The Matchbook Diaries


Definitions

We spent a summer in Cow Head, Newfoundland so we could hike Gros Morne and all of the surrounding peaks.  Newfoundland is absolutely glorious. Whilst there, we wanted to go out with a real lobsterman.  We hung around the stony beach where the lobstermen had their supply shacks until we finally met one.  Larry has been hunting lobster all of his long, happy life.  It wasn’t lobster season, but Larry and his crew took us out to fish for cod.  We saw whales.  My boy learnt to catch and gut fish and toss the inedible bits to the seagulls.  We developed a friendship with Larry that summer.

A few weeks before we left we tried to drop by his actual home in town.  We sort of knew where he lived, and the towns in that part of Newfoundland are tiny.  But we’d always met him at his beach shack, so we were guessing as to his actual home.  I was poking around this house one afternoon, sure it was Larry’s when suddenly a completely different man pulled into the drive.  I was not sure even how to explain who I was or who I was looking for, so I just backed away slowly and hopped into our car, exclaiming, “That’s NOT Larry’s house!”

My husband pointed to the dog in the yard and said, “Yeah, and that’s Notlarry’s dog.”  We had a ball with that, that summer.  I’m Notlarry’s wife.  I’m Notlarry’s son.  We still toy around with Notlarry’s life sometimes, as, of course, that man is every other man in the world and all that is connected to Notlarry is also everything else in the world.

There is a seemingly brutal passage in the Holy text I study that commands me to be perfect as God is perfect.  In this case, the word means closed, finished, complete.  Evil isn’t anything.  It’s not.  There is no depth to evil, which is why it is a useless errand to try to “understand” it.  Good is everything.  Embrace love, beauty, truth, and when you exercise your considerable talents to plunder the depths of those things, you’ll find the experience bottomless.  You will never reach a dead end.  You will never exhaust the supply.

The trouble is that if you’ve been a victim, it’s tempting to focus on the evil. There is danger in defining myself by what I’m not, rather than what I am.  One winter we visited Jordan.  It remains my favorite country in the world.  Jordinians are exuberant and generous.  Everywhere we were hugged by total strangers and told, “You are WELCOME in Jordan.”  We went to visit this very old church a long ways from Amman in our rental car one day, we drove and drove.  Our trip occurred during the height of the crisis with terrorism in Iraq and Syria.  Refugees were everywhere in the freezing city, digging in filthy dumpsters for food.  There were whole fields of tents where people huddled without homes or food or heat.  So that day we drove a long ways and suddenly we realized we were approaching the border to Iraq rather quickly.  We navigated more carefully so as not to accidentally put ourselves in a difficult situation.  If you are in a car, or just in your life, and you are panicked, driving or running as fast as you can, away from something, it’s a good idea to figure out where you are going, too.

Toni Morrison is a prophet; her stories are profoundly illuminating. I don’t know how she knows what she knows.  I only know that she knows a great deal.  One of my favorite pieces of wisdom from Toni Morrison is, “The definitions belong to the definers.”  We are defined by the Creator who made us perfectly and loves us perfectly, without need or condition.  The trouble is that if you’ve been subject to someone who is broken at their core, then you’ve also been looking at yourself in a deformed mirror, a mirror that does not reflect your beauty, importance, and value, but rather a mirror revealing the shame, self-hatred, and doubt that belong not to you but to the person in authority in your early life. Then it is likely that what you see as your own reflection has been defined by someone other than God.  There is only one Definer.  The Creator is my definer and your definer; we are all children of a Holy God.  Other can pose as definers, and they can, maybe, by force or deceit, occupy a position of power in this broken world.  In the end, though, reality will overtake even those false definers, and they will find that for eternity they have lost their right to delude themselves and others as the immutable Reality surrounds them and makes it categorically impossible to lie.

Where we stay now, I often see people who believe that they are worthless. Most people have no job, and those who do earn about 45USD a month.  Middle class households, which comprise a slender fraction of the total population, have a rare monthly income of 450USD a month; those people struggle constantly.  Most people here expect nothing, feel entitled to nothing.  As a result, every unpurchased kindness offered to a local person is received with joy and inordinate gratitude.

Once when my son was being ungrateful and I was worried about his perspective, I arranged for our driver to take us to the shantytown less than 7 minutes from our private, razor wire, guarded compound.  We had to arrange for the ghetto bosses to accompany us into that area, along with my driver.  There are no streets, there, only dirt alleys crowded with garbage and often flooded with muddy sewage.  The vast majority of the 9 million people who live here with us live this way.  I forced my son to look, to see, to touch hands with, and even to enter one of the mud huts.  Inside of one of those he saw the possessions of a large family, which consisted of a few sleeping mats, and a chipped mug that held a toothbrush.  There was no water or electricity, but they did have a hole in the back yard with a covering, so they could use the toilet privately.  My boy was in a giant hurry to leave that neighborhood.  We’ve lived here 4 years, and yet we’ve spent less than a half an hour in the common neighborhood.

Many Tanzanian men and women have barely a shred of dignity in their lives.  The other day as I drove out of my neighborhood on one of the few paved roads in the city, I glanced sideways and saw a man of no discernable age standing and waiting to cross the road.  His face did not register any sense of himself – he made no eye contact with any passing person on foot, piki-piki, or bajaj.  He was standing there, disheveled, dirty, penniless, and utterly lost, waiting for a chance to cross the street.  I don’t know where he was going.  I only know that he is worth more than the combined wealth of every city in this world.  But he doesn’t know.  I will never forget him; I said, to myself, passing him, “He doesn’t know.”

Once, as I crossed the only car traffic bridge in our city, I saw another man.  It had rained as it only does in the tropics that day, like the world was ending and an ark was going to be necessary.  Finally the deluge subsided and we dashed out for some purpose.  There was this man, standing on wet sidewalk in a diaper of cotton.  He was carefully laying out sheets of filthy plastic on the side of the road.  I’m not sure what he intended to use the plastic for, but I knew as we passed that those sheets of plastic were all he had in the whole world, and that they mattered a great deal to him.

We are children of a loving God.  We are unique, priceless treasures, one of a kind in all the world.  No one is common; all are special, all are VIP, but all are equal in the eyes of God.  Our hearts show us what we are.  The world lies.  We impose and determine all value, not the world.  We define, not the world.  Our hearts decide what we fight and die for, what we push away, what we embrace.  If much of what we are is determined by our genetic make-up, then how we live out that identity, how we refine and hone our passions is the core joy and central profession of our lives.  It isn’t our chemistry that does the work.  Our chemistry lays the foundation.  Our hearts do the work.  The heart is pure; when the heart speaks there is no distortion.  God made you and I and every person perfectly and completely. There are no forgotten people.  God knows and loves without condition or restraint. There is no missing piece in you or in me.  Once you know and believe this, you will feel power all through your beautiful life.