A Glimpse at the Other Side

May 4, 2013 — 12 Comments

I bought myself a polo shirt today. No, not a capital-P, trademarked man-on-horse-logo Polo shirt. It’s a generic, lowercase-p, no-logo polo shirt. It was on sale. Plus I had a register tape coupon. And I used my Target card for an extra 5 percent off. I think it cost me a total of 9 bucks. It’s the first article of clothing I’ve bought for myself in over two years. I was so excited.

It’s been a rough haul these past couple years. Ever the contrarian, only I would offer to pay a kid’s college tuition and expenses at the height of a global financial meltdown. Tack on the loss of a major client due to a changing of the corporate guard, and I’ve been pinching pennies so hard I have Abe’s face embossed on my thumb.

And I clearly was naive thinking I could just be there for Mtuseni and tick off waves of successes with only a couple of bumps and hiccups along the way. (I blame too many Hallmark Hall of Fame movies as a kid.) Making things happen in South Africa takes an extraordinary and frustrating amount of effort compared to here in the US… due to culture and Mtuseni’s particular circumstances.

It’s exhausting. I’ve seen photos of myself from the past year and I look like a character out of Dorothea Lange’s Dust Bowl photos. I’m out of shape. Tired. Stretched and stressed. My clothes are fraying and boring me to tears. My kitchen cupboards look like the Grinch came through. I need a haircut and my car needs… a laundry list of things. My credit cards are maxed; my savings are wiped. If Mtuseni gets a visa to visit here this summer — and I am praying to every entity that he does — I will make that trip happen somehow, some way.

I talked with Mtuseni’s school administrator the other day. About visa logistics and some stubborn challenges in dealing with my stubborn young friend. She’s been a welcome sounding board, offering insights into the culture that I can’t grasp from half a world away. She summed up what I had taken on with Mtuseni, both financially and psychologically, and she said not many people would have done it. She didn’t think she would have.

There’s times when Mtuseni drives me insane — or South African good-enough culture makes me want to scream — that I think “Why on earth did I do this? Am I nuts? An idiot? A soft touch? My life’s been on hold for three years. What was I thinking when I offered Mtuseni this arrangement? Why didn’t I just say goodbye and wish him well when the organization that matched us pulled out?”

And for some reason, today I looked at the other side of that coin for the first time. Mtuseni was just starting his high school matric exams when our nonprofit connection ended. I would have wished him luck. I’d promise to keep in touch — which I know now would have been impossible. And I would have gone on in my life. Less monster hits to my bank accounts. More time to focus on me. New clothes. Trips abroad. Untold adventures and unrealized experiences.

And Mtuseni would have soldiered on as best he could. Even if he passed his matrics and qualified for college, there’s no way a mother earning $240 a month could pay for it. He didn’t even know where the college was without my help. So this bright, funny, shy, anxious, immature, idealistic, insecure kid would have gotten a job with mom at the airport… maybe. Earning a few bucks a day. He’d live out his days in the settlement, watching over his little brother and sister as he watched his hopes for better things fade away.

And that’s what would have happened if I hadn’t been a soft-touch idiot and committed myself to this kid, my buddy, my long-distance son.

Mtuseni A couple weeks ago, Mtuseni was prepping to go to the freshman dance at a Joburg club, in his role as vice-president of the student committee and a soon-to-graduate senior. Referring to the box of name-brand jeans, shirts, vitamins and home-made oatmeal cookies I sent him, he texted me, “it feels gud to be all new clothes LOL. I still salute you for keeping this soul happy and courageous. I love you, bud.”

There’ll always be new clothes I can buy for myself. And hot new resturants to try. And Europe will still be waiting patiently for me. When I count the things I get back in return from this experience with Mtuseni, I have to invent a new Dr. Seuss number, like bazookatrillion. And for right now, I’ll take that text message over a new wardrobe or vacation any day.

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12 responses to A Glimpse at the Other Side


    Kudos to you for going this… It must be all work, sweat, anguish, doubt and faith… and of course love and hope. Shirts and Europe? They won’t endure compared to those other human experiences that transcend place and stuff. – Keep on. – Friend Renee



      Thanks for the encouragement, Renee. Always happy to see your smiling face appear on my comment board, as I know there will be something valuable from head and heart. That list about sums it up. Perhaps those could be the chapter titles to my upcoming book! 😉 Yes, in the end, the human experiences are all that really matter. It is all worthwhile.



        You’re a great writer. I just sum up the path you so carefully paint in your posts… Always looking forward to more. I must say I have at times wondered about the “dad” part of your mentorship… but yes, the sacrifices and anguish are not much different than watching my own teen who nature robbed and who hobbles herself in ways that her father and I never have… I find I must put aside myself, my ego, my expectations, my needs, yet support her in finding her path, all the while having to hold my tongue to some degree about her choices. After all, I am not her, but our sacrifices are to help her on her journey to fully becoming herself. To bring a child under ones wing requires one to step beyond oneself. And you are so elegantly doing just that despite the coins of pain, sacrifice, doubt, etc. What grows in this process is the flip side of these coins. This is the true currency of living… keep on. I’m cheering, crying and hoping for you both!



          Thanks so much, Renee. Yes, the dad part sort of naturally evolved from a more limited mentor role as there is no father in the picture — which sometimes makes “mentoring” difficult. (It’s normal to buck and argue with dad, where you’d never ignore the advice of a mentor — otherwise why have one?) But it’s all good. We have both grown and changed so much through this.
          Send some positive vibes our way — or down South Africa way — next Thursday the 16th. His fourth try at a visitor visa to come visit this July. We just gotta be successful this time. He so deserves a trip — and I need a hug!



            Wow~ have you at all been able to leverage any activists groups or even maybe an immigrant support group to push this type of temporary visa through? I know it’s a long shot, and legislators can’t usually effect that kind of individual change since it’s a different branch of gov’t, but maybe even making legislators aware that such generous people as you are doing good work and changing lives for the better – which is better for everyone on the planet, thus – putting a different face on what these visa’s offer… just a thought. I know after visiting three lawyers and paying for visits myself for my African mentee that to keep asking –where safe– got us a lawyer who could push the envelope a bit… it didn’t hurt that the new dreamer law may have helped too… just thinking out loud… Also – some faith based groups can help support foreign students too – esp when they see a personal connection such as you have wiht M and they can follow/take part in the story… just thinking out loud. Surely you have tremendous insight into what’s pssobile. Best on that visa, visit and hug! -R



    I thought, “Why are we reading about you buying a polo shirt?” Then I found out.

    Another good post. If more people recognized what you have, Michael, that it’s truly one world, that we are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers — and that our brothers and sisters are everywhere — more people without opportunity might have it, injustice and poverty might just begin to fade, and we might find the world becoming more peaceful.



    Garrison Keillor says “Nothing you do for a child is ever wasted.” Certainly some of those things are more valuable than others. Your skimping is his wealth, and it is your again in return! Thanks for helping us stay in touch with basic values.



    Let me read more Daddy…
    I am curious, once I like someone’s writing, I’ll read it many times.


    From Indonesia.


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