Hunkered down somewhere in Ohio, and there’s not much to do except finish my book. I’ve made a commitment to wrap it up by the end of this terrible year, and I managed to write 1300 words today, which is logorrheic for me. Then the gears ground to a halt as I began to doubt this enterprise. Maybe I should shift the point of view to the first person. Perhaps I should rewrite the entire thing in the present tense. And so on. I often think about this observation from Annie Dillard: “I do not so much write a book as sit up with it, as with a dying friend.”

Writing for longer than an hour leaves me craving a cigarette, even though I quit three years ago. I miss the dopamine loop, the carrot and the stick, and the rhythm of stepping outside for five minutes after each page or paragraph. I would probably start again if it didn’t leave me feeling like a pariah. My memories of smoking will have to do.

Four years ago, C. and I worked on a project in Greece, where they still believe in smoking. Someone invited us to dinner, and we spent five hours in a dim cafĂ© with a fireplace, shouting with strangers over endless cigarettes. Metal cups of wine covered the table, and people jostled their chairs to accommodate new arrivals. I don’t remember any food. A few Greeks sang dirty songs while an earnest French backpacker chattered in my ear about his support for Trump. A German flutist described her meditation practice, and I nursed a coffee and smoked until my lungs felt burnt. An elderly woman in a red cloak settled herself next to me, drained her glass of ouzo, and began to roll a cigarette. She had the judging look of the elderly, the deep-staring eyes. She asked if I had any brothers or sisters, and I shook my head no. “I thought so,” she said. “Being an only child is like living in the desert beneath a mountain of feelings.” And later, her parting comment as she toddled toward the door: “I am still naive, and I will always choose to be that way.” The party ended when a dog was dropped on the table, knocking everyone’s glasses and ashtrays to the floor.

That night feels like another life. I miss the cigarettes, of course, and also the ability to travel. Most of all, I miss the heat and noise of strangers who are chattering, singing, and saying whatever comes to mind.

These days are so quiet.


Ensemble Economique – I Light My Cigarette, I See You There

No Vacation | Sound of Cobra, 2013 | Bandcamp
Each night in 2020 I wrote a short post for a series called Notes From the End of a World because I wanted to etch these times into my memory. Before the world changed completely.