Hero's Poetry Journey, week 10
TRIAL: Inner Cave
Hello, Poetry Friend
The first line I learned from Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem “Kindness” was “You must wake up with sorrow.” Because Nye is right: Before we can know and show kindness, we must know sorrow. That’s how we can recognize it in others.
Eventually all heroes have to enter the un-enterable: the inner cave, the underworld, the realm of the dead. We enter; we leave changed.
Poet Naomi Shihab Nye’s life was changed on her honeymoon. She and her husband were traveling through South America, when there was an attack on the bus they were riding. They lost things (including their passports), but they were okay. Not everyone was — one man was killed. While her new husband went to the consulate, Nye sat in the plaza, where strangers were kind to her, and she wrote a poem. She said it came to her whole cloth, in this inner cave that was out in the open.
The unkindest cut of all has come from other family members, specifically a couple I’ll call the Dursleys, as in Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia of the Harry Potter universe. Although they treat Harry very badly, they are not evil, like Voldemort. They are, in fact, Dumbledore’s best protection for Harry until he comes of age. This doesn’t make them any nicer, but Harry does learn to treat them with kindness, especially in the last book.
I have no reason to think my Dursleys will change. But who knows? Dudley did leave a cup of tea outside Harry’s bedroom door.
So far this cave hasn’t gotten any brighter through the years. It’s a cave, y’all. But now I know how to walk in the dark.
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 could have had a different title — “Murder” for its trauma, or possibly “Honeymoon,” in an ironic twist. But Nye titled it “Kindness.” That’s her takeway because when she went into the inner cave, she left different, touched by the kindness of others.
Most important: She wrote. She had her pencil and paper with her and she used them. Her words have helped me and so many others. I bet they helped her too.
Read Nye’s poem. Jot down what you notice, what you like, what you don’t, what questions you have, and at least one way in which the poem speaks to your soul.
What unexpected title might we give our story in the inner cave?
Listen to Nye read her poem at “On Being.” (The whole interview with her is so great.) Pick one phrase or line or stanza you can tuck deep in your heart.
Write your own haiku about this stage of your hero’s poetry journey. (Mine is at meganwillome.com.) If you like, email me what you write.
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