For the past year or so, I’ve felt the need for a change. Make that changes, plural. Big changes. I added new quotes to the wall in my office: “Your detours may lead to your destiny.” and “A comfort zone is a nice place, but nothing ever grows there.” As they say, be careful what you wish for.

While exploring new career paths, I’d planned to stay put in my place for one more year and write my book. After all, it’s comfortable and familiar. And it’s where my entire experience with Mtuseni has happened. But the universe has decided to light a fire under my comfortable butt, so I need to move by June.

Eager for change but not sure yet how that will look — and not wanting to set down long-term roots in a month — I’m storing most of my things and looking to get a summer sublet when all of Boston’s students take off. I’ve realized that all I really need is my phone, laptop, and coffee maker to function.

Seeing neatly labeled boxes stacked up in a storage locker gives me little frissons of excitement. It’s triggering sense memories of other times I’ve made big moves linked to life-changing decisions. True, part of me thinks, “Shit, this sucks. Now what?” But another part of me grins inside and says, “Okay, universe. Point taken. Now stand back and be amazed.”

But something else hit me after piling a few carloads into my square, corrugated metal locker with the sliding garage door — ubiquitous in a country where people have so much stuff they don’t know what to do with it. I realized that the Mdletshe’s shack is not much bigger than the locker. Mtuseni’s mom Nester lives in it with Bongeka and Musa, 14 and 12. Mtuseni used to sleep there as well, but moved into a drafty, ramshackle, wallboard-and-asbestos-tile addition with a dirt floor. Years ago, Mtuseni’s father Samuel and older brother Moses also lived in that windowless, tin-roofed, brick-and-block shack.

Annex room

My books, tax forms, mementos, prints and other stuff are now “living” in the same conditions as Mtuseni’s family — and millions of others in South Africa. The same nondescript box that holds the non-essentials of my life is home to a family preparing now for the arrival of winter.

I know that wherever I end up in June — and beyond — the place will be comfortable and spacious. It will have windows. A bathroom. An oven. A fridge. Running water and heat and electricity.

One thing I’ve learned from my time with Mtuseni is that I have no right to complain about things in my life. It’s good to have that perspective. But I’d much prefer that he, his brother and sister, and his mom had a safe, comfortable home. Someday…. if the universe is listening and willing to work with me…

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Mirror, Mirror

March 28, 2018 — Leave a comment

IMG_6220Wow, where did the time go? The past year was pocked with potholes and speed bumps — both in South Africa and at home. All of it was unexpected. But perhaps the biggest, and most unsettling, surprise was Mtuseni’s emotional downturn.

Last fall, he started saying that he was tired a lot. He said he was getting old. I chided him and insisted that 25-year-olds don’t get tired. At that age I had a full-time job and a grueling after-work gig swilling beer and smoking dope. And I was never tired. I’d kill for half of that energy now.

Then his fatigue expanded into chats tinged with sour, hopeless thoughts. He’d been unhappy in his job for some time, but it had turned to bitter resignation. He was now halfway through his 20s and he was still living with mom and the kids in the shack. Still counting pennies. Nowhere near what his expectations were when he was in college. He spent the Christmas Festive Season home alone, because he had no money to visit cousins at the shore in Durban. Instead he cleaned his room, tossing out clothes the rats had eaten. And he slept. Tired. Always tired.

Early on I was concerned that he might be sick. His home environment and diet are always wreaking havoc on his immune system. But eventually I recognized the problem. Mtuseni was depressed.

I called him more often — and made sure that I talked less and listened more. He’s always been a tough nut to crack, with a complex set of defenses. But they’ve softened over the years, at least with me. He trusts me. He would feel better after venting, and I gave him words of encouragement. But it didn’t change his circumstances.

He’s in an almost impossible situation. The dire economic statistics, lack of resources, logistical challenges, and other hurdles to success in South Africa have me stumped. After being Mtuseni’s “magician” for so long, my powers feel depleted.

It’s hard to hear my usually happy boy feeling so down. I realized that when your kid hurts, you hurt.

It seems weird that it took me all these years to recognize this. But from the first day we met, Mtuseni has always been a pretty happy, goofy, idealistic kid. Yeah, he’s had his moody, grumpy, sullen moments, but they didn’t last long. He’d always bounce back with that warm heart, determined optimism, and special sparkle that makes me adore him. I’d never experienced him being in emotional distress for so long, and I was surprised by how much it brought me down. Just as I mirror his joy, I also mirror his pain.

Huh. Another facet of the parent experience. Strange that I never saw that coming. And surprising how much his pain hurts me. But a few months ago this magician still managed to find a rabbit in his hat. We are waiting on what I hope will be very exciting news any day now. And I cannot wait to celebrate and share his joy! Fingers crossed…

 

 

Father’s Day

June 18, 2017 — Leave a comment

Over the years I’ve received some pretty amazing, heartfelt Father’s Day messages from Mtuseni. This is the first year I’ve been in direct contact with Bongeka since starting her in private school last year and getting her a tablet. We don’t chat a heck of a lot — what 13-year-old talks much to any adult, never mind one who’s half a world away? So I was happily surprised to receive this WhatsApp greeting from her this morning.

Funny… after pressing hard on her last week to complete another scholarship application — and a few weeks earlier for not joining after-school activities — Bongeka still comes back with a dose of sweetness. I guess that means she’s starting to understand what I’m doing. And that I’m doing a good job.

Sometimes the stress of helping to raise these kids in South Africa really gets to me. In so many ways I’m powerless; there are so many obstacles confronting Bongeka and Mtuseni. But a silly crown and a few words and emoticons sweep it all away for a while.

Indeed… I’m lucky.


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The Lying Game

May 27, 2017 — Leave a comment

Back in my early days with Mtuseni, I thought I had caught him in a lie. I can’t recall what the situation was, but it didn’t make me happy. I’d recently committed to paying for his college, guiding him to a better future — basically I was all in for the long haul. But if he was not going to be truthful with me, then we had a major problem. Lying signals disrespect, and that was unacceptable given the sacrifices I was making and was prepared to make for him.

I confronted him about it on a phone call, because this was too important for texting. He became upset and insulted. He explained the situation and said earnestly, “I will never lie to you.” And in all these days, he hasn’t.

It’s very hard to guide a child who’s half a world away. Having mutual trust is important, and I’ve always had that with Mtuseni. So I was upset — and surprised and disappointed — when I became aware that Bongeka has likely been lying to me the past few months. Last year in her first year of private school we didn’t have direct contact; I just paid the bills and got updates from Mtuseni and the principal. But this year, having bought her a tablet for school and a data plan, we’ve been able to chat on WhatsApp.

It’s different than with Mtuseni. He and I first met via webcam chats, so we had the electronic face-to-face, next-best-thing-to-being-there experience. That allowed us to build a strong bond so that when the webcam program ended, we were comfortable chatting via text. By comparison, Bongeka only knows me through text exchanges — and meeting once when she was little.

She doesn’t chat with me often, but it’s been great to hear how much she’s grown up and how she likes to learn. She comes across as bright and curious and polite, with a sharp sense of humor. I’ve been pressing her to take advantage of everything the school has to offer, especially the after-school activities, from sports to clubs to extra-help sessions. Any opportunity she has for new learning experiences is good. And every minute away from the settlement and her unheated shack is also a plus.There were no extra activities in her public school; I want her to benefit as much as possible from private school, and for me to get my money’s worth.

So last term I looked at the activity calendar and told her I wanted her to join at least two, plus some help sessions. She agreed, but then always had an excuse when I followed up — usually saying the club never opened or somehow blaming the school. When second term began I told her again that I expected her to do an activity every afternoon; they are only about 45 minutes. I told her it’s important to try new things and meet new people. She agreed and told me what she would join. When I checked in last week, she said that they still hadn’t opened.

Then I saw photos of the school science fair on Facebook, and which had been listed on my second term calendar. I asked why she wasn’t in the science fair. She said she never heard about it. If I knew about it 8,000 miles away, there’s no way she never heard about it. Judging by the photos, it was a big to-do. And Bongeka likes science!

When I emailed the principal to get some clarification, she told me that the club Bongeka said she would join was already in full swing. And that the science fair was promoted throughout the school. And that she probably was “not being truthful.” To put it bluntly, she was lying to me.

I was pissed. I’m still kinda pissed. When she texts to ask for money for field trips, I send it. I make sure she has extra money to buy snacks and lunches at school so she doesn’t feel different from her friends. (There are not many kids in her school who live in shacks with no electricity.) Now, knowing that I expect her to join clubs, she lies to me. Repeatedly.

The principal said she’d discuss it with her and we could Skype about it. She told me this is a tricky age, when kids’ hormones are going crazy and they’re trying to figure out who they are. I forgot what it’s like to be 13. Looking back, I was a basket case. And I have no idea what it’s like to be a 13-year-old-girl. Thrown into a school where families have more money and resources than her uneducated mother. Trying to hold her own as a “shack girl” among peers that go home to electricity and TV and indoor plumbing. Mtuseni still struggles with that, keeping his “shack identity” a secret from his colleagues at work.

I met Mtuseni at 16, a goofball but with a strong sense of integrity…one step into manhood. Bongeka is a young adolescent, a girl, a child standing at the foot of a long rickety bridge to adulthood. Am I happy that she’s been lying to me? No. But with the principal’s help we’ll get her back on track. The principal told me that if Bongeka makes the right choices now, she’ll be fine when she comes out of this phase … at around 16 or 17. That seems like a long way off. But Bongeka’s a smart dork — like I was once. I wish someone had offered support and guidance to me at that age. Parenting was different back then. I flailed for years.

This lying game has to stop — and I need to steel myself for a long walk with Bongeka across that bridge.


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