Kindness, Naomi Shihab Nye

By the time I post next week, it will be 2014, and if you’re a resolution making kind of person, you’ll have already decided what you’re resolved to, and if you’re not, you’ll be so sick of even the idea of change that this will just slide off of you. Right now though, on the day after Christmas – on what should be a peaceful post-holiday coda, but instead is often a frenzied time of travel or gift-returning – you might have a moment to absorb the idea behind Nye’s poem.

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.

I first found this poem about a year ago, and I reread it all the time. Every time I do, something new catches me; today, it’s the line about sorrow, and the size of the cloth. This Christmas, the best gift I gave myself was going out and buying two bags of coats for children who were coming to a crafting and cookie event; apparently, last year, a number of kids came without coats or even warm sweatshirts, and they told the organizers of the event that they were fine, even though it was close to freezing.

When I heard that story from one of the women who had baked for this gathering last year, it reminded me of two things. The first was that when I was little, I had a lot of friends who were poor. Does that sound stupid? That I would need to be reminded of the children I went to elementary school with who got free lunch, who wore thin jean jackets all winter long, who cut their own hair, who were terrified when they got invited to a birthday party because they had no gift to bring? I went to their houses, and I saw that their poverty had many causes, many faces. I knew they were  frightened that other kids would find out just how little they had and that their dignity would be another casualty of their situation.

Those kids were my friends, and if they resented the fact that I had a warm house and new clothes, food on the table at every meal, music lessons and books with unbroken spines  to read, they never mentioned it. They never complained at all, not to me, at least. Even as an adult, I can barely comprehend that. All I can really know is that spending money on new coats for children who might not have them otherwise felt better than anything in a long time. I surely haven’t “caught the thread of all sorrows,” but it felt powerful to take action, even in a small way, to alleviate need for somebody else.

The second thing this section reminded me of was when we were growing up in Massachusetts, we always lived in the parsonage next door to my mother’s church. It was common for men and women to ring the doorbell asking for money. We never gave money from our front door for a number of practical reasons, but we always had something – a bagged lunch, a pack of diapers, donated clothes. This seemed quite ordinary to me. I had never known anything different, and I found it shocking when some of my friends condemned us for even opening the door.

In my head, I’ve always that person – a ten-year old who wasn’t afraid to make sandwiches for homeless people even when her parents were out – but when I was buying those jackets, I realized that at some point in my life, I had become much more likely to pretend I wasn’t home than to open the door to someone in need. Somewhere along the way, I had grown out of the intuitive kindness of my childhood.

And not just the kindness that comes in the form of donations, but the “we’re all fighting a hard battle” kindness. I’ve lost far more of the threads of sorrow than I’ve picked up, it seems, and now, as I stare down the passage of another year, I know that I want to change that. I don’t imagine it will be easy; there are parts of me, even as I write this, that rebel at the very idea of being less self-centered, or sarcastic, or jaded. How is it that Nye understands that I have to lose things – lose parts of who I am (parts I like!) – to even come close to understanding kindness? How does she know one action isn’t enough, but that many actions might eventually pave a path that with constant vigilance could lead to being a genuinely kind person?

It doesn’t seem like it will be an easy resolution. It doesn’t sound like something I’ll be able to accomplish by the end of January (or more likely, the second week of January, which is when I typically abandon my resolutions), but there is something impossible about ignoring that sliver of light a little kindness can let in…

So Happy New Year, all. Here’s to the explosion of a change the right book or poem or story can ignite in us, and to the comfort we often find in verses we barely understand.

13 thoughts on “Kindness, Naomi Shihab Nye

  1. I’m not very good at haring … well, soical media sharing but I did try to put this on both my blog and my Facebook page — this is important enough to share in as many ways as I can.

  2. Gut-wrenching in a well-needed sort of way. Kindness is like the rest of the holiday gifts – at least those worth giving and receiving. It is a fragile yet tenacious gift that dares you to let it move in year-round.

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