It’s either been too cold, too wet, or too cold and wet to get out birding recently, so I’ve finally used up all the pictures I’ve taken. Hopefully, I’ll get out shortly, but until I do I either have to write about the many books I’ve read recently but haven’t had the ambition to organize my notes into a rational statement or read some new poetry books and comment on them.
For now I decided to do the latter and began by reading Naomi Shihab Nye’s Words under the Words: Selected Poems. published in 1995. I actually commented on Nye’s Fuel in 2002 but had almost forgotten about her in the intervening years. Luckily, I was reminded of her poetry recently, for it seems like a perfect antidote to the constant barrage of Trump news that has filled my Facebook page and my news feeds.
Tell, me can you imagine Trump, or his supporters, for that matter, ever reading, much less writing, a poem called “Kindness.”
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.
For better or worse, I’ve never lost all the things Nye mentions in the first stanza, though I suspect losing my faith in the American Dream after serving in Vietnam probably made me kinder, and less self-centered, than I might otherwise have ever become. I know it inspired me to become a caseworker instead of a banker or businessman which, in turn, forced me to see just “how desolate the landscape can be.” Afraid I would end up staring “out the window forever,” I left casework to become a teacher where it seemed more likely that I could actually help people.
I’ve never seen where an “Indian in a white poncho/lies dead by the side of the road,” but I’m still haunted by fellow officers who died in Vietnam pursuing their dreams. Though I’m not sure seeing those bodies made me kinder, I do know it made me realize just how precarious life really is, that there are never any assurances that things will “turn out for the best.”
I’ve certainly experienced my share of sorrow, and at times felt overwhelmed by it and empathized with the sorrow of others who haven’t been as lucky as I’ve been. The Buddha had it right when he said, “What is the noble truth of suffering? Birth is suffering, ageing is suffering and sorrow and lamentation, pain, grief and despair are suffering.”
The Buddha’s answer to that suffering was “compassion,” or, in Nye’s words, “Kindness.” I suspect some of us are going to need all the kindness we can muster to get through the next four years and a President who tries to bully and belittle anyone who opposes his ideas. Though I’ve already managed to fly off the handle at some Trump supporters, I would consider myself a better person if I could manage to empathize with them while still standing up for what I believe in myself. After all, kindness would seem to demand that we treat all people, and not just those who agree with us, the best we can.