Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore

The poem I carry in my pocket today has been a touchstone for years, as has the poet, the wonderful Arab-American writer Naomi Shihab Nye. May we all cultivate and encounter kindness in this life so threaded with sorrow.

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“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 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.

I begin again with the smallest numbers

Thinking about the last day of this overwhelming year and the beginning of 2018 with these words from my ever-favorite Naomi Shihab Nye (1952-). Wishing you all a happy (whatever that means for you) new year, dear readers.

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“Burning the Old Year”

Letters swallow themselves in seconds.
Notes friends tied to the doorknob,
transparent scarlet paper,
sizzle like moth wings,
marry the air.

So much of any year is flammable,
lists of vegetables, partial poems.
Orange swirling flame of days,
so little is a stone.

Where there was something and suddenly isn’t,
an absence shouts, celebrates, leaves a space.
I begin again with the smallest numbers.

Quick dance, shuffle of losses and leaves,
only the things I didn’t do
crackle after the blazing dies.

Each carries a tender spot: something our lives forgot to give us.

“In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing.
About the dark times.”
–Bertolt Brecht  

Dear readers,

Welcome to my ninth round of daily postings for National Poetry Month. This past year, when I found myself overwhelmed, heartbroken, and angered by the state of the world and the state of this country, I once again turned to poetry. It was verse that helped lift me out of the quicksand of scrolling through endless polemics and social media posts. In stanza after stanza, I remembered the enormous struggles of humankind not just now and here but everywhere and across history. In line after line, I rediscovered what is worth celebrating and fighting for in our lives. In word after word, I fell back in love with language.

Let us begin this month with one of my touchstones: the Palestinian-American writer, Naomi Shihab Nye (1952-). Let us remember the tender spots we carry in our brains and our bodies and our lives. And let us read poetry, together.

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“Jerusalem”

“Let’s be the same wound if we must bleed.
Let’s fight side by side, even if the enemy
is ourselves: I am yours, you are mine.”
—Tommy Olofsson, Sweden

I’m not interested in
who suffered the most.
I’m interested in
people getting over it.

Once when my father was a boy
a stone hit him on the head.
Hair would never grow there.
Our fingers found the tender spot
and its riddle: the boy who has fallen
stands up. A bucket of pears
in his mother’s doorway welcomes him home.
The pears are not crying.
Later his friend who threw the stone
says he was aiming at a bird.
And my father starts growing wings.

Each carries a tender spot:
something our lives forgot to give us.
A man builds a house and says,
“I am native now.”
A woman speaks to a tree in place
of her son. And olives come.
A child’s poem says,
“I don’t like wars,
they end up with monuments.”
He’s painting a bird with wings
wide enough to cover two roofs at once.

Why are we so monumentally slow?
Soldiers stalk a pharmacy:
big guns, little pills.
If you tilt your head just slightly
it’s ridiculous.

There’s a place in my brain
where hate won’t grow.
I touch its riddle: wind, and seeds.
Something pokes us as we sleep.

It’s late but everything comes next.

If I write a letter, how will I make it long enough?

I could probably fill the entire month of April with poems by the lovely Naomi Shihab Nye (1952-), whose work continually comforts and delights me.

“Spruce Street, Berkeley”

If a street is named for a tree, 
it is right that flowers
bloom purple and feel like cats,
that people are leaves drifting
downhill in morning fog.

Everyone came outside to see
the moon setting like a perfect
orange mouth tipped up to heaven.

Now the cars sleep against curbs. 
If I write a letter,
how will I make it long enough?

There is a place to stand
where you can see so many lights
you forget you are one of them. 

you lived around the edge of everything we did

This month would not be complete if I did not post something from Naomi Shihab Nye (1952- ), who has always been one of my absolute favorite poets. Today’s piece comes from her newest collection, Transfer, a beautiful, book-length elegy for her father.

“Haunted”

We are looking for your laugh.
Trying to find the path back to it
between drooping trees.
Listening for your rustle
under bamboo,
brush of fig leaves,
feeling your step
on the porch,
natty lantana blossom
poked into your buttonhole.
We see your raised face
at both sides of a day.
How was it, you lived around
the edge of everything we did,
seasons of ailing & growing,
mountains of laundry & mail?
I am looking for you first & last
in the dark places,
when I turn my face away
from headlines at dawn,
dropping the rolled news to the floor.
Your rumble of calm
poured into me.
There was the saving grace
of care, from day one, the watching
and being watched
from every corner of the yard.

something inside us is a stone bigger than moving

Happy Poem in Your Pocket Day. What words have you been carrying around today? I’ve been dispersing all sorts of verse, but this gem from an all-time favorite poet of mine, Naomi Shihab Nye (1952-), is the one I want to share with you all.

“The Tunnel of Questions”

What’s been going on?
Gene asked Rusty at the reunion.
Rusty answered, I’m sorry sir,
but you’ll have to be more specific,
which made the sky between us light up
like the best answer lights the mouth
of the boy who speaks it. His classmates
stare in awe. How did he know?
We cannot say what is going on,
or what we want to be when we grow up,
just as we cannot grow up.

I held rupees in my hand.
The Abu Dhabi airport is shaped like a mushroom.
He purchased a house with thick stone walls.
All the time my friend was dying,
she said a carved owl spoke to her.
The last letter—“I still have hope,
that’s something you don’t lose”—
has burrowed a tunnel inside my throat.
Questions live there. As for hope,
something inside us is a stone
bigger than moving, and the question is
how to love it.

Last summer a bull escaped from the stockyards,
clattered down Main Street looking for grass.
He found some. Bounded away again when the truck came
with pistols and nets, and all the old men
who pass by draping beat-up coats over their arms,
lugging sacks of crushed soda cans,
felt a little cry come out of their own tunnels
when the truck caught up with the bull
on the Salvation Army steps.
He didn’t get away.
Could he have gotten away?

The days which are brothers to us
pump their blood back and forth,
not telling. A man crosses a street,
using his shadow as an oar. And still
we want to go places, saying if we lived in Portugal, we could eat
white beans and shrimp,
bury our faces in vats of orange petals.
Or Paris—visiting the flower market
every day might change things,
the questions grow different bodies,
fluting out of themselves into yellow crowns
on slim green stalks. And the days you felt
the questions open into boats
and drift, leaving you
like some bridge or umbrella-table, firm?
That was the day you walked like a free man or woman nodding your head
and said whatever had to be done,
you could do it.

I will never recover from your love

From one of my favorite poets, Naomi Shihab Nye:

“What People Do”

November    November     November    the days crowd together
like families of leaves    in a dry field
I pick up a round stone     take it to my father
who lies in bed waiting for his heart to mend
and he turns it over and over in his hands

My father is writing me the story of his village
He tells what people did    in another country
before I was born how his best friend was buried alive
and the boy survived two days in the ground
how my father was lowered into a well on ropes to discover
clay jars a thousand years old    how each jar held seeds
carob and melon    and the villagers chose secrecy
knowing the British would come with trucks and dig up their town

My father’s handwriting changes from page to page
sometimes a wild scrawl and disconnected letters
sometimes a new serious upward slant

And me    I travel the old roads again and again
wearing a different life in a house surrounded by trees
At night the dropping pecans make little clicks above us
Doors closing

More and more I understand what people do
I appreciate the daily braveries    clean white shirts
morning greetings between old men

Again I see how    once the boat tips    you never forget
the sensation of drowning
even if you sing yourself the familiar songs

Today my face is stone    my eyes are buckets
I walk the streets lowering them into everything
but they come up empty

I would tell my father
I cannot move one block without you
I will never recover from your love
yet I stand by his bed saying things I have said before
and he answers and we go on this way
smoothing the silences
nothing can heal