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Calls, Whistles, and Bird-Words

“My heart in hiding

Stirred for a bird.”

Gerard Manley Hopkins, “The Windhover” –

One late autumn morning a few years ago, I awoke to the sound of tap-tap-taps overhead on my roof along with a constant high, thin, pulsing squeal, like someone was trying to play the highest note on the thinnest of violin strings. I looked out the window and discovered that a huge flock of cedar waxwings had landed in the hackberry trees around my house and were joyfully feasting on the berries. Stray berries shaken free of the branches were dropping on the roof, tap-tap-tapping like small hailstones. The waxwings’ call was the high, thin sound I was hearing, what one bird book refers to as “high-pitched, hissy whistled notes.”

Since that time, we’ve had a few cedar waxwings visit us but never a gathering as large as we had that morning. More common are cardinals, white-throated sparrows, wrens, robins, mockingbirds, woodpeckers, chickadees, titmice, and blue jays. We do have a nuthatch who drops by once in a while, and sometimes we’re treated to bluebirds and goldfinches. For a few months each summer, we have hummingbirds, and in the winter, juncos. I’ve tried to learn the birds’ calls so I can recognize them. The easiest is the chickadee, who introduces herself when she sings chick-a-dee-dee-dee, chick-a-dee-dee-dee. But that’s only one of her calls. My bird book says that chickadees have ten vocalizations.

My ear often hears words in a birdcall. I recognize the tufted titmouse when I hear feeder-feeder-feeder. The Carolina wren says, chewy-chewy-chewy-chewy-chewy-chewy or preach-it, preach-it, preach-it. The white-throated sparrow sings, where are you oh-my-love, oh-my-love, oh-my-love? The cardinal calls, it’s your home, it’s your home, it’s your home, pretty-pretty-pretty. And the blue jay squawks, Hey! Hey! Hey! I’ve yet to discover which bird is singing Rock-City, Rock-City, Rock-City. Or the one that calls cheeseburger-cheeseburger-cheeseburger.

At least that’s the way I hear bird songs. You may hear different words – or you may not hear words at all, simply the song. Either way, keep your ears open for birds this week, and let their songs invite you to pause and enjoy the serenade!

 

 

“I will make you . . . toys for your delight

Of bird-song at morning and star-shine at night.”

– Robert Louis Stevenson, Songs of Travel

 

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Text and photos © 2018 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

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Secrets in the Squash

A squirrel just strolled past my back door with a huge seed pod in her mouth and proceeded to bury it among my impatiens. I’ve been thinking a lot about seeds this week. Many of the flowers in my garden are producing seed heads. Berries are plumping out on my honeysuckle and nandina. My magnolia has loosed her seeds as well. And my toddler grandson, helping me prepare dinner, was fascinated with the secret hiding inside squash and bell pepper: seeds, flat and squashy in the squash, tiny and pebbly in the pepper.

Seeds have much to tell us, including the obvious truth that what is planted is what will grow. I often wear a necklace that contains a tiny seed to remind me that I am always planting seeds of some kind. It’s a reminder to plant kindness and grace. A 16th century proverb says, “Good seed makes a good crop.”

We’re seeing, in our nation and throughout the world, the fruit that has grown from seeds planted decades ago. Which has jolted us into examining what is currently being planted, seeds that will bear fruit decades from now, fruit that the planters of those seeds will not even live to see. Speaking of . . .

I don’t know if you’ve felt the tension of this time, but if you have, and if you’re having a hard time settling your soul, you might try . . . seeds. Not eating them (although that may have some benefit too) but experiencing them in a tactile way through a practice that I occasionally do at Art and Soul , the studio where I take art classes. We have a variety of random material to inspire us to create – rocks, driftwood, ribbons, shells, and several baskets of seeds, including dried beans. One effective way to settle myself is to sit with a basket of beans and simply scoop up a handful and pour them back into the basket. It’s amazing how still I can become by simply focusing on feeling the shapes, listening to them shower back down, watching them tumble through my fingers. Noticing. Scoop and pour, scoop and pour. It’s calming.

Gathering these bean seeds is like gathering my scattered thoughts. If you feel scattered and agitated, try it. Just remember: Calm is not the same as apathy. We can still speak up or act. But when we do, we’ll respond with the strength, steadiness, and focus that comes from the calm we carry within us.

Seeds in their seasons,

slowly, surely, steadily

enfold life

calmly waiting

through dark days

and chill frost,

holding life

snug and secure

for the time when they will

crack open to light

and life

and wonder.

This week, notice the secrets in a squash or an apple or a flower gone to seed – real tangible, touchable, sometimes edible seeds. Touch them, feel them, the seeds, pods, nutshells, and seed heads. If you don’t have access to a garden or park, look inside an avocado, a tomato, even a banana. (Once in a class of four-year-olds, I shared the wondrous discovery that even bananas have seeds. I broke one in half to show them the tiny black dots inside, then passed around banana slices for everyone to eat. One little boy, now aware that there were seeds in bananas, refused to eat it.) If you’re really ready for a tactile experience, cut open a pumpkin, then dry and roast the seeds.

And enjoy!

“Everything that exists is in a manner the seed of that which will be.”

Marcus Aurelius

 

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Text and photos © 2018 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

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A Long Stretch of Somber Tint

 

“To light a candle is to cast a shadow.”

Ursula K. LeGuin

Autumn is here. At least the calendar says so. In Nashville, our trees are not yet dressed in their fall color, but autumn is a tease of a season. Through the green, she peeks out here and there in a splash of yellow and a dash of orange before fully emerging in her grand red and gold. Leaves are beginning to drop, one at a time, but it won’t be long before they shower down as autumn whispers a windy, “Shhh!”

Autumn is a good time for shadow-watching as the sun angles southward for the season. Last week my toddler grandson discovered his shadow. We were visiting our local botanical gardens, and as we strolled down the sidewalk, our elongated shadows strolled ahead of us. We paused in the middle of the sidewalk and waved at our shadows – and our shadows waved back. Of course, they did. But standing there with a toddler, I was struck, once again, with the wonder of shadows.

You can’t catch a shadow or hold it in your hand. It’s there, yet it’s not a thing. It’s a silent, visual echo. Its presence is caused by absence – the absence of light. Yet the absence is caused by a presence – of something that blocks the light. A shadow doesn’t appear unless there’s light somewhere. That’s my grown-up wonder. A toddler’s wonder is simple delight in the experience of discovering shadows. And I’m there, too.

If you’ve followed me for a while, you know that when I see an interesting shadow, I grab my camera. Even then, I’m often too late to catch what I saw. Shadows change so fast, going from sharp to fuzzy to not there at all, melting into full light or into full darkness, shape-shifting, sprawling across a lawn and into the street, falling over a house like an embrace. They crawl across floors and up walls. They’re even in pasta pots. Last night I heated a pot of water for rotini. As the water came to a boil, I added the usual salt and olive oil. The oil, floating on the surface of the water, created an amoeba-like shadow on the bottom of the pot.

Today I took a painting class and spent part of the time working out hues and values of shadows, which are not usually gray or black but contain color. “[T]here are surely colors that exist within darkness and shadow,” says Yuko Nagayama, who paints in watercolor. And the painter Paul Cezanne said, “Shadow is a colour as light is, but less brilliant; light and shadow are only the relation of two tones.”

That relation holds true even when we use the word shadow as a metaphor. “Every life has dark tracts and long stretches of somber tint,” said Alexander Maclaren, a Scottish preacher in the 1800’s, “and no representation is true to fact which dips its pencil only in light, and flings no shadows on the canvas.” Still, colors exist within shadow, so when we feel like we’re living in “a long stretch of somber tint,” we might do well to look for the beautiful tints and tones to be found there.

And if the shadows seem monstrous? It’s worth considering that maybe what’s casting the shadow is not that large at all – like the elongated shadows of me and my grandson on the sidewalk. As the saying goes, “Worry often gives a small thing a big shadow.”

This week, notice shadows, big and the small, spiked and curved, indoors and out. And enjoy!

“There is strong shadow where there is much light.”

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

 

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Text and photos © 2018 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

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Clinks, Sighs, and Sizzles

Sunday morning.

I stand at the back door, holding it open for the cat as she decides whether or not she wants to venture out into the sprinkling rain. A hummingbird settles at his feeder only six feet from me. He dips his long, sharp beak into the sugar water, then sits back, watchful, before taking another sip. Nearby in the yard, a chipmunk chip-chip-chips. In the dripping trees, birds call good morning – cardinals, sparrows, titmice, chickadees, each with its own chirp or warble or whistle.

The cat finally decides not to brave the shower and ducks back indoors. I stand for a minute longer, listening to the soft patter of rain, enjoying the cooler air that comes with it. Then I, too, duck inside. The timer on the stove has beeped, and the toasty smell of a buttermilk waffle is calling me.

The waffle-maker clicks as the heat cycles on again, but the steam has stopped drifting out. I slip the toasty, dimpled round onto my plate, plop more batter onto the griddle, and close the lid as the batter sizzles into shape.

My knife scritch-scratches the butter onto the waffle on my plate. I add a handful of blueberries, pour myself a cup of coffee, and breakfast is ready. I happily crunch and munch as I listen to the sounds drifting through the half-open windows. The rain is heavier now. The chipmunk is silent, but the birds are symphonic. The neighbors’ overnight guests, in the process of leaving, scramble to get their gear and themselves into their car before the rain shower soaks them. A slam of car doors, and they’re gone.

The waffle iron clicks off with a bit of a crackle, and I realize I forgot to set the timer. But the waffle is just right, and the butter melts as soon as I spread it.

The cat runs past me, pad-pad-pad across the hardwood floor.

And now all I hear is rain.

The clink of silverware. The hum of the fridge. The call of a distant train. The sigh of wind passing through branches. The crunch of dry leaves underfoot. A cat’s purr. The world whispers, “Listen. Listen. This is a gift. For you. Today. Listen.”

This week, make time to listen beneath, above, and beyond the shouts and clangs and alerts and clashes that demand attention. Rediscover soft sounds, the hums, the sighs, the whispers. Let them restore your wonder and joy, your peace and hope.

Wishing you a wonder-full week of listening for the whispers.

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Text and porch photo © 2018 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

All other photos courtesy pexels.com.

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Tasting the Season

Peaches. Blackberries. Heirloom tomatoes. The farmers’ stands around town are loaded with the harvest of late summer. Pumpkins are piled high too, a sign that autumn is upon us, bringing its own signature flavors – acorn squash, cranberries, apples, nutmeg, ginger, and cinnamon.

This week I was browsing the food section of a recent the Vermont Country Store catalogue and was intrigued by the descriptions:

A hint of chocolate and raspberry.

Round and robust.

A crispy finish.

A burst of tangy flavor.

Subtle tang.

Rich, earthy nuttiness.

Slightly peppery at first bite.

Bursting with the flavor of vibrant spring vegetables and bright herbs.

Succulent.

Delicately sweet.

Intense flavor, sweet, yet slightly tart.

Incredibly fruity.

Rich, sweet flavor.

Bursting with fresh-from-the-garden taste.

Mellow tanginess and buttery flavor.

Some of these remind me of labels on specialty coffee. Or wine. Of course, just the name of a food can evoke the flavor. Pumpkin-spice, walnuts and apples, brown sugar cinnamon. Lemon. Maple. Honey. Blueberry, Raspberry, Strawberry. Chocolate.

Discerning subtle flavors in different foods is a talent. So is describing the flavors. The prolific fantasy author Brian Jacques wrote for blind children, so his books are full of detail that rely senses other than sight. He described detailed meals. In his book Redwall, his main character, a mouse, attends a feast. “[C]ourse after course was brought to the table. Tender freshwater shrimp garnished with cream and rose leaves, devilled barley pearls in acorn purée, apple and carrot chews, marinated cabbage stalks steeped in creamed white turnip with nutmeg.” It may be fantasy food, but Jacques makes it sound real enough to make the reader’s mouth water.

A flavor can bring back a memory. And a memory can bring back a flavor so strong that we can almost taste it. Poet John Keats, in “Ode to a Nightingale,” yearns for a vintage “tasting of Flora and the country green.” He seems to be tasting a memory. “O for a beaker full of the warm South,” he says.

For me, warm South is the Southwest. And the Southwest is Texas where I grew up. And the beaker full of warm South is a pitcher of peppery barbecue sauce, ready to pour on a slice of smoked beef brisket. “O for a beaker full of the warm South.”

Notice flavors this week. Slow down a bit, savor what you eat. What’s your favorite flavor of this season? What memory do you taste?

Wishing you a flavorful week!

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Text © 2018 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

Photos courtesy pexels.com.

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The Music and Magic of Water

“I come into the peace of wild things . . .

I come into the presence of still water.

And I feel above me the day-blind stars

waiting with their light.”

– Wendell Berry, “The Peace of Wild Things”

I knew it was going to happen. On my weekly walk through Cheekwood Botanical Gardens, I spied a large puddle ahead on the sidewalk. At the same time, I saw a mom and her two young sons heading my direction. They hadn’t yet reached the puddle, but when they did, the two delighted boys jumped right into the puddle before their mom could voice a warning. Jumping in puddles seems to be a universal impulse with children. (And adults in moments of childlike abandon.) Somehow, water has a way of drawing us close, even in.

My toddler grandson was with me that day, and I steered him around the puddle. Maybe I should have let him splash too, but I wanted to keep his shoes dry. Besides, we were headed for the water that he always gravitates to on our walks. It’s a fountain with water lilies, one of the most peaceful places in the gardens. I think it’s the sound of the fountain that initially calls to him – and me – but then there’s the dance of the bubbling water atop the large stone pedestal in the center, the sparkle of water darkening the carved stone as it flows down the sides and drips into the pool below, the ripples in the pooled water, and of course, the water lilies. We sit on the retaining wall and watch, fascinated.

What draws us to water? Our bodies are approximately half water, so maybe we just sense the kinship. Many of us, like my grandson, are drawn to the sound. He loves an app that came pre-installed on my smart phone. He scrolls through images of water, and the sounds change from rolling waves to the rush of a waterfall to a burbling fish tank to a rippling river. The song of water is part of nature’s music – and magic – spray, swish, swash, dribble, bubble, gurgle, splash and splatter, sloosh and slosh, pitter-patter, drip-drop, sizzle in a hot pan.

Last week, the steady drip of a leaking faucet drove me to distraction. But a different water sound – the lapping of a gentle sea – can lull me to sleep. A few years ago, some friends and I retreated for a week of writing in the mountains of North Carolina. The old house where we stayed was beside a creek, and each night as the sounds of daytime activity quieted, we relaxed to sounds drifting in through the screens of the open windows: the chorus of frogs singing to the music of water rippling and burbling over river stones.

Just the sight of water can soothe us. There’s something beautiful about droplets on leaves and petals, ripples in a birdbath, ocean waves frothing and churning, a still lake reflecting the sky. Then there’s the feel of water, the texture – the warm floaty feel of a bath, the cleansing hot spray of a shower, the chilly splash into a pool, “the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand,” as Helen Keller described it. And there’s nothing like the wonderful coolness of a drink of pure water when we’re thirsty.

“Thousands have lived without love, not one without water,” wrote W.H. Auden in “First Things First.” And yet, loving kindness is refreshing water to the soul, and we treasure those who offer it to us. In “The Confirmation,” the Scottish poet Edwin Muir wrote,

“What shall I call you? A fountain in a waste,

A well of water in a country dry.”

This week my son thinned his garden and gave me some hosta bulbs he had dug up. Their leaves had died back, so he set the dirt-flecked bulbs into a shallow tray. Then he watered them. By the time he gave them to me a few days later, they had sprouted and grown beautiful lush leaves. That’s what loving kindness can do for our souls. We bloom and grow. I wish you that kind of water for your soul’s growth.

So notice water this week – puddles or drips or sprays or ripples. Let yourself gravitate toward what’s beautiful and refreshing, toward what enriches your soul.

I’m writing this on a rainy Sunday. There were baptisms at church this morning, where water takes on a sacred quality. Then after church, on the way to my car, I came to a puddle on the sidewalk. I decided that it, too, was sacred. I jumped into it. With both feet. Splik! I’m still smiling.

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Text and photos © 2018 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

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The Voices in the Hedge

“The poetry of the earth is never dead;

When all the birds are faint with the hot sun,

And hide in cooling trees, a voice will run

From hedge to hedge about the new-mown mead.”

– John Keats –

“On the Grasshopper and Cricket”

Grasshoppers, cicadas, droning bees drunk on nectar – lazy late-summer afternoon sounds. Not that I have much time to be lazy these days, but the buzzing of insects in branches overhead and grasses underfoot remind me of slower days in my childhood. And it’s not really that childhood afternoons spent outdoors in the West Texas heat could be called lazy, even if we were lolling about on a barely-moving swing or lying in the grass watching roly-poly bugs. No, those afternoons were a necessary pause, a child’s rest and reverie, an expression of curiosity and wonder, a way of absorbing nature and beauty and goodness – underscored by an orchestra of loud, raspy voices coming from tiny creatures in hedges and trees and grasses.

In West Texas, we had glossy black crickets. Jiminy crickets. They would often show up indoors. We didn’t mind watching them or catching them. They were friendly crickets. And goodness, how they could sing! Later I learned that you can figure out the temperature by counting their chirps. It’s true. The Old Farmer’s Almanac says: “To convert cricket chirps to degrees Fahrenheit, count number of chirps in 14 seconds then add 40 to get temperature. Example: 30 chirps + 40 = 70˚F.”

I live in Tennessee now, and we have brown, humpbacked camel crickets, many residing in our basement. And we have cicadas too. This is the first summer that my toddler grandson has been aware of their summer concert. The insect orchestra is one of the first sounds we hear when we visit the zoo. It accompanies the flitting dance of butterflies and the steady march of ants, the lumbering trek of beetles and the skitter-and-curl of roly-polies, and at night, the flicker of fireflies. My grandson is discovering all of these, and I’m rediscovering them with him.

Leo Lionni, an award-winning children’s author and illustrator, created a beautiful book entitled Frederick. Frederick is a mouse who lived with many other mice in an old stone wall. In the summertime, all the mice busily worked in the fields each day, gathering seeds to store within the wall for the upcoming cold weather. All the mice, that is, except Frederick. He sat on a large rock and basked in the sunshine. When the cold weather arrived, the mice holed up in the wall, where they began to eat from their store of seeds.

Now you may remember the fable of the grasshopper and the ants and know that the grasshopper frittered his time away as the ants worked, so when winter came, he didn’t get any of their harvest. That’s not where Lionni goes in his story. As the mice ate from their seeds, Frederick got to eat too. Because Frederick hadn’t just been lazing in the sun all summer. No, he had been gathering the colors and sounds and scents and textures of the warm weather. Now in the frosty season of the year, he reminded the others of what that warmer time looked like and sounded like and smelled like and felt like. Frederick was a poet, and with his words, he painted summertime in the middle of winter.

That’s what we were doing back in those days of childhood, you and I, as we lay in the grass or slowly swayed in a swing or tossed a stone into water to watch the ripples. Or listened to the voices in the hedge. We were gathering colors and shapes and sounds and smells and textures and flavors that, even now, we can close our eyes and see. We were gathering childlike joy for this season of our lives. We were gathering wonder.

We can still gather wonder. Pause for a moment this week to listen to the buzz of insects. Or to watch a butterfly, a moth, an ant, a beetle. And remember what fascinated you in nature when you were a child. What did you gather for this season?

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Cicada photo courtesy pexels.com.

Book cover courtesy amazon.com.

Text and all other photos © 2018 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

 

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The Beating of Nature’s Heart

“This is one of the still, hushed, ripe days

when we fancy we might hear the beating of Nature’s heart.”

John Muir

My toddler grandson sometimes pauses in the middle of play, looks up at me with eyes wide, eyebrows raised, and a hand cupped over one ear. That’s his way of saying, “Did you hear that?” Maybe it’s a chipmunk. A bird. The neighbor’s dog. A jet overhead. Someone in the neighborhood hammering. Or mowing. Yes, I heard. Isn’t it amazing?

The world is new for children. They notice. They pause to inspect – twigs, leaves, pebbles, spider webs, puddles. As a child, I was fascinated by the way water flowed onto the concrete driveway when our lawn was watered. I followed the leading edge of the stream as it slowly rolled down the driveway toward the street, leaving a soaked trail behind it. I watched ants and land snails and worms. I tasted honeysuckle and listened to mockingbirds, stroked the bellies of horned toads and smelled new-mown grass. I’m sure you have noticing memories of your own. Children absorb the world around them, whatever that world contains. And then we grow up and have responsibilities and time pressures, and we can go for days without paying much attention to the natural world.

Now leap with me to something that may seem totally unrelated. But stick with me – eventually it will relate. An article in a recent Washington Post reported, “Research shows that the more you lie, the easier it gets, and the more likely you are to do it again.” Actually, I had thought that was common knowledge. But now we have the strength of science to back it up. Tell lies enough, and it becomes a habit. The trail we’ve drawn in the dirt becomes a rut, the rut becomes a trench, and eventually the trench becomes a canyon with walls too high to easily climb out.

So here’s where my brain took that thought: I wondered if the converse is true. In other words, is it true that the more we tell the truth, the easier it gets, and the more likely we are to tell the truth again? I can foresee some situations in which telling the truth would never be easy, but if it’s our habit, it should be easier to go there, even when truth-telling is difficult.

But my brain didn’t stay there for long. It danced off to apply that same principle to the world of sounds, sights, flavors, scents, and textures around us: The more we notice the sensory world around us, the easier it gets, and the more likely we are to notice it again. We’ve begun a practice, and the more we practice, the more it becomes natural to us to notice the present moment the way we did in childhood.

Jump back for a second to the article on lying. It quoted Dan Aniely, behavioral psychologist at Duke University, who said, “The dangerous thing about lying is people don’t understand how the act changes us.” The act changes us. Now take that thought out of the realm of lying and place it in the realm of noticing. The act changes us. Noticing changes us.

John Muir spent more time in nature than most of us ever will. Here’s what he said.

“In every walk with Nature one receives far more than he seeks.”

“One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.”

“I only went out for a walk, and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.”

There’s a sense of wonder, a joy, a gratitude that can only be accessed by returning to the childlike practice of experiencing the moment with as many senses as possible. There’s a peace that can only be found by noticing. If you’re in the habit, it doesn’t take long, just a pause really. A breath or two to take in the moment, to be inspired, to be enriched.

Really, I’ve been writing about this in most of my blog posts, but going forward I’ll be doing it with intention, asking you to join me in paying attention to one specific thing each week as we practice the art of noticing. This week, it’s leaves.

So here are some ideas if you need them: As you go through your week, pause now and then and notice leaves – on flowers, trees, bushes, vines, grass, weeds, or even in the form of lettuce, spinach, celery, carrot tops. Look for leaves outdoors, indoors, or in the floral department at the store. Notice the different shapes and shades of leaves and the pattern of their veins. Notice them at a distance in treetops silhouetted against the sky or close up in a basil plant or a fern. Feel their textures, notice scents and the sound they make in the wind, and even their flavor if they’re edible. Pay attention to what attracts you and fills you with wonder or joy or gratitude or peace. You could even create a bouquet made entirely of your favorite leaves.

This is not meant to add to your busy schedule but to encourage you to be aware of one bit of nature that can give you a moment’s pause, a brief recognition of a gift that we often pass by and overlook, a gift that’s meant to enrich our souls and buoy our spirits.

Let’s notice beauty, turn our awareness toward grace. Toward gratitude and hope and peace. Let’s listen for the beating of nature’s heart.

“Everybody needs beauty as well as bread,

places to play in and pray in,

where Nature may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul.”

John Muir

 

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Text and photos of bluebird and leaves © 2018 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

Other photos courtesy pexels.com.

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Living On Surprise

 

“Expect nothing. Live frugally on surprise.”

Alice Walker

The schoolchildren were on a tour of the old Georgian mansion, making their way down the chandelier-lit, mural-covered hallway, when they passed a small nook in the wall that held a clunky, black, rotary-dial telephone. They stopped short, bunched around it, and asked, “What is that?”

As a docent, I often lead tour groups through this mansion at the heart of Cheekwood Botanical Gardens. The interior of the mansion was recently restored to look like it did when the Cheek family lived there in the 1930’s. As I guide guests through the rooms, I often think about how the family never expected their house to become a historical site, complete with docents telling their life story to tourists. Most people wouldn’t expect that. The Cheeks did expect their mansion to become a fine art museum, because they offered it as a public garden and arts center. But they didn’t envision that the interior would be restored, so they gave much of the original furniture to family and sold the rest. But . . . surprise! Much of the furniture has been brought back or replicated, and the house is now a historical treasure.

On this weekend’s tour, two of the visitors were celebrating their fiftieth wedding anniversary. Her bridesmaid’s luncheon had been at the mansion. That happened long before the mansion was restored, and the place had changed in ways she hadn’t expected. Actually, I’m guessing that after fifty years, her whole life has changed in ways she hadn’t expected.

We all come to moments in life when we pause, look around, and say, “This is not what I signed up for.” Well, maybe it was what we signed up for, but we just didn’t know all the details. Or we didn’t read the fine print. Or there was no fine print, and the terms and conditions we thought were in place changed somehow.

Last week, I spoke at a conference on the subject of moral development in children, and I mentioned that older children, and especially teens, are in a stage in which they often fantasize about adulthood and what their future might be. I know I went through that stage, and I assume you did too – what it would be like to have your own apartment, to get your dream job, to fall in love, to marry, to have a family. And then we reach adulthood and . . . surprise! It’s not what we thought it would be.

“Hindsight is always twenty-twenty,” said screenwriter and director Billy Wilder. But foresight? That’s a different matter. Foresight is foggy at best. Literary agent Michael Larsen gives an example of just how hard it is to see ahead. “At the end of the nineteenth century,” he says, “shortly before the building of the first subway, New Yorkers believed that the city would never grow to a million people, because there wouldn’t be enough room to stall the horses.”

Like those New Yorkers at the end of the nineteenth century, we really have no idea what the future holds. We can’t even imagine the possibilities. We can’t see very far ahead. But if we calibrate our inner compass to point true north, we won’t go wrong. And what is true north? Love. As in lovingkindness. Love is unlimited in its reach. Love has no borders. Love flows past, around, over, and through all boundaries and divisions that we humans can construct.

Novelist André Gide wrote, “One doesn’t discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time.” Maybe where we are right now on the voyage is not what we thought we signed up for. But in some ways, isn’t it better? Deeper? More eye-opening, more heart-wrenching, more soul-lifting, more real? And no matter where life takes us from here, we don’t have to be afraid of losing sight of the shore as long as we hold on to our compass and keep our hearts on true north. We can rest our full weight on love, for love never fails. Love is our help. Love is our health. Love is our hope. Love is our home.

Adventure lies ahead. New discoveries. Possibilities we’ve not yet imagined. And surprise. Yes, we might as well learn to live on surprise.

“For now sits Expectation in the air.”

Shakespeare

  Wishing you peace and joy . . . and surprise!

 

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Text and mansion photo © 2018 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

Other photos courtesy pexels.com.

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Sky Islands

 

“The sky was delicious –

sweet enough for the breath of angels.

Every draught of it

gave a separate and distinct piece of pleasure.”

John Muir

At any given time, thousands of people are up in the air – literally – but they are also nowhere. They occupy no fixed point. By the time that we look up and say, “There they are,” they’ve moved on, flying at hundreds of miles an hour across the expanse above us. I was one of them yesterday, traveling home from a conference.

That’s how I came to take a tour of islands yesterday – sky islands, those towering summer thunderheads, skyscapes of cumulus in shades of white and gray, cliffs of cloud edged with ragged shores that on land would hold a lighthouse. In Thomas Bailey Aldrich‘s poem “Miracles,” he described clouds as

“The fair, frail palaces.

The fading alps and archipelagoes,

And great cloud-continents of sunset seas.”

On land, these shapes would be rocky foothills and crags and castles, hidden inlets and beaches, and farther away, rolling plains stretching to a horizon of mountains. They would be landmarks used by sailors and overland travelers. But they’re not on land. They’re in the sky, where they change and shift, so they can’t be landmarks – or skymarks, as the case may be. Pilots who regularly fly this route will never see them in this exact configuration again. Which is probably part of the adventure of flying: What will the skies look like today?

I wonder if pilots see animal and people shapes in the clouds. I saw a few yesterday. A sheep (I know that’s cliché with clouds, but truly, it looked like a sheep.) Also a profile of a person looking up from another cloud. And a castle. I took these pictures, so that maybe you can see them too. It’s something I used to do as a child, picking out shapes in clouds. Maybe you did too. Part of the fun is that the shapes keep changing. It’s a unicorn. No, a horse. No, a dolphin. No, a turtle.

Looking at the shapes of clouds was serious business at one time. Before the days of online weather channels and weather apps, people looked to the sky for signs of what the day might bring. High, wispy cirrus clouds? Good weather. Patchy and puffy and strung out in rows? Precipitation likely – depending on the wind direction. Low and crowded together? Rain could be heavy. Low and colored gold, pink, amber, lavender, or rose? Probably no rain – for another day at least. Of course, even now we know that those white, puffy clouds are signs of a nice summer day. And we know “when storm clouds brood,” as Edward Lear put it. When we see thunderheads, we expect wind and heavy rain. (And tune in to the weather channel to find out what’s going on.) Otherwise, most of us don’t forecast the weather by cloud. We never need to.

Or maybe we do. Not to predict the weather but for the health of our souls. We need to look up. To pick out a cloud and watch it for just a minute. Let our stress drift away as we reclaim a childhood joy.

Besides, clouds have something to teach us. They have a habit of piling together and darkening the day. But there’s a saying: “The clouds that cover the sunshine cannot banish the sun.” It’s the same with the weather of our souls. Joni Mitchell sang, “So many things I would have done, but clouds got in my way.” And, sure, we can see it that way, but clouds don’t stay around forever. When life feels overcast or stormy, look for the sun. Clouds do move on, and the sun does come out again.

Besides, as I saw yesterday, clouds and sun together create beautiful skyscapes. The shifting weather of your life creates a beautiful you.

So as author Jane Yolen says, “Get out there and sniff the air.” Take a minute to watch clouds this week.

“Great, wide, beautiful, wonderful World,

With the wonderful water round you curled,

And the wonderful grass upon your breast,

World, you are beautifully drest.”

William Brighty Rands

Wishing you peace, joy, hope, and beauty this week!

 

If you want me to send these posts and any updates to your email, simply sign up on the right.

If you want to me to send you a calming inspirational thought for the week each Sunday morning, you can sign up at Carry the Calm.

Text and pictures © 2018 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

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