Sometimes, I feel righteous. Like I’m the most important one in the room and everyone else forgot to notice. In that context, acts that looks like they come from kindness or generosity are actually fuelled by the desire for recognition or approval. You really are a lovely human being, I expect to hear. Wow you have an intellect and yet you know how to wash dishes. Congratu – freakin’ – lations.
So, enough of the sarcasm.
Today in particular, I am reminded of an event in Haiti that took place earlier this year. It was a short moment in time that marked me. It happened in a backdrop of lush, green rice fields and cute, laughing kids. It happened because of a muddy shoe.
It involved my landlady’s nephew, Rodlin, a young guy from Fort-Liberté who helped us out around the house and who I was getting acquainted with. He had helped me to plant a baby avocado tree in his uncle’s yard, and he occasionally gave me motorcycle lessons. I listened while he told me of his plans to immigrate to Chile and of his troubles with his father at home. That day, he stopped by my house and we went on a walk together. He showed me some of the neighbourhoods, and we meandered into a part of town I had not visited yet. People were yelling ‘blanc‘ in their usual greeting to a white person in their streets, and Rodlin was getting teasing remarks from other young men passing us. We ignored it as best we could. I was grateful to have a guide as it meant much less heckling from the locals than usual.
I had been living in Fort-Liberté for several months and had explored a little bit on my own. Still there was much I did not know. Rodlin took me that day to see the rice fields. I had no idea there were plots of growing rice only a kilometer or so from the main road I had been navigating daily. Then I remembered reading agricultural reports about it and my mind finally put the facts all together. I was amazed by the lush greenery and the intricate network of water canals that could flow or halt the water to the fields to flood them at the right time. The reports had failed to mention it was a beautiful spot. Rice likes a lot of water to grow. In the North-East of Haiti we were in the middle of a severe drought. Here, everything was green, vibrant and abundant.
So we came to the edge of the rice fields, having gone around a huge, smelly garbage heap first. The path became increasingly muddy until the only way to continue our exploration was to walk on top of the water canals themselves. Imagine cement walls about as wide as one adult foot and a half meter width between them where the water flows. One wrong step off the canal and you’re off the ledge and thigh deep in mud and water. Rodlin got up on the canal first and turned to give me a hand up. I lost my balance a bit and took a step sideways…right into some mud. With a juicy squelch I pulled out my sneaker now fully covered in goo. I looked at Rodlin and he just smiled saying we could wash the shoe further up the canal. So I traipsed behind him on the cement ledge, carefully, one white sneaker following my muddy sneaker and getting closer to an intersection of the canal where water was flowing more quickly. Once there, Rodlin crouched down and with one hand on his back I leaned on him. He undid the laces of the muddy shoe and wiggled my foot out of it. By that time a half dozen smiling children had gathered around us and there we all were, perched on some edge of this thin line of walls, surrounded by the green wetness of the rice fields and that relentless sun beating down on our heads. Like birds come to rest and chat after a long flight. There was laughter and pointing from the kids – look at the white woman and her dirty shoe! It felt funny, exotic and very normal all at the same time.
I hadn’t even offered to wash my own shoe, as Rodlin had so fluidly taken on the task and was now attentively rinsing every nook and cranny so that it shone brighter and whiter in the water of the canal than the clean one did on my left foot. Rodlin’s whole manner was unquestioning and completely peaceful. He was not seeking my approval or looking for any reward. I’m not sure he was even aware of the kids and their pointing. He was simply doing what needed to be done in that moment. And for some, right then, I felt the full meaning of what it means to be of service. A definition formed in my mind: doing what needed to be done to serve another in the moment, with no intention of recognition or reward. An act of service. The simplest, most necessary thing to do, and also one of the most beautiful and loving.
In that same moment, I realized also that in all of my intellectual wanderings I thought about many things and worked on many projects, and yet I left very little time or space for this kind of service. Perhaps because to engage in an act of service one has to simply be…and in that being you become present to what needs to be done in that moment. It is often as simple as attending to your companion’s need or cleaning up after someone else without being asked to. I remembered this kind of service when I took care of my dog many years ago, and I imagine being a parent is to continuously be in this service. Simply, it felt to me, that it is this quality of action that requires no calculation. It is doing what needs to be done to serve another. And doing it with love and kinship in your heart.
So these days…
Whenever I feel my righteousness creep up…I remember Rodlin and the rice fields and my muddy shoe.