mas­ter direc­tor, set­ting her stage just the way she want­ed. And the cen­ter­piece, the most crit­i­cal prop on the stage, was the cig­a­rette. Can you see it? If you squint your eyes, it doesn’t look like a con­dem­na­tion at all. It looks a bit like a mon­u­ment. 

        All these lit­tle parts, lit­tle sto­ries: the smoke I choked on as my dress burned, the smoke I gulped between sobs when things went wrong, the smoke I imag­ined curl­ing from the end of a prop cig­a­rette my moth­er once hand­ed me. The whole of it is so much greater than each hazy ten­dril, each pol­lut­ed breath. I have to look at it all, even when there’s so much smoke I can hard­ly see.  


        Though all four of my par­ents’ par­ents, my mother’s broth­er, and my father all smoked at some point in their lives, cig­a­rettes were the high­est taboo in my house­hold. The sto­ry of sto­ries is that my mother’s par­ents quit after some 40 years. My grand­fa­ther quit cold turkey, but it was hard­er for my grand­moth­er. She had slip-ups, used nico­tine replace­ment, and gen­er­al­ly strug­gled to kick the habit. She reminds me of me, which made my mother’s con­dem­na­tion of her own mother’s sup­posed “weak­ness” dif­fi­cult. The fact that her father was able to quit eas­i­ly after four decades per­ma­nent­ly destroyed my mother’s abil­i­ty to think of cig­a­rette smok­ing as an addic­tion instead of as a moral fail­ing.  

        But in its own way, too, this deep­ened her anger toward him. If it’s so easy to quit, she won­dered, why didn’t he do it soon­er? Of course, she can nev­er under­stand what it’s real­ly like to quit smok­ing. She also couldn’t know his inter­nal strug­gles. She could not know the white-hot shame and anger that my father must have felt rip through him like an unfil­tered Lucky Strike when he saw our faux-smoky pageant in the McDonald’s park­ing lot. She could not under­stand how her vio­lent pro­hi­bi­tion of smok­ing made it sim­ple for me to take my habit under­ground, deep into my scorpion’s nest—solitude on soli­tude on soli­tude.  

        The smok­er per­pet­u­al­ly lives in a state of cog­ni­tive dis­so­nance. Smok­ing feels like com­pan­ion­ship but isn’t. The smok­er knows, with com­plete cer­tain­ty, that what she is doing will harm her, has the pow­er to kill her, even. But she also knows that she enjoys what she is doing. I think this is what Carr meant when he said that quit­ting smok­ing frees you from the “black thoughts” that plague smok­ers: I have to quit. I’m going to get lung can­cer. This is going to kill me. Maybe I’ll be ok if I quit this year. Next year. When I grad­u­ate. When I move. Next year. Next year. But Carr says less about the smoke-white thoughts: I’m enjoy­ing this. I am tru­ly alive because I know I am dying.  


        I do not remem­ber how my father react­ed. This knowl­edge may come as a dis­ap­point­ment to you. Have I blocked it out? Has time mere­ly tak­en it from me as a small kind­ness? I do know that noth­ing momen­tous hap­pened. He came back, said some­thing to my moth­er. Some­one would have tak­en the cig­a­rette from me. And then we nev­er spoke of it again. So final was our denial of that bizarre tableau that my moth­er insists that it nev­er hap­pened, and if pressed she will only admit she “doesn’t remem­ber it that way.” Every time I’ve burned, she’s dis­ap­peared it with words, let­ting it all van­ish like one last drag. What’s a mem­o­ry worth if you’re the only one who has it? If you smoke a cig­a­rette all alone in a court­yard, who are you sep­a­rat­ing your­self from? 

        On Arrest­ed Devel­op­ment, hap­less patri­arch George Bluth was fond of teach­ing his chil­dren a les­son by scar­ing them near­ly to death. At the end of his tau­to­log­i­cal pranks, he or the one-armed col­league he often hired to ter­ri­fy young Michael, Lind­say, and Gob would intone, “and that’s why you always leave a note,” or “and that’s why you don’t yell.” Like any good writer, he pre­ferred show­ing to telling. On TV, I laugh at it; in life, there’s less humor.  

        Some­times I think my moth­er enrolled in the same school of thought when it came to her mar­riage. She want­ed to teach my father a les­son that day on our way up north: And that’s why you nev­er smoke a cig­a­rette. But I’m not sure how the math­e­mat­ics of her the­atrics add up, even to this day. Was she hop­ing to point out that smok­ing made my father a bad role mod­el? That his smok­ing would cause me to smoke? To this day, I’ve nev­er seen him smoke a cig­a­rette, and haven’t seen him at all since I was a young teenag­er. I smoked any­way, and with great rel­ish. 

        Instead, that weird after­noon in the park­ing lot became an echo, sound­ing its report through­out my life in var­i­ous ran­cid per­mu­ta­tions. My moth­er didn’t have an actor friend with one arm like George Bluth did. Instead, she had a daugh­ter with two arms and two hands with which to clutch tens of thou­sands of cig­a­rettes she would han­dle in her life. Lit­tle paper ghosts pass­ing through the for­est, ten pine trunks, my baby fin­gers. And that’s why you don’t look for the smoke. You look for the fire.  


        We start to smoke because we don’t believe we’ll die. But of course, we will. We smoke because we don’t care if we die, or we want to pre­tend that this is true. We smoke because we believe in god. Because we don’t. Because you were raised as an athe­ist. Because when you asked your moth­er what hap­pens when we die, she said our bod­ies go into the ground and flow­ers grow out of us.  

        We smoke because we feel that we are spe­cial, that we can beat the odds, that we are the pro­tag­o­nists of our own lit­tle dra­mas. How bad could it real­ly be? We keep smok­ing because the smoke starts to feel like a shit­ty friend who, in spite of every­thing, always returns your calls. We smoke when it’s expen­sive, when it’s cheap, when we feel sick, when we feel young and healthy.  

        We keep smok­ing because the cig­a­rettes are organ­ic, the box is made of post-con­sumer mate­ri­als, and the com­pa­ny sends you lit­tle seed bombs to plant in your yard to show how friend­ly they are. You nev­er remem­ber to plant them, so nothing—not one sin­gle thing—ever grows.

From the writer


:: Account ::

Recent­ly I’ve focused on try­ing to tell sto­ries I’ve nev­er told. One such sto­ry relayed in this essay is a core child­hood mem­o­ry of mine that my moth­er insists is apoc­ryphal. As I bur­rowed into it,I real­ized that the core plot ele­ment of the story—the why—was not only slip­pery but also, sur­pris­ing­ly, less inter­est­ing than what the mem­o­ry has to say about shame, addic­tion, and lone­li­ness. Because cig­a­rette smok­ing, the larg­er sub­ject of the essay, is a cul­tur­al phe­nom­e­non, branch­ing out from this core expe­ri­ence also made me want to engage with the ques­tion of what the act of smok­ing means, if any­thing, in the larg­er sense. Here again, I found more ques­tions than answers, but in con­stel­lat­ing those ques­tions, I felt, ulti­mate­ly, like I could see a rec­og­niz­able fig­ure anyhow.

The work of psy­chol­o­gist Fritz Perls seed­ed this project in that respect: a jot­ted-down note in my jour­nal about Perls’ asser­tion that smok­ing is designed to sep­a­rate us from oth­ers had been trou­bling me for years, and it final­ly led me back here and to my child­hood, ado­les­cent, and adult­hood con­nec­tions to smok­ing. Author Allen Carr, whose audio­books about self-hyp­no­sis and smok­ing ces­sa­tion I lis­tened to, also haunts this piece. The cen­tral tenet of Carr’s The Easy Way to Stop Smok­ing was my first encounter with the idea smok­ing is actu­al­ly not enjoy­able at all. Carr died of lung can­cer in 2006, 23 years after smok­ing his last cigarette.

This essay is part of a man­u­script called Soli­tary, which is a hybrid CNF/poetry project that uses the struc­ture of a pop­u­lar pagan song to inter­ro­gate the ter­res­tri­al and spir­i­tu­al ori­gins of soli­tude and its rela­tion­ship to wom­an­hood, from soli­tary witch­craft to the pecu­liar weird­ness of only childhood.

Born and raised out­side Detroit, Caitlin Cow­an earned a Ph.D. in Eng­lish from the Uni­ver­si­ty of North Texas and an MFA in Cre­ative Writ­ing from the New School in New York City before return­ing to the Mid­west. Her debut full-length col­lec­tion of poet­ry is forth­com­ing from Cor­ner­stone Press (2024). Her poet­ry, fic­tion, and non­fic­tion have appeared in Best New Poets (2021), The Rum­pus, New Ohio Review, Mis­souri Review, Den­ver Quar­ter­ly, South­ern Human­i­ties Review, Smoke­Long Quar­ter­ly, the Rap­pa­han­nock Review, and in oth­er jour­nals and antholo­gies, includ­ing Erase the Patri­archy (Uni­ver­si­ty of Hell Press). Her work has received sup­port from the Ham­bidge Cen­ter for Cre­ative Arts, the Sewa­nee Writ­ers’ Con­fer­ence, Ver­mont Stu­dio Cen­ter, and else­where. She is a Poet­ry Edi­tor for Pleiades and serves as the Chair of Cre­ative Writ­ing at Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp. Caitlin writes reg­u­lar­ly about the inter­sec­tion of poet­ry and pop­u­lar cul­ture at Pop­Po­et­ry.