Friday, February 15, 2008

Kahlil Gibran - On Children

I'm not a fan of Gibran. Overuse has made him something of a cliche and there's something about his tone that irritates me, I think I tend towards poems that draw on narrative and character rather than this sort of 'telling' language. A few people around me discovered him in late adolescence, when I felt my own tastes in poetry were far more sophisticated. I read a lot of contemporary Australian poets, some of the mid 20th century Americans, a few English poets, Roger McGough was a favourite. I had a big writer crush on W. B. Yeats and was romanced by his love for Maude Gonne. Sylvia Plath came later. But never Gibran. If you aren't sure who Kahlil Gibran is, rest assured you have probably heard some of his poems. Gibran tends to be the poet of choice for those milestone ceremonies - weddings, funerals, naming days.

But I came across this excerpt (below) in a book I'm dipping in and out of at the moment - Buddhism for Mothers with Lingering Questions by Sarah Napthali. I am not a Buddhist, or an anything. But as a parent, I struggle often. I struggle with tiredness, with a sense of not having my own space, with the lack of freedom that comes with having children. I struggle with boredom as I eat dirt and stick pies or make the horses talk to each other. I struggle with Fred's anger, with her tendency to fight every transition, from mealtimes to baths. I struggle when Fred tells me that the girls at kinder tell her she looks like a boy and laugh at her at rest time, saying 'goodnight boy' (and then she tells me that she made that up, so I struggle with confusion about what is her inner world and what is her outer world, and which one matters more). I don't struggle so much with Una because from the moment she was born I knew she was her own person, that she was mine for a temporary time. I've written about this before in this blog but that clear distinction, for whatever reason, is not there with Fred. Maybe it's because I see myself in her so clearly. Maybe it's because she was first. Maybe it's because Una navigated the process of separation from me, from the breast, so easily whereas Fred still clings to the space between us. Anyway, that is why this poem resonated with me. You can read the rest of the poem, but the last lines kind of thrash the lovely bow and arrow image to death, which is why I, and no doubt Sarah Napthali, omitted them.

As for the rest of Napthali's book, it's very much focussed on being in the present moment. Something I loved about motherhood when Fred was an almost constantly delightful baby - in the same way travel reduces you to be concerned only for all your basic needs and the rest of you lives in a state of constant reception, absorbing all these images, sounds and smells. But now, now that there's anger, it's hard to stay present, it's hard not to plan ahead or look back. Also as I said, I look at her and I see all my own childhood anxieties and fears. It's hard not to project them on her freckly, funny face, a face so like my own at almost five years old.

On Children
Kahlil Gibran

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.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

You are the bows from which your children
as living arrows are sent forth.


  1. Anonymous3:36 PM


    i've been thinking about this today.
    i have that book, but have not found the time, strength or energy that i feel i need to approach it with.

    I'm trying to step back from willow and let her be who she is, rather than what i want her to be. Sometimes we call a truce. ("Well, if we grow your hair out long, you'll have to let me help you look after it." "ummmmm, no thanks mum, lets chop it off!")

    And i see the same struggle in my mum, who is mortified that myself and my sister both got married and had babies rather than degrees and careers, and that we are not fully financially independant from our husbands (ironically and irritatingly she isn't either.)

    I love Fred and her clarity in her inner discussions. She must think a bit about relationships and interactions with other people. Willow doesn't seem to do that (yet?)

  2. We used to sing this poem (music by Honey in the Rock, I think) in the A&U choir. I loved it and still sing it in the shower. Now that my 'arrows' lie so far from home, I find it even more poignant and true.

    But babies and their separateness aside, First children are all forged in the fire of their mother's uncertainties. They know we don't know everything, much more than later babies who trust us because we have learnt to look like we know what we are doing.
    Ruby (24) and I went shopping in Smith Street, running away from our respective frustrations with novels (me) and political theory (her). People kept saying how nice it was that I was taking her shopping and we both laughed. I never take her clothes shopping - I'm hopeless. She takes ME. When I was in the changeroom, I heard her explaining to a sales lady how tough it was growing up with a mother who couldn't 'shop'. Ruby, by the way, is a fabulous shopper with a great instinct for beautiful clothing and an eye for a bargain. I love that she figured out how to do it and can now guide me. So cool!

    I can still see her as a three year old roaring in outrage when I tried to dress her in anything other than pink tu-tus. And I was stupidly worried about her dress sense!

  3. This really resonated with me. Lu's facial expressions, her comments, her concerns, her whole outlook on life echo mine, which makes me so worried for her - I've had some good times and a lot of bad times. Letting go, knowing she'll make her own way, is really hard, especially when she's still a baby of three.

  4. For some reason, this post, and everyone's comments, makes me feel a bit teary. Parenthood, I'm coming to see, can be such a painful role, with the letting go of expectations and of the kids themselves. I've only just met him, and yet I realise that in no time at all Jethro will be wanting me to let go. I don't want to let him go!

  5. a passage my dad loves to quote when he gets misty eyed...

  6. There's also a lot of joy in watching them make their own way in the world, seeing how they are different from you and allowing yourself to acknowledge and celebrate that difference. I should remind myself of that more often. Babies are glorious because they are so bound up in you, but it would be pretty tiring if they did that for, like, ever. Anyway, you've got at least another year of him thinking you're the universe so lap it up. I totally get why experts are always telling you not to label your kids, because just when you think you've got them pegged they completely surprise you.

  7. that really always strikes a chord with me penn..whenever you write that about you and fred..for I find the distinction between Sam and I so blurry too. With Will it has always been there..the indisputable fact..he is his own person..Sam and I sort of meld..we are so similar..we get each other..and yet clash because of this too.
    I am in a rush so haven't even read your Juno post..but yes, want to see it..think it would be interesting..
    hope all well..I am off to perth soon..yes me..chicken little me on a plane : ) Rich's bro getting married : ) Rach xxx