(are gone)

Before you know what kindness is,

you must lose things,

feel the future dissolve in a moment

like salt in a weakened broth. . .

I’ve opened a new book by Geneen Roth about losing what we think is important; in the case of the author, it was losing thirty years of her family’s entire life savings to Bernie Madoff.  With the post-call phone still in her hand, she stood motionless in her kitchen for a long time, swirling into a tempest of catastrophe, until at last, out of the center of it rose the memory of this poem.  The kindness poem, as she calls it,  by Naomi Shihab Nye.  After what seemed like hours of paralysis, she could move her legs again – she suddenly had to find the poem and let herself down into its rhythmic depths.

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. . . 

I know that I have a lifetime of sorrows lying about on the floor like loose threads in my unkempt work room.  We all have snipped and clipped from our more perfect lives and left our sadnesses like scraps beneath us, stepping all over them with our dusty shoes.

But when I wake up to sorrow – even one pure sorrow – I am emptied of airy ambitions, I am lowered to the scrappy floor.  I speak softly into the aching places, until my voice, in a tremor of kindness, catches the threads of all sorrows and I see the startling size of the cloth.  Wide as a carpet, woven, unfurling; wide as all the world standing upon it, for surely our sorrows, in the end, are one.

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.

to read or hear “Kindness” by Naomi Shihab Nye in its full length, go to

~ by Susan on 06/16/2011.

4 Responses to “ (are gone)”

  1. I haven’t read that poem in a long time, and I thank you for reminding me of it today. I feel such sorrow today — know that I push sorrow aside on so many days, to move forward, to love and to live. Reading this poem again reminds me of what mitigates the sorrow — kindness. I had forgotten —

  2. How very lovely, Susan. It takes me back over 20 years to my work on what was then the AIDS unit at The Queen’s Medical Center in Honolulu. It was headed by one of the dearest, wisest women I’ve ever known. As the head nurse on the unit, “Sets” was a role model to all other staff, not just for her daily administration of meds and care, but for the character she displayed moment-by-moment — her quiet, reflective manner, her calming spirit, her openness and vulnerability.

    In that unit we were reminded daily of the religious pronouncements and burdens carried into our patients’ rooms via members of their own family and clergy. We were witness to the pain and raw emotions resulting from the struggle of the dying to make sense out of a their physical, emotional, and spiritual suffering. I don’t remember the exact context in which she shared this with me, but I do remember Sets’ exact words: “My religion is kindness.” And because she truly lived it, those few words made more sense to me than all the words and prayers and scripture recited by others on a mission of conversion or judgment.

    May the threads you have been weaving into a carpet also serve as a comforting blanket through this season in your life.

    • Danette, What a beautiful tribute to ‘Sets’ and her impact on your life. It touches me deeply. I will remember those few words often, I am sure: ‘My religion is kindness.’ We could all be comforted by that blanket. Thanks for adding it here. Susan

    • Simple and so profound

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