If you catch those magazines by the cash register of most supermarkets – the ones spouting gossip and unflattering pictures of celebrities, it will surely seem that quality is as underrated in modern culture and yet as important as kindness. Yet kindness is like air we breathe: invisible but essential. Few writers capture the power of kindness as much as Naomi Shahab Nye, a Texas poet, writer, anthropologist and educator.
Born in 1952 in St. Louis to a Palestinian father and an American mother, Nye lived in Jordan, the Old City in Jerusalem, and San Antonio, where she studied world religions at Trinity University. Her books includeYou and Yours, 19 Varieties of Gazelle: Poems of the Middle East, Fuel, Red Suitcase, and Hugging the Jukebox. She’s also written several books for young readers and a collection of essays, and has garnered many awards worldwide for her writing.
High Plains poet William Stafford says of Nye, “Her poems combine transcendent liveliness and sparkle along with warmth and human insight. She is a champion of the literature of encouragement and heart. Reading her work enhances life.”
His comments particularly apply to her poem, “Kindness,” which looks up from the bottom of loss and sends the deepest song of encouragement into the smallest acts we perform and witness in others. With tenderness and knowing, Nye shows us not just what kindness really is, but how to pay attention to our lives in ways that cultivate greater kindness all our days. Here’s her poem, “Kindness”:
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
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 every where
like a shadow or a friend.
For this month’s writing exercise, please put aside thoughts of grammar, spelling or making sense momentarily and, using Nye’s poem as your guide, kindly write of the smallest moments in your life or in the lives of those you love when you’ve known true kindness. You could even start with a list of such moments – such as a pie a friend brings you after a hard loss, an embrodiered pillow case your grandmother passed onto you, a hand a stranger holds out when you stumble at the post office. You can then fashion your list into a poem or write the story of any item on your list.