Magic Smoke


Narita, Japan – April 1992

As the plane touches down in Tokyo, sobriety creeps slowly, relentlessly into my mind. The last two weeks in Bangkok are a vibrant, beautiful blur. As the plane taxis to the gate, reality hits: I’m on my way back to Los Angeles. To the constant struggle against the black hole. To the hunger and the threat of being homeless. Hard work does not automatically equal survival. At least it doesn’t for me.

After I disembark, I head for the restroom to tidy up. For the first time in two weeks, I look at myself in a clear mirror. My hair is already limp and greasy. Angry red cysts have sprouted along my jawline. I scowl and turn away. Then I force myself to look back. I glare at my reflection. I hate you. Loser.


I put my backpack in a locker and then head for the Naritasan temple complex and park. The streets are clean and free of vicious dogs. A cup of tea costs more than I make per hour. On the top of a hill, a temple beckons. I climb the steps and peer inside. A giant urn spews out perfumed smoke. People encircle it, heads bowed and hands pressed together. I step forward.

A golden plaque says: inhale the magic smoke and cure all disease within you.

I close my eyes and inhale deeply. Oh marvelous magic smoke, please cure my screwed up head. I giggle at my feeble prayer. A young couple looks at me with fear in their eyes, and then moves to the other side of the temple.


I descend into the surrounding forest.  The cool air wraps itself around me. The Bangkok slime hardens to a crust on my skin. I breathe in the sharp, clean smell of conifers and rich, loamy soil. Memories of my grandfather’s Japanese garden arise. I used to immerse myself in that mysterious, hushed serenity for hours.

I come to rest on a bench in front of a large pond. A fat fish jumps. Ripples fan out across the pond, obscuring my reflection.


I feel ancient, but not wise. Even nothing is something more than I am. So what does that make me? A living void. No one will come to free me. I have to do it myself.

I grasp the amulet around my neck and feel a surge of hope. I had a strong will once. Beauty, ambition, innocence. How did I lose it? To know that I must start at the beginning.

I lean forward and gaze deeply into the murky pond. Show me.


25 thoughts on “Magic Smoke

  1. I really liked this and your use of the images. The Japanese style and history is soothing to me also, a simplicity that is often missing in our daily lives now.

  2. I have been following your posts from Moldova, where I am a PC volunteer (I believe you follow me, also, at I tried to comment on your Magic Smoke post and was blocked by some strange Russian language URL:

    In case you can’t see the page, I copy it below (it is in English, courtesy Google Chrome automatic translate.) I find this very strange and a little alarming. When I try to follow the link to your blog now from my email, I get the same page. Is this some weird circumstance from me being in a former Soviet state, or have you encountered this before? Why today?: Blocked resources In accordance with applicable laws telecoms operator restricts access to information prohibited for distribution by a court or public authority.In this section, you can check the availability of the resource from the network “Beeline”. Resource on the IP-address is blocked by a public authority, details at the state


    • Wow, that’s really weird. I’ve never come across that before. I suspect it’s because of your internet service provider in Moldova. At least you got through now. Is this comment after signing in to your WP account?

  3. I’d be one of those fans buying your memoir book, even if I’ve read parts of it already. 🙂 and btw, did the smoke cure your screwed up head? heheh…

    I too at one point in my life experienced being lost… And I didn’t know what to do with my life and the best thing I think is I didn’t want to know even. 😀

    • Thanks, Prem. There’s lot more in the memoir. The smoke made me feel a little better on that day (it was such a beautiful place!), but it took years and years to totally climb out of the hole. I did it mostly without medication.

  4. This is neat! I like your writing style. Something about the brevity of your sentences, the simplicity of it. It doesn’t feel contrived. Quite real. I identify with that a lot. =)

  5. I can’t wait for your memoir, good stuff, have to say for me Asia is one of those places where you find your self, I always though if I go I have to be older or wiser.

    • I definitely recommend taking the time to go there if you’ve got a layover of only a few hours. It’s not far and you get the real Japanese experience.

      • It is a wonderful place, I’ll have to go check tomorrow (not been in a while. It is part of a much larger botanical gardens, and on other occasions I go there to listen as the wind runs its hands through the 200 plus feet high, mix of conifers in different parts, or to under an old red silk-cotton tree. Will try to catch up on more comments tomorrow, hasta luego

  6. Aptly put, “Hard work does not automatically equal survival.” I think many people would know how that feels. Japanese gardens are such lovely places for contemplation and finding stillness in this world.

    • Too many people know how it feels. It’s a hard lesson to learn – many of us grow up thinking that if we work hard and do the right thing, things will be okay. There’s something about Japanese gardens…the effortless feel of the focused organization, maybe. Thank you for reading this older post.

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