The Matchbook Diaries


I have lived as a stranger in a strange land for much of my life.  My son has done so for all of his life.  Expatriatism certainly lends a unique perspective; there are the moments of glamour, when you wind up getting shit faced with friends whilst eating oysters on the street in China, or find a respite in a tiny restaurant in Nepal and play Risk behind a curtain and gobble down fabulous street food.  Mostly, though, being an expat is about being alone. No one will ever understand you.  Many will either fear or hate you, and no one will connect with you with the kind of intimacy you experience with those who are very similar to you.  The loneliness is profound.  All around you people speak language you don’t understand, engage in common customs you know nothing about, dress in their own fashion which is glaringly different from yours – the differences are myriad from how you eat to how you shit to how you pray. You are stared at, are often the target of swindlers, and, for the most part, if you want peace and quiet, you need to hide behind a wall.

I love our life, but it’s not for everyone.  God says, in a holy story, birds have nests, foxes their holes, but God has no place to lay God’s head.  God is the perpetual, eternal expat.  The holiest humans in history, whomever you deem them to be, have a taste of God’s alienation, but no human being can truly appreciate the staggering discrepancy between God’s world and ours.  What if there were only 1 of your kind?  What if you were unable to mate?  What if no one, over millions of years, ever leaned into you and whispered, “I know exactly what you mean!”

Perhaps, then, the driving ambition of God, to create something other, and then to choose to spend eternity trying to understand that other, is not far fetched.

Because I was wrongly diagnosed as autistic as a child (my silence, rocking, and repetitive behavior were due to my ongoing torture), I have an abiding interest in autism.  Years and years ago I read a story about a mother who had an autistic child.  The agony of parenting an autistic child would be keen.  You love, as a mother, with a wild intensity that is unmatched in any other connection, so, in the case of an autistic child, you love something that is incapable of returning that affection in familiar ways.  Worse, you are locked out of your child.  You cannot connect with what they choose attach themselves; you’re locked out.  That agony would break me in a way I truly don’t wish to know.

This mother rocked with her baby.  She sat hour after hour, day after day, and yes year after year rocking, hoping to cross the boundary.  She gave her life to her baby, entered her baby’s world with her whole heart, doggedly, enduring catastrophic suffering to reach her baby.  And she did reach her baby; she did connect with her baby.  I marvel at the tenacity, the willful, incessant perseverance of that mother.  She imitates God.

God wishes to know and to be known.  Intimacy with God has nothing whatsoever to do with “morality”.  Knowing God has everything to to with humanity.  Every day when I drive to the yacht club to run 6.03 miles (behind a wall, with guards), I drive through Dar Es Salaam Tanzania during the pre rush hour at 6:15am and then back through at peak rush hour at 8am.  Yesterday, as I pulled out of the locked gate behind which I live, my guard sliding the heavy door that has electric wires across the top, there was a woman with a hand sewn sack on her back.  Usually it’s men, every day I see dozens within a few minutes, but yesterday it was a woman.  She was filthy and thin.  Those people who collect plastic bottles before sunrise, they are so downtrodden that they would not dare look at a foreigner.  They are too weary, but also, they have no hope at all.  They are trying to make enough to feed their family for one more day.  If the spirit leads, then I will call out to the person I see, and I will donate money, about a day’s pay for the middle class worker, or 10,000 tz shillings.  When I do this, the person is so startled that I can see the confusion in their eyes.  Then, often, they nod, or, in the case of the woman, they curtsey, and say God bless you.  They always say that.  Always.  In English.  Because what has occurred is God, not me.

God is good.  Because I know that, I know that I need to be willing to acknowledge those getting roundly fucked by the world. I need to touch someone else who knows what it’s like to get fucked. I need to tell myself I’m not alone. I need to tell myself how incredibly, undeservingly lucky I am, I need to know that love lives, that God is real. And when I touch someone so unlike me, so far, far away from me, I see that in fact we are not far from one another at all. I see we are brother and sister, or sister and sister.

I’m a vicious little bitch, no joke.  If you fuck with me, believe me, I will be exceptionally cunning in my reply which could take years; you won’t see it coming, and you will be sorry.  I’m not a nice girl.  At all.  But I am human.  The only thing I can do, when the social fiscal distance between us could only be measured in light years, is be human and touch you, look you in the eyes, and be willing to let down my own wall for 10 seconds and let you in, heart to heart, face to face.  Then the moment is gone and I’ve gotten what I needed out of that transaction, which is connection, and the other person has gotten something much less valuable in return.

Unlike me, God is not at the wheel of a shitty little white SUV with Tanzanian plates who drives by me as I’m scavenging in the garbage.  Unlike me, God does not roll down the window to hand me the equivalent of $4.50USD.  That would be obscene, as what I just described that I do is nearly as shameful.  No.  God stops the vehicle.  God gets out of the vehicle.  God takes off the divine clothing, standing naked, and wraps that royal robe on me.  God then hands me the car keys, as well as the deeds and titles to all of God’s property.  Then God kisses me, blesses me, picks up my sack of garbage and walks off naked, leaving me, the heiress, in God’s place.

How the bloody fuck am I supposed to compete with that kind of sacrifice?  I can’t.  How can I measure that depth of feeling?  Impossible.  My job is to live in response to that truth, to choose to see, to choose to hear, to choose to touch, to choose to, for just a single fucking moment, acknowledge that I am not alone here, that I am in this hell hole with a lot of other people, people who are treasured, people who are royalty too.  I know a lot about borders.  I cross them all the time.  Someone stamps my passport and I’m on my way.  But the borders that need to be crossed in order for me to have hope are human ones not national ones.  I don’t give my pathetic gifts away because I’m nice, or moral, I do it because I’m desperate, lonely, and well aware of what a load of crap I regularly feed myself about entitlement, convenience, and self-importance.   I need, like I need air to breathe, at least one human moment in my day to see God.  I see God in that woman, she’s not the only time or place, but in that moment when my hand touches the hand of that “other one”, I see God.  Yesterday I saw God right there with her.  I can live another day because of the gift of her.