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Mom and Miracles

May 10, 2014 — 4 Comments

One lesson I’ve learned over the years with Mtuseni is that it never gets easier. Just when things are going along pretty smoothly, some new problem always comes up. Mtuseni’s internship is going well and he’ll be finished in a couple of weeks. But we can’t lie back and bask in that happy accomplishment…

Annex roomA few days ago, it seemed last weekend’s food-and-gas drama was resolved. So when Mtuseni went home this weekend I figured all was well. But instead there was a new crisis. While he was away his mother Nester had “renovated and expanded” his room. He built the addition to the shack with his brother Moses a few years ago; it had room for his bed, a desk, and the family’s stove. He says now the space is much bigger and very cold. It was never heated, but perhaps the small size held residual heat from the stove. And now there are gaps in the walls where he can see to the outside — and the wind comes right through. It’s fall in South Africa; the temperature tonight will be in the mid-30s. And Mtuseni is worried that rain will leak and get his things wet. He has two laptops and hundreds of dollars worth of clothes from me.

Nester is a sweet woman, but sometimes I look at things she does and wonder if she’s losing her marbles. As Mtuseni said, “Nobody knows how her brain works.” Maybe she’s just stressed. Or exhausted. Given the life she’s lived, I’d have lost it years ago.

But my concern is not laying blame on Nester; it’s Mtuseni’s response to the problem. I told him he needs to find some materials and fix the walls. Winter is coming, and he can’t get sick — or have his stuff ruined. Instead, he said that “I’m not gonna fix anything. God has his plans and I’ll see what happens.” I didn’t text back the expletive that immediately came to mind.

This isn’t the first time I’ve been frustrated with Mtuseni’s passivity in the face of challenges. Perhaps he’s exhausted too. But when a problem arises he’ll just lay back and put it into god’s hands. As he said once “I just keeping pressing PRAY until it works” — which is funny but not a realistic way to live.

Personally, I think some of the entrenched poverty among South Africans is a result of this blind faith. This is not to say the people don’t face incredible obstacles. But prayer and hope aren’t a strategy for success. “Let go and let god” may be fine for alcoholics trying to avoid having a drink, but if you’re trying to rise out of deep poverty you need to do more. Mtuseni has said he wants to make a better life for the family — which is admirable and heartwarming. But if his plan consists of waitin’ on a miracle, he better get used to living in the shack with mom and the kids for a long time.

Mtuseni and I don’t talk religion much. He’s evangelical Christian and it gives him strength, and for that I’m happy. He knows that my personal take on god and religion is to just be a good person while you’re here — and he’s okay with that. I don’t go to church or believe in a formal deity, but given all I’ve done for Mtuseni he knows I’m not destined for the flames of hell.

But it’s time Mtuseni hears the gospel according to Dad. He believes that God will provide for him if he prays hard enough. Maybe that’s true, but God is pretty busy. Hopefully right now he’s focused on the prayers of the kidnapped Nigerian girls and their parents. And I believe the help God provides may not always be so obvious. Sometimes what you get is not a magic solution but a test to help you grow.

Instead of pulling up another blanket and praying for his drafty room to be magically fixed, Mtuseni needs to step up, be a man, and do the job himself. I’ve always been inspired by the simplicity and power of the quote “When you pray, move your feet,” which supposedly is an African proverb. I need to instill this philosophy in Mtuseni. Yes, he has big dreams and deep faith, but to really make progress, he needs to meet God halfway and start making his own miracles.

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Castles and Foundations

April 6, 2014 — 1 Comment

After the chances for Mtuseni doing a radio internship in time to graduate in July were looking mighty grim, he got a surprise callback from a station manager after an interview that didn’t sound promising. Last week he started interning at Kasie FM, a community radio station south of Johannesburg. It’s a long haul from his home — requiring three minibus taxis and two hours each way. He spends more time commuting than he does at the station. Working the afternoon drive-time shift, he barely makes it back to catch the last taxi home, which means I’ll be worried every Monday through Friday for the next six weeks. It’s autumn in South Africa, it’s already dark by six o’clock, and the area is not very safe.

But Mtuseni is in a radio station! He’s still doing typical intern errand tasks but is asking lots of questions and soaking up knowledge. And thankfully he’s out of the house! After three years of school in bustling Sandton, he was going bonkers in the settlement. He gets so bored and cranky on breaks from school that I think he actually changes the local weather patterns! And with coursework all completed, this was a permanent break.

Meanwhile, I’ve been busy rewriting the proposal for the Long-Distance Dad book. It’s torturous and invigorating and stressful and fun all at the same time: the usual twisted experience for a writer. I do know the book is gonna be good; this blog has only captured a small portion of our adventure.

Venice+spires+quoteMtuseni and I have long talked about our hopes and dreams for the future: Him working in a major radio station and inspiring listeners to improve the world — and me sharing our story in books and media and inspiring others to somehow connect with kids who need a little love and support. While these goals aren’t impossible to achieve, they are somewhat lofty and a bit daunting. In situations like these, I always return to this Thoreau quote that resonated with me way back in college.

Individually and together Mtuseni and I have built our castles in the air. And as he grinds through a tough commute to his internship and I churn through endless revisions of my book proposal — we’re laying the foundations for them.

If you don’t aim high, you’ll never know how far you can go. Just be prepared to do the work to get there.


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I’ve been writing a proposal for the Long-Distance Dad book — for which this blog has been a working diary and draft, along with hundreds of pages of chats, images and other stuff. I have plenty of resources, but to be useful in telling a story that information must rest on a strong thematic framework. Defining that critical element is a little more tricky.

In an earlier iteration of the proposal written a couple years ago — when I was deep in the day-to-day rollercoaster with Mtuseni — the framework was focused on how his life was changing with my help. But now that Mtuseni is more self-sufficient, my involvement is less intensive and consuming. While adjusting to this empty virtual nest has been tough, I now have enough distance to get a bird’s eye view of the experience. And what I am realizing is how much this has changed me… something that I never anticipated.

Just before connecting with Mtuseni, I had been unsatisfied with my life for some time — actually for a loooong time. Feeling adrift, bored, unfulfilled, disconnected, lost. I had finally succumbed (again) to the old standby of going back to school, but the two programs I started never lit my fire. At middle age, how do you transform yourself? I was close to throwing a dart at a world map and just moving wherever it landed; I needed a monster reset button.

To this day, I cannot recall exactly how I stumbled on the nonprofit that matched me with Mtuseni. Surely it was the result of hopscotching topics through the Internet, a favorite procrastination tactic. Existentially bored and craving some wildly new experiences, connecting online with a kid in South Africa sounded interesting… but not much more. Most of my brain was focused on choosing an MBA program.

LadySlipper-lgeAnd here we are, five years later. I have a long-distance son who’s months away from finishing college — and my single semester of MBA tedium is a distant and fading memory. And as my energies from shaping Mtuseni’s life path shift to crafting a new path for myself, I start that journey as a very different person. I am not who I was five years ago; being Mtuseni’s dad has changed me. The existential reset button has been pushed. And all because of something that caught my eye and I pursued on a whim.

There are so many crazy, almost scary similarities and coincidences between me and Mtuseni that I often think that fate brought us together. On some energetic level our paths were destined to cross. And that makes me think of a quote from Rumi that I have on my office wall: “What you seek is seeking you.” It reminds me that when we desire something important in our life, the universe is waiting, ready to meet us halfway. Sometimes you don’t even need to try so hard to get what you want. You just have to watch for when the universe cracks open a door — and be willing to walk through before it closes.


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An Amazing Journey

March 13, 2014 — Leave a comment

Venice+canal+quoteRecently I’ve been developing a prototype e-book for Long-Distance Dad as part of a larger proposal package. This work required me to shift focus from the current challenges of Mtuseni finding an internship to our earliest days — and some key decisions I faced at the time. For example, when the nonprofit program that first connected us shut down, I could have wished Mtuseni well and moved on with my life. But instead I pulled together other ways for us to communicate. Then I made one of biggest decisions of my life: to put him through college.

These decisions set in motion a life-changing journey for both of us, one that is still unfolding. I had no idea how things would play out. And if some fortune teller had told me about all the twists and turns and bumps we’d encounter these past four years, I might have decided to skip the ride entirely. But I opted for the unknown because I believed Mtuseni was worth the risk, and the rewards we both have received prove this was the right decision.

As much as we appreciate the safety and certainty of the familiar, sometimes you need to take new roads — even if you can’t see what’s around the bend. You need to make the decision … to go.


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