Leigh Ann Henion is the New York Times bestselling author of Phenomenal: A Hesitant Adventurer's Search for Wonder in the Natural World. The book is about how she chased eclipses, migrations, and other natural phenomena around the globe to reawaken her sense of wonder. After reading her beautifully written memoir, I reached out to Leigh Ann, who graciously offered to share her insights into mindfulness, motherhood, and what she wishes for us all.
SM: Mindfulness can be defined as deliberately paying attention to the present moment with kindness. You define phenomenal as “that which is amazing” and “directly observable to the senses.” How do you think the two are related?
LH: To me, mindfulness is about being attuned to physical senses. It's about chirping birds, a breeze, the warmth of the sun. It's about being present in space and time. If experienced fully, holding a grasshopper in your palm can be more amazing than watching a video of the most dazzling natural phenomena on YouTube. It's about acknowledging and valuing visceral experiences. I think claiming the directly observable as amazing can be a transformative—and it can happen in your backyard.
SM: Do you deliberately practice mindfulness?
LH: I’ve recently taken up archery, which requires focus and intent. I think that practice has been helpful in terms of honing mindfulness. When I'm shooting a bow, I am—in contrast to much of my daily life—completely in the moment.
SM: Do you meditate?
LH: Writing is, for me, a form of meditation, especially in the initial stages. The first draft of anything requires an emptying of the conscious mind, a certain level of openness.
SM: You write that you have, “honed a sense of wonder that will thrive wherever I am, as long as I exercise it.” Have you been able to maintain your sense of wonder now that time has passed? If so, how do you cultivate this?
LH: In Phenomenal, I was standing under the northern lights, seeing vast animal migrations, witnessing the corona of the sun bloom from behind the moon. All those experiences compounded to give me an enduring sense of wonder. Looking back, I'm not sure if wonder is something I'd lost, as much as it had became something I wasn't comfortable talking about or embracing. I think we relegate wonder, as an emotion, to children. Society tends to cynically peer down on people who rattle on about awe and beauty. But the world is full of it. My journey helped me see connections in the natural world, and it made me feel part of something infinitely larger than myself. If I feel distant from the sense of wonder cultivated in my travels, turning stones in a nearby creek to find salamanders has proven enough of a remedy. Once you start looking for wonder, you find it everywhere!
SM: What do you think of the idea of balance in motherhood? What does it mean to you?
LH: I’ve come to think of it in terms of acceptance more than balance. Motherhood, like life, is full of duality. The easy and hard, light and dark, personal and communal. The resulting tension is often painful. But it's constant ebb and flow. That's what I'm continually trying to become more comfortable with—the unrelenting, glorious cycle of it all.
SM: I completely related to your poignantly described struggle post-partum. What advice would you offer expectant/new moms?
LH: Trust yourself.
SM: It seems your first year of motherhood engendered wildly conflicting emotions similar to witnessing phenomena (ecstatic joy, fear, gratitude, helplessness, awe). Would you say that’s true?
LH: The writer Alan DeBotton has said that sublime landscapes "repeat in grand terms a lesson that ordinary life typically introduces vicariously: that the universe is mightier than we are, that we are frail and temporary and have no alternative but to accept limitations on our will; that we must bow to necessities greater than ourselves." I think, in this way, becoming a parent is a sublime experience. As a culture, it's something we don't have language to adequately talk about. In hindsight, I can see that my pilgrimage was an attempt to make the outer world match the sublime magnitude of what I was experiencing on an intimate level.
Chasing natural phenomena around the world is a terribly dramatic way to deal with the conflicting emotions that so many women experience. But it was a move in alignment with who I've always been and what I've always done, though it wasn't in alignment with what I thought society expected me to do. I did it anyway. And experiencing ecstatic joy, fear, gratitude, helplessness, and awe in the face of natural-world wonders proved to be the necessary scale needed to help me process the ecstatic joy, fear, gratitude, helplessness, and awe of becoming a mother.
SM: What has been the most challenging part of motherhood for you? How do/did you cope with it?
LH: The transition into motherhood—the physical, emotional, spiritual metamorphosis of birth and the postpartum experience—was the most challenging part for me. The wonder-seeking journey relayed in Phenomenal was my highly unusual way of wrestling with that.
SM: What has been the best part of motherhood?
LH: The challenges and joys are often the same. Because parenthood requires constant transition. My son is always growing, so I have to grow too. All that physical, emotional, and spiritual metamorphosis experienced early on continues—with each new growth stage, each new challenge. Thankfully, I find them easier to handle now that I'm getting more than three hours of sleep each night!
SM: What inspires your creativity at home? How do you stay in touch with your true self/passions?
LH: My main creative outlet is writing. Initiating and being immersed in projects that spark my curiosity and enthusiasm help me connect with my passions. I find that, when it comes to staying in touch with my true self, walking in the woods is a great way to clear modern-world static.
SM: How do you recognize when you are on the right path of what you are called to do?
LH: I’m not sure you ever know for sure, because the path forks. Do you take a right or a left? There are always decisions to make. I think, as long as you're pursuing something that makes you feel alive and fully engaged in your life, you're headed in the right direction.
SM: How do you cope with fear? Was this natural or learned?
LH: When I recognize a fear, I try to push through it. But there are plenty of fears that sneak up from behind, things I don't even notice are holding me back until something awakens me to them. Those are hard. I think the ability to be vulnerable is something that was coaxed out of me early on, year-after-year at an adventure-centered summer camp. I was afraid to climb the rock face and the high ropes. I was afraid of a lot of things. But, ultimately, even if I didn't make it to the top of the rock or the most daring high ropes ladder, I tried. And that taught me that trying was enough. When you feel like that, it's a lot easier to be bold.
SM: What is your wish for others, especially mothers, as they read your book?
LH: I hope Phenomenal emboldens readers to do whatever it is they feel called to do, no matter how improbable it seems. My wish for them is really the same thing I wish for myself: that we all keep exploring life's infinite possibilities.
SM: What is on the horizon for you now?
LH: I’ve just started my second book. It's a personal narrative that explores archery—in a variety of cultures—as a practice that integrates mind, body, and spirit. In the short term, I hope to spend this summer floating down Appalachian rivers!
SM: Thank you, Leigh Ann, for sharing your contagious enthusiasm and sense of wonder.
Phenomenal was named an editor's pick by O: The Oprah Magazine, Backpacker, and Barnes & Noble Review. Elizabeth Gilbert called it a "gorgeously written and deeply thoughtful memoir," and The Sydney Morning Herald declared that "even a cynic reading Phenomenal will yearn for a taste of wonder."
Henion's essays and articles have appeared in Smithsonian, Orion, and The Washington Post Magazine, among other publications. She has received a variety of accolades for her work, including a Lowell Thomas Award, and her stories have been noted in three editions of The Best American Travel Writing. Henion lives in the mountains of North Carolina.