My son squats in the sand, squinting into the tide pool. I’d envisioned crimson starfish and purple urchins, but all I see now are grey barnacles clinging to boulders. I hope he isn’t disappointed. In the car, I’d listed everything we might see according to the website, which touted Beach 4 as one of the best places to find sea life.
“Mama, look!” he cries suddenly, prying a shell from the rock. A hermit crab retracts its claws as my son turns it over, hoping to glimpse the hiding creature. Within minutes, he’s amassed a pile of sea snails and is feeding them to the jewel-colored anemones hidden beneath the sea foam in shades of coral and teal.
Meanwhile, the baby toddles through the sand, picking up smooth white rocks and shell fragments.
“A shell, a shell!” he cries, chasing after strangers to show off his treasures.
My children notice details that escape me. They see teeming life where I see a plain rock. They uncover wonder in the ordinary. Is it merely because their eyes are closer to the ground, or do they actually possess a gift of discernment that fades away as they grow into adulthood?
Back when my older son was two, the walk from our apartment to the playground was less than an eighth of a mile, but it always took us at least 20 minutes. We visited every flower bush and greeted each insect on our way. My son was fascinated with the natural world – or what of it existed in our urban Los Angeles apartment complex. The playground floor was fake grass that accumulated dirt and mashed-up Cheerios, but around the perimeter were shrubs and dirt, and Cal found plenty to discover in the flowerbeds. He would focus his laser-like attention on a bug until it was time to go home for dinner, ignoring his tricycle, the slides, and the other children in favor of cataloguing the shades whirling in a snail’s shell.
Our path to the playground cut through the parking lot, and we often were in the way of the swinging gate. One evening, a woman hurried through the gate, trying to get past us as my son stretched across the sidewalk, eyes parallel with a creeping snail.
“I’m so sorry,” I apologized. “We’re moving slowly here.” I glanced at the snail.
“Don’t worry about it,” she said. “He’s got everything figured out.” She pointed to my son. “I wish I could see the world through his eyes.”
It’s cliché, isn’t it? Stop and smell the roses, be present, let the children lead the way. Forget about the list of to-dos and the towering pile of dishes in the sink and live in the moment. We take yoga classes and download meditation apps and pay to float in sensory deprivation chambers so we can attain a zen-like presence. All the while, my little boy is completely absorbed by a snail’s ponderous trek across the sidewalk.
When we reach home at last, Cal bubbles over with excitement: “We found six snails today! I saw his eyes! He was under the purple flower!”
Two years later, my son still sits and watches the details, absorbed in a world of beauty that I often only skim the surface of. Social interactions can be difficult for him – at the last birthday party we attended he turned to me with tears welling in his eyes and begged to go home – but when he can sit still and observe, he’s in his own magical kingdom. Sometimes he isn’t included in the hubbub at the playground, but when he sees, he sees. He finds the tiniest snails tucked into the fold where the leaf buds from the stem. He looks out the car window at dusk and whispers, “The sky is changing colors.” Every time he sees a bee kiss a flower bud, he jumps with excitement and flaps his hands, eagerly pointing it out. Through his ever-searching observation, beauty is always at my son’s fingertips.
As his mother, I have the privilege of seeing the world through his eyes, occasionally against my will. He’s not content to keep his discoveries to himself. He is driven to point out each finding, and he demands acknowledgement. Car drives are peppered with observations – a chimney, a swooping bird, a motorcycle. I’ll hear him screaming while I’m in the shower and rush out in a panic, only to see him jumping and pointing in excitement.
“A hummingbird, Mama! I saw a hummingbird out the window!”
There’s no faking interest – he sees right through it. If I respond to his observations with a nonspecific “yeah,” he revolts: “Not ‘yeah!’ Say ‘airplane!’”
He demands my attention. In a world encased by a technology veil, he forces me out of myself and into a moment where I, too, can see. Beauty is what makes our lives worthwhile, what makes us meaningful. Most of us, when our work is done, want to experience something beautiful. We scroll through Instagram, looking at beautiful lives. We listen to music, hoping something stirs our souls. We watch shows or read books, hoping to find a story that resonates with us.
We’re all seeking beauty, but my son finds it in the corners of the world. He doesn’t need to fabricate it. He strips away the layers of dirt and distraction and uncovers what is already waiting to be found.
Today at the park, my son pulls me away from the playground to the pond. Every few steps, he and the baby bend over in the grass, gathering clover blossoms and dandelions. Once we reach the water, my oldest points out the line of ducks swimming while his brother cries, “Quack, quack!” Something buzzes overhead and we all look upward – it’s a huge dragonfly, striped black and white. We stare as it hovers over the water before winging away.
Cal looks at me, beaming.
“Did you see that dragonfly? I’ve never seen a dragonfly like that before.”