Tuesday, February 9, 2016

That One Book

If you are a reader, you probably know the experience of coming across a book that changes you. A book that never leaves you again, and one you are pretty sure you would grab off your shelf if you had to flee your home in a hurry. As long as you can read those words, at least something in the world is still ok.

That book, for me, is the Prophet, by Kahlil Gibran.

I first heard of the writer's name when looking through books of quotations while making a gift for a friend of mine - a decorated book of quotes, poems, and excerpts that reminded me of her - and I came to Gibran's passage about children from the Prophet. I found it deep and profound, and I included it in the collection.

The next time I visited her in Germany, I gave her the hand-made book. That very evening I was astonished to see a copy of Gibran's book lying on her sideboard. What a coincidence! I asked her about it, and she said she'd been looking for a quote the other day and just hadn't put it away. When I left a few days later to return to the U.S., she gave me the book - and I still have it, of course (along with three other editions, including the  German translation!).

Sitting at the gate in Stuttgart, I pulled it out and started reading from the beginning.

The Prophet is about a traveler who had been marooned in a foreign land for 12 years, and at the opening of the story he finally sees a ship from his homeland approaching. Filled with unbounding joy, he runs toward town but then realizes he'll be sad to leave this place.

"Too many fragments of my spirit have I scattered in these streets...
  I cannot withdraw from them without a burden and an ache."

The traveler and narrator, Almustafa, describes perfectly the mixed emotions of leaving a place where you have left (or found!) part of your soul and returning home where you need to be, and every word seemed to pierce straight through my heart.

"It is not a garment I cast off this day, but a skin I tear off with my own hands. 
Yet I cannot tarry longer."

The time to return had come.

Needing and wanting to return, yet longing to stay. A lump started growing in my throat.

You see, my kids were "back home," and of course I was looking forward to returning to them. I'd never lived anywhere other than Wisconsin, and it was home. But ever since my days as an exchange student in Esslingen, I knew a part of me belonged here in Germany.

Throughout the rest of the book the people Almustafa had been living among gather and ask him to share his life's wisdom with them before he departs. They ask him about love, marriage, giving, food & drink, freedom, friendship, silence, and many more elements of human life. His words were a truth I'd never heard before but always somehow knew.

"These things he said in words, But much in his heart remained unsaid. 
For he himself could not speak his deeper secret."

And from that point on, I was a mess.

"Think not you can direct the course of love, 
for love, if it finds you worthy, directs your course."

"Much of your pain is self-chosen." Yes, it was.  "Your ears thirst for the sound of your heart's knowledge."  Yes they did. "You have given me my deeper thirsting after life." Yes, you had.

"When you part from your friend, you grieve not; For that which you love most in him may be clearer from a distance, as the mountain to the climber is clearer from the plain."

I was leaving my friend and this wonderful place, and returning to my responsibilities. It felt in some ways like my soul was being torn in two. Of course I was going home to my children, and gladly so. But I also needed to return to this place.

And so I have.

I have the best of both worlds now. My children are young adults, settled (more or less - in college and grad school with goals for the future), and happy. We visit each other when we can.

And my soul is content and at peace. I think I fared better than Almustafa. I don't believe he ever returned to the City of Orphalese.

This book is the one by which I judge all others.

Only when you drink from the river of silence shall you indeed sing.
And when you have reached the mountain top, then you shall begin to climb.
And when the earth shall claim your limbs, then shall you truly dance.

Incidentally, my friend in the above story is now my Schwiegermutter.

A student of mine from a decade ago knew this was my favorite book, and she painted this for me. It hangs in our home.


  1. I absolutely love the Prophet - it is a book you can just grab and read a bit of when you need to! It's so well written and so poetic and true!

    1. I know you do! Somewhere on your blog, or perhaps via Goodreads, I saw that you praised the book. In fact, that might have been what triggered me to write this post (I wrote it a while ago and finished it more recently).