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My dearly respected Maria Popova recently posted this lovely piece. In a time of turmoil like this, we all need this soft yet powerful reminder.
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 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
Naomi Shihab Nye is a poet and songwriter born in 1952 to a Palestinian father and American mother. She grew up in St. Louis, Missouri, Jerusalem, and San Antonio, Texas. However, San Antonio is where she considers home.
Her first collection of poems, Different Ways to Pray, explored the theme of similarities and differences between cultures, which would become one of her lifelong areas of focus. Her other books include poetry collections 19 Varieties of Gazelle: Poems of the Middle East, Red Suitcase, and Fuel; a collection of essays entitled Never in a Hurry; a young-adult novel called Habibi (the autobiographical story of an Arab-American teenager who moves to Jerusalem in the 1970s) and picture book Lullaby Raft, which is also the title of one of her two albums of music. (The other is called Rutabaga-Roo; both were limited-edition.)
Nye has edited many anthologies of poems, for audiences both young and old. One of the best-known is This Same Sky: A Collection of Poems from around the World, which contains translated work by 129 poets from 68 different countries. Her most recent anthology is called Is This Forever, Or What?: Poems & Paintings from Texas. Her poems are frank and accessible, often making use of ordinary images in startling ways. Her ability to enter into foreign experiences and chronicle them from the inside is reminiscent of Elizabeth Bishop, while her simple and direct “voice” is akin to that of her mentor William Stafford.
Nye has won many awards and fellowships, among them four Pushcart Prizes, the Jane Addams Children’s Book Award, the Paterson Poetry Prize, and many notable book and best book citations from the American Library Association, and a 2,000 Witter Bynner Fellowship. In 1997, Trinity University, her alma mater, honored her with the Distinguished Alumna Award.
In October 2012, she was named laureate of the 2013 NSK Neustadt Prize for Children’s Literature. The NSK Prize is a juried award sponsored by the University of Oklahoma and World Literature Today magazine. In her nominating statement, Ibtisam Barakat, the juror who championed Nye for the award wrote, “Naomi’s incandescent humanity and voice can change the world, or someone’s world, by taking a position not one word less beautiful than an exquisite poem.” Barakat commended her work by saying, “Naomi’s poetry masterfully blends music, images, colors, languages, and insights into poems that ache like a shore pacing in ebb and flow, expecting the arrival of meaning.”
In 2019, the Poetry Foundation designated Nye their Young People’s Poet Laureate for the 2019–21 term. The Foundation’s announcement characterized Nye’s writing style as one that “moves seamlessly between ages in a way that is accessible, warm, and sophisticated even for the youngest of readers.”