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 every where
like a shadow or a friend.
- Naomi Shihab Nye
Life lessons are never easy.
It had been a spectacular evening. A great, albeit infrequent win by the hometown San Francisco Giants and a rousing rendition of the Star Spangled Banner performed by our very own junior high non-marching band had us all in a great mood. The Bonds-less Giants pitched, hit and ran the bases well and despite the fact that there was a Candlestick-like sized crowd in the park, the Thursday night with friends under the starry skies was a winner.
“Great job.” I said to my youngest as we wound our way down the ramps of the stadium.
A mother can always tell when something is wrong.
“Mom, you’re not going to believe what happened to me,” he replied.
He was right.
Earlier that day he and a couple of friends had walked into a local market to buy some provisions (read CANDY) for the long bus ride to the city. A misperception let to an accusation of stealing that led to an angry altercation and before he knew it, the whole thing had gotten quite out of hand and they had a very frightened young man on their hands. Unbeknownst to him, the store had recently been experiencing a rash of shoplifting and he simply got caught in the crossfire. An innocent victim in a battle he had entered unknowingly.
It didn’t matter that the woman was mistaken. It didn’t matter that he was innocent. No one believed him. I mean, he is a teenager, after all. Who believes a teenager? It was a chain of events that could have been stopped at any time had the adults taken a moment to regroup and listen. Instead, he learned a hard lesson about life and people and what happens when someone’s anger is misdirected. Hurt people hurt people.
The next morning, it was all I could do to get him into the car. Seven o’clock had come way too early. He was tired and still reeling from the events of the day before. I offered to let him stay in bed but my youngest is a dedicated, committed guy and he wanted to be in his English class at the morning bell ready to tackle another lesson on poetry. So, being the accommodating, if not extremely exhausted, mother that I was, we hopped (well, actually it was more of a slow drag of sorts) into the car, shoes and socks in hand, and head over the hill to the school.
Ten minutes into the drive my sleepy son noticed a small problem. He only had one sock.
What’s a mom to do? While carefully guiding the car down the road with my left hand, I steadily pulled off my right shoe and peeled off my sock, handing it over to my very weary passenger. He smiled at me. There were tears in his eyes.
Sometimes when you least expect it, a window opens and wisdom floats in. Sometimes, as Blanche Dubois said in Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire” you have to depend on the kindness of strangers. Friday, wisdom came in the form of an Enterprise Rent-a-Car employee who took me to pick up my car from the mechanic that morning.
Times are tough. We talked about the elections, the economy, the staggering price of gas and the war in Iraq. “You know,” he said as we drove along, “we need to be kind to each other. All we really have is kindness.”
It sounded so simple and I knew he was right. I couldn’t help wondering the difference a kind word would have made for those frightened young boys. If only the shopkeeper had taken a moment to listen, to hear what was being said, to give them the benefit of the doubt. How often do we jump to conclusions, not reading the room, not being open to a different possibility? How often do we let our pain spill out onto others? Now more than ever, we need to be kind to each other.
Sometimes, you have to give someone your sock.
*Thanks to Frances Rivetti for the image.