Archives For transition

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.

 

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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…

Jobs Crisis

May 6, 2017 — Leave a comment

Just over a year ago, Mtuseni started his first job. Despite his college diploma and City Year success, this was no easy task. South Africa’s overall unemployment rate is about 25 percent and the rate for youth is over 60 percent. So getting a job, earning some real money, and gaining workplace skills and experience to put on his resume were welcome developments on his life path. A cause for celebration!

Now that initial rosy glow has worn off. As with most new graduates, working a full-time job is a cold slap in the face compared to the vibrancy and variety of college life. When I used to complain about the hamster wheel drudgery of my various jobs, my father always said dryly, “That’s why they call it work.”

Yet for Mtuseni, the dissatisfaction and disillusionment are greater. It was thrilling at first that his salary was twice what his mother makes – more than anyone in the family has ever earned. But his mother only makes about $250 a month. While the dollar-to-rand conversion always confuses me, in some respects the cost of living in South Africa is comparable to the United States. He often complains to me about rising taxi fares or being unable to pay for a movie – small amounts that should not pose a problem to someone who works so hard.

And he does work hard; he’s always tired. Living on the outskirts of Johannesburg, he wakes up at 4:30, heats bath water on a portable gas stove, then has a two-hour commute in cramped jitney taxis. He makes the same trip coming home. The job has also changed as the company constantly retools. He now spends all his time on the computer, which bothers his eyes. And he often is tasked with taking customer service calls. This makes me laugh and makes him miserable – because while Mtuseni can be incredibly charming, he can also be a surly son-of-a-bitch. He recently was passed over for a small promotion, so now he’s just going through the motions with a “whatever” attitude, knowing that labor laws make it almost impossible to fire him. This is a long fall from the teambuilding breakfast he held in his first excited, idealistic month on the job.

Mtuseni is also hamstrung by his “second” job – as man of the house and family protector. He never asked for this role; his father walked out when he was in high school and his older brother was killed six years ago. Out of love and responsibility, he feels compelled to contribute to the house and protect his young siblings from the toxic and dangerous influences of the settlement community.

And I’ve added to his burden by having him be my “ears on the ground” since Bongeka started private school. At this point, I can’t do much more than pay the tuition bills – it’s difficult for me to actively monitor and guide a 13-year-old girl half a world away who’s not much of a talker or texter and is still a relative stranger. Their mother has little interest in the kids’ schooling, so he needs to help his sister make the most of this opportunity… and my investment in her

So Mtuseni is languishing in a job that uses none of his communication or radio skills and doesn’t ignite his passion for community service. And he feels trapped by loyalty to the family. It’s admirable and logical for him to take this on, but not really fair. He’s worked hard to pursue a vision of life outside the settlement.

Ideally, what should Mtuseni’s job be? Building his own life. Having a blast. Living out loud. People my age would give anything to be 24 again. When I was in my 20s, I had unlimited energy and my head was full of ideas and possibilities. My future stretched out to infinity. I was sure I’d live forever.

Yet at 24 Mtuseni is already feeling tired and dispirited. This has been putting little cracks in my heart for months. I keep coming back to a photo of him at a City Year training. He radiates pure joy at learning and having new experiences, and his future path seems wide open and bright.

I have tons of pictures of him. Even though it’s not perfectly framed, this is one of my favorites because, well, that face. When he’s passionate and engaged and happy, Mtuseni is magic. I want to … I need to … see that bright, hopeful face again.

Because in the end… given all the external and personal obstacles facing him, helping my young champion recapture and maintain that level of satisfaction and vitality and fulfillment and happiness and hope is my job. I need to get to work.


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fun day 1 4x6It’s been a while since my last post here — just over a year, in fact. In some ways the previous post about Mtuseni’s trip to Washington DC with City Year seemed a fitting way to conclude our story, although certainly our relationship would continue. And blogging requires considerable time and commitment; with Mtuseni somewhat on cruise control, I decided to pivot a bit and focus more on my own life.

But the journey with my son is never-ending — and as I hinted at in a previous post, my role has recently expanded. For how could I help Mtuseni forge a better life, yet not do anything for his younger sister and brother? After Mtuseni told me last December that his sweet sister Bongeka was being teased and ostracized — both at school and in the community — I had to take action. I’ve been there, at the bottom of the adolescent pecking order, and my parents putting me into private high school was one of their better parenting moments. And I know from Mtuseni and news reports how terrible South Africa’s public schools are, particularly the more rural ones. Luckily I found a big, new private school ten minutes away from the family’s settlement. Bongeka started seventh grade at Meridian Cosmo City School in January. It’s been a tricky transition, but she’s steadily finding her feet. She’s taking exams now and starts winter break in a couple weeks — already halfway through her first year!

So going forward, the Long-Distance Dad blog will share stories of Bongeka’s experiences. I’m completing the application now for Musa so he can start sixth grade at Meridian next year. And although Mtuseni has a job, his ongoing challenges and victories will be shared here. There will be many more tales to tell.

Some people have told me “You’ve done enough already with Mtuseni. You don’t need to do more.” Logically I don’t need to, but I want to. That’s just me. My years with Mtuseni have been a string of bills and a rollercoaster ride of debt, not to mention constant low-level stress given the realities of South African poverty. Perhaps I’m philanthropic beyond my means. Maybe I’m just crazy. But these three kids have become my family. And I can help them to have brighter futures. As I look at how many calendar pages have flipped through my life and sometimes wonder what it’s all been for — I know that Mtuseni, Bongeka, and Musa will be my legacy. That’s my reward. That’s why I’m here.

I hate roller coasters, and I have a feeling that the years ahead might make my time with Mtuseni seem like a merry-go-round. But I’m strapped in and have already crested that first tall hill with Bongeka and am hurtling through the early twists and turns. This e-ticket ride continues…


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