When I was a little girl growing up in Wyckoff, NJ, my father and I would often explore through wintry landscapes, my mitten in his gloved hand. “Look,” he’d say. “Do you see?”
He’d point out colors and shapes. Suddenly, together, we’d notice that snowdrifts had purple shadows. Red weedy canes rose up from the field. And golden poofs topped long grasses that nodded in the wind. That dreary winter day transformed from a dull slushy gray, into one that was filled with colors and shapes and stunning beauty.
This “noticing” is something I still manage to do every day. Driving by a large open field, I can’t help but pick out russet-colored branches, dusty blue puddles, and swaths of golden and red weeds. And I’m always struck by the subtle beauty that is all too easy to overlook.
These experiences inspired my picture book A DAY SO GRAY (illustrated by Alea Marley, Clarion Books). The story is about two friends out for a walk in winter. “This day is so gray,” one grumbles. “No it isn’t,” the other says, and together they discover colors and beauty all around them. I’ve dedicated this book (not surprisingly) to my dad Santo Busterna. Kirkus noted that the book has an, “almost magical way of seeing and appreciating the world”.
If there is a magic to seeing, it’s a simple one we can all conjure up. It’s one that we can pass like a treasured spell book from parent to child.
Call this magic “mindfulness” if you like. Akin to meditation, mindfulness is said to ground us in the moment, reduce stress, and get us out of our anxious brains and into feeling more alive. Therapists share mindful exercises with their patients. Schools have even enacted mindfulness units to soothe today’s over-programmed kids.
My dad was born in the 1930s, long before mindfulness was a thing. He grew up in the then-undeveloped wilds of Long Island. His father, my Nano, was a gruff Sicilian who spent long days building houses, lugging heavy cement blocks by hand. And my Nana was up to her elbows in hot soapy water as she cooked and cleaned for her husband and four children. His parents surely didn’t give him mindfulness exercises to help him notice and relax.
So I asked my dad recently, how did this happen? How did you become someone who noticed so much all the time?
“Well,” he said, “I just did. Back then, we had nature all around us. You stepped out your door and right there were the woods and fields for you to play in and explore.”
Of course nature can certainly be full of beauty, and it’s soothing to boot. But I’ve met plenty of people who grew up in natural surroundings, yet who are still stuck in their own heads. And I’ve known others who have had no real access to nature who still have a mindful eye for details.
In my dad’s case, I think the noticing came easily to him because he was a born artist. Artists are the epitome of mindful because they have to look closely and always observe things in order to then create.
He sketched from an early age, and he loves to tell me of the time he sculpted a dog out of clay. “I was about six years old, and this dog was so perfectly done and so detailed that my teacher insisted I was a liar. That one of my parents must have made it.” For college, he wanted to go to art school, but his father made sure he studied something more practical: Chemistry. Degree in hand, Dad turned to the most creative career he could find, becoming a Perfumer. In his spare time, though, he carved countless original works in wood and in stone.
As for me? I’m not exactly a born artist. And I didn’t grow up surrounded by wild landscape. Instead, my childhood was suburban, full of tidy lawns and clipped azalea bushes, with a few patches of woods between properties. For me, I notice so much simply because my dad showed me how. And because of this I have become a writer, a close observer of the world.
When an adult presses the proverbial pause button to spend time with a child, to share the joy of noticing, well, that’s powerful stuff. This is something we can all do, and it can happen anywhere, at any time. Out on a winter walk. In a muddy park looking for early signs of spring. Strolling along a city sidewalk past busy shops. Even while cozied up on a couch with a picture book on our laps.
Noticing is a special magic, and sharing that experience with someone you love is pure enchantment.
I’m grateful that, no matter how busy my dad might have been, he always took the time to hold my mittened hand in his gloved one so that we could actively see some of the world together.
“Look! Do you see?”
Yes, Dad. I do.
*Marie is an author of YA novels and of picture books, and she’s a Literary Agent at The Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency in New York City. To keep up with all her posts, subscribe to her site.