for now, kindness

Posted by on February 22, 2012

Girls on playground © 2012 Julia Mason Wickes.

Girls on playground © 2012 Julia Mason Wickes.

Kindness

By Sylvia Plath

Kindness glides about my house.
Dame Kindness, she is so nice!
The blue and red jewels of her rings smoke
In the windows, the mirrors
Are filling with smiles.

What is so real as the cry of a child?
A rabbit’s cry may be wilder
But it has no soul.
Sugar can cure everything, so
Kindness says.
Sugar is a necessary fluid,
Its crystals a little poultice.

O kindness, kindness
Sweetly picking up pieces!
My Japanese silks, desperate butterflies,
May be pinned any minute, anesthetized.

And here you come, with a cup of tea
Wreathed in steam.
The blood jet is poetry,
There is no stopping it.
You hand me two children, two roses.

* * *

Only Sylvia Plath could write a poem about kindness and still manage to make it sound a bit dark. Even in college I was never eager to identify with her, and even more so now that I am a mother. But today she is alright. She takes ostensibly wholesome subjects–children, babies, blackberries, bees– and manages to inject them with a certain edge, turning them invariably into something that doesn’t necessarily sit well. And sometimes, things just don’t sit well.

I am beginning to hold a philosophy that when things don’t sit well, more kindness and gentleness are in order. I am beginning to think that problems are better solved by exerting less force, not more. I am thinking of forever asking, in all situations: What is the least amount of force I can use to accomplish this, the greatest amount of gentleness? Then, once the gentleness is set, like my teeth, I begin the task. I ask: How loosely can I wrap my fingers around this problem and still be holding it in my hand?

Maybe Sylvia Plath calls her Dame Kindness because there is something formal about it, as a stance. Kindness is a method, a determination, a conscious decision to give clemency to the very things that make you want to react with the most vexation: the strewn books, the colored pencils that roll to the edge of the room, the wet towel left accidentally overnight, the bathroom sink a little clogged with toilet paper while no adult was looking, the yoga mat I carefully rolled up and put away, unfurled and lying across the couch, the ripped dollar bill, the puddle of shampoo (curse you, foaming agent), the understandably stressed-out husband, the two year-old who wakes at 5:30 in the morning, demanding a banana, the bears dressed in the clothes–all the clothes– I had folded and put away, the overwhelmed five year-old who slams a door and says she will not give you a piece of her birthday cake at her party and that she will never draw you a pretty picture again, the five year-old who claims–nay swears– she just counted to 1,000, and, of course, the two year-old who made what seemed like a very conscious decision to pee liberally while sitting at the dinner table. And maybe most especially, the self needs to vow kindness toward the self, who is taking feeble steps toward being a better person, a grown-up person, knowing good and well that, as she has been confessing–at least verbally–all along, that she is the first among sinners.

  1. amber
    February 23, 2012

    This is brilliant: "How loosely can I wrap my fingers around this problem and still be holding it in my hand?" I used the idea last night in trying to get Ike back in his bed. It worked much better at 12:30 am than at 4:30 am, but overall, such a good idea. I have found, unfortunately, that force is a speedy way to get things under control, forgetting each time how quickly it backfires. Ms Mean Mama is never really in control, least of herself. But I digress. I have never read this Plath poem. Funny that I liked her so much in college and you so little. I grow more distant from her as I age, but I still don't find her darkness very dark–more a sad and talented person writing about the dark she finds herself in, all the while looking for the light.

  2. amber
    February 24, 2012

    I have revisited these lines repeatedly today: "I am beginning to think that problems are better solved by exerting less force, not more. I am thinking of forever asking, in all situations: What is the least amount of force I can use to accomplish this, the greatest amount of gentleness? Then, once the gentleness is set, like my teeth, I begin the task. I ask: How loosely can I wrap my fingers around this problem and still be holding it in my hand?"

    It's just genius. This can be applied so broadly, to almost everything. You are so wise. You should get this published somehow–I mean in some way with a wider readership than flakedoves (not to disrespect your blog).

  3. Kate T.
    February 24, 2012

    As a regular nuclear over-reactor, I liked this a lot.

    Have you read Ted Hughes' collection, Birthday Letters? It's so good. It's a nostalgia-tinted, less acute angle on the Plath apotheosis. He reminds you that she had to do things like make breakfast in the morning, and wipe small sticky fingers. There's a wonderful poem where someone offers to sell him a fox cub (kitten?), and he thinks it would be brilliant to buy it. Then he thinks about Sylvia at home with babies and little money, and her reaction. And wisely opts not to take the animal.

  4. Julia
    February 24, 2012

    Amber, thanks so much for your comments. Jeff thinks I should re-work this and submit it to the On Being blog. I might try that.

    Kate, you always have such great literary insights for me. I will definitely check out this Ted Hughes. And it has occurred to me that it would be crazy to acquire a pet while at the same time raising children.

  5. Kris Livovich
    February 29, 2012

    So I am reading this late, on the eve of yet another Wednesday, and it is so very beautiful and so timely.

    Less force, more kindness, is something I am slowly, slowly, with many steps backwards growing into.

    This was wonderful to read at the end of a very frustrating day.