I’m now a non-smoker. From the title of this post, you might assume it was my New Year’s resolution to kick the habit but that was not the case. Today marks the completion of four weeks. My New Year Resolution, however, marks how well my mind operates as a non smoker.
I quit smoking a couple summers ago. I was smoke free for somewhere between six weeks and a couple months. I do not know how long precisely. The cravings were easy enough to control, but one thing got me started again: an overactive mind with nervous energy. I’m not a doctor, so I find it unnecessary to self-diagnose with precision. If I were a doctor, I would call that time flying squirrel chased by mountain lion brain. And if I were a doctor I would allow patients to self-diagnose with that affliction.
Flying squirrel chased by mountain lion brain was not fun. I felt like I had become a person I did not want to be. When I read, nothing stuck. When I attempt to write, no words would land on the page. Imagine being someone who is trying to make his life from books and writing and being unable to do either. Those were some of the worst weeks of my life.
Quitting again seemed pointless, but the thought remained in the back of my mind. I knew I would try again only I didn’t know when. The date occurred unexpectedly on Saturday, January 8th, two days before I would begin teaching again after a two and half year hiatus. Perhaps, you would think, that is not the best time, but it was the right time. I was reading a book about how the tobacco industry effectively cast doubt about tobacco’s negative health effects. I went to the store, bought nicotine patches, and quit mid-day.
At this point, I know it is going well because of my New Year’s resolution. I normally avoid resolutions, but I decided I would try to perpetuate an act I was already performing. In December, I began reading Thoreau again. First I read Walking and then went right into Walden. I’ve read both these books multiple times, and both books give me problems. Even as a nonsmoker, both books have less sticking power than most.
I’m used to reading something, putting it on the shelf, and then returning to it, sometimes years later, to find a particular quote or re-read a passage. After years have passed, I can generally find things pretty quickly, except when reading Thoreau. At some point in December, I wanted to find his passage on the frozen bubbles in Walden Pond. Like so many other times, I couldn’t find what I was looking for. The logical place, the chapter, “The Pond in Winter” was not right. Neither was “The Ponds.”
Weeks before the New Year, I resolved to read between five and ten pages of Thoreau a day, until the book was complete. When I’m not working, just reading and writing, I generally have at least three books going at a time. One book at 40 pages a day. Another at one chapter. And a third, like Thoreau’s books, at a minimal amount. I found the frozen bubbles in a place I didn’t expect, in the chapter, “House Warming.” As the New Year approached, I was nearing the end.
That was when I decided I still didn’t know the book as well as I should. Thoreau is a tough read, and I know why I have difficulties memorizing his work; essay comes from the Latin—exagium—a weighing. The goal of an essayist is to put forth an idea and test it with connections that can be made to it. Thoreau, perhaps in some ways, had a mind similar to flying squirrel chased by mountain lion. He follows tangents. He strays from the idea at hand. But he was always able to bring it back.
For a resolution, I decided I would read 5 to 10 pages of Thoreau every day for the rest of the year. I want to memorize his work, be able to turn directly to a passage whenever I need. I want to quote Thoreau in conversation, because I think he is needed now. A hundred fifty years ago, he gave us a land ethic. So many of our debates, so many of our political issues today revolve around uses of land, yet most of us do not have a land ethic of our own. Thoreau is a good place to start to understand or determine our own values.
I’m keeping up with my resolution rather well. I did miss a few days when traveling. I was able to catch up again rather easily. Nonsmoking, I feel, is going well, for I am retaining Thoreau. I can sit down and read. There might be a flying squirrel, but no mountain lion. The memorization is beginning.
I leave you with quote from Walden. This quote makes me think about smoking, among other things. It is one of those quotes that has become cliché, but I bet most people don’t remember the context in which it was written. The context is included, here. “A lady once offered me a mat, but as I had no room to spare within the house, nor time to spare within or without to shake it, I declined it, preferring to wipe my feet on the sod before my door. It is best to avoid the beginnings of evil.”