Here and There

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“People love to say,  ‘Give a man a fish, and he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he’ll eat for a lifetime.’ What they don’t say is ‘And it would be nice if you gave him a fishing rod.’ That’s the part of the analogy that’s missing. Working with Andrew was the first time in my life I realized you need someone from the privileged world to come to you and say ‘Okay, here’s what you need, and here’s how it works.’ Talent alone would have gotten me nowhere without Andrew giving me the CD writer. People say ‘Oh that’s a handout.’ No. I still have to work to profit by it. But I don’t stand a chance without it.”  Trevor Noah, from his book Born A Crime.

I’ve been wanting to write about what I’ve seen and felt since our arrival here, but haven’t really been able to construct an opinion about the overwhelming contrast of poverty and wealth in this part of the world because my thoughts are so often at odds and never finalized. As soon as I think I have formed a logical opinion, I am witness to something that doesn’t fit within my construct. Two books have been instrumental in helping me to see more clearly the moving parts of South Africa’s racial, economic, and social inequality, but I realize it is still only a partial understanding. Bryce Courtney’s The Power of One and Trevor Noah’s Born A Crime (although it is soon to be released as a motion picture, I beg you to pick a copy and read it. Thank you to the Morgan family back in Nashville for sending me here with a copy. I devoured it.) both get my highest possible recommendations.

I read The Power of One as a high school student. At the time I thought it was just a wonderful coming-of-age story set in an exotic land in a far off time. Coincidentally, as I was reading the book which chronicles the rise of apartheid, the system itself was being dismantled. Also coincidentally, last year I assigned and re-read the book as a summer reading option before knowing about our impending move. The Power of One shows the conditions and rise of apartheid from an outside but still privileged point of view. I think it speaks to the feelings of many South Africans who opposed the segregation and brutality of apartheid, but might have been caught unaware of how quietly and quickly the system of oppression was being implemented and how deep it would infiltrate South African society. As I read about DACA and deportations last summer, the themes of the book and the front page of the newspapers overlapped in striking fashion. Born A Crime examines at the dissolution of and the persistent ramifications of apartheid with personal stories that are both humorous and deeply unsettling. Even with the help of these texts, I struggle to make sense of what I see driving around one of South Africa’s most affluent cities.

You can’t help but notice the economic inequality here. Just go for a drive. The main mode of transportation for white South Africans is automobile. The buses and minibuses, the taxies, the bikes cobbled together from miscellaneous parts, and the pedestrians walking along the muddy shoulders of the road are the primary means of transportation for black South Africans. On every street and corner, there are people standing and waiting. Some are selling sunglasses or phone chargers or straw hats. Some are holding signs with tragic lines like “My wife was kidnapped. I need money for ransom” or “HIV Orphan.” They are heartbreaking. Most people are just standing around passing time. There so many people and yet so few resources and opportunity.

The other day my eldest son tugged at my conscience when we drove past a barely clothed young man who was maybe 10 or 12 at an intersection. I’ve never been so grateful that my son can’t completely read yet. “What did that boy’s sign say, Pop?” I swallowed hard. David, our driver, was sitting right next to me, and I was ashamed to have to lie to my son. “He’s asking for money.” I answered. From the back seat came a resounding positive “We should help him! He needs help, Pop. We are the Bennetts, we help people, that’s what you said Bennetts do. Why are we driving past him if we’re supposed to help people who need it?”

I love the young men of character and integrity that we are raising, but what do you say to that? Do I say we only help when it’s convenient? Or maybe respond with the bitter truth that we only help when the person looks like us and we feel comfortable. Do I answer with the harsh but realistic phrase like we can’t help everyone?

I was at a total loss.

David chimed in. “Drugs. He only wants money for drugs.” Grateful for the out, I explained to my sons about drugs and how not helping by giving money would make it more difficult for the boy to buy more drugs, so in a way were helping by driving past him. The boys accepted this, for now. I wondered what David was thinking about my rationalization. We clearly could have given him a couple of Rand, and it would have meant nothing in the grand scheme of things for us. But I didn’t, and that’s how it happened. In that moment I taught my white affluent sons to use their imaginations to justify not providing help to a human being who is clearly in need. I felt like I was going to throw up. I still do.

Every morning on the four mile drive to their private American school, we pass hundreds if not thousands of people who exist on one or two thousand Rand a year ($100-$200). Over the last four weeks living in hotels, the four of us have spent more than that eating out every week. So what do you do? I’m not and have never been religious, but I do identify and try to live by John Wesley’s moral credo.

Do all the good you can,
By all the means you can,
In all the ways you can,
In all the places you can,
At all the times you can,
To all the people you can,
As long as ever you can.

The guilt and embarrassment I feel is real. And it is only loosely held in check only by my ability to rationalize the limits of compassion. We can’t help everybody. I am responsible for my family, my friends, my students, my immediate community. But when and where I choose to help is so subjective, that I find I’m often disgusted by my own lack of humanity in the choosing. In those moments I feel completely hypocritical.

We are in the process of trying to hire a domestic worker. This is euphemistic pun. Domestic means both in-home and locally hired. We are hiring someone to help cook and clean and provide child care. We don’t really need the help. We’ve been able to keep our house running over the years without paid help. With me not teaching, I have what feels like an infinite amount of time each day to make the meals and keep the family in clean clothes and our accommodations in order. Hiring a domestic worker feels wasteful in that I can clearly do this work without paying someone to do it for me. But at the same time by hiring someone, we are providing consistent employment and a paycheck to someone for the next four years. This is where a second issue arises. How much is someone’s time worth? Is it the going rate (which is well below basic living standards)? Is it what we can afford to pay? Because those numbers are so far apart they can’t be put in the same sentence. I hate the negotiations for these reasons. They force me to confront this terrible economic power difference which is so much easier to pretend doesn’t exist. By ignoring it I don’t have feel about it. How selfish is that? Read that again. It is so much easier emotionally to pretend there is no economic power difference than it is recognize it and address it justly.

We have a waitress here at the hotel, and I would like to think that we have become friends. She is wonderful in the mornings with our grumpy kids, and she has a light about her. I know I don’t know her, but she exudes happiness, so I like her. We’ve asked about her family. She has two girls, ages six and eight, who live a day’s travel away. She doesn’t see them often because she stays near the hotel and works six days a week. We were heartbroken to hear this story. Kids need their mom. Always and everywhere. Just this morning a German/European mother and her teen boys were seated at the table next to us. And like us, the mom inquired about the waitress’s family. Upon hearing about the existence of the girls, the women whimiscally said, “You’re so lucky. You have girls.” And the mom looked at her boys. “Girls are so much cleaner than boys.” She signed her check, snapped at her boys, and left without knowing the irony and insensitivity of her words.

It is a scenario I see playing out again and again here. There is so often very little awareness of the tremendous privilege we move through our lives wrapped in. (If you’re reading this, I do not mean to diminish the challenges you are facing. They are real, and they are significant. But being here is changing how I see the factors which shape our lives and our responses to those factors.) I am guilty of too often treating inconveniences as problems. There is a difference. If you have nothing to eat. If you are in fear for your physical safety. If you have no home or family, you have problems. Just about everything else in this life is an inconvenience. And ten days into this adventure I’m realizing just how much of my life has been inconvenient and how few problems I’ve ever really overcome.

Maybe you were expecting this post or maybe you were thinking that I would come here and not be changed. I don’t know what I was expecting. I think I’m well travelled. I think I’ve seen enough of the world to not have much surprise me. I like to think that I have always been aware of the unfairness of our society. But I also know that in America we are so good at dismissing poverty as a result of inaction or ineptitude. Wealth is usually always perceived as “deserved” in America. But here that isn’t the case. Slavery was legal only 25 years ago. Here the most sophisticated form of social oppression was a part of everyday life while I was watching the Barcelona Olympics. Here I’m forced to wrestle with the inequity every moment I’m outside of my hotel room. It is overwhelming and readily apparent and difficult to square with my world view.

In another instance of people being out of touch with the world round them, we witnessed a family (mainly the father) visibly upset at a waiter for an order that was wrong. That waiter might have travelled hours to this job to work for a trivial wage. He might have to risk his life walking on the shoulder of dark roads to get home again. He might have messed up the order, so what? The people dining at this particular restaurant might have problems, I don’t know, but I guarantee that all of them went home with full stomachs to sleep safely in their homes, and awake to a tomorrow that has the potential to be better than today. For so many people here, tomorrow will look exactly the same. Next week and next year and 25 years from now will (if they are lucky) look exactly the same. And here’s the kicker for me, I have only experienced a tiny slice of life in this very affluent part of this city which is a very affluent part of the country. Just 3 miles north of here is the Mamelodi Township. Nearly 400,000 people live there, and even 25 years after the fall of apartheid most residents still do not have the opportunity or resources to see any part of the city beyond the remaining apartheid-established boundaries.

And here I am, at a loss for action because of the overwhelming nature of the problems. There are simply not enough fishing rods.

The Spectacle of Skill

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Late spring in New England.

I went for my first run here in South Africa on Tuesday. As I suffered in the heat and altitude, I thought back to the memorable runs which have come to define this sport for me. I like to think that training is about chasing times, but if you get into any runner’s head, it is often more about chasing a feeling. The run that came to mind is not the most memorable, but it is part of the foundation upon which I have built my love for this sport. It is one that I turn over in my mind often. This run is still in me.

Opening Farewell

In the early summer of 2000, I had wrapped up my second year of college. I was fit and looking forward to spending a summer on familiar roads training and adventuring. It was May, and that time of year always feels like rebirth on the coast of Maine. The days finally last past dinner and the temperatures flirt with comfortable. Near the end of the month I traveled with my good friend Zach from our home town on the coast to the Mountain towns of western Massachusetts. He was headed on a cross country road trip with a group of his college athlete buddies. I was dropping him off at the rendezvous point and bringing his car back to Yarmouth.

The drive was filled with plans and goals and dreams of what the summer might hold. We cranked the radio and opened all the windows as we bombed through the small New England towns. Finally we stuffed the Delorme Gazetteer between the seats and pulled into the driveway of an older farm house painted golden by the sunlight of the late afternoon. After driving for most of the day we exited the car with the giddiness of caged animals, and as the sun sank slowly, we laced up our shoes on the tailgate of the old Volvo for one last run before we parted ways for the summer. Behind the farmhouse stretched a half mile wide field of thigh high grass and golden rod. Not being familiar with the local roads, we opted to follow the worn parallel tire tracks which stretched off across the field. To start, our strides were short and our form was tight from the hours spent in the car, but we soon found that old familiar rhythm.

The warm sun was descending in front of us as we each took one of single tracks flattened by years of tractor and baler wheels. A few minutes of easy conversation passed as we crossed from the field to edge of the forest. Here the path turned away from the openness of field and dipped under the canopy of the budding trees. Making a slight right turn, we followed the covered trail up an imperceptible incline and mirrored the erosion a small brook on our left. While we were definitely climbing, the gradual slope was never taxing, and our conversation only ebbed at the steeper angles.

The trail stretched onward west ahead of us as the day light faded over the hill. After half an hour and the loss of direct sunlight, we decided that we should turn and head back to the farm house. We didn’t realize just how high we had climbed as we started back down. Our suddenly pace quickened encouraged by gravity and the knowledge of the limited time remaining. Our conversation trailed off like the last of the daylight through the trees. The sound of exhalation and foot strikes on last year’s leaves filled the space around us as we moved towards our tomorrow.

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With an ever quickening pace we ran stride for stride. Our acceleration wasn’t intentional, it was just what felt right. We weren’t racing, we weren’t even being competitive with each other. We knew there would be another time for that. No, we were flexing our abilities for our own sake, wielding what it meant to be young and strong and full of potential. We felt our breath change to the familiar lung searing sensation as we banked left to see the end of the forest trail and the beginning of the field ahead. Finding another gear, but by no means our last, we burst out from under the canopy like Roman Candles into the darkening twilight sending the early season fireflies scattering. In sensing the immediacy of the moment, our strides lengthened again and our hearts pounded out the tribal beat familiar to runners across human existence. We were playing, like children do, with all of our being present. With matching strides we chased each other and ourselves across that field. And in the that moment, devoid of distraction we were our truest selves. The moment could not have last more than a minute or two, but in that time I found something eternal.

The rest of the group that was headed west with Zach was waiting for us when we eased back on our internal throttles and slowed to a walk next to the barn. Some applauded and cheered and laughed, recognizing as only athletes can when passion is personified. Our heart rates slowed and dusk settled over us as comfortable as an old cotton sweatshirt, heavy and familiar. We slapped hands and smiled but said nothing to each other about what had just happened. Some understandings don’t require words. We  knew all that needed to be expressed.

Someone pointed out the creek from the woods crossed the property on the far side of the road. We spent the last ray of that day’s sunlight dunking our heads in the cold western Massachusetts mountain water as it spilled over the rocks. The purity of that moment spent striding across the field with our lives in front of us stems not from the absence of time, but rather from the timelessness of it. In that instant we were the purest manifestation of ourselves. And on runs such as that one we were truly capable of transcending ourselves.

 

Same, Same, But Different

My youngest came home from preschool a few months ago talking about a book his class read. Same, Same, But Different by Jenny Sue Kostecki-Shaw is a wonderful little text that  acknowledges our similarities while still appreciating cultural differences. It has become a phrase our family uses often as we notice how South Africa operates in different ways than America but reaches similar ends. Some of these are trivial (square toilet seats or steering wheel placement) and some are significant (inequality and poverty), but it’s nice to have a phrase with which we can point out differences without passing judgment.

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Another excellent sunset over the Silver Lakes golf course.

A major cultural difference is the philosophy of Ubuntu which consistently catches the goal-oriented American in me off guard. Time in America is synonymous with money and if you take someone’s time, you are stealing from them all the potential value of that time. We fill our days with words like hustle and grind and struggle, trying to get ahead of the next guy. Anything or anyone who slows us down is worthy of our contempt. How many times do we see the people around us as a means to an end rather than a human being with dreams and faults and a life of their own? I’m guilty of this many times over. If I was focused on achieving and you couldn’t help me get somewhere or obtain something, you were an obstacle to be overcome. For many years my wife was an attorney in private practice and her time was literally billable. The threat of her dividing her time being a mother and a lawyer was great enough that the firm built a nursery next to her office. While this benefitted us as parents, it also kept her working long days for their profit.

Championed by both the great Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Ubuntu feels like a breath of fresh air after the demands of American life. The competitive capitalistic attitudes are considered rude and a social faux pas in place where the expression and valuing of social relationships reigns. How you treat other people is more important than what they can do for you. Ubuntu literally means humanness. More specifically it means that an individual can only be known through others. I am who I am because you are who you are. Ubuntu recognizes that everyone has different skills and strengths; but that people are not isolated, and that only through a mutual affirmation of our humanness can we help each other to reach our fullest potential. Handshakes and genuine concern about how the day is going or how people are feeling takes precedent over outcomes. Time here feels more abundant and if you spend fifteen minutes talking (and listening) to someone about their family, it is not time lost or wasted, but rather invested. Ubuntu. I am because you are. South Africa should export this stuff.

Yesterday we celebrated our oldest son’s sixth birthday. The Menlyn Mall is quickly becoming a favorite hangout spot for our family. In addition to more shopping than anyone could ever want, there is a massive arcade and bowling alley adjacent to the food court. We spent a wonderful afternoon playing video games and cheering each other on to personal best scores

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I didn’t even use bumpers.

before witnessing another spectacular sunset last night. Yesterday we also set up our first bank accounts and hope to get cell phones later today. I wouldn’t say that we are fully adjusted to the time change yet (the boys slept till 8:30AM), but we are making progress. I hope that once this vacation ends, South Africa and Ubuntu continue to change us for the better. Same, same, but different is right. Be good and keep in touch.

 

 

First Writing Since…

Forgive me if this post seems to start in the middle of our adventure. It is almost 10AM here in Pretoria, but our circadian rhythms are still on Central Standard Time. The flight yesterday was shorter than expected, coming in at just under 15 hours. img_1530.jpg

The boys were amazing travelers and were well supported by Erin, who I don’t think moved from her seat between them for the entire flight. Her strength and capability to endure physical discomfort and exhaustion is a testament to her love for our kids and an inspiration to me as a parent.

While stressful, customs and baggage claim were uneventful, even with our 11 checked bags. Our transfer to Silver Lakes Golf Estate took about an hour. On the way we passed Erin’s new offices and got to experience her evening commute. The infamous Joberg traffic was heavy but moving. It certainly is an improvement on Nashville’s 40/24/65 PM parking lot.

Pretoria Sunset

Our room here is modern and clean with all the amenities of an American golf resort, but lacking the finer points. What’s the saying, the one about how nothing beats German engineering, Japanese design, and American luxury? Holding true. The birds, loud and exotic looking, are up very early. Erin and I had trouble sleeping, so today we are trying to be extra patient with each other and the boys. While the flight felt easier, the recovery so far has been more difficult than on our housing trip last month.

Our apartment for the next six weeks overlooks the tennis courts and is conveniently located next to the restaurant and golf club. I’m writing now from our little covered porch. It is overcast and 20C. Yes, we are working on our conversions. At noon today our driver, Aaron, will pick us up and we will take the boys out to lunch and pick up some groceries. After my second cup of coffee (stronger and more bitter than American) I’m starting to feel up to the task of getting cell phones and necessities.

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Building a life is hard. It took years in Nashville to reach what I consider the apex of happiness. Personally and professionally there was a lot to learn, and it took time and mentoring and support. But I did so with only an idea in my mind of what success would look like. In some ways, I think rebuilding might be more difficult because I have a memory of what was, and while I loved the fruit of my time and relationships in Nashville, I want something else for this experience. I don’t want to relive what I’ve already done. The purpose of this great adventure was to get out of our routines and to dedicate more time to what we love, namely each other and our passions. The last few years I’ve tried to improve upon the year before in my teaching and parenting and relationships often only repeating what I did previously with minor adjustments. I feel I was polishing a process rather than experimenting. In a little over a year I turn 40. I’m not ready to resign myself to living the same year over and over again with only minor adjustments. Four years in South Africa is just enough time to build something new before starting again.

It is raining. The Italians who were playing tennis have run for cover. The birds have been subdued by the sound of big drops on little leaves. The boys want to build legos, and it seems like a fitting place to stop. We are good. Tired for sure, but we are optimistic about this new page. We appreciate all the support and love from family and friends near and far. Be good and keep in touch.