[Photo: Woman carrying immensely heavy load on her head, descending Mt. Mulanje in bare feet.]
23 April 2017
It is funny to call this little brick house “home”. But it is where we live and where we sleep and my refuge right now. I can see how attached I have been to a place, a neighborhood, a state of mind, a set of responses. My early life was in many ways idyllic: we lived on a lake, both parents were doctors, we had boats, a dock for swimming and fishing, woods to play in, friends. Then, after Dad died and we moved to Denver, more friends, good schools, ski racing in winter, working on a ranch in the Rockies in the summers. Money was tight at times but we were never poor, never without a warm home, never hungry or ill-clothed. And then, of course, excellent colleges and beyond schooling. But my two living siblings and I cannot seem to shake our pasts, the parental failings we perceived or imagined, Mom’s depressions/hospitalizations, her competitiveness, Dad’s disinterest, self-absorption and early death. I struggle to understand why my childhood sticks to me like peanut butter on a wool sweater. I am gradually shedding some of that part of my past, but not without work.
As a psychoanalyst I have all sorts of theories as to why this is such a struggle for me, why the past must accompany my present. Of course, old shoes are comfortable and I’m still trying to right old wrongs, to be successful where I wasn’t before, to get what I feel I didn’t get. I think another contribution, for me at least, is that I accepted my family as normal. It was what I knew. And what I had. Normalizing it kept me from looking too closely, which would have allowed me to chuck the bad parts. And it spared me the pain that close look would have entailed. Oh, I’ve looked at a lot of it from many vantage points in my years on the couch but my childhood dogs me like my shadow, sunshine or not.
It is strange to me, coming so far from what is familiar to me, to recognize aspects of myself I couldn’t see in that home. It is startling to realize I am only alive in the present, in my present, and can never live in the future. Or the past. I love the Chichewa proverb: Safunsa anadya phula. If you don’t ask for honey, you’ll eat wax. Perhaps that stays with me because I’ve struggled to feel my thoughts, wishes, and desires were legitimate.
This all seems more prosaic than profound, as I re-read it. Everyone drags their childhood around with them. But some seem confident enough to leave much of it behind. I am just fortunate I’ve lived long enough to keep questioning, molting those feathers in this Spring of my life (Actually, we’re heading into Winter, being south of the equator.).
I see real suffering here—-hunger, mental illness, early deaths, birth injuries, infidelity, abandonment of family, abuse of all sorts, alcoholism, cannabis addiction with associated psychoses, HIV, TB, malaria, and, above all, the constant insecurity that accompanies grinding poverty—and it throws a light on my struggles. Despite whatever challenges I’ve faced or not, I have led a charmed, interesting, and rewarding life.
As long as the brain and body keep going, I want to work. I don’t want to putter. And I find working in a setting like this stimulating and challenging and meaningful. Although I can struggle to recall the name of a person or place at times, I still can learn the 11 new medical students’ names in a week or so. It’s one yardstick for senility.
I worry for Malawi. Reliable estimates set the population at 30 million in 17 years. They cannot feed themselves now at 17.2 million. Governance is corrupt and there are new scandals every week, it seems, at high levels, not unlike in the US. Studies apparently have shown that above a certain level of financial security, happiness doesn’t increase a whit. And that level isn’t very high. One replaces one set of worries with another. So why do we keep stealing and accumulating? Like those experiments with rats and Valium—they’ll starve themselves to death, preferring Valium to food.
We walked several miles yesterday, plannng to investigate a butcher shop in Limbe whose bacon and whose beef filet were recommended to us by friends. It’s run by a Greek. I couldn’t see dealing in dead animals, even though I enjoy eating them cooked. [I’m a clandestine member of the alternative PETA—People Eating Tasty Animals.] The shop had closed at 12 on Saturday, so we wandered back toward home, doing small errands, like checking if my new debit card from my US bank with the new PIN works in my local bank ATM—it does. Being on a volunteer cost-of-living-plus-a-little salary, it is nice to have a backup. Linda went into a halaal butchery along our way and bought a kilo of filet mignon for the equivalent of $3.25/pound. And was it good! Well, the third of it we ate last night.
I saw a young man, a student at the College of Medicine, two weeks ago. He is a very sweet guy who has had two stress-induced psychotic episodes with associated suicidal thoughts around exam-time in the past two months. He wanted me to write him a medical letter to withdraw from the College. His older brother was with him, awaiting to take him back to the family fold in a village 12 hours drive from here (probably 24 hours by minibus). The student looked both relieved and defeated; likely he’s the only one from his village who has ever gone to university. I don’t know how he’ll be treated at home, having set off with high hopes and returning having come apart. It makes me so sad for him. There are precious few psychological services for him outside of Blantyre. His district health center may not even have antipsychotic medications. I gave him a 3 month supply. Certainly there is no one near where his family lives trained to work with him psychotherapeutically to help him sort it all out and to strengthen him.
A Collared Sunbird—tiny, bright yellow breast, black throat with a flash of violet in the sun, blue-green iridescent cap and cape, and grey wings with a curved black beak—and his lady, less of an exhibitionist , flitted around the yard yesterday, giving us wonderful views of them for hours. As our banks of orange Cosmos slowly fade, they are replaced by hedges with lavender flowers and huge poinsettia bushes. We saw two 30’ poinsettia trees on our walk yesterday. It seems that whenever one flowering tree or shrub is passing, two others spring up, equally lovely. Natural beauty is balanced. Not trying to accumulate any more than is needed.