lenten journal: a friend I have yet to meet


    One of the writers who has befriended me through her words is Naomi Shihab Nye. We have never met, though I imagine being in San Antonio sometime and knocking on her door as though we are both used to my doing that and having her answer and inviting me in for tamales and poetry. One of the things I love about her work is the way in which she infuses meaning into words we think we already know. She polishes them softly and then offers back what seemed mundane and pedantic and sparkling and vital. On this night, as my allergies are taking me down, I offer the words of this friend I have never met with hopes that will not always be the case.


    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.

    Valentine for Ernest Mann

    You can’t order a poem like you order a taco.
    Walk up to the counter, say, “I’ll take two”
    and expect it to be handed back to you
    on a shiny plate.

    Still, I like your spirit.
    Anyone who says, “Here’s my address,
    write me a poem,” deserves something in reply.
    So I’ll tell you a secret instead:
    poems hide. In the bottoms of our shoes,
    they are sleeping. They are the shadows
    drifting across our ceilings the moment
    before we wake up. What we have to do
    is live in a way that lets us find them.

    Once I knew a man who gave his wife
    two skunks for a valentine.
    He couldn’t understand why she was crying.
    “I thought they had such beautiful eyes.”
    And he was serious. He was a serious man
    who lived in a serious way. Nothing was ugly
    just because the world said so. He really
    liked those skunks. So, he re-invented them
    as valentines and they became beautiful.
    At least, to him. And the poems that had been hiding
    in the eyes of skunks for centuries
    crawled out and curled up at his feet.

    Maybe if we re-invent whatever our lives give us
    we find poems. Check your garage, the odd sock
    in your drawer, the person you almost like, but not quite.
    And let me know.

    Thanks, Naomi.


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