The Matchbook Diaries


The only thing I have that I want others to envy is freedom. Anyone, right now, can have the same freedom without fiscal cost or moral effort. Freedom is unearned and unearnable. I think, when I see peasants crowding into cities, “They are losing the only thing that matters.” In the remote parts of China, on the island of Rota, at the frontier of Tanzania and in the deserts of Qatar, I see native people who are still free. Their open smiles attest to their liberty, as do their easy ways- mannerisms that suggest ease and joy. In cities, most people live like animals; the ghettos of the world are full of violence, garbage, noise, and disease.

I imagine  the beginning of that trajectory. You have a Massai warrior who has lived his whole life on the vast plains of the African Serengeti drinking his daily diet of cow’s blood and milk as he wanders in utter freedom with his herd, answering to no one, carrying nothing on his back but his club, adorned by nothing but his red dress and beaded ankle bracelets; his hair hangs down to his waist in spectacular braids. He fears nothing. He reveals his strength by leaping impossibly high in the air from a standing position. He has somehow heard about cell phones. He goes to our city for work he can’t find. Put that now idle man on a corner in Dar Es Salaam and he redefines himself as a Poor Man. This is an abominable lie.

Someone in a hut or on a small farm is exposed to marketing. The seed planted by the advertisement grows in their innocent heart. They are helpless to ignore it; it’s colorful, it’s exotic, it’s admired. It would be absurd for that innocent person to say, “How could that hurt me?” Instead they likely say, “That tool will make me more efficient.” Then, over the course of a year or thirty years that need-seed blossoms into a tyrant, and the human being who once had a mind of their own is now a slave. In Qatar, which is often said to be the richest country in the world, the lure is the same, but in much larger form. Our back-door neighbor, whilst we were in Doha, lived in a castle. Outside the tall, tall walls that surround Qatari estates are fleets of vehicles.  So much purchasing power existed in Doha, we often saw local people at the bank carrying suitcases of money.

Eventually the factory wage, or, in some cases, the enormous inheritance that was once applauded as a windfall, starts feeling like a punishment and an insult. This dynamic of superimposed need is a demonic con, a con that enslaves billions, a con that makes all other cons look like child’s play. People worry about religion being an opiate, a vehicle for control.  But religion ain’t nothin’ compared to wealth. Our enemy is the soulless entity called the corporation, an entity that trolls the planet like a fishing vessel, selling shit, harvesting as much money as possible and delivering that catch to the shareholders, (of which I am one).

I collect perfume bottles off the beaches where we travel. I have several thousand. The labels on the bottles compel me; the perfume names  tell me what people think they want, what they are ashamed of, and what they believe will make them beautiful and compelling. I found a cologne bottle with the large word “Hope” on it. Once I was done disinfecting it and taking out the spray mechanism, I saw that there were words above and below that big pretty word. The scent was named, “There’s HOPE for men.” I found one cologne bottle here in Dar promising Bondage For Men, which seemed particularly odd when most of the human trafficking of prior eras came through Dar.

I keep a list of the promises and delusions that the perfume bottles offer. On my back porch are bottles advertising Real Innocence, That Blue Feeling, Napoleon Boss Le Coope [sic], Royal Ramba, Katrina, Story of Rose, Deserve, Purple, Decode, Real Dream, Magic Moments, Fast Pace, 2i2 Sexy Man, Lexus, Mark’s Kiss, and then my favorite, of which I have two bottles, Royal Hummer.  Then there’s my husband’s favorite-  the Boss perfume bottle we found sits adjacent to the knock off-  Boos.

Any possession with physical substance is a prison if it means too much. Evil can get to work on me the minute I get attached to something and start calling it mine. I’m liable to commit all kinds of moral and social atrocities working from this foundation of mine.

My father once told me a story I passed onto my son. He was working in New York, a young man just out of Brown, and he was held up at gunpoint by a person who wanted his Rolex. My father advised the man to shoot him because he wasn’t surrendering that watch. I do not believe the story, but I believe my father would have defended his Rolex with his life because I saw what he was willing to do for money, and I saw that at the end of his day he had not one shred of self-respect left, even as his income reached a modest high of eight million US dollars a year. My father died young feeling utterly worthless and he had a bunch of Rolexes by then.

All that I own is dangerous to my liberty, and my identity is not in any of it. I’m defined, as is everyone, by my heart, by the particular versions of truth and beauty I’m here to exemplify and celebrate. My heart can’t be taken from me, nor can my freedom or my faith, or my passion.  Nothing of mine with any value is ever at risk.

The spiritual process of attaining social and emotional liberty requires the surrender of much I thought I valued, but the moment I make the exchange I see that what God asks in exchange for the delicious liberty I seek are trifles, pale sickly things that can’t survive the truth. It’d be so cool to visit a country where the exodus reversed, people fleeing modern consumption in exchange for disenfranchised, off-grid life – you’d see Rolexes in the gutters.