Everything we write reveals a bit of the life behind it.
Even my grocery list reflects where and how I live. My eating and cooking habits have gradually changed over the years and especially this year since I spend more time cooking and looking at recipes. I had never tasted the sweetness of spot prawns caught in British Columbia waters. I’ve learned about different kinds of salmon: sockeye and Coho, Chinook and Pink. I painfully watched the salmon spawn at Goldstream Park near me in early November, imbuing gratitude to witness their struggle for new life.
Victoria is filled with small grocers and I shop at one, The Root Cellar, housed in a primitive building with large black tent-like structures attached and filled with an abundant array of fresh produce. The only frozen vegetable I buy now is peas. Green peas my husband calls them. That is a story, too. When we first met I learned his family ate black-eyed peas and my family only ate peas—the round green ones. That distinction remains on the grocery list, a reminder of the shape of family, after 42 years of eating together.
What I also know is that writing holds lives that are rewritten by the reader.
In another blog, I wrote about kindness and I intended to include the poem, Kindness, by Naomi Shihab Nye. I feel like I know her, even though I don’t really, since her writing has been around me often in my teaching life. Her poetry needed a place of its own. here. And, the story that brought the poem with it.
I listened not long ago as Naomi Shihab Nye told the story that gave this poem to her. Naomi and her husband of one week were traveling through Popayan, Columbia. The young couple planned to stay in South America for three months. At the end of their first week, they were robbed of everything and a man on the bus they were riding was killed. Life was interrupted.
Naomi recalls their shock, “And what do you do now? We didn’t have passports. We didn’t have money. We didn’t have anything. What should we do first? Where do we go? Who do we talk to?”
As they sat on the plaza of that unfamiliar place, a man came up to them and was simply kind. He must have noticed their distress and asked, “What happened to you?” They attempted to retell their experience and he responded, “I’m very sorry. I’m very, very sorry that happened,” and he went on.
As her husband left to go to a larger town to find help, Naomi recalled that she “sat there alone in a bit of a panic, night coming on, trying to figure out what I was going to do next, this voice came across the plaza and spoke this poem to me — spoke it. And I wrote it down.”
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 gaze at 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.
That’s how kindness is medicine, a “balm in Gilead” as the old hymn goes. We are healed a bit in the moment we receive or give kindness because we’ve been broken or lost, and we all have. And just like the stories of our lives that rest behind our words, if we are kind, we must see each other and ourselves with our imagination as well as with our eyes. We must listen for the stories behind the faces and actions we sometimes don’t understand and maybe never will.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore.