Cigarettes and Ceremonies

Dragon Tea Temple, Ubud
Sitting for tea ceremony

A surprising feature of my time in Bali is my smoking habit.

I grew up in a household that adamantly rejects smoking, of any kind, and witnessed the pressures that surrounded my grandfather's smoking habits.

I remember watching my Avo flawlessly roll skin-thin papers around slivers of amber tobacco despite a stroke that left him with a stammer. Through the ongoing protest, he remained committed to his ritual and watching him perform it was a meditation in motion.

Decades later, I understood how deeply those moments were stored in my memory.

In my twenties, after shirking joint-rolling duties for years, a friend insisted that I at least attempt to perform the dying art.

We both watched my hands go through the motions of forming a perfectly-shaped joint that outshone the one from her practiced hands. I still have a photo of my first rolled joint and it deserves to be framed.

Growing up in Canada, you were much more likely to find a companion to smoke a joint than one who wanted to smoke a tobacco cigarette. The public service announcements through our childhood served to dissuade us from picking up the habit though nobody believed the messaging around the cannabis out at the same time.

In university, friends took turns trying to get me to smoke cigarettes while we were out drinking. It was a badge of honor for those that cracked my resolve in the late hours/ early morning hours of a night out.

In recent years, cigarette smoking gave way to vaping as by-laws and public opinion turned against tobacco. However, cigarette smoking still features prominently in public life outside of North America. In Indonesia, a pack of cigarettes costs about $2 USD.

This past Christmas, I bought a pack to share after being the beneficiary of a few too many cheeky cigs in group settings. Within a few weeks, I was the one doling out the cigs to the very same people that had been feeding me to that point.

Of course, I am still aware of the dangers of smoking though I’m not fighting against the addiction. This too will have its season.

Instead, I note with curiosity how something kept at arm’s length for nearly four decades has so completely grafted itself into my daily routines. Aside from the chemical addiction, there’s an addictive quality for how readily cigarettes have slipped into the liminal spaces throughout my day and how easily they form a group activity here.

Watching the Balinese go about their lives helped me realize how little ceremony there is my own life relative to theirs.

Weekly life is studded with ceremonies and the Balinese calendar is full of holy days. There’s a ceremony for everything - moon cycles, child rearing, harvest, death. Everything is acknowledged and given space. Everyone in the community has a role to perform in these rituals.

There is a tiny altar attached to every home and family compounds are built with their own temples. These are sacred spaces, but also invite a fluidity wherein anybody can walk in to take time to think, honor ancestors, pray and acknowledge  Self.

At least a couple of times a week, there are little offerings with incense at the doorstep on the house I rent. I’ve lost count at the many reasons for the devotional practice long ago though the act of ongoing devotion is paramount.

Cigarettes have become my short, timed incense sticks here. They fit perfectly at the end of a work sprint, while surveying the changing weather, waiting for the delivery person, and plotting what to do next.

Smoking is my little prayer and my moment to share, or not.

Some religious practices honour prayer at the start and end of each day, some require it fives times a day at prescribed times and others attach prayer to moments of every day life like getting into a vehicle or starting a meal.

I now know that ceremony studs my day too, and these little moments of devotional time will eventually be replaced with something else.

In the meantime, I value the lesson these cigarettes are teaching me - that life itself is a ceremony and it is incumbent on me to adorn it in my own way.

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Jamie Larson
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