I stood there, not breathing, clutching the phone as the voice-mail lady repeated: "To replay this message, press one." Then, out of nowhere, I heard these words in my mind: Before you know what kindness really is / you must lose things....
Though I'd heard Naomi Shihab Nye's "Kindness" before, I had never really been drawn to the poem. And I certainly didn't know it was in my memory. Nevertheless, the next lines unfurled in my mind like a karaoke crib sheet.
Of course, there were suddenly a thousand things I needed to do: contact my lawyer and my accountant, figure out how to pay the bills I'd accrued when I thought I had money—not to mention rent, food, and health insurance. But all I could think to do was google "Kindness." That poem became the prayer that carried me in the days and months that followed.
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.
—Naomi Shihab Nye
Kim Rosen is the author of Saved by a Poem (Hay House) and the cocreator of four albums of music and poetry.
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