Take Out Your Headphones And Look Around


I have a pretty great commute to and from work every day.  It involves a ten minute walk from my apartment to the metro, a fifteen minute metro ride, and a five minute walk from the metro to my office.  On the way back, if it’s nice, it involves a five minute walk from my office to the metro, a five minute metro ride, and a twenty minute walk.

I live in the heart of DC and my office is in Rosslyn, VA, just across the Potomac River from Georgetown.  Getting from one place to the other includes a lot of amazing views, cool buildings, crowded streets, and every type of person you can imagine, from the runner who dances his way through all four crosswalks at the intersection of H and 7th every morning at 8am, to the lawyers in their five-thousand-dollar-suits, to the students of Georgetown and GW carrying backpacks and hangovers, to the groups of moms out walking with strollers, water bottles, and a the newest style of sunglasses.

Sounds like a lot to take in, right?

Well…you are right (or I guess in this case, I’m right).  There is so much to be seen every morning and afternoon while travelling to and from work.  So much to look at, listen to, and experience.  There was a street show being put on outside the Chinatown metro station last week when I was coming home from work and I stopped to see what was going on.  I ended up staying there for over 20 minutes watching the performers, and I’m not exaggerating when I say that some of the things they were doing actually made my jaw drop.

One guy flipped over nine pedestrians lined up on their hands and knees.  Nine.

Now I don’t stop and watch every single time something like that happens, but I did that time.  And I definitely didn’t regret it.

A lot (read: all) of my friends listen to music when they’re going to and from work, and I get why: sometimes music gives you that pick-me-up when it’s early and you’re tired, or it’s late and you need to unwind.  I’m all for music – one of my first posts on this blog was about the magic of music when it comes to being creative – but even though you aren’t wearing a blindfold, putting in headphones can cut you off from the rest of the world.  You just don’t see as much.  Or connect with as much.

There is a lot to see out in the world, and you never know when you might see something that sparks your interest, or ignites your creativity.  And on a completely unrelated-to-writing note, sometimes it’s just nice to connect with the thousands upon thousands of people that are all around you all of the time, just an inch or hello or smile away.

It reminds me of one of my favorite words, “sonder” (which you can find here on The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, which is a compendium of invented words written by John Koenig – I highly recommend checking it out).


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.

So next time you’re on your way to work or walking in a crowd take out your headphones, take your eyes off the pavement, look around, listen, try to find something cool, interesting, or funny – maybe even try to find something that can make your day.

What about you?  What do you love about your commute to work?  What is your favorite thing to do in your area? (Mine is to watch that runner dance around the crosswalks, it makes me grin every single time).  How do you feel about the word above, Sonder?  Was this post too head-in-the-clouds optimistic dreamer-esque?  Just the right amount?

8 comments on “Take Out Your Headphones And Look Around”

  1. Nice post! There’s a lot to look at in DC, and in any major city. Rural places have their own charm, where trees replace buildings and there are critters instead of people. There’s so much in every environment to notice, and to stimulate one’s creativity.

  2. Just one more layer of oblvious peeled away. I drive to work, but loved riding bus in college. I knew most by name and something that was going on in their lives. Just as they knew me and something about my life. You can meet awesomely cool people on the bus. Great post.

  3. I’ve never been able to plug in headphones while walking–there’s too much to experience in the world! And your definition of sonder (which is fabulous, by the way) reminds me of one of my favorite quotes in “The Vigilante Poets of Selwyn Academy” by Kate Hattemer:

    “I was sitting in a plastic desk-chair contraption in an English classroom in Minnesota, tapping out the meter of lines from Pound’s Cantos, wearing a baseball shirt with a small hole in the armpit. But I was also roiling with feelings and thoughts and doubts and conjectures and worries and layers of complication. I looked around the classroom. Elizabeth was playing Hangman with her normal friends. Jackson was approximating square roots in his head. Vivian was fixing her eyeliner. Cynthia was texting under the desk. BradLee was trying to explain metonymy to Paul Jones, who was trying to make BradLee laugh. But that was only what I could see. If so much happened in my head, didn’t I have to conclude that it was the same way with everyone else? I had to look down again. The world was too big.” (141–142)

    Phew. That’s kind of a long quote, sorry. But I love how well it encapsulates that feeling–that the world is so impossibly much bigger than what you can see at a glance.

    1. I love the quote. And you’re right – the world is so much bigger than you can see, and the lives of everyone around you so much deeper than you assume, that it’s sometimes overwhelming to think about. You can easily get lost in the philosophical thought of it all (and the meaning behind it) if you let yourself (which is fun sometimes).

  4. I actually like staring at the sky (even clear blue sky fills me with a sense of awe) but the other day it occurred to me that I might be missing ground-level wonders because I’m watching the skies so much. However, truth be told, I spend most of my commute (bus/train) reading books; and I’ve wondered about how to achieve a suitable balance between observing all the brilliance of the world, and absorbing all the beauty found in literature…

  5. I used to love my commute in London – train to Liverpool Street then a 25-minute walk through the City and across London Bridge. So much energy swirling around !

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