Blog by Steve Laug
This drawing came to me from Bill Cumming as a gift. He found it on his journeys. To me the illustration captures the solitary nature of the ritual of the pipe.
A few years ago, I wrote a blog called The Solitary Pipe Smoker in which I spoke of my own predilection toward being a solitary pipe smoker. I wrote it with no disrespect for the community of pipe smoking folks – male and female with whom I have had the pleasure of communing while enjoying my pipe. Rather, I wrote it because in my life I need time that is not filled with “noise” – good, bad or neutral – to recentre and refocus my life. I wrote of how the pipe is able to give me space and time to do just that. The ritual of the pipe is almost sacramental, in that it creates the space in my head and in my life to step away and regroup. The link to the original blog is (https://rebornpipes.com/2012/05/29/the-solitary-pipe-smoker/). For me, the fact that I have to pay attention to the ritual and move through the steps of loading, packing, lighting and tamping my pipe in itself pulls my thoughts into the circle of the bowl.
Like others, I thoroughly enjoy the comradery of a group of pipe folks – sharing tobaccos, while swapping stories and pipes is a pleasure I don’t take lightly. Several years have gone by since I wrote that blog and I thought it was time to revisit my thinking. I have bought, sold and traded quite a few pipes over that period. I have had great visits with pipe folk around the world over a pint or a coffee while enjoying a favourite bowl together. I wondered with the passage of time if my understanding of the solitary habit of my pipe smoking had changed at all. Had my need for space and time alone made any radical shift since I wrote that? Have I become more social in my pipe smoking and less solitary? These and other questions ran through my mind. Yes, it is time revisit my thinking on the solitary dimension of my pipe smoking.
I set aside some time over the past weeks to think about the questions that I posed above. I have reflected on my thoughts from the previous blog and have read others who have written on the communal aspect of pipe smoking. I wanted to compare my earlier thinking with what others have written about the communal nature of the pipe. Some of them have gone so far as to say that pipe smoking is best as a communal experience. For me that has not necessarily been true in the past. Therefore, to check my experience I have taken time for introspection and self-examination; I have to say that I have become even more committed to the time of solitude with my pipe since I wrote the earlier blog. The solitary nature of pipe smoking is sacred to me. It addresses a need in my life for time that is free of the interruption of speech or noise.
Why is that true for me? My every day work life is crowded with people and conversations. I spend 8-12 a day, 5-6 days a week talking with people face to face, on the internet, or the phone. By the end of my day, I am certain that I have used my quota of words. I am talked out and have nothing left to say. I long for the quiet of solitude. No sounds, no talking, no music, no need to respond or pay attention to another person – just quiet, alone time.
However, this is where the problem comes into focus for me. I am not a hermit who lives alone in his cabin in the woods. I live in community with my wife of 40+ years and 3 of our adult daughters. When we get home from work in the evenings, everyone wants to engage and be family – except me. I want to disappear and I get that haunted look in my eyes of a captive who cannot hide. What am I supposed to do? Do I just ignore the needs of the family and selfishly cling to my own needs – real or imagined? Do I stuff my need for quiet and just man up and do the work? Do I come up with an alternative that works for all of us in my family?
Together my wife, daughters and I came up with a workable solution for us – it allows me some solitude before I engage with my family. It is simple and it gives me the space I need and gives them the Husband and Dad they want. When I get home from work, I go to my workshop and fiddle with restoring pipes or have a bowl of tobacco on my front porch or maybe both. By the time dinner is ready my equilibrium has been restored and I can be present in the family. The time with the pipe – either puffing it or restoring it or both gives me the separation that I need to leave the talking of the day behind me. It gives me the solitude that is so necessary for the introverted me to be able to be ready to re-engage with my family. This solution has worked for us for many years now and I find that relieves a lot of pressure that they or I can impose on myself for not being able to listen well to my family after spending a day listening to others.
My reflections confirm that solitude is important not only for my own spiritual and emotional health but for my ability to engage fully in the events of my life and enjoy the present. However, I have also learned that no matter how important solitude is for me, it remains elusive in my life if I do not make space for it. My life filled with noise, busyness and the intrusion of the internet will always take precedence if I do not challenge it. It is hard to leave the noise behind and spend time alone. Many people do not like to spend time alone. They find it uncomfortable and hard to do. To take the time to be alone is actually countercultural and challenging. To maintain a routine of solitude is even harder.
Solitude – where all external communication, noise and internal noise and chaos stops is becoming a fading memory for most people I know. The idea of stopping the doing and just being is becoming harder for folks to imagine. However, I have found that it is a necessity that if neglected has consequences for me. Those consequences range from malaise and weariness that can easily progress to burn out to being so busy that I forget to care for myself with all of the accompanying issues that arise from that. So how do I ensure that I take the time to be solitary? How do I maintain this needed respite?
I have learned that this is where my pipe can facilitate the introspective, quiet time that I require. It is a pleasure that I enjoy and a past time that provides me with the quiet I long for. When I settle on the porch or shop with my pipe and a favourite tobacco the move into solitude begins. The smell of the unpacked pipe begins the process of transporting me into quiet. The feel of the pipe in my hand is inviting. I open the tin or pouch of tobacco and inhale deeply of the aroma. I love that moment when the components of the blend spin around and come together with a delightful pouch note. I slowly breathe out, exhaling the stress of my life. I put the pipe bowl in the pouch or the tin and push the tobacco into the bowl with a finger or thumb. If it is a flake tobacco, I rub it out between my fingers and thumb or on the palm of my hand until it is the right consistency for a smoke. I pack the bowl almost unthinkingly now as I have done it so long. I am often far away in my thoughts as I load the pipe. I use my thumb to test the pack of the bowl. All of these minute steps cause me to focus on a singular task and leave behind the events of my day.
When the flame is put to the smoke and the slight draw of smoke flows into my mouth it is like a sipping a good wine. I savour the flavor of the tobacco as it swirls around my mouth. I sip on the pipe, slowly setting a cadence to the smoke. A good smoke has to be unhurried and uninterrupted if it is going to be a quiet place for me. I find that when my wife or daughters talk with me in the process of the smoke, I lose the cadence and the magic is gone. That slow sipping of smoke into the mouth and letting it slowly leave through the mouth brings focus and quiet. As the smoke ascends and wreaths my head, reaching to the ceiling of my porch I sense the pipe drawing me into the circle of solitude. It is this moment where I could stay forever. Pipe smokers speak of a magic smoke, but for me each smoke that transports me to a peaceful spot is magic.
I have tried to move to that quiet place with others present on my porch. My son in law will join me for a pipe periodically and it is never quite the same. It is nothing he says or does, as often it is quiet. It may be that my mind moves from that place of being unengaged to having to think about another person. I am not sure why but I know that doing that takes my focus off the moment and immediately makes it another social event for me. While it is often a pleasant experience for me, it still does not meet the need I feel for solitude.
I have found that it is only alone that I experience the magic of the pipe. I don’t think I have ever had the experience in the company of pipemen. No matter how convivial the gathering or how enjoyable the experience it is never the same. I think that the experience of the magic is linked to the solitude. I think that is why some have called pipe smoking sacramental. The pipe has the ability to transport the pipeman from the mundane of the day into a sacred place where the soul is at rest and prayer can happen without thinking. The wafting of smoke is not unlike the incense used in places of worship that lift the worshiper to a higher plane and out of their daily routine. The ritual of pipe smoking – the tamping, relighting and puffing slowly all work together the same way to lift me out of the day to day wrestling to a place of quietude.
As the last tamp is done and the last sip of smoke is drawn into my mouth I find myself moving back into the present. The pipe and the smoke have prepared me for re-entry into my home life. It makes the transition into the life of my family somehow more natural and less forced. I tap the bowl against the heel of my hand and tip the ashes into the flower bed below my front porch. I run a pipe cleaner through the stem and bowl and blow air through to remove any bits of tobacco in the bowl. Each step is part of the re-entry. The taste of the tobacco on the inside of my lips and the lingering smoke in my beard are reminders of the place of quiet I am leaving.
All that being said, I guess I am still a solitary pipe smoker most of the time. I am not a recluse or particularly anti-social but I long for and enjoy the quiet times alone with my pipe. The closest thing that provides me the same kind of moment is a pipe on a good walk. Each Sunday I walk to church with my wife and daughters. It is about a 30-40 minute walk and it provides a perfect opportunity to enjoy a bowl and some quiet. I dawdle along with a pipe in my mouth enjoying the day. If it is sunny so much the better and if it is raining it is not a deterrent.