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Reading Naomi Shihab Nye's "Kindness"

A Practice for the Anniversary of 9/11
By Roger Housden

 

"Poetry humanizes us in a way that news, or even religion, has a harder time doing," Naomi Shihab Nye wrote in her email response to the 9/11 tragedy. With its unique ability to capture the significance of what the ordinary imagination cannot grasp, poetry took on a heightened value for the culture during those dark weeks. Poems circulated all over the Internet. Nye's poem "Kindness" was sent to me soon after September 11. Reading poetry like this is a spiritual practice.

In this rending yet redemptive poem, Nye reaches down to the roots of our humanity, which lie in the great heart where we all cry together. Nye, an Arab American, has been writing poetry since she was five. She has published six books of poetry and several children's books. Born of a Palestinian father and an American mother, she has lived her life between those two cultures."

KINDNESS
by 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 any 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.


Excerpted from Ten Poems to Open Your Heart by Roger Housden. "Kindness" from Words Under the Words: Selected Poems by Naomi Shihab Nye.

Roger Housden, one of our Living Spiritual Teachers, is a spiritual writer and explorer of sacred traditions and places around the world. He gives occasional public recitals of ecstatic poetry from the world's literary and spiritual traditions and is the creator of the "Ten Poems" series.

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