#3: Naomi Shihab Nye


Rounding down the list at #3, Naomi Shihab Nye. Nye, who was born in St. Louis, Missouri, is of Palestinian, German and Swiss descent. She spent her childhood years between Jerusalem and San Antonio, Texas (where she earned her BA at Trinity University). Nye has won numerous awards, and has served as a Chancellor for the Academy of American Poets. Her book A Maze Me: Poems For Girls, published by Greenwillow Books, came out in 2015. Nye currently lives and works in San Antonio, Texas.

(You can read more about Naomi Shihab Nye at PoetryFoundation.org)


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.

(This poem was found at Poets.org.)

My Thoughts and Observations

Obviously, kindness is the theme of this poem. We know that from the title, yes, but the word itself is found at least seven times throughout the poem, and every simile is centered around this concept.

Now, I believe that some people, maybe a lot of people, are born with the natural ability to understand and show kindness, but I feel that others, like myself, really do have to “lose things” before they are capable of knowing/understanding kindness.

This poem speaks so much truth to me. It wasn’t until my husband lost his first decent job back in 2013 and we found ourselves in a difficult position (the first of many) that I truly learned the meaning of kindness.

I remember this happened around the time that VBS (Vacation Bible School) was going on at our church. There was so much food made to feed the over 300 kids and countless volunteers, yet there was still plenty of left-overs. I was one of the volunteers, and one of the ladies at our church made sure there was food set aside for my family to take home each night.

I’m sure it doesn’t seem like that big of a deal, but when you don’t have an income and you have three children to feed… What may have only felt like a small kindness for this lady felt like a HUGE kindness to my family.

That is not the only kindness that I’ve experienced in my life, but that was really a defining moment for me. That was when something clicked, and I truly understood what it means to be kind and to share kindness.

But, going back to the poem itself… I really like the image Nye paints in lines 5-9:

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.

She doesn’t say “all this should go” or “all this has to go.” No, she is very intentional in her wording, “all this must go.” [Boldness added for emphasis.] You must lose everything you’ve worked hard for before you can know kindness.

You must walk in the shoes of another, before you can “learn the tender gravity of kindness” (line 14). “You must see how this [“the Indian in a white poncho / [lying] dead by the side of the road] could be you” (lines 14-15) before the true depth of the meaning of kindness can sink in.

She says you must “know sorrow” and “wake up with sorrow” (lines 22 and 23) before kindness can make any sense to you.

I love the personification in the last three lines:

It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

Nye gives the concept of kindness these living qualities, making it something more than just a gesture. She brings it to life in a way that when we think of kindness we can see it as though it were a living being. Something tangible. Something, or someone, living and breathing.

Your Thoughts

I would love to know what you thought about this poem. Maybe you too have experienced kindness in a way that allowed this poem to come alive and be more than just words on a page. I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments below. Thanks for reading!

If you enjoyed this post, give me a ‘Follow’ and stay up to date on future posts.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a website or blog at WordPress.com

Up ↑

Create your website at WordPress.com
Get started
%d bloggers like this: