poetry wednesday. the tender gravity of kindness.

By on Aug 8, 2012 | 26 comments

Last Wednesday, just last Wednesday–only a week ago and it seems so much has happened since then–I taught an amazing group of teachers in my VerbTribe for Teachers class from a beautiful cottage on Tybee Island, Georgia. Our last teleseminar was scheduled for 4pm. It is always a tug at my heart to finish a VerbTribe class, and this one was no exception. An extraordinary group of teachers had gathered, shared, learned, taught, embraced their own vulnerability. It was–and still is–a true community in the Henri Nouwen sense: “Community is not a talent show in which we dazzle the world with our combined gifts. Rather, community is the place where our shared poverty is acknowledged and accepted as a true source of new life.”

As part of the class, one of the questions asked was whether there is a poem I love, that holds me up, that I go to again and again.

And without hesitation, I knew it was Naomi Shihab Nye’s “Kindness,” a poem I learned about from my friend and neighbor Catherine Faherty who years after introducing it to me would be on the team of people to diagnose Tess with Asperger’s. It was also Catherine who was friends with Mary Anne, the mother of Meta, a young woman who died far too young. Mary Anne used to sing Naomi Shihab Nye’s songs to her daughter Meta when she was little; Catherine called Naomi when it was clear Mary Anne was dying just a year after her daughter’s death, to tell Naomi of Mary Anne’s connection to her music and poems. And then poet Naomi Shihab Nye sang over the phone those very songs to Mary Anne. Life is a circle, my friends. A circle, if we let it find its true shape.

And at the very moment that John got the scan that would reveal his cancer, I was reading aloud this poem to my VerbTribe for Teachers class.


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

As friends like Amy McCracken have rallied to help us pay for care for John’s cancer treatment and hundreds of people have given, and friends Kim Mailhot and Lisa Rough have both offered their beautiful art for sale to benefit John, I am learning the tender gravity of kindness; I am knowing kindness as the deepest thing inside. And I am learning a lesson that is very, very hard for me: to let people help me. I am always on the other end of this equation, and being on the receiving end is so hard for me. I was moved to tears by this comment on Facebook from FrancesFrenchie Kessler to me: “Sometimes grace requires that you allow that flow of generosity that you so willingly give to others turn itself to ebb back to you.”

And so I am practicing grace. And letting go so circles can continue to form.

“Community is the place where our shared poverty is acknowledged and accepted as a true source of new life.”


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