The Matchbook Diaries


Whenever I pray, I’m trying to avoid catastrophe or to gain power over involuntary compulsions. My original belief, when I prayed as a child, was that prayer is an agent of change. My prayers have all been answered; but they have changed me rather than my circumstances.

A product of my personal history, I emerged in adulthood without any capacity to function effectively. I was assaulted daily by the forces inside of my heart that I did not even have names for. I’d create chaos without understanding my starring role, and then, knee deep in the wreckage, I’d wonder how the hell to avoid repeating my mistakes?  I also wasted a lot of time working from the outside in, thinking that, as one of my personal strengths is self-discipline, I ought to be able to apply enough pressure on myself to thwart the demons inside. Never once did my will give me freedom from self-destruction. There was an internal government I couldn’t overthrow in my own heart, and I couldn’t even untangle it enough to get a toe inside.

It is frustrating to be sitting on the throne atop this kingdom of myself and have next to no real authority, and, in addition, be a prisoner of my own world. Threats I administered to myself went unheeded. It was embarrassing, even in a room by myself.

Years ago, whilst spending a summer in Koh Tao, Thailand, I realized that dwelling there gave over a large percentage of its useful space to a home altar. I returned to China that fall with 1200 Thai squid floats and a suitcase of colored driftwood. We’d taught my son to count that summer by collecting and counting the squid floats that washed up under the hut in Koh Tao where we stayed. I remain very attached to those floats; they hang in my office.

I built myself an altar with that driftwood and I use every day. The choice to live in a house of prayer seemed small at the time. I’d been praying over meals for 20 years, studying holy texts for much longer, and attended services when I could. I’d relentlessly chased God assuming if I hammered away long enough God was bound to reply if only to make me shut up. I aim for the fence. You’ve got to admire my confidence – how many people truly think they can browbeat God?

Invariably during our travels we find ourselves thrown into a situation we are helpless to resolve. We need an ATM, directions, water, a taxi, or just a translation on a menu, and suddenly I feel just how big the world is. In Amman, Jordan, once, I needed a toilet. We’d been scouring downtown for this curio shop and I’d purchased some old camel blankets. We’d been away from our hotel a long time and I needed a bathroom. A man on the street replied to our question by walking many blocks out of his way to show me a public toilet. He led me to the doorway I needed and then said, “I’m not Muslim. I’m Sikhi.” He wanted his religion to get the credit. Last year, in Egypt, we wanted to visit a tomb and a temple in Abydos, several hours drive from Luxor. We got lost driving a few times and then, not knowing the norms, drove into a small Egyptian village during the height of once- a-week market day. The road flooded with people so that bodies pressed up against our car and traffic stopped altogether. Suddenly, adding to the swell of chaos, a completely overloaded sugarcane truck rumbled past on the adjacent street and the children went nuts chasing the truck to remove a free piece of cane as it passed. In those Gypsy moments I’m absolutely helpless.

A young policeman came up to our embedded car and motioned to us to roll down the window. We told him where we were going using a smattering of Arabic to his smattering of English. In a moment we had an armed escort, two pickup trucks of heavily armed cops flanking us, closing intersections, moving people, and for an hour we were treated like visiting heads of state by assault rifle toting young cops who were mighty impressed with the size of our tourist testicles. Unlike my Jordanian hero, all my Egyptian heroes were Muslim. And the kicker: we left that historic site, got to our car, and within moments the entire cavalcade had been instantly reverse aligned and we got the same support as we drove home. I love Egyptians.

The difficult truth is, whilst I’m conscious of my total impotence when I travel, my situation doesn’t change at all when I am home, although I can choose to delude myself in the comfort of my home. Travel is a fantastic way to plunge recklessly into situations I cannot understand or control, causing, with their high impact, a change in me. But I travel only a few months of the year, so there has to be another way.

Today I approach my daily prayer the same way I did in that moment in Egypt – with sure knowledge I can’t do a damn thing. I’m Jewish, if will was all it took I’d be perfect by now. The power is in bravely letting go, in laughing at the absurdity of me. I’m immersed in this realm for the duration of my mortal life. I cannot cause life, predict events, or even muster any real impact on my closest family. But I can connect to a perfect agency of infinite and intimate love, and I can ask that spirit of truth to walk into the places in my heart I cannot begin to know, and I can feel, and see, direct evidence of Love’s intervention afterwards. I had to stop pretending to be God and to embrace my condition as a beloved child of God.