I recently had the pleasure of listening to and spending a little time with the writer and teacher Naomi Shihab Nye. I first read her open-hearted work years ago, when I was becoming interested in contemporary poetry. It has followed me ever since. I was not at all surprised to find in Naomi a welcoming speaker and reader, and an effervescent person who listens attentively to others and makes them feel at home in the world.
At the end of her reading, Ms. Nye read a poem I have loved for a long time. She mentioned that it has taken on a life of its own since she wrote it years ago:
Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.
Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
it is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.
The backstory Nye told involved getting robbed while travelling on her honeymoon in a faraway place. The poem, she said, just came to her. It laid itself out on the page as if it had already been formed somewhere just as faraway as she had been. Here, seemingly disparate elements of emotional life connect. Depths of sorrow open out into depths of kindness, with haunting “regions” in between. Kindness is something that can infuse even the most daily of our tasks. This, the poem seems to say, is the key to recognizing and sharing humanity.
The photograph is “Angels in a Truck” by Manuel Alvarez Bravo.