Two nights ago I went to hear Naomi Shihab Nye give a poetry reading. She was delightful and by that I mean brimming with seeming serendipity, deep appreciation and a certain feeling that this woman enjoys her moments full and many. Her poems, mostly short, spontaneous, starting you in one spot and then seeming to do a flip and land you somewhere else, reminded me of something Iris Murdoch once said, "One of the secrets of a happy life, is continuous small treats." More than a thousand people showed up for her second night of reading. This woman from Texas who is the daughter of a Palestinian storyteller journalist and an American painter, uses words to form a mystic container of reality and a support for the soul. What follows is the last poem she read to us, a longer piece, one from thirty years earlier in her career, which she wrote while on her honeymoon in South America after being robbed of everything they had.
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 every where
like a shadow or a friend.
--Naomi Shihab Nye