Small Kindnesses – where holiness dwells

Small Kindnesses

I’ve been thinking about the way, when you walk
down a crowded aisle, people pull in their legs
to let you by. Or how strangers still say “bless you”
when someone sneezes, a leftover
from the Bubonic plague. “Don’t die” we are saying.
and sometimes, when you spill lemons
from your grocery bag, someone else will help you
pick them up. Mostly, we don’t want to harm each other.
We want to be handed our cup of coffee hot,
and to say thank you to the person handing it. To smile
at them and for them to smile back. For the waitress
to call us honey when she sets down the bowl of clam chowder
and for the driver of the red pick up truck to let us pass.
We have so little of each other, now. So far
from tribe and fire. Only those brief moments of exchange.
What if they are the true dwelling of the holy, these
fleeting temples we make together when we say, “Here
have my seat.” “Go ahead – you first.” “I like your hat.”

This is a poem by Danusha Laméris from her first collection, The Moons of August which was chosen by Naomi Shihab Nye as the winner of the 2013 Autumn House Press Poetry Prize. Naomi Shihab Nye has also written a remarkable poem on Kindness.

I like the language of kindness, of kith and kin, that in German children are kinder, that kindness is the making of humankind and that humankind should be qualified by kindness. By themselves small kindnesses are rarely remarkable in the sense that they are newsworthy, but they make our days and open the door to the greater kindnesses of friendship and community. Small kindnesses are usually intuitive, born by habits of the heart grown in rich cultures of difference and longing. In one place the bust stop is a silent waiting room of isolation, in another, like Glasgow, it’s a meeting place. Why the difference? What are the differences in the habits of the heart of both places?

Danusha Laméris asks the question, what if these small kindnesses are the true dwelling of the heart? Should we be surprised when everything about the kingdom of god is small? In two tiny parables Jesus explains the kingdom of God. “He said, ‘What is the kingdom of God like? And to what should I compare it? It is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in a garden; it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.’ And again he said, ‘to what should I compare the kingdom of God? It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.” (Luke 13:18-20)

So in a simple touch, a smile, a whisper or a word might be folded the holy – just a single seed planted in our lives. There probably isn’t anywhere else for the holy to dwell.

Mushrooms

Mushrooms, by Sylvia Plath, is my poem of the month. Do you want to know what it’s about? One person says it’s about mushrooms. The beauty of poetry is its surplus of meaning. Poems mean a lot – a lot more than the sum of their words and usually a lot more than the poet intends.

Context matters. Friend Helen Scarisbrick, who always wants to explore chaos and complexity, introduced this poem as part of opening worship for a leadership day in the Diocese of Chester alongside the parable of the mustard seed.

Jesus said, “What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we sue to describe it? It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest seed you plant in the ground. Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds of the air can perch in its shade.

Instantly the poem becomes much more than about mushrooms. It was then a poem about everything that ever lives – for me, anyway, who carries at the back of my mind these words from Dee Hock, (founder of Visa), railing against failed command and control methods and thinking his way to a better understanding of life from the earth beneath his feet. In Birth of the Chaordic Age he wrote the words which forever challenge my understanding of organisation and leadership:

Soil is building as thousands of gophers, mice and moles work assiduously carrying grass underground and dirt to the surface. Beneath us, billions of worms, ants, beetles and other creatures till the soil around the clock. Trillions of microscopic creatures live, excrete, die beneath my feet, fulfilling their destiny and mine as well, just as surely as fulfil theirs.

In that context it becomes a poem about the power of perseverance, the power in weakness, the place of the seed. It becomes a reminder of the organisms that are part of our organisation which we ignore or oversimplify to our peril, and a reminder that there is “room” in “mushroom” to think again about life, organisation and leadership. It becomes a reminder of what and who we don’t notice, a voice for the voiceless. That makes it my Poem of the Month.

Mushrooms

Overnight, very
Whitely, discreetly,
Very quietly

Our toes, our noses
Take hold on the loam,
Acquire the air.

Nobody sees us,
Stops us, betrays us;
The small grains make room.

Soft fists insist on
Heaving the needles,
The leafy bedding,

Even the paving.
Our hammers, our rams,
Earless and eyeless,

Perfectly voiceless,
Widen the crannies,
Shoulder through holes. We

Diet on water,
On crumbs of shadow,
Bland-mannered, asking

Little or nothing.
So many of us!
So many of us!

We are shelves, we are
Tables, we are meek,
We are edible,

Nudgers and shovers
In spite of ourselves.
Our kind multiplies:

We shall by morning
Inherit the earth.
Our foot’s in the door.

PS. Mushrooms is from Sylvia Plath’s first collection of poems, The Colossus and Other Poems (1960).