The Matchbook Diaries


One spring we stayed for a few weeks in Hoi An, Vietnam along the coast of the South China sea; it’s a teetering pile of old colonial buildings along canals and on the street level there are wonderful little folk art shops.

My son ate silk worms on the street, we walked the battered beaches after a small typhoon hit during our stay-  I found a battered carousel horse on that beach.   We travelled through seas of rice patties on a scooter.

We wanted to see the Kim Bong carpentry village. People there build wooden boats by hand and were supposed to be master carvers as well. We got lost, of course, like we usually do, but eventually we arrived and wandered along streets filled with carpentry shavings. I ran my hands along newly carved boats and marveled. Ultimately we crammed into this one carver’s shop to watch the process. It took us a long time to communicate to the artisans that I wanted to buy the toolboxes they were sitting on, not the carvings they made. I liked their work, but I looked at those paint spattered, use-shined wooden boxes and in them I saw the passion of the artists who made them, who sat on them for decades as they carved. They laughed at me because I paid a fortune for an used wooden box they didn’t value but were willing to sell to a stupid tourist. They even let me keep some of the old tools inside. Ever since I’ve been buying artists’ toolboxes when we travel.

What I want to connect to, wherever we go, is the heart of a place.  The only barrier between me and that experience is the one in my own heart.

It’s a sad perversion in myself and others wherein the deepest wound, the most profoundly insulting emotional, social, fiscal, and physical injury becomes something to cling to, to dine out on, to advertise, but not to recover from.

My initial impulse in my early 20’s, upon discovering my emotional disability, was to fight as hard as I could to remove the impediment. I found a person to help me and bought her time twice a week for three years; I was rigorous in following her orders and she taught me the process for redemption I’ve used ever since.

Two years ago, at 50, I met the pièce de résistance, the bit of my personal history that seemed to be a small chunk of misery, but quickly revealed itself to be an iceberg, a fact so large as to be the root of all my suffering. Holding that information in my heart, I knew I’d finally won the one-upsmanship game. In a battle for who to feel sorry for, I win. I hired a woman who specializes in this area of brokenness to spend 15 hours with me long distance, teaching me what she knows after 50 years in the business of healing. I told a few people in my intimate circle, but essentially I kept my Jewish privacy.

After two and a half years, I was deflated. I could never chuck my story like a grenade into the world and then savagely feast on the power of my evil to shock others. Where’s the joy in that? Where’s the joy in proving you can ruin stuff and make people cry? It’s too easy. It’s hard to build something that only I am capable of building, to refine, to love, to cherish and to nurture a unique beauty, the one piece of God’s perfection that only I can see. This is my task, to reveal the redeeming power and strength of Love, and to prove one again that good always has, and always will, prevail over evil.

So instead of dwelling on sadness, I advertise the power of God to overcome even the most hideous emotional mutilation. What was done to me does not define me, so it cannot liberate me, and it cannot empower me. The details of my history help me only insofar as I use those lurid bits to expose them to the light of the truth and thus destroy them. I can’t win the game of my life. But I can build a beauty so powerful, so real and true, that it has a power of its own to deliver truth and joy to the people in my radius.

The fighter in me will never stop fighting. I pounce on life like a cat and God help anyone who fucks with my family or anything I value.

But my war now is mainly against the part of myself that prefers to muddle, quit, and blame. In excellent stories of good and evil the bad guys have all the numbers and all the power whilst the good guys have a few passionate people and a dream. The bad guys use bullying, greed, and compulsion to force their minions to battle; the good guys rely on faithful volunteers and luck. Always the bad guys are blinded by their central weakness, pride. Suddenly the good guys seize the moment and, Forest Gump-style, overthrow tyranny with some absurdly wonderful plan. That’s my life too.

The soaring triumph of my own war is that I now know my identity; I see my soul in the margins of the world and my heart unfurls like eagle’s wings.

The core weakness of evil is that it lacks any depth; evil has no subtlety, no nuance, no capacity, it’s dead, so it cannot know itself or contain any wisdom. The core strengths of love are its life and flexibility, its infinite depth, its capacity to absorb even a blow like the one I was delivered, and, in an series of inconceivably beautiful and seemingly random events, turn what was hideous into a shimmering, sheer, keen, feathered thing capable of consuming evil with massive bombs of joy.