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Listening In

Driving back to our host’s home in Atlanta, Georgia I came across a marching band practicing in their high school parking lot. Student musicians marched jubilantly in staggered lines, their brass instruments gleaming in the fading sunlight as they swayed. It was that time of day, early fall, when the sunlight is just start to sink over the horizon and everything seems to glow. The leaves dance in the light, slowing things down, even if only momentarily.

Despite the Atlanta traffic being anything but slow, I reveled in this moment of fading fall light – the first real autumn experience of the trip up to that point – and thought about the marching band. A tiny sliver of everyday life for this group of teenagers in this particular part of Atlanta. Noticed for a moment and then out of my sightlines forever. An ordinary moment here and then gone.

On our road trip we are constantly confronting everyday occurrences that aren’t ours and that we aren’t a part of. Though we imagine the possibility of stepping into these communities in the future, currently we are more akin to anthropologists: observing, outsiders, with a vantage point lacking intimacy.

Of course, as we travel through states and communities, sample coffee shops, peruse bookstores, pick up groceries, observe the political yard signs, and take walks in local parks, we imagine what it might be to experience these things as an inhabitant of the place. To be of the place instead of outside looking in.

While driving in the rolling hills of Georgia, I video-chatted with my friend Molly, who relocated to Finland with her husband Nick. As we chatted – in a moving car, with an ocean between us - Molly described the feeling of not being at home in either the place you came from or the place you relocated to. It sounded like a sort of in-between limbo that soaks into your very psyche. Her reflection was poignant and familiar. To be far from where you came from but not yet arrived at wherever it is you are going – this is the space we occupy.

Many of the people we have talked with on our trip have expressed that stability is one of their core human yearnings, and being rooted in a place often brings about a feeling of stability. For the time being we have uprooted ourselves consciously. Our surroundings change constantly. Just as we get comfortable in a place, we are off to the next. Home is out of sight both behind us and in front of us. It’s disorientating.

And in this in-between, observational, outsider space I find myself thinking more and more of the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows and the stunning word sonder:

n. the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness—an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.

In sum: “Everyone has a story” – sonder.

Sonder occurs daily. As we move through places, experience constant newness, familiar faces are fleeting and each person has a story that we are so close to.

We are captured more by the ordinary moments, because these are the moments we could one day be creating in this (or another) place.

The neighbors chatting with each other on the sidewalk as they take out the recycling, the college student rushing to class, the people waiting for the bus, the servers at a restaurant gossiping light-heartedly, the guy at the bookstore in the self help section, the couple arguing outside the ice cream shop, the middle-aged man on the park bench gazing wistfully – at birds, at the horizon, who knows? We want to know more, and so maybe we linger a bit longer than we would “back home,” turn an ear their way.

In the search for home, nosiness is one of our best tools, listening in is how we learn. We eat our lunch quietly at restaurants, conversing with each other sparingly, instead choosing to eavesdrop on what the locals are sorting through this week.

Striking up conversations with people going about their daily lives, we often tell them what we are up to and analyze their reaction. Do they want out of their hometown? Are they perfectly contented and a bit suspicious of what we are doing? Is their level of wanderlust telling us something specific about this place? Their reaction makes room for us to ask, “What’s it like to live here?”

There is so much in the world right now that is deeply confusing, painful, and damaging. Yet, there are also people working everyday to create a future that creates space for and supports all humans –an awesome tapestry of differences that makes life vivid and interesting.

At this particular time in our country’s history, we are finding comfort in this exercise of listening in and taking the time to think of the complex web of the people who pass us by each day. Sonder. So many fascinating humans. All with their daily tragedies and successes.

As I read the news and listen in on the strangers we encounter, I wonder what searches they are on – literal or metaphorical. Perhaps, in our great confusion, destruction and human flaws, we are all desperately trying to find a place in the world, we are all searching for somewhere we feel at home.

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