Sunday Morning ~ Blantyre
December 3, 2017
Tentha tizime adapsetsa mnzace ~ Set fire to it, we will extinguish it.
~ Malawian proverb
I had to search for the meaning of this proverb since we are not taking Chichewa classes anymore and don’t have our wise teacher for enlightenment. It’s a warning to be responsible. It’s a warning that sometimes when you plan to control the fun you are having it can get away from you. You can set your friend on fire, thinking you’ll be able to extinguish it, but the fire can get out of hand. When people take risks, others can suffer, is the gist.
I never really saw myself as a big risk taker, though others may see it differently. My endeavors, while not always successful, are planned with a fair amount of consideration. Sometimes I go with my gut, but most of the time I weigh pros and cons quite carefully before taking on something where I (or someone else) might get hurt. I’ve been lucky a lot. I think of the near misses; the times I felt like God was saying to me: “Next time I won’t be so nice.” and feel my work here isn’t finished. A month before my wedding my future brother-in-law asked, “What will you do if it rains?” referring to our wedding plan of having an outside reception without a tent. My response was, “It won’t. I just know it won’t.” He shook his head silently, probably thinking his brother was marrying a crack pot. I’m not sure what private conversation ensued, but I finally caved. We rented a tent. The tent, (which cost more than the entire wedding), blew down during the wedding ceremony, it being windy that day. There was, however, no rain.
Not wanting to rent the tent was all about the money. I’m careful with money. I grew up with a father who ruled with an iron fist and God help you if you asked for money for anything. He had to “sell newspapers on the corner for fifteen cents a week to get through school!” We heard that line many times, accusingly, as if we, his children, were the cause of all that youthful misery. I wanted to explore the actual details. What paper? Who gave you the papers? Where was this “corner”? Was it always the same place? What did you do if you didn’t sell them all? How old were you? What did you do with the money? Public school was free wasn’t it? But these questions I never asked. His delivery of that line was not a conversation-starter; it was a warning. It’s a shame really, because he was an interesting character and if only the hardships he faced were told as a story instead of a threat, our relationship would have been much different. I always felt like I was some unwanted responsibility that cost him a lot of money. My mother, on the other hand, would reply with an air of lightheartedness when I asked her questions like, “Mom, what was it like growing up during the depression?” THE depression, because of course, there was only one. She’d reply, “Oh, we’d have to stand in line all day to get a loaf of bread or a few potatoes” as if she were referring to movie tickets or a fun afternoon with friends. Now, as I reflect, living with my father was probably much worse than growing up with no food. She probably did consider those afternoons more fun than her married life.
So, while I may have taken many physical risks in my day: riding my bike through Boston traffic, hiking alone in December in Scotland, binge drinking in college, I don’t ever take financial risks. I don’t ever buy anything on credit without the funds to pay for it. Never. I’m always afraid I’ll lose my source of income and be in debt. I couldn’t bear that. I need to have savings to back everything up. I worried that I’d pass this money anxiety on to my children, just like my fear of the dentist, which is why their father took them to their dental appointments. I didn’t want them picking up on my phobias. Joe, my ex, grew up much less financially secure than I did, but had none of the money issues. Go figure. He had no problem spending it, somehow thinking it’d all come back around, magically I guess. Consequently, after our initial discussions about how our money would be managed, we settled in to a routine. I’d make the money, he’d spend it. That led to some conflict, as you can imagine, and eventually, it was the end of us. When I finally got suspicious that something was amiss, I started checking the bank balances. He managed the money and paid the bills. I trusted him. I never believed he’d be careless with our family’s finances. We had kids to get through college. He saw how hard I worked. I just assumed he was being responsible. But a lot of money was missing. A lot. I freaked. How could he do that to me? To us? Where did it go? Gambling? Blackmail? Drugs? Why didn’t I ever check before?
That’s just how I feel now. Our legislators have sold us out. I feel like we haven’t been watching carefully enough. We trusted our elected officials to be responsible and take care of our money for the good of us all. They are playing with fire and using our money as kindling. They somehow believe it won’t rain. Or don’t care anymore. I look at the hard lives of people in Malawi and wonder how far down the same road my own country is heading. We’ve been sold out to Jabba the Hut. How could this have happened? Were Europeans saying this in the 30’s? It’s disorienting. Frightening.
In the early 1980’s I was a visiting nurse in Holyoke, MA and some of the neighborhoods we visited were rough. I was pregnant with my second child, making one hundred and eighty dollars a week. and supporting my husband who was working on a degree in public health. Many of our patients were in apartment buildings, which, in their heyday, may have been nice living spaces but they’d become dangerous slums. Big stone steps led up to the heavy front doors with beveled glass windows framing the vestibule where the mailboxes were. A similar door, directly opposite, allowed a view of the hallway and heavy staircase that led to the upstairs apartments. The doors were crafted from beautiful wood and wore heavy, solid knobs. Some had pockmarks from gunshots.
Before my employment there, staff nurses complained to administration that they didn’t feel safe in those neighborhoods. There was a lot of contention between the nurses and administration at the time. The nurses had recently unionized and there were a lot of hard feelings. It was tense. I was young, just back from Peace Corps, and very naive. Working conditions seemed fine to me compared with conditions in Malawi, so I went blithely about my job. It seemed as safe as riding my motorcycle through herds of cows to get to clinics and I needed the paycheck.
It was January and I was seven months pregnant. I visited a patient confined to a wheelchair, needing dressing changes on his legs three times a day. He’d been a carnival worker and spilled battery acid on his legs destroying his skin. He was obese and claimed he couldn’t bend over to change the dressings himself. He could be annoying and manipulative and we had a million conferences to discuss his care. He was on Medicaid and I thought it was a waste of money to be going in there three times a day when he was capable of doing this himself. I didn’t believe he couldn’t bend over, but I was fond of him, in a co-dependent way, and it was a pretty easy visit, soaking his legs in the bathtub and changing the dressing, so didn’t mind too much when he was on my schedule. I usually got some charting done while his legs soaked. On that January day I left his apartment and went down the stairway to leave. As I approached the bottom of the stairs I saw four young men in the vestibule, one against each wall. I slowed down, and wondered if I should go back up to Armand’s apartment. I had to open the first door in to the vestibule, then open the second door, also inward (stupid design!) in order to get outside. Why were they just standing in there? Had they watched me go in? Were they waiting for me? They were watching me descend the stairs and I didn’t want to look fearful, so continued head up with a confident stride, as confident as possible with my gravid belly, intending to pass through like I owned the place. I was nervous. I pushed the first door open and the guy leaning against it moved aside to let me in. The door closed and I was now surrounded by four men in this tiny vestibule. I looked at the guy to the right of me as he reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a knife. He held it up to show me and I felt my heart stop, as I reached for the doorknob of the second door. The guy in front of that door stepped aside and let me out. I went down the icy steps in my wooden clogs, shaking, trying to focus on my brown car in front of me. Got the keys out somehow, unlocked the door, got in and prayed, PRAYED, the car would start. It was freezing cold and the car often didn’t start, but it did and I pealed out nearly causing an accident as I went through a stop sign without stopping.
I didn’t go to my next patient but drove back to the office, ran in and up the stairs to the nursing supervisor’s office. I was crying as I told her what happened. I said, “I don’t think they intended to kill me, just scare me because they easily could have killed me.” She told me to sit down and went into the directors office to tell her what had happened. She wasn’t gone long and came back with the director. I don’t know what I was expecting them to say, but it wasn’t what they actually did say. They wanted to know if I really thought they were going to hurt me? I said, “I don’t know! But I almost crashed the car! I almost fell down the stairs!” Then they asked me not to make a big issue out of this as some on the staff will “want us to do something.” I was speechless! A guy just pulled a knife out on me, and instead of discussing how we would make my life safer (escorts had been on the bargaining table) they wanted me to keep it quiet? Not warn everyone else that guys with knives were out there waiting for us as we visited patients? What the fuck?
I thought we’d made progress since those days. And now, here we are again, expecting the ones entrusted with our safety and security, to do the right thing. But they don’t. I can’t even imagine where we are heading right now. Every time I think that sanity will prevail, the madmen and madwomen light the matches, the fire gets out of control, and I see a vision of our future charred beyond recognition. I find myself imagining a fifth grader thirty years from now reading about this time in a history book, or tablet, or whatever they’ll be reading then. What will they think of it? Will my great grandchildren ask their mothers, “Mom, what was it like living through the depression?” Will there be some lighthearted story about waiting in line for potatoes?
My incident with the guys and the knife, which I did not keep to myself, ended up being a turning point. The union leaders grabbed on to that like a dog with a bone and it wasn’t long before we had escorts accompanying us to places we felt unsafe. It was the first time I saw activism in that context and watched it make a difference. Informed people. Fed up. Doing something about it.
I wonder what I’d be writing about if we had our real president in the White House right now.
Love to all,