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The Path to Serenity

 

“Do your work, then step back.

It’s the only path to serenity.”

– Lao-Tzu –

Have you ever been peacefully reading or watching TV or even sleeping when a thin buzzing sound zooms in on you? You swat, and silence returns for a few seconds. The next minute, it’s back, pesky, persistent, and irritating. (An African proverb says, “If you think you are too small to make a difference, you obviously never spend the night with a mosquito.”)

Worry is like a mosquito, darting in with an insistent, irritating buzz. I’ve gotten up in the middle of the night to swat at a mosquito interrupting my sleep. I’ve also woken up in the middle of the night to swat at a swarm of worries. That’s why, when I read Lao-Tzu’s advice about serenity, I took note. If you follow me on my other, briefer blog, Carry the Calm, you know that I’m serious about finding and maintaining peace and calm. So how do we find calm?

“Do your work,” Lao-Tzu counsels. Yours. Not someone else’s. Do what’s yours to do in your career and at home, in public and private, in response to issues you care deeply about, in relationships with family, friends, and co-workers.

“Do your work, then step back.” When I speak about child development, I often tell parents that raising children is like flying a kite. You hold the string and the kite as you run along the ground, testing the wind. As the air begins to lift the kite, you let go of it, still holding the string and keeping it short at first. Gradually, as the kite gains height, you let the string play out, and the kite goes higher and farther. That’s where the analogy to parenting ends, though. In parenting, we cut the string and let the kite sail away on its own. We do our work and then step back.

It’s the same with any of our work. In writing I have to decide, at some point, that I’ve revised to the best of my abilities, and I have to step back and let the book go out into the world. I’ve controlled what’s mine to control, but I can’t control how the book is received. I have to let it go. When I paint, I have to drop my expectations of creating some perfect masterpiece. I have to do my work and then step back and call my painting finished. I’ve done what I could. I can’t control how someone else sees it.

“Do your work, then step back. It’s the only path to serenity.” Serenity comes from a Latin word that means clear, cloudless, or untroubled. One definition of serenity is “utter calm.” I think of floating, totally giving my weight to water, air, my mattress, whatever is holding me up. Serenity rests on trust. Trust allows us to step back, away from the buzzing swarm of worries and rest, for “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well,” as Julian of Norwich said.

Recently a friend and I shared a moment of frustration, amazed at how we wave away our worries, intending to be rid of them, but they come creeping – or buzzing or zinging or whining – right back when we least want to deal with them. As my friend detailed one of her worries, I saw it as a balloon. “That’s not your balloon,” I told her. “Let it go.”

I’ve since pictured each of us holding a bunch of helium balloons so that they’re level with our face, like a bouquet. But only a few of those balloons are rightfully ours to hold. The rest are not ours to deal with. Still, we’re inclined to fill our hands with more and more balloons that belong to someone else, situations we can’t control or cure. The more balloons we hold, the more they block our view. If we let go of the balloons that aren’t ours and let them float away, then we’re left with the few that do belong to us, and we can easily shift them out of the way or peer around them, under them, over them . . . we can see.

So check the balloons you’re holding. Let go of the ones that aren’t yours – maybe they were once yours, but you don’t need to hold onto them any longer. You’ve done your work. Now step back and let those balloons go. If they ever drift back to you, grab the strings for a second, but then toss them up and let them go again. “It’s the only path to serenity.”

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Text © 2018 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

Kite photo courtesy morguefile. Other photos courtesy pexels.com.

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The Brilliant Egg

“A hen’s egg is, quite simply, a work of art,

a masterpiece of design and construction

with, it has to be said, brilliant packaging.”

Delia Smith, How to Cook

I took my eleven-year-old grandson out to dinner a few weeks ago, and as we considered the mouth-watering dishes on the menu (Mexican), our talk turned to favorite foods (Mexican or otherwise). I said I had lots of favorites, but there’s one thing I could eat every day of the week: eggs. My grandson wisely pointed out that if I had eggs every day, they might end up not being my favorite, because I’d get tired of them.

Well, maybe. But there are a lot of ways to cook eggs. I don’t think I’ve found one variation that I didn’t like. Now, I’m talking specifically chicken eggs. I’ve also had quail eggs (yum) and fish eggs (iffy) and cream-filled Cadbury chocolate eggs (double yum). But my staple is plain old hen’s eggs.

This is the time of year for Passover and Easter, so articles are popping up about food (which usually include at least one recipe for eggs) and traditions (which include the Easter egg hunt). At both Passover and Easter, eggs symbolize rebirth and continuing life.

I just read an online article about the history of Easter eggs in Christianity. No one knows for sure how the Easter egg became a tradition. I’ve always heard that Christians co-opted Easter eggs from pagan traditions honoring fertility and spring, and the article mentioned that. But it also offered another possibility. It seems that when the Easter holy day was first being established, Christians were not allowed, during Lent, to eat meat or any product that came from animals, including eggs. Chickens, of course, do not stop laying eggs for Lent, so for the forty days of Lent leading up to Easter, people hard-boiled the eggs to store them. Then when Lent was over – at Easter – they had all these hard-boiled eggs. Easter eggs.

True? Who knows? Sounds plausible. If it’s true, I’m glad I didn’t live back then, because I would have had a hard time giving up eggs for Lent. Meat? Fine. Give it up. Eggs? Not so easy.

I recently ordered a cookbook entitled Egg Shop just so I could get a few more recipes for eggs. Along the way to the recipes, I learned some egg trivia.

• Sunlight tells a hen’s body it’s time to lay eggs, so the longer the daylight, the more the hen is likely to lay an egg.

• Hens want to have a whole pile of eggs – a clutch. So when eggs are taken from a nest, it makes her want to lay more.

• The breed of the chicken and the type of diet determine the color of the eggshell.

If you grew up with some experience on a farm, chances are you knew that trivia already – only it wasn’t trivial on the farm, was it?

So . . . eggs for dinner tonight? Omelet, eggs benedict, huevos rancheros, eggs a la goldenrod, fried eggs, scrambled . . . “a work of art, a masterpiece.” Yes, quite simply, brilliant.

I leave you this piece of advice from Nick Korbee’s Egg Shop: The Cookbook. He applies it to cooking eggs. But it applies just as well to life:

“You must know how to begin, and what you desire in the end.”

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Text © 2018 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

Photos courtesy pexels.com.

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A Toddler’s Secret Wisdom

 

“One way and another, reading takes up so large a share of my existence that I have to praise it. It is what I know best, and the riches it brings me are always under my eye, undeniable.”

Francis Spufford

It amazes me, when I think about it, that we’re able to take lines and dots and squiggles and put them together to communicate. It’s just as amazing that we can read them and hear a writer’s voice, catch a meaning, and connect with the author’s mind.

Maybe I’m hyper-aware of the process of reading right now because I’ve been taking care of my sixteen-month-old grandson, who can’t yet read. He loves books, though, and often chooses one from the shelf, brings it to me, and then turns around and backs up to me, trusting that I’ll pick him up, plop him on my lap, and read to him. Which, of course, I will. Here are quotes from some favorites:

“Help! Help! Who can help? We can! We can!” One Duck Stuck by Phyllis Root

“I curl up in my hollow tree and dream about spring.” I Am a Bunny by Ole Risom

 

“Duck slid down and started running in circles . . . ‘What should we do now?’ he hollered. ‘We should remain calm!’ Goose yelled back.” Duck and Goose, by Tad Hills

 

“The dance is done, but we’ll be back.” Barnyard Dance by Sandra Boynton

Inspiration just for a toddler? Look again:

Remain calm.

Help out.

Dream about spring.

We’ll dance again someday.

Not bad sentiments for grown-ups to take to heart.

Reading really is a magical activity, decoding and finding entry into other worlds, other times, and other thoughts that we might never have considered without the nudge of someone else’s words. When we read, we can time travel – backward, forward, out to distant galaxies and in to our own deep psyches. It’s also a fantastic way to hit the pause button of a busy mind, especially if you have a toddler in your lap.

“…literature makes a very classy drug.”

Francis Spufford

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Text © 2018 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

Photos courtesy pexels.com.

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Reflections: Thoughts and Images Bending Back

This morning, the late winter sky and trees formed a reflection in my coffee. It was the second reflection that I consciously noticed this week. It was much smaller than the other reflection, which was framed by an entire landscape. I was at Cheekwood Botanical Gardens at the entrance to the Japanese Garden path, which skirts one side of a pond. As I looked across the pond toward the mansion, the calm water was reflecting a field of brilliant daffodils and the mansion beyond.

The view reminded me that one of the fascinating facts about Cheekwood mansion is the way that every view from the house was made to either see or hear water in the form of a pond or stream or fountain or reflecting pool. Last fall I took a group tour of the mansion, and as we stood on a side porch under a wisteria arbor, we could look down on a rectangular pool flanked by stone benches and statues of muses. Our guide called it the reflecting pool.

“Because it reflects the hills and trees and sky?” I asked, enjoying the landscape and skyscape mirrored in the water.

“Because it’s meant to be a place to sit and reflect,” said our guide.

Ah. I hadn’t thought of that. But I realized that both meanings were true. The pool obviously reflected its surroundings, but it was also peaceful and quiet, a perfect place for reflection of a different kind.

So I’ve been reflecting on reflection. I had never connected the two definitions before, but they both relate to their Latin origin, reflectere. Flectere means “to bend.” (Think flex. Or flexible.) Reflectere means “to bend back.” Energy – in the form of light, heat, sound, and even radio waves – bends back after hitting a surface. It returns in what we experience as a reflection.

Reflect also means “to think quietly and calmly.” When our minds reflect, we keep our thoughts to ourselves, thinking them and then letting them bounce back to us so we can think them again, maybe refining them as we do. Or we join them to other thoughts and let those reflect as well. Here in the South, we often call it pondering, which comes from Latin pondus, meaning weight (as in pound). Ponder means “to weigh in the mind.” We reflect in order to weigh our choices. We reflect in order to figure out what we believe. We weigh our thoughts.

Reflecting and pondering are essential to the process of creativity. A joke among writers is that we spend a lot of time sitting around staring into space and get to call it work. Most of the time, it actually is work. Film producer Samuel Goldwyn said, “If I look confused, it’s because I’m thinking.”

Shakespeare must have done a lot of reflecting in order to create his plays and sonnets. In one of his sonnets, he tells us what else he reflected on:

“[T]o the sessions of sweet silent thought

I summon up remembrance of things past.”

Sonnet 30 – 

 

Reflecting can also be a type of prayer. Dramatist G.E. Lessing wrote, “One single grateful thought raised to heaven is the most perfect prayer.”

Reflecting to create.

Reflecting to remember.

Reflecting to weigh our choices.

Reflecting to figure out what we believe.

Reflecting to pray.

Five reasons to reflect.

And then there’s a sixth, which circles back to literal reflections, like the sky and wooded hills reflected in the ponds and pools at Cheekwood. We can reflect to enjoy nature. Reflecting is a way to wonder and enjoy the beauty of the world. Noticing and admiring reflections – in a window, a coffee cup, or a pond – enriches the spirit.

“The whole moon and the entire sky are reflected in dewdrops on the grass, or even in one drop of water.” – Dogen Kigen

 

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

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The Moon and the Mind’s Eye

 

“A photograph is a secret about a secret.

The more it tells you, the less you know.”

Patricia Bosworth

One day last week when the moon was full, I rose at dawn and happened to glance out my bedside window. There, cradled in the bare branches of a hackberry tree, was the moon, big and round and bright. Of course, it was not really cradled by branches but was setting in the west even as the sun was rising in the east. But the moon looked for a moment as if it had been snagged in the branches, held so close that I could see its craters and “seas.” Awestruck by the beauty and wonder of the moment, I grabbed my camera and took several pictures as the moon slipped through the branches and sank beyond my view.

 

But when I looked at the photographs I had taken, I was disappointed. The moon showed up big and round and bright beyond the silhouette of branches, but its brightness had overwhelmed the craters. None of them were visible. I had to go back to my mind’s eye to see the image I had wanted to capture. But I did just that. I held the image in my mind, in my spirit, in my heart. I kept the moon, craters and all, framed in that window, in those branches, big and bright and round at dawn. I couldn’t share the photograph as I actually saw it, so I kept its full beauty as a gift presented only to me in the early hours of dawn.

Ours is a sharing society. With social media, it’s easy to instantly post thoughts and opinions, questions and advice, and photos of friends, families, and meals. (I did, in fact, post the photograph of the full moon that I took that morning – it’s the one you see above.) In fact, some of us were taught to share whatever we have, so there may be a feeling of obligation involved. In other words, we may feel that it’s not right to keep the joy of this moment to myself. But the full moon that morning taught me that some gifts of wonder are private.

Some moments are meant just for you, not to be shared but to be treasured in your heart as a secret gift. The scent of a hyacinth, the flavor of a berry, the call of a cardinal, the texture of a clean sheet, the sight of a dandelion growing in a crack in the sidewalk, a glistening raindrop on the knife-edge of a leaf, a heart-shaped shadow – something about it catches your attention for a second, enters your senses, and nourishes your spirit. No photograph required. No sharing necessary. It’s your treasure, meant to enrich your soul.

As I discovered with the full moon at dawn last week, we can frame moments like these and let that one sight or sound or scent feed our soul for the day. We can return to that moment, revive it, and rest in it when we’re starting to become stressed. We can pause for a moment and wonder again at the generosity of such a gift. And we can be grateful.

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

Heart and blueberry photos courtesy pexels.com.

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When Life is a New Song

 

“Let us sing a new song not with our lips but with our lives.”

– Saint Augustine –

Does it ever seem to you that your life sometimes has a Word for the Day or a Theme of the Week? My theme for this week seems to be the word new.

New, as in reappearing. Like the wild violets that cover my yard in the spring. A new one appeared this week, tipped with droplets of rainwater that sparkled in the sunlight. Nature is moving into a new season.

New, as in existing for the first time. Like the paintings that I plan to create in art class this week, expressions of my soul that have never been seen before.

New, as in unfamiliar. Like the information that I’ll learn this month about flowers and trees and trails at Cheekwood Botanical Gardens as I prepare to be a docent.

New, as in different from the usual. Like the schedule that I’ll begin this week, taking care of my grandson on the days that my daughter-in-law works at her new job.

New, as in starting over. As I will do tomorrow morning and the next morning and the next morning . . . beginning again and again for the rest of my life.

New. It’s a word of wonder. And possibility. And hope.

“New,” says Augustine. “Let us sing a new song. With our lives.” Yard work, cooking, cleaning, desk work, commuting, shopping, studying, exercising, playing, eating, laughing, crying . . .

What’s new for you? What has never existed before until now? What is fresh? What is unfamiliar? What returns again and again like the new moon? What holds wonder and possibility and hope for you?

Let life be the song. Let us live andante (at a walking pace), allegro (cheerful, brisk, lively, fast), pianissimo (quietly), and forté (loud). All our lives together will be more than just a song. We’ll be a symphony.

 

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

Bird photo courtesy pexels.com.

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A Yard Full of Yes

 

This week my yard bloomed with daffodils. As I admired one – thinking of how it reminded me of a little dancer dressed in sunny yellow – I realized that my yellow daffodils are the exact color of yes.

That may sound strange, but in my mind, some words have colors – which makes a bit of sense if the word represents something that already comes in a traditional color, like grass, which is, yes, green. (Although I know logically that grass is sometimes brown and even when it’s green, it can range anywhere from yellow-green to forest green to nearly blue. My word grass appears in yellowish green, which is hardly original.) But when a word does not have a traditional color, my mind may automatically give it a color. Like numbers: one is baby blue, two is pink, three is yellow, four is green, five is red, six is blue, seven is violet, eight is orange, nine is black. Then there are words like play (lavender) or hope (bluish white) or dinner (dark brown).

So I have a yard full of yes. Which is delightful. Yes is an open door, an open window, open arms, an invitation. Creativity and discovery appear with yes. Yes can set us free.

Yes can be soul-warming. At church, when we celebrate the eucharist – or communion or Lord’s supper as some call it – I tear off a bit of bread, and I’m told, “Christ’s body broken for you.” I dip the bread into wine, and I’m told, “The cup of salvation for you.” As I place the wine-dipped bread into my mouth, I think, “And this is my YES.” I accept, I receive this gift. Yes is a warm, open word.

I do have to admit that in my daily whirl of events, I often add an ochre tint to my bright, hopeful, yellow yes. It comes in the form of the word but. Yes, but . . . my thoughts say. Which slides the whole phrase toward the gray of worry. Worry tilts toward no and often overlooks the yes in my hand. Yes, but I might fail. Yes, but someone might not like it. Yes, but it might be too late or too hard or too risky.

I realize that there is a place and time for no. (Which, btw, is midnight purple.) My one-year-old grandson is learning some important no’s. No, that’s too hot to touch. No, you can’t pull the cat’s tail. No, scissors are not to play with. Of course, the truth is that no is not just for children. A lot of adults are learning the importance of no right now. No can be good. Strangely enough, a good, solid no at the right time can also set us free.

But there’s that yes on the flip side. No, you can’t touch that, but you can touch this. No, you can’t pull the cat’s tail, but you can stroke her gently. No, you can’t use the scissors right now, but you can when you’re older. As for playing with scissors, some day in art class, you might discover that they’re exactly what you need for play.

So I have an abundance of colorful words available to me. But for this week, this day, this moment, I’m going with a yard full of bright yellow yes.

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

Window photo courtesy pexels.com.

 

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The Curious Case of Lost Opposites

 

“We are walking lexicons. In a single sentence of idle chatter

we preserve Latin, Anglo-Saxon, Norse;

we carry a museum inside our heads,

each day we commemorate peoples of whom we have never heard.”

Penelope Lively

Since you’re a walking lexicon: What’s the opposite of immediate? What’s the opposite of ruthless? What’s the opposite of exhume? If you answered with words like eventual, caring, or bury, you’d be right – in today’s world. But if you had lived back in the 1400’s – or even the 1800’s – your answer might have been different. And if you’re a word lover like me, well . . .

While doing research this week, I discovered that some common English words have lost their original opposites – or we rarely use them. Consider these curious opposites.

immediate – mediate

ruthless – ruthful

exhume – inhume

inclement – clement

inevitable – evitable

emancipate – mancipate

invincible – vincible

inalienable – alienable

impervious – pervious

accommodate – discommodate

impeccable – peccable

income – outgo

ungainly – gainly

 

So . . . may your way be gainly, your weather clement, and your income greater than your outgo.

I’ll leave you with this to chew on:

“The opposite of faith is not doubt, it’s certainty.”

Richard Holloway

In English Through the Ages, you can find these and other long-lost English words and discover when many of our words were first used.

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Text © 2018 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

Photos courtesy pexels.com.

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A Valentine: Do You Know How Beautiful You Are?

It had been a whirlwind of a day, long and busy, but I made it to my art class a bit ahead of time. Still, everyone else had already gathered in the next room. I could hear them talking and laughing, and as I took off my coat, I paused, struck by the unique tone of each voice. They were all speaking, all laughing in a lovely symphony. And just as I’ve sometimes picked out the sounds of specific instruments in a symphony, I could pick out each one of my friends’ voices. I knew exactly who was commenting, who was agreeing, who was questioning, who was groaning, who was chuckling. I wondered if they knew how beautiful each of their voices was. And how beautiful they sounded in conversation together.

Do you know how uniquely beautiful you are?

You are a poem.

You are a symphony.

You are a tree growing through the changes of each season.

You are seasons.

You are the path someone follows.

You are the footsteps.

You are a freshet, a river, an ocean.

You are tidal.

You are a story, an epic adventure.

You are a gatehouse, a shelter, an archive.

You are a garden,

a sculpture,

a masterpiece,

a drama,

a comedy,

a hope,

a treasure.

You are a miracle, the grandest of magic.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

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

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Some Things Are Best the First Time Around

“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly;

what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Each week on Thursday and Friday, I take care of my 14-month-old grandson while his mom and dad are at work. On those days our schedule includes, of course, nap time in Mimi’s (that’s me) big bed. It just so happens that my bedroom is where I hang many of the paintings I create in the art class I attend. Most of them are abstracts. I shift them around each week, taking the older ones down and adding the new ones so that I can reflect on them to see what I enjoy about them, what I don’t, and what I might do next time I paint. I’ve hung so many paintings now that some of them are only about three feet off the floor.

Back to my grandson. Every week, he naps in my room, but he has never paid any attention to the paintings. Until last week. When he got up from his nap, he stared at one of the lower paintings and, never taking his eyes off of it, slowly walked to the wall and stretched out his hand toward the painting. The only way I can describe how he looked is “reverence.”

“That’s a painting,” I said. “You can touch it.” And he did. Gently.

“Reverence” is not a word we use often. It comes from the Latin revereri, to fear in the sense of respect. Vereri is where our word “wary” comes from. Vereri moved into Old English as waer, which meant careful, aware, or wary, akin to Old High German giwar, aware or attentive. All that comes from a bit of research in Webster’s, which defines “reverence” as profound, adoring, awed respect.

Profound, adoring, awed respect. That’s what I saw in my grandson as he experienced an abstract painting for the first time. Which made me think about how we adults might try to regain some of that same awe ourselves, looking at the world as if seeing it for the first time. If you were tasting toast for the first time, how would you describe it? If this were your first time to see a tree or smell a rose, how would you react?

I remember getting glasses for the first time – I think I was in the fourth grade. For months before I got glasses, my vision had been blurred. When I walked out of the eye doctor’s office with my glasses, I was awed at how each leaf on the tree outside was so distinct. For years, I had to wear glasses or contacts to see anything farther than a few feet away. Then I got my vision corrected with laser surgery. Looking around for the first time without glasses or contacts was amazing. Waking up in the morning, looking out my bedroom window and actually seeing the trees, I felt profound, awed appreciation. Reverence.

We so often go through our world with our minds on the past or the future – or the screen in our hand – and we miss the wonder of the world around us. Can I tell a redbud from a goldenraintree from a contorted fig? Did I know there are red-violet shamrocks that fold up at night, or did I think the St. Patrick’s Day green shamrocks were the only ones? Did I know that there’s such a thing as blue poppies? There is, and they are amazingly beautiful.

Maybe part of the joy of wine-tasting, coffee-tasting, cheese-tasting is that we get to try something new for the first time. We try new foods or a new combination of flavors at a restaurant. Or we listen to a new song. Or witness an eclipse or see a falling star or watch a full moon rise. And if we stay aware, we may feel reverence.

Some things are just best the first time around, but if we can pause and see as if for the first time, maybe we can bring back the wonder. And, yes, even reverence. That’s why it’s a privilege to share firsts with a child. Because sometimes the best view is through a child’s eyes. (Also, it doesn’t hurt to have a good nap after lunch.)

 

“The only real voyage of discovery consists

not in seeking new landscapes

but in having new eyes.”

Marcel Proust

 

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

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