Known for poetry that lends a fresh perspective to ordinary events, people, and objects, writer Naomi Shihab Nye has said that, for her, “the primary source of poetry has always been local life, random characters met on the streets, our own ancestry sifting down to us through small essential daily tasks.”
Nye describes herself as a “wandering poet.” She has spent 40 years traveling the country and the world to lead writing workshops, inspiring students of all ages. Nye was born to a Palestinian father and an American mother and grew up in St. Louis, Jerusalem, and San Antonio. Drawing on her Palestinian-American heritage, the cultural diversity of her home in Texas, and her experiences traveling in Asia, Europe, Canada, Mexico, and the Middle East, Nye uses her writing to attest to our shared humanity.
In the below interview excerpt with Krista Tippett, Nye tells the story behind her poem “Kindness.” Just a week into a three-month trip in South America, Nye and her new husband were robbed of everything on a bus in Columbia. A man was murdered during the robbery and when all was said and done, Nye and her husband were left in shock as they tried to figure out next steps, alone in a foreign country with no passports or money. It was in that moment that the kindness of a stranger made all the difference. You can listen to Nye reading the poem and her description of the incident that inspired it below.
Nye’s poem is a poignant reminder of the ways in which hardship can soften us and open us to acts of kindness. “Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside, you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing,” Nye writes. We are never alone in our suffering, and kindness to ourselves or between strangers is an acknowledgement of this shared humanity. Often, it is in the moments of confusion, grief, or devastation that compassion bubbles to the surface. Our shared vulnerability makes empathy and true kindness possible.
“I have always loved the gaps, the spaces between things, as much as the things, Nye once told Contemporary Authors. "I love staring, pondering, mulling, puttering. I love the times when someone or something is late—there’s that rich possibility of noticing more, in the meantime…Poetry calls us to pause. There is so much we overlook, while the abundance around us continues to shimmer, on its own.”
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.
This poem appears in Naomi Shihab Nye’s collection of poetry, Words Under Words: Selected Poems. Biography courtesy of the Stephen Barclay agency.