Maybe two years back now, I was walking Aiko and Miko in the hills up the street from my house. One corner house we pass every day had a new addition, a well-built wooden version of a real estate flyer box, nailed securely to a tree in the front yard. There was a bright pink post-it note on it that read:
Neighborhood Poetry Box: Take a poem, or leave one!
For the last two years, that box has always been full of print-outs of poems.
I rarely take them. But I always read them, and I occasionally take a snapshot of the ones that really resonate. They’re often seasonal, or relevant. They’re always sweet, probably sweetened in my mind by the idea that my neighbors are going out of their way to keep the box full.
Once, sometime last year, the tiny, vibrant, white-haired Asian woman who lives at the house was in the yard when I walked by. The girls and I stopped to thank her for investing the time and effort to turn such a lovely idea into reality, and to let her know that we read it everyday. She was so excited, so thrilled, that the box has become part of our daily routine.
This afternoon, we walked by the Neighborhood Poetry Box, and found this poem inside:
Here’s what to do during war:
In a time of destruction,
A moral principle.
One peaceful moment.
It’s common that the poems in the box are attributed to their authors with a note at the bottom. This one, however, was signed in handwritten script—Maxine H. Kingston—and then attributed to a work titled The Fifth Book of Peace.
I took a photo of it. And later sent it to a friend. Because I think this is what we’re doing right now. We’re in a time of chaos, and we’re creating something. We’re creating lots of things. We’re creating bonds and love and moments. We’re writing and writing and writing. We’re committing. We’re building community at a level of depth I’ve never before witnessed firsthand. We’re creating farms and schools and movements and moments.
There’s something about the elegance and sparsity of this poem that I especially loved. I mean substantively, it was for us and about us. Obviously. But it didn’t seek to explain why or how or to make a case for what’s to be done in times like these. It was simple instruction.
Loving instruction, from someone senior to us: Children. Here’s what to do.
When I sent my sweetheart the photo of the poem, I again noticed the signature. I was inspired to Google the name, Maxine H. Kingston, and what a treat I found when I did. Maxine Hong Kingston is my lovely, tiny, neighbor, the proprietress of the poetry box! I read a few profiles of her incredible history, life and career, which started with her 1976 publication of The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts. Over the years, this book alone has sold over 1.3 million copies.
A lauded UC Berkeley professor (now Emeritus) and White House humanities medal awardee, she’s spent the last few decades in peace activism, and was once notably arrested with another literary giant, Alice Walker, for protesting the Bush Administration’s plans to invade Iraq. Ms. Hong lived here 25 years ago, when the Oakland Hills fires swept through these streets through which I now walk the girls, and her home was burned to the ground, along with the manuscript of what was to be the Fourth Book of Peace. (In Chinese legend, the first three books of peace are said to have held the secrets to ending all war and, as such, to have been burned by the powers then in charge.)
So I’ve just ordered the Fifth Book of Peace. And soon, I’ll reach out to my neighbor to thank her again. But this time, it won’t just be for the poetry box.
P.S.: I issued a 30 Day Writing Challenge for Conscious Leaders a few weeks back, and over 150 brilliant souls signed up! I decided to take the Challenge right along with them, and it’s been a profound journey for many of us. Most people are journaling or free-writing every day, privately. I wrote this post on Day 25 of the Challenge. I’ll be doing another writing Challenge in January; click here to get on the list for the January Challenge.