Why I’m jealous of smokers
I was walking around, rushing from place to place, to do errands or something like it, something I told myself needed to be done, groceries, other things, things I’m trying to stop buying online, all before a zoom group, my new life. And there was a man on the sidewalk, smoking. Just standing there. Everyone rushing around him, everyone with their eyes on their destination. He just stood there and took it in. He had nowhere to be.
In that moment I wanted to be him.
I don’t smoke, never wanted to. But smokers have the smoke break and I want that. I want to stand outside in the cold and be pleased. I want to suck in my breath and feel my body filled with the thing I needed, the thing that was missing, a craving fulfilled. Something that’s been missing lately is a reason to get out the door in the morning. It’s been missing for a long while but particularly lately, particularly in the dark cold, when I’m working from home, and I sometimes don’t need to go outside until it’s dark for the evening. We live in an English basement and don’t have a backyard. We don’t have a place to sit outside and stare. I don’t realize how much this inside-ness hurts until I do. My body craves the wind.
So this week, I decided to have smoke breaks, but instead of smoking, I would look at birds. Every morning, while the electric tea kettle heated up, I put on my jacket and boots and went outside, down our brick driveway, to the stand of bamboo. And I would look up at the birds and watch.
Birds are funny creatures. I can tell a few species apart but otherwise don’t know too much about them. I like not knowing things about birds. I like watching a group of house sparrows chirp and bounce from branch to branch of a bush. Why do they move from one branch to another? Why don’t they like to stay put? There was a sparrow on a branch, then another friend out join, landing on the branch and making it sway with the impact, but the first sparrow didn’t leave or get upset about the disturbance, he just chirped a hello, until another sparrow joined, smacking into the branch, and another, and another, until the branch drooped lower and lower to the ground with the weight of all these birds, about to snap — until all the sparrows flew off the branch at once.
I’m writing this now from Providence, Rhode Island, where Seth and I are holed up for a weekend away from DC. The town is filled with H.P. Lovecraft paraphernalia and memories; he was born here and lived most of his life here. It’s now well-known that Lovecraft was shockingly racist, and honestly, he wasn’t that good of a writer. Every other horrible sight in his stories are described as “indescribable” or “cannot be described,” or things like “a color that is not red, not blue, not green, not any sane color.”
But I can appreciate that he was writing from a time of scientific uncertainty, and was on the forefront of writing stories that were beyond the human experience, grappling with humanity’s place in the universe, or lack of place. He wrote about the uncaring cosmos that would never be fully understood, nor did it wish to be. He wrote from a place of fear, but his stories resonated in a way that’s almost romantic. Lovecraft fans delight in the weird, the unknowable, they enjoy it. I wonder how he would feel about his legacy.
What bothers me so much about his writing is probably a core feature of it. He describes things by what they are not. His fear lies in what he does not understand, and he assumes everyone similarly fears the unknown. To say something is “not sane” or “indescribable” is to say nothing at all; except for Lovecraft, it says everything.
Either way, Providence is lovely. The buildings are big and gothic, the rivers and canals provide for nice bridges every few steps. It misted with rain in the evening as we walked through a wooded park. We definitely saw at least one ghost.
And the birds here are wonderful. There are mallards and swans and woodpeckers and seagulls. This morning, a group of seagulls flew around in a circle over a bridge, again and again. I had no idea what they were doing. It was a pattern I could probably try to describe, but I don’t understand, nor do I want to.