Down… But Not Out

September 30, 2018 — Leave a comment

Oh, the magic of being in your 20s. When life stretches infinitely in front of you and everything seems possible. You’re full of vim and vigor and hope and possibility — and nothing can stop you.

I remember when Mtuseni felt that way. When he was learning and growing in college. When he graduated. When he joined City Year and became a leader and realized his dream of advancing his community. There are pictures of him from those days when I don’t think it’s humanly possible to have a broader, brighter smile.

But that was then. Mtuseni turned 26 last week — and is now in the back half of that magical decade. In America, that age would not be significant. The energy and possibility would still be at full throttle… and progress, in some form or other, would be occurring.

Mtuseni 26But progress is not common for young people in South Africa, and Mtuseni is not immune. In the 2+ years that he’s been at his dead-end admin job, he’s gone from “I can conquer the world” idealism … to an angry young man spouting ideas of revolution … to fatigue, resignation, pessimism, and bitterness.

When we talked the other day, I acknowledged that times were tough there, from what I’d been reading in the news. And I asked him if it was because the country had tipped into recession again. He laughed and said that means nothing. In his typically poetic language he said, “It’s just the day-to-day downfalls. It’s dying times in South Africa.”

National debt. Declining currency. Terrible education. Soaring crime. Political assassinations. Collapsing state-owned utilities and enterprises — like South African Airlines, which we flew to Cape Town, and the South African Broadcasting Company, where he’s wanted to work in radio for years. The country seems like a house of cards–that’s on fire.

No, youthful energy and idealism don’t last forever. Every adult has, or will, come face-to-face with that unfair reality at some point.

But not this soon. Not for my kid. Since the day we met, I’ve been impressed by and enchanted with this inner spark that Mtuseni has. It’s what drove him as a child to master English on his own. To seek out every opportunity to learn and grow. To escape the cycle of poverty and improve his life.

Now that journey has stalled. He’s still in the shack where he moved with his family as a young boy. Still without electricity or running water. Still skipping meals and counting pennies. He’s frustrated. Disappointed. Disillusioned. Crushed.

But that spark is not out. It’s in there somewhere. And I will keep it glowing and fan it to a flame that burns brighter than before. Because the world needs Mtuseni’s spark — and he, like each of us, deserves to feel happy and fulfilled in life.

My life has also felt stalled and stale for some time. I want to recapture the sense of wonder that I had in college, when I was an aspiring filmmaker and everything was amazing and all was possible and life stretched out far beyond the farthest horizon.

NewburyportSo for my son — and for myself — there are changes ahead and big plans in the works that will lift us both up. That will bring back his million watt smile. And rekindle my sense of wonder.

Get ready world. We’re coming.

 

 

 

 

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Actually, in Mtuseni’s case I should say that adults never listen. One thing that made guiding him in the early years easy and enjoyable was that he listened dutifully to everything I said and (usually) acted accordingly. Perhaps this came from the respect and deference that South African kids give to their parents.

As he got older, that changed. In his last year of college, we went through a belated period of rebellion — like he was 21 going on 15. It was jarring for me. I wasn’t used to pushback from him. Or outright rudeness. But I realized that he was just establishing his own independent identity. And at the same time testing me to see if I’d desert him. Like any boy who’s been abandoned by his birth father, Mtuseni has tried countless times to push me away to see if I’ll stick around. I have — and he knows now that I’m not going anywhere.

But in his newly and rightfully formed independence, Mtuseni picks and chooses what guidance to accept from me. One longstanding issue has been his nutrition and health. When he started college, he was always getting sick. He gets sick a lot in general. Knowing that his food intake is limited — and when he does eat, it often isn’t nutritiously dense — I told him to buy some vitamins. He said those “magic pills” are expensive, so on my first visit I brought him a couple of jars. Sure enough, he rarely got sick. When he came to visit me, he went home with more. And I always sent him a jar in his care packages. But once he started working, I stopped. If he was an adult earning a salary, he could buy his own vitamins.

He didn’t, and he’s been sick a lot lately. I’ve told him over and over to buy vitamins, but he doesn’t listen. And I’m not paying overnight secure shipping and duty fees and hassling with the inept and corrupt South African postal service for weeks to send him a couple jars of vitamins. He’s a big boy now. He can live with the consequences of his action. Or lack of it.

Bu now he’s been depressed for months. While much of it is situational, I recently read about the role of Vitamin B12 deficiency in depression. We naturally get B12 from meat, eggs, and dairy. As Mtuseni has told me many times, meat isn’t often in the family budget. And the lack of a fridge means they don’t have milk. Meals are usually veggies with pap or rice. Filling, but not nutritionally complete. Sometimes at work he’ll buy a hot dog for lunch, but often it’s just a bag of chips. I don’t know how he manages to stand upright sometimes.

So now, a simple multivitamin would improve his physical health during the cold Johannesburg winter in his unheated shack. And the B12 might alleviate his depression a bit. (Getting a better job and out of the settlement would do more for his mental state, but every little bit helps.) It breaks my heart to hear him so deflated and defeated. He’s always had a grouchy streak, but he never lacked overall optimism and idealism. That energy and spark is what made me love him from the first day.

So the next time we talk, I’ll mention the vitamins again. He’ll make excuses or vague promises. But he won’t get them. One thing I’ve always admired in Mtuseni is his stubbornness. He was always adamant that he would get out of the ‘hood and create a better life for himself. But that stubborn attitude can sometimes work against him. Whether he’s testing me again, or waiting for me to send vitamins across the world, or they just don’t fit into his razor-thin budget… I don’t know.

What I do know is that I miss those days when I told him to jump and he did so without question. And saw the benefits. I had the rare kid who listened. Now I have an adult who doesn’t. And the situation makes me want to get some Vitamin B12 for myself.

Shifting Tides

July 12, 2018 — Leave a comment

As I mentioned in my previous post, change has reared its necessary yet still ugly head this year. I’ve landed in a new apartment that looks and feels transient, mainly of my own doing. I don’t intend to set roots or stay long; I consider it to be a launch pad for bigger, better, and much different things. But right now I miss my comfort zone — and all my now-stored-away prints and tchotchkes that make a place feel like home.

My mantra for this year was — and still is — “All Possibilities.” My mind is bubbling with ideas, and as I crawl out of the shock and grief and hassle of a forced move, I’m getting back on track with exploring a myriad of options. For myself. I haven’t focused on myself for years, since meeting Mtuseni. It’s high time for some “me” time.

Mtuseni April 2018Big change is on the horizon for Mtuseni as well. He’s decided to quit his job at the end of July so he can explore other paths. Or just find something else. This is risky and makes me nervous, given the dire condition of South Africa’s economy and employment scene. But his 11-hour days of work and commuting leave him no time or energy to network, take a class, or do anything that will produce change in his situation. He comes home at 7:00, makes dinner, then collapses into bed and wakes up at 5:00 to do it all again. The job is dull and doesn’t use any of his talents, and the company is dysfunctional and treats employees in ways that would never pass muster in the US. Some of Mtuseni’s stories about the management have shocked me.

He’s been dispirited and depressed all year, which breaks my heart. Despite all the challenges in his life, he’s always been optimistic and hopeful in general. But now he doesn’t talk about big dreams anymore. And he sleeps all the time, because he says he’s getting old. I told him 25-year-olds should have boundless energy, and we’ve talked about depression and some strategies to elevate his mood. He often refers to this stuff as “American psychological bullshit” — but going slow and easy with him, I think a lot of it sunk in. After all these years, I know that getting my stubborn boy to shift attitudes is like steering an aircraft carrier.

So it’s time for him to move on. He needed one year of employment on his resume after finishing college. He now has more than two. He saved a lot of money and got involved with a sketchy investment scheme through his church that I don’t ask too many questions about. The payout supposedly arrives any day now. So he has something to live on during the transition.

We talked last week about putting together a master plan to hit the ground running as soon as he quits. He said he wanted to catch up on sleep for the first month, and I put the kibosh on that immediately. With Mtuseni — and South Africa in general — urgency never seems to be paramount. In this situation, it damn well is.

I’ve done some research and put out some feelers in terms of classes and connections for him. If he can get a DJ slot at a community radio station even one shift a week, it will lift his mood immensely and make him feel like he’s back on the media path. Mtuseni’s “all possibilities” are less expansive than mine. But he also has less access to resources that can make any possibility a reality.

mtuseni photo-walletSo here we go. Change! Mtuseni and I have each been languishing for some time now. It hasn’t been fun. But it feels like the tide is turning and our boats are about to rise. And as always, as my boat rises I’ll do everything in my power to lift him up as well. Because that little yellow polo shirt boy I met nine years ago had big dreams. I promised to help him get there, and I will never break that promise.

 

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…