This last week, for me, has covered almost the full spectrum of joy and pain. It would feel disingenuous or disrespectful to focus on only the pain, or only the joy, of recent days. And I firmly believe that the only thing we can count on — the only thing I am sure life offers each of us — is the opportunity to know both, most often mixed together in a way that makes describing how we fully feel beyond the reach of everyday language.
The human condition seems to be that we harbor both love and hate, crave one but are drawn to the other, and that being a wildly social species we are both burdened and blessed to share that with others as well as have it shared with us.
I wish that as a kid, I had been given a better grasp on how shatteringly messy everything is. All the good and bad and kind-of-both are tied together, and that is the invisible, palpable truth we exist in. As an adult, I’m trying to not just acknowledge that, but make peace with it, while simultaneously working toward increasing the proportion of love in anything I share. Sometimes that love looks like joy, and sometimes it exists in pain.
When words fail, I tend to fall back on touch, hoping that it will say what I can’t seem to. But of course the medium of this blog makes a hand on your shoulder impossible, so we’re back to words. When words fail and they are still all I can offer, I fall back to poetry.
This poem* is one of my favorites, and holds the tension between the pain and the joy we’re faced with better than almost anything else I’ve encountered:
“On Kindness” by Aracelis Girmay
after Nazim Hikmet, for & after Rassan
At the Detroit Metro Airport
with the turtle-hours to spare
between now & my flight, there is
such a thing as the kindness
of the conveyor belt who lends me
its slow, strange mollusk foot
as I stand quiet, exhausted, having been
alone in my bed for days now, sleeping
in hotels, having spent months, now,
without seeing the faces of my family, somehow
its slow & quiet carrying of the load
reminds me of the kindness of donkeys
& this kindness returns me to myself.
It reminds me of the kindness of other things I love
like the kindness of sisters who send mail,
wherever you are, &, speaking of mail, there is
the special kindness of the mail lady
who says, “Hi, baby” to everyone, at first
I thought it was just me, but now I know
she says “Hi, baby” to everyone. That is kindness.
Too, there is the kindness of windows, & of dogs.
& then there was that extraordinary Sunday
back at the house, I heard a woman screaming
about how she was lonely & so lonely
she didn’t know what she’d do, maybe kill
herself, she said, over & over like a parrot
in a cage, a parrot whose human parent
only taught it that one sentence. I looked out
the window & saw her from behind, the way she flung
her arms like she was desperate & being killed
or eaten by an invisible predator, like a tiger or a lion, in the chest.
& her voice seemed fogged out with methadone, I don’t know,
something, & I walked away from the window
& sat, angry with her for screaming, & sad,
& not long after, I heard her saying,
What’d you say? What’d you say to me?
& a man’s voice, low, I could not tell if it was kind.
& she said, I’ll kill myself, I’m so lonely.
& did I tell you, yet, that it was Mother’s Day?
Flowers & mothers, flowers & mothers all day long.
& the woman saying, I’m so lonely. I could kill myself.
& then quiet. & the man’s voice saying, It’s okay.
It’s okay. I love you, it’s okay.
& this made me get up, put my face, again, to the window
to see my landlord’s nephew outside, just hugging her so, as if
it were his mother, I mean, as if he belonged to her,
& then, again, quiet, I left the window but sat
in the silence of the house, hidden by shutters, & was amazed.
When the front door of the brownstone opened up
& let the tall nephew in with his sad & cougar eyes,
handsome & tall in his Carolina-Brooklyn swagger, I heard
him start to climb the stairs above me, & my own hand
opened up my own front door,
& though it was none of my business
I asked him, Do you know that women out there?
& do you know what happened next?
He said, No. The nephew said no, he didn’t know
the woman out there. & he told me Happy Mother’s Day
as he climbed the rest of the stairs. & I can’t stop seeing them
hugging on the street, under trees, it was spring, but cold,
& sometimes in the memory his head is touching hers
& sometimes in the memory his eyes are closed,
& sometimes she is holding him
& singing to him I love you. It’s okay.
I mean to tell you that everywhere I go
I hear us singing to each other. This way. I mean to tell you
that I have witnessed such great kindness as this,
in this, my true life, you must believe me.
I mean, on a Sunday, when nobody was supposed to be
watching. Nobody at all. I saw this happen, the two
of them hugging, when nobody was supposed to be
watching, but not a secret either, public
as the street, not for glory & not for a joke,
the landlord’s nephew ready to stand there for the woman
like a brother or a sister or a husband or son,
or none of these at all, but a stranger,
a stranger, who like her, is an earthling.
Perhaps this thing I am calling kindness
is more simple than kindness, rather, recognition
of the neighbor & the blue, shared earth
& the common circumstance of being here:
what remains living of the last
two million, impossible years…
Hopefully today we can help each other be a little more human, and find peace in that. For more thoughts like this or a bunch that aren’t, leave a comment below or on Twitter @ohgrowup. Thanks for reading, and good luck adulting.
* Note that this poem is “On Kindness”, from KINGDOM ANIMALIA by Aracelis Girmay, copyright © 2011 by Aracelis Girmay. I don’t own or have any rights to the poem, but first discovered it via The Slowdown.