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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.”


  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.


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!


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


How Does Change Change Us?


“Change is the nursery

Of music, joy, life, and eternity.”

John Donne

When I first walked into the art studio at Art and Soul, I immediately noticed the walls. They were adventurous and playful, covered with paint marks of every color, vertical, horizontal, diagonal, all made by artists boldly painting past the edges of their tacked-up paper and canvases. Or flicking paint. Or throwing it in emotional abandon – anger, frustration, or delight. Those walls became a symbol of the non-judgment we practice at Art and Soul. Art comes from our souls and also nourishes our souls, and within those walls, we don’t judge each other. Just as important – but harder to do – we don’t judge ourselves. We just do art and see where it leads.

But a few months ago, we learned that our rented space had been sold. We would have to find a new place. And this week, we moved.

Art and Soul had been in that space for eighteen years. I have only been with them for three of those years, but I could feel the history of the place, the love of the space and the artists who found a home there and the art – and soul healing – that was birthed there. Wednesday, while the movers worked, I supervised the space with my artist friends Kathy and Donna. We watched the rooms empty out –easels, carts, boxes of paints and creative supplies – until the place was bare and all that was left was our artist friend David, removing the fiber wall board with all our beautiful, adventurous marks on it.

We left our keys beside the sink, turned off a few lights, and left David to finish his job. Closing the door behind me for the last time felt momentous.

We’re still in the midst of the transition. Obviously, the move has been disruptive. We’d all rather be painting, sketching, or writing, but instead, we’ve been packing, cleaning, and moving. But that’s the thing about change. In the preface to the 1755 Dictionary of the English Language, Samuel Johnson noted, “Change is not made without inconvenience, even from worse to better.”

Maybe that’s why some of us avoid change and cling to the familiar, the comfort zone, the tried-and-true. But that might not be such a good idea. John Wooden and Jack Tobin, in their book They Call Me Coach, wrote, “Failure is not fatal, but failure to change might be.” And Kathleen Norris, a poet and essayist, said, “Disconnecting from change does not recapture the past. It loses the future.”

The truth is, change changes us, and some changes are not ours to choose. Just look in the mirror. Time doesn’t ask our permission, it just carries us along for the ride. As a 16th century proverb says, “Times change and we with time.” The real issue, then, is not whether to change but how. We can let change anger us, shrink us, harden our hearts, and build a wall around our souls, or we can let change open us to discovery, expand us, soften our hearts, and enlarge our souls.

In her book Letter to my Daughter, Maya Angelou wrote, “I can be changed by what happens to me, but I refuse to be reduced by it.” That’s my hope as well.

So here we are, those of us who are artists at Art and Soul, inaugurating our new space – out with the old, in with the new. Our new landlords graciously installed fiber wall board on every wall. Of course, right now it’s a stark, pristine white. But it’s inviting artists to leave new marks. It’s offering us a chance to create new beauty, have new adventures, find fresh peace.

As I left our old, empty art studio, I thought of how that space held us, even cradled us. As I enter our new art studio, I think of how this new space holds us too. It holds us in a new way, yes, but it holds us and cradles us just the same. And we’re ready. Ready to make new, playful, adventurous marks. Ready to splash a little paint.

“To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.”

John Henry Newman 

Wishing you peace and hope in whatever adventurous change you’re experiencing this week!


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

All other photos courtesy pexels.com.


Which Comes First – Work or Rest?

I’ve been working like crazy this week to get four PowerPoint presentations ready for sessions – two keynotes, two breakouts – that I’ll be leading at a conference in a couple of weeks. Since my brain is in the habit of picking out words like shiny coins and examining them for all they’re worth, the sparkly word power, from Powerpoint, caught my attention. So straight to Merriam-Webster’s I go to discover that power comes from Latin potere, meaning “to be able.” The simplest definition is the “ability to act or produce a change.” So right away, it’s obvious that we all have the ability to act or produce change – even if it’s only within ourselves – so we all have power.

But then, as my brain also does, it combined that thought with a quote I read, and my brain landed on . . . power nap. Here’s the quote:

“We don’t rest from our work; we work from our rest.”

Jayson D. Bradley

When I read that, I thought, “Yes. Of course. That makes total sense. We work from our rest. That sounds like the right order of things.” In fact, Bradley also pointed out that the creation story, as it’s told in Genesis 1, shows God creating humans on the sixth day. Then on the seventh day, God rested. Which means that the humans’ first full day in existence was a day of rest.

But our lives flow from rest to work to rest to work so seamlessly that it’s a bit like “which-came-first-the-chicken-or-egg?” Which comes first – rest or work? In reality, we do it both ways. We work from our rest and rest from our work. Of course, some of us skew that flow by working and working and working and snatching a bit of rest when we can. It’s not optimum, but it is reality. Power nap reality. Several times this past week, I’ve found a power nap quite appealing, basically because I worked until I was really tired.

But as I vacuumed my floors yesterday, I realized that my vacuum cleaner works on the rest/work principle. It’s cordless and had to have that first resting charge-up before it could work. When it runs low, it has to be recharged before it can work again.

Then this morning, I read an article about crossing time zones. It suggested that “napping before you fly can essentially pay forward some of an anticipated sleep debt.” So there you go: rest first before you head out. If you can do it, it’s worth a try.

I like the idea of working from rest. It’s a totally different way of viewing my nightly eight hours – as the beginning of my work day instead of the end. It’s a prioritized gift of time, relaxing at the start instead of rewarding myself at the end of the day for hard work done. It’s also an interesting way to view a power nap – the time of rest that “has the ability to produce a change.”

Of course, it really doesn’t matter how we think of it. Either way, we recharge, refresh, restore, resupply, reboot, start over, power up and – ta-da – it’s a new day!

Wishing you good rest and satisfying work this week!

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Text © 2018 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

Photos courtesy pexels.com.


A Fountain of Gladness

“How truly is a kind heart a fountain of gladness,

making everything in its vicinity freshen into smiles.”

Washington Irving

One of my joys these days is being a docent at the mansion at Cheekwood Botanical Gardens. (The mansion is also an art gallery, and this picture shows one section of the mansion with part of the current, colorful Cracking Art exhibit.) I get to meet people from all over the U.S. and beyond and tell them about the house and the history of Cheekwood. The mansion is on a hill, and if the weather is nice, we start the tour outdoors in front the mansion where we can see the view.

I explain that the architect who designed and built the mansion, Bryant Fleming, was perfect for the job, because he was not only a structural architect but a landscape architect as well. One of his goals was to make sure that from every side of the house, from every window, the family could see or hear water. So there are fountains, pools, ponds, and a stream not too far from the mansion. I encourage visitors to be quiet for a minute and listen. They’ll hear the stream flowing, and when they do, they usually smile.

Years ago, when my sons were preschoolers, we visited Disney World and Epcot and watched in delight as water from one of the fountains pulsed out in a glittering, arcing dance. I remember, too, walking past a large city fountain – in Atlanta, I think – where on a hot summer day, children were prancing, dancing, and splashing in its high, cooling spray. Our zoo in Nashville has a small, shady pavilion where water sprays out in a fine mist to cool people off. They always smile and laugh and squeal with delight when they step inside.

So it’s easy for me to agree with Irving and think of a kind heart as a fountain of gladness. Kindness quenches the thirst of a dry soul. Kindness refreshes. Kindness sparkles with beauty. Kindness brings smiles.

Eleanor Roosevelt, in the introduction to the Book of Common Sense Etiquette, wrote, “The basis of all good human behavior is kindness.” Kindness is a broad umbrella that can encompass a wide range of behaviors. In Old English, kind (spelled cynd) meant family or lineage. Generally, people favor their family, treating them with more kindness and grace than they give to people outside the family. So kindness is treating someone with grace and favor.

When Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment was, he said, “’Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’ and ‘Love your neighbor as yourself'” (Luke 10:27). Father Thomas Hopko suggests that this last part means, “Love your neighbors as if they were one of you,” meaning one of your family, one of your group. That means treating others with the same kindness, favor, and grace that we would grant to people in our own families and social groups.

When I think of people who have been kind to me, the person at the top of the list is a writing mentor who believed in me and encouraged me. She took the time to get to know me, and when I was with her, I had her full attention. She made me feel important and welcome in her world. What’s more, she treated everyone this way. Encouraging the good in others, being considerate, gracious, and helpful – that’s what it is to be kind.

“Feel how when you extend a kindness, however simple, you are energized and not depleted,” says Krista Tippett in her book Becoming Wise. “Scientists, again, are proving that acts of kindness and generosity are literally infectious, passing from stranger to stranger to stranger. Kindness is an everyday byproduct of all the great virtues, love most especially.”

May we find those kind hearts. May we cultivate a kind heart within. May we be those refreshing fountains of gladness.

The part of this post that deals with kindness is from my latest book, The Gift of an Inner Moral Compass, which is now available for purchase!

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Text, Cheekwood photos © 2018 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

Other photos courtesy pexels.com.


With Quiet Eyes: Seeing Gifts Large and Small

“This is what I hear all day –

the trees are singing my music –

or have I sung theirs?”

Edward Elgar 

My crape myrtle surprised me in a big way – literally. I bought it years ago when it was just a small bush in a container and planted it beside the stairs to my deck in my backyard. I expected it to grow into a larger bush that would maybe reach the top rail of the stairs. I assume that there are varieties of crape myrtle that bush out. This wasn’t one of those. It grew taller and taller. And then bushed out. Today its pink clusters of flowers hang like a chandelier. It’s beautiful and full, creating a canopy over the deck stairs. Even after the flowers fade in the fall, the seed clusters cling to the branches, artistic silhouettes against the sky. And if we have ice or heavy snow in the winter, they become a frozen, white chandelier. All these pictures are from that tree.

Taking pictures is one way I appreciate the wonder that nature so generously offers every day. I’ve come to love the small beauties that, in the past, I didn’t see because I didn’t pause long enough or look closely enough – veins in leaves, raindrops, the inner sanctum of a bloom, buds before they open. Recently I purchased an inexpensive close-up lens for my phone camera, so I’ve been wandering around my garden, discovering all sorts of tiny designs in nature that I can appreciate, with or without taking a picture.

Appreciate. That’s a good word. A good practice. Its deep meaning hides at its center: prec, rooted in the Latin word for price. Price, prize, praise, precious – they’re all related and hint at the fact that appreciate means so much more than simply being thankful or grateful. Appreciating feels deeper, more thoughtful. It requires something of us. An understanding. Awareness. Noticing. Being mindful or thoughtful. Paying attention. Which is the only way we can truly appreciate the tiny beauties in nature. Or a well-made cup of rich coffee. Or wine. Or music. Or art.

Appreciation is not something demanded but something freely given. When we appreciate, it’s like holding something precious cupped in our hands. We hold it out, observe it with wonder and awe, and give it space to be exactly what it is, to “shine,” to grow. Because appreciate also means increase, as when the value of a collector’s item appreciates over time. When we appreciate the variety in people, when we notice and honor and even celebrate our differences, and when we realize someone else’s humanity, their inner divine spark, their dignity, their gifts, then we encourage them to expand and grow and deepen.

The show “All Things Considered” on National Public Radio often honors someone who has died by telling a bit about their life. The reporter usually introduces it by saying, “We have this appreciation.” And in a way, this is exactly right, noticing whatever or whoever is honored, pointing them out, remarking on them, holding them up. Appreciation opens their lives to us, broadens their influence.

But the most valuable kind of appreciation, to me, is not necessarily public. It’s not an honoring event, an award, or a prize. Instead, it’s a lifestyle that sees gifts, large and small, and receives them with a heart that’s aware, noticing, mindful, thoughtful and, yes, grateful. With quiet satisfaction, we pause to recognize what we’re seeing or tasting or touching or smelling or hearing. Appreciation then is our yes, our nod.

And here’s the beautiful twist. As we appreciate nature, people, and experiences – in the sense of noticing and honoring them – we ourselves appreciate, in the sense of increasing. We grow. Our hearts expand, our souls broaden, the well of our spirits deepens. In appreciating others, we ourselves appreciate.

“I will look at cliffs and clouds

With quiet eyes,

Watch the wind blow down the grass,

And the grass rise.”

– Edna St. Vincent Millay –


Appreciate something or someone this week, and let it expand your soul.

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


The Art of Memory

“My eyes, which had seen all, came back,

Back to the white chrysanthemums.”

– Issho, trans. Asataro Miyamori –

Ethel’s small front yard, enclosed by a white picket fence, was completely planted in roses. Their fragrance drifted out into the street, enveloped me all the way up her front sidewalk, and followed me into her house in Hollywood. Yes, the California Hollywood, where neighborhoods of quaint, old houses lie tucked between the busy streets. This was many years ago when I lived in LA and visited “shut-ins” who were not able to attend church. Ethel was about 90 years old and did not get out often. So I went to her.

Every table and shelf at Ethel’s house was full of small knickknacks, some of which were probably quite valuable. She often pointed me to the mantle and asked if her collection of cloisonné was still there. She recounted stories of her travels, mentioned her “beau” of long ago, and told me about the time in her childhood when a mattress set out to air on her front porch began to bulge and ripple all by itself. Some said the mattress was “hainted” – until they discovered a snake inside it. Which made me shiver as much as if it had been hainted.

But when I think of Ethel, my eyes go back to the roses. In fact, when I smell roses, my mind goes back to her yard. This week, I thought of Ethel again, and I wondered what kind of bouquet I would have if I gathered flowers from my memory. I would have a fully blooming, richly scented rose for Ethel and my time in LA. I’d have a few pink rosebuds, the kind that my grandmother sent me in my first bouquet for my tenth birthday – the kind that covered her white casket a few years later.

I’d have a purple iris for the iris garden in a corner of the backyard in one of my childhood homes. Yellow and red four o’clocks for another house where I grew up. And gardenias. The front garden there was full of gardenias.

I’d add favorite flowers from my travels – frangipani from a trip to Hawaii, bluebonnets from the Texas hill country, wildflowers from out West, cherry blossoms from Japan, a blue poppy from Norway, lady’s slipper from the Minnesota woods. And, of course, magnolias and azaleas from here at home in Tennessee.

In the last few years of my mother’s life, she would exercise by walking around her house, “touring” through the knickknacks that filled her shelves. She told me that she would think about who had given her this or where she had gotten that. All the things that might look like clutter held meaning for her. Like Ethel’s cloisonné held for her, connecting her to what Abraham Lincoln called, “the mystic chords of memory.”

So I now have a bouquet in my memory. I guess I could just as easily create a memory in the form of a Thanksgiving-sized platter of foods I’ve eaten or a mental playlist of music from different stages of my life. Come to think of it, I already have. And since this is about what I choose to collect, I get to pick the blooms that make up my bouquet and leave out the ones that hold a bad memory.

What about you? Do you collect knickknacks like my mom and Ethel did? Do you have a playlist – for real or in your mind?

The older I get, the bigger my bouquet. The larger the platter. The longer the playlist. But even if I held only one bright blossom, it would be enough. It would be, for me, a symbol of goodness and grace.

“The true art of memory is the art of attention.”

Samuel Johnson


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



Strange but Beautiful

A little over a week ago, a strange, oval-shaped cloud formation appeared over Ontario, Canada. Sometimes it contained a partial rainbow. People began snapping pictures of it, posting them, and asking what it was. What caused it? What did it mean?

According to meteorologists, the cloud was a “fallstreak hole,” or what some people call a “skypunch.” Fallstreak holes occur when conditions are right, which has something to do with rain falling from only that section of cloud or ice crystals forming, causing streaks and a hole through the cloud cover that opens to the sky above.

Growing up in West Texas, I saw plenty of gorgeous cloudscapes. But I’ve never seen a fallstreak hole. As I explored the fallstreak phenomenon further, I found photos of more strange cloud formations than I’d ever seen, whole galleries of them. And an explanation for why and when they form. Weather conditions have to be just right.

Condition means together (con-) and say (dition, as in diction). So up in the sky, the water, wind, cold, and heat together do their seasonal dances and say, Rain! Snow! Storm! Heat wave! And once in a while, they take an unusual turn and – Skypunch!

Of course, much of what we experience depends on conditions being right. Like rainbows. Or barren deserts that bloom after a rare rainstorm when conditions are finally right to activate long-dormant seeds.

I hear that home gardens have “microclimates.” One expert gardener suggested that if a plant is not thriving in one area of your garden, moving it – even a foot or so in one direction or other – may create the right conditions for it to thrive.

Yeast is activated only when the right temperature of liquid is added to it. If the liquid is too cool, the yeast won’t activate. If the liquid is too hot, it kills the yeast. Bread won’t rise unless the yeast becomes active, and the yeast doesn’t activate unless the conditions are right.

We humans are also influenced by conditions. I’ve been working on a new book that will be out in August: The Gift of an Inner Moral Compass: Helping Our Children Grow Morally Wise. And I’ll be speaking mid-August to a group of teachers and parents on the topic. So I’ve been immersed in the subject of child development, specifically as it relates to morality. I’m reminded that when conditions are right, children grow to trust. When conditions are right, they feel competent and self-confident. When conditions are right, they gain a sense of purpose. When conditions are right, they find a healthy sense of identity. So much depends on seeds that are planted early – and on the conditions. They sprout and grow and bloom when conditions are right.

I can’t control the conditions that create a cloud formation, but sometimes I can make a rainbow with water from the garden hose. When I bake bread, I use a thermometer to heat the liquid just right to activate the yeast, but I’ve missed that mark more than once. I try to plant my garden with microclimates in mind, but I can’t control all the factors that make a plant bloom. And although I know quite a bit about creating the right conditions to help children mature physically, mentally, emotionally, and morally, I fail there, too.

I have to remind myself that I’m not in charge of all the conditions. Even when I can influence the conditions and try to do everything right, there’s no guarantee. Not with rainbows, not with yeast, not with seeds, not with invisible microclimates, not with children. But nature is a good teacher as she continues the dance into and out of all kinds of conditions, season by season. And when conditions are right, she takes a surprising turn and delights us with something strange but beautiful.

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Text © 2018 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

Photo of fallstreak hole cc, H. Raab. All other photos courtesy pexels.com.


Listening for the Whisper

“Mr. Brown can

whisper whisper

. . . very soft

very high . . .

like the soft,

soft whisper

of a butterfly.

Maybe YOU can, too.

I think you ought to try.”

            – Dr. Seuss –

Maybe you recognized that quote from Mr. Brown Can Moo! Can You? That was the book my toddler grandson chose for me to read to him last Friday before nap. As I read it, I was reminded of how hard it is to teach young children to whisper. If they figure it out, it’s a major accomplishment. Not only is the act of whispering hard for them, but it’s also hard for them to understand when to whisper – in church, when someone else is resting . . . anyway, we’re working on it.

After my grandson woke up from his nap, we took a walk – actually, I walked, he rode in his stroller. But it was a beautiful, hot summer day with billowy clouds in a bright blue sky. A nice breeze cooled us off. My grandson likes to point out sounds that he hears. Dogs barking. Jets overhead. Hammering from construction work. A lawnmower. And wind through the trees – another kind of whisper. It sounded like ocean waves coming to shore at the beach. I wondered, what word describes that sound?

It wasn’t the first time I had puzzled over that question. When I was writing a novel a few years ago, I wanted a word for the whispery sound of wind blowing through the leaves of trees. I discovered that there’s actually a very good word that describes it: susurrous, which means “full of whispering sounds.” As a noun, it’s susurration, derived from the Latin for “hum.” It’s probably the origin of our word “swarm.” A swarm does make a humming, whispery sound. The other options I came up with were sigh, sough, breath, murmur, hush, rustle, swish, shuffle, brush. I think I used them all in my story at one point or another. I think I even went with shush and shhh once or twice. I did not use susurrous. It just seemed a bit pretentious.

I’ve been susurrous myself on occasion. When I taught preschoolers, I found that if I wanted to get the children’s attention, instead of raising my voice, lowering it often made them get quiet and lean in to hear what I was saying. Whispering gave my words the aura of a secret, a special “guess what?” “Sometimes you have to be silent to be heard,” said Polish poet Stanislaw Lec. Or if not silent, at least whispery.

But sometimes we’re the ones who need to get quiet and lean in to listen. An old Bible story tells about the prophet Elijah hiding in a mountain cave from the tyrant king Ahab. God tells Elijah to meet him outside the cave. So Elijah steps out, only to face a windstorm so fierce it sends rocks tumbling down the mountainside. But God isn’t in the wind. Then the earth begins to shake. But God isn’t in the earthquake. Then a fire sweeps across the mountain. But God isn’t in the fire. By this time, Elijah has retreated back into the cave. After the fire dies away, Elijah hears a soft whisper. He wraps his cloak around his face (afraid of what he might find?) and steps out of the cave. It’s then that he hears God. God is in the whisper. (1 Kings 19:11-13)

David Brooks, in his book The Road to Character, points out that because we’re bombarded with messages coming at us all day every day, “It’s harder to attend to the soft, still voices that come from the depths.” There’s a lot of windstorm and shaking and fire in the world around us. But the soft, still voices are often the ones that lead us to moral wisdom.

In Elijah’s case, the whisper outside the cave asked, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” Good question – what are you doing here? So . . . what are you doing here? If you don’t know the answer – or if you have so many answers you don’t know which to pick first – may I suggest going for something simple? Like “I’m trying to plant seeds of kindness everywhere I go” or “I’m learning and practicing love.” Either one will get us out of the cave. We’ll face windstorms earthquakes, and raging fire. But if we keep listening, past it all is the soft, still voice in our heart.

So maybe we need to learn not only when and where to shout but also when and where to whisper. Then maybe when all the shouting and blowing and raging and shaking is done, the whispers will still be speaking, loud and clear.

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Text © 2018 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

Photos courtesy pexels.com.


A Tree or a Green Thing?

One of my favorite things in all the world is trees. Specifically, the tops of trees where they brush the sky. That’s why I silently rage when our city electric service sends crews around to cut back tree limbs that have stretched out too close to the electric lines. I have a gorgeous tulip poplar that has grown too close to the lines and has to be trimmed back every few years. Actually, “trimmed” is not really the word for what they do. “Hacked” is more accurate. Over half of the street-side of the tree gets cut bare of limbs, and this year the workers cut branches off the sides as well. I understand that this is done to prevent branches from falling onto the lines and cutting off electricity for our neighborhood during storms, so I say nothing and try not to look at the damage our tree is taking. Still . . . it seems like too much.

Anyway, the electric-service crew came by and hacked away at the poplar this past week. Then today we met with an arborist about trimming – gently – the rest of our trees. It was obvious that the arborist loved trees just by the way he talked about them, the way he described going into the branches and cutting away just enough to keep the tree healthy. If you are in need of getting a professional arborist then it might be a good idea to check out a website like treesurvey.com.au to give you a better idea of the services that can be provided for you.

“The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way,” said William Blake.

Maybe one reason I love trees is that I grew up in West Texas, where trees are few and far between. In our new subdivision, there were none at all until my family planted mulberries and ash trees, which did not gain their full height until after I had moved away.

I do remember climbing a tree in my grandmother’s front yard. It was a locust with jagged limbs and dry, crackly bean pods. As trees go, it was short. Which was why I could climb it. I would perch in a crook where a branch joined the trunk and survey the flat field of grass across the street as if I were a lookout on a ship and the grass, waving in the wind, was the ocean. It felt like a private and privileged place to be.

I had another encounter with a tree this week – or part of a tree. I introduced my grandson to a footstool that my Granny – his great-great-grandmother – made out of a tree stump. I have no idea where the stump came from, but I wish I knew. I wish I had thought to ask her.

Trees hold stories. The tulip poplar in my yard was just a twig when my oldest son brought it home from school on Arbor Day. We stuck it in the ground not expecting it to grow. The dogwood in our front yard was planted by former owners of our house in memory of a grandmother. The hackberry in our backyard held a treehouse so long that the floor of the treehouse buckled as the tree trunk expanded. Even my Granny’s stump footstool could tell a few stories, I’m sure, if it could talk. I hope it will be around long after I’m gone and my grandson has given it to his grandchildren.

In 1658, Sir Thomas Browne, an English author, wrote, “Generations pass while some trees stand, and old families last not three oaks.” Imagine tracing your family back across the lifespan of three oak trees. According to Garden Guides, the average life of an oak ranges from 100 to 300 years. That’s a long time, time enough for someone to decide it’s just a green thing that’s standing in the way.

But I’ll take my cue from the poplar planted one Arbor Day long ago. It was so small when it was first planted that it got mowed over. Since then it’s been windblown hacked, but still it stands, making the most beautiful tulip-shaped blooms in the spring. There’s a lesson there for those who are open to it.

“You will find something more in woods than in books.

Trees and stones will teach you that which you can never learn from masters.”

St. Bernard of Clairvaux

Wishing you shade, shelter, and the beauty of trees this week!


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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 photos © 2018 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.