Sitting on the breathtaking cliffs of Phuket for lunch one stormy afternoon and discussing heavy subjects such as self-realisation and politics, my new friend Ammy suddenly piped up, "Picking up rubbish. That's very important, you stop and do something that 30 people had walked past, to make your environment better."
Yes, I agree completely. I hate littering. Once, when I caught some tourists littering in my town, I told them off. Two days ago, my daughter's school organised a Beach Clean Up Day. We hate litter almost universally.
But Ammy's words reminded me that truth is not universal. Years ago, my Indonesian helper Rosmawati intentionally threw rubbish on the road. On car journeys, she would wind down the window to throw rubbish out. When I censured her, she was genuinely surprised. "But Ma'am, I am giving work to road sweepers! If nobody threw rubbish out on the streets, these people would have no jobs!"
Whose truth is 'right'? All versions have a right to exist, though it is up to us which version we choose. Maybe my uneducated Indonesian helper Rosmawati was 'right' in that the world is always going to need rubbish on the streets to provide work for road sweepers, though her beliefs may be at odds with ours.
Here is a little story about Rosmawati. Years ago, when she first moved into our house, she filled our urban garden up with plants. There was no rhyme or logic to her madness. For example, she started planting mango seeds.
"Ha! That will take YEARS to grow! We'd have left the country by the time your seeds grow into trees that bear fruit! Don't waste your time," I scoffed at her. It didn't make sense, right, to plant those seeds? I googled, and found that it would take eight years for those seeds to bear fruit.
"Ma'am," Rosmawati said patiently. "These seeds that I am planting today ... the fruits are for the people who will move into this house in future."
Another time, I laughed at her for planting a big bougainvillaea bush in a small plastic pot. "Your plant will not thrive," I told her. "The roots need more soil for nutrients. Your small pot is not enough to support such a big plant."
Once again, Rosmawati showed me that I was not always right, even when it comes to basic stuff. She led me to another corner of the garden where a big jackfruit tree grew. The tree had provided us with many fruits that Rosmawati used to make gudej. I myself had often sat in the shade of this tree many an afternoon, waiting for my children to come home from school. That day, when I laughed at Rosmawati for growing a bougainvillaea bush in a small pot, she dug up a small section at the base of the jackfruit tree to show me something that changed the way I looked at the world.
For I saw, with my own eyes, that the ten-foot tall jackfruit tree was grown in an old plastic paint bucket.
So in this world, we have people who believe in throwing rubbish on the streets, planting seeds that take 5-8 years to grow, putting big bushes into tiny plastic pots, amongst other things, whose truth are equally valid as ours. I had learned to stop telling them that they are wrong and instead, learn to honour the light in them. As a parent, that is a very difficult task indeed, to allow our adult children to make their own choices and have their own opinions, but as the old adage goes, our children are our best teachers. Similarly, in adult relationships, I believe that we have to allow our partners to be who they are and should we find their values impossible to live with, then bow and leave with no regrets or anger, only memories.
Photographs: Rosmawati and her tree