The first poem I ever read by Naomi Shihab Nye is a poem that Nye reads in the middle of an incredible conversation with Krista Tippet. She says to Krista that the poem was given to her: “I was simply the secretary for the poem, I wrote it down, but I honestly felt as if it were a female voice speaking in the air across a plaza in Popayan, Columbia.” The circumstance that prompted the voice and the poem is chilling. At the end of the first week of her honeymoon, traveling on a bus through South America, Nye and her husband were robbed of everything. An Indian traveling on the same bus, the Indian in her poem, was murdered.
As Nye and her husband were wandering around Popayan in shock, a man came up to them on the street “and was simply kind and just looked at us...and just asked us in Spanish, ‘What happened to you?’” After listening to their story, he looked so sad and said, “‘I’m very sorry. I’m very, very sorry that happened, in Spanish, and went on. And then we went to this little plaza, and I sat down, and all I had was the notebook in my back pocket, and a pencil.” It was then that “a voice came across the plaza and spoke this poem to me—spoke it. And I wrote it down. I was just the scribe.”
If you go to https://onbeing.org/programs/naomi-shihab-nye-your-life-is-a-poem-mar2018/ you can hear her read these words: “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.”
Later in the conversation, Krista observes that “gravity is important” to Nye and it is what she says in response that both interprets her own poem and offers us an incredible insight as we engage in a season of civil conversation:
“A real conversation with someone, just a simple, simple exchange of words, can give you a sense of gravity. I’ve always loved the definition for contemplation: ‘a long, loving look.’ And when you take a long, loving look anywhere, you feel more bonded with whatever you’ve looked at. You feel as if you recognize it, you see it; maybe it sees you back. And you’re participating in a world where it exists. And so feeling that sense of gravity and belonging everywhere is very important to me.”