Poem for the Week – “Kindness” – Naomi Shihab Nye

“Your Life Is a Poem. Growing up, the poet Naomi Shihab Nye lived in Ferguson, Missouri and on the road between Ramallah and Jerusalem. Her father was a refugee Palestinian journalist, and through her poetry, she carries forward his hopeful passion, his insistence, that language must be a way out of cycles of animosity.” She has been a poet for most of her life, sending out poems at age 7.


Listen to her read her poem, “Kindness”

She feels this poem was given to her. Here is the background to the poem – she had just married and was with her husband in South America, in Columbia. They were to travel 3 weeks. However, they were robbed on a bus in the first week. It was serious, one person was killed and they lost all their possessions. (She did have a notebook in a back pocket). They had no passports, no money. Where would they go ?

In a plaza a man came up to them on a street and exhibited kindness. He could see their disarray and asked what happened. He listened and was sad for them – he expressed sorrow in Spanish. Her husband was ready to embark alone to go to another city to try to get their travellers checks. As she was alone, a voice came across the plaza as night was coming on and she reached in her pack pocket for the notebook and she felt like as a secretary as a female voice dictated this poem:

“Kindness” – Naomi Shihab Nye

“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.”

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