The formative years of my life were filled with poetry, rhymes and songs, while collage, watercolor, pastel and silk-dyeing illustrated it all. My life has been an artful one — for which I am blessed and thankful.
Many of those phrases, songs and poems still flow off my tongue easily. With some, though, I find myself telling my daughter to ask her grandmother to tell her the story of ...
Sing her the song that begins with ...
Whisper the poem about ...
My memory fades.
My mother has wisdom, wit and folk-ways that shape my speech even now. Friends and colleagues laughingly refer to these as my “-isms.” Just this week, one of them encouraged me to collect and publish these little catchphrases. Some, of course, pre-date my mother or her relations. These phrases go back further than my father, his kith and kin. Their roots run deeper than these people — but not older than the mountains of Appalachia.
In summer reading programs, students get to meet a range of authors, genres and writings that they would not have read during the academic year. When I used to read during the summer, my strongest impressions were that I was not ready for them at the time. Perhaps, my heart wasn’t ready to read about the full range of human suffering. Maybe, I needed to live my sheltered life a little longer. But within a year, or two, or five, I would reread the texts and feel my world rocked by their power. I remember a similar feeling about certain Bible passages that did not make sense to my developing spirit. By the next reading, I found the Spirit moving me toward clarity.
It was in high school that I first saw the cover of Hermann Hesse’s “Siddhartha.” Shortly thereafter, I saw another student reading Khalil Gibran’s “The Prophet.” I did not read these then. Perhaps their names sounded a bit unfamiliar. I turned instead to Eyre, Bronte, Ibsen or Wright. Perhaps my heart was not big enough to grasp the idea of a bigger world, even though I studied Cote d’Ivoire, Rwanda and Senegal and visited the USSR.
After college, I listened to “Women on Air,” a program on my public radio station. I met Sweet Honey in the Rock, a changing ensemble of African American women who sing a cappella, amazing layers of harmony. One of the now-retired members of the group, Ysaye M. Barnwell, took lines from the poem “On Children” by Khalil Gibran, a Lebanese-American poet and artist from the early 20th century. Barnwell composed rich music to share his poetry. In it, she sings a powerful message of truth for all of us, to all parents and guardians, and for all children. Listen to it, if you can. Read Gibran’s words:
Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
and though they are with you, yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
for their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.