I first discovered the poem “Kindness” at a time when I was struggling to face my son’s illness and to find some meaning, some purpose, in that struggle. The beauty and wisdom of the poem’s words gave me those gifts. Years later insights from this poem would ripple across my class and change my student Ella, Jason, and others. Recently, poet Naomi Shihab Nye shared with me the story of how she first penciled this poem in a bent pocket notebook years ago.
Perhaps it is fair to say the magic began with Michael. Naomi lived in San Antonio when she first met Michael at a humble old diner called Quincey’s Just Good Food. The lunchroom was crowded that day and they had to share a table. When the conversation turned to their travels, lunch became about more than food, much more. Three months later they were married.
Each of them had traveled in Guatemala the previous summer and they traded notes about their journeys. Each wanted to go further south. They planned an ambitious honeymoon, hoping to travel from the top to the bottom of South America by land.
Their journey began in Columbia. They were young, in love, and excited about the journey ahead. On the sixth night as they traveled in a packed bus through hills toward Ecuador, bandits abruptly stopped their bus and ordered everyone off. Passengers were told to hand over their valuables and every bag they carried. When one local Indian insisted he had nothing, he was pulled away from the group, shot in the chest, and left beside the dusty road, bleeding through his white poncho. Dying.
The passengers watched in shock. Hurriedly the robbers grabbed everything of value. Michael and Naomi lost their money, their travelers checks, their passports, their tickets home, and all of Michael’s camera equipment. After the bandits took off, the passengers reboarded the bus. The driver left Namoi and Michael stranded at the border of Ecuador without money or passports.
“You go from a happy moment in your life,” explained Naomi, “to the worst. A local person being murdered. It could have been any of us.”
It took many hours before the penniless newlyweds were able to convince another bus driver to them back to Popayan where they had originally started their journey. Once there, they visited the police station to seek restitution. While Naomi typed up the police report on a rickety manual typewriter, the policemen laughed at the futility of trying to bring the robbers to justice. While she wrote, Michael decided to hitchhike to the larger town of Cali to check into an American Express office for help.
Still rattled by the experience Michael left Naomi behind, sitting on a bench in the Plaza Popayan near the Catholic church. Surrounded by large, white colonial buildings that shimmered in the sunlight, Naomi meditated quietly. Eventually a calm came over her. Suddenly she heard words. When she looked around, there was no one nearby, but she could hear words coming from beyond her in the voice of a woman speaking softly. At that moment Naomi remembered she had a small bendable notebook and a short nub of pencil in her back pocket. She dug them out and copied the words the voice was saying. It was like a song in the air. A gift from another sphere.
Here are the words she was given.
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 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.
Michael and Naomis’ passports were found in a garbage can and returned to them. Michael was reimbursed by American Express in Cali for their lost checks and the couple continued their South American adventure—on a less ambitious scale. And Naomi discovered the words in the air that would help many of us learn that something good can come of our pain. To find light amid the darkness.
Used with permission from this incredible author. From Words Under the Words: Selected Poems. Copyright © 1995 by Naomi Shihab Nye.