“I like your shirt, baby!” a woman in a big fur coat called out on the street. I was en route to the bodega near my apartment last fall and it took me a second to realize she was talking to me. “Thank you!” I called back too eagerly, my heart jumping from the stimulus of a kind stranger.
My t-shirt was oversized and baby pink, thrifted by my brother and emblazoned with the teenage sentiment “NO SHIT” in big block letters. I’d worn it several times before to little fanfare, but maybe I just hadn’t been able to hear it—this solo walk down the block was one of the first I’d done without headphones in months. Over the 13 minutes it took roundtrip, I heard several things I’d forgotten existed: the swish of the trees that canopy over my street; the echoing bounce of kids playing basketball at the nearby school; the gravelly sound of teens riding skateboards down the street; the woman in the big fur coat calling me baby.
All the little details conspired to a sum greater than their parts. I felt alive, present, connected. No longer the protagonist of my suffocating inner world but a character in my neighborhood. A little human on her way to buy garlic, sharing the sidewalk with local kids, breathing the oxygen expelled by local plants, misunderstanding the chatter of local birds. Without the padding of syncopated sound being beamed into my ears, I heard the music of my surroundings. I was perceiving without protection. And it felt good.
Since then I’ve deigned to walk around sans headphones more often. Sometimes it can be boring in a benign way, like peeing without Instagram. But it can be unpredictable and delightful, too. Like when I heard the entire romantic history of a violin player on the F train, or noticed my neighbor’s infectious laugh. The sounds of the city remind me that I live in New York, make me privy to funny conversations I’d otherwise never hear, and reconnect me with the natural spoils of my fifth sense, which I’ve been dulling with playlists and podcasts for years. What I’m listening to is essentially background noise, but when I bring it to the forefront at the right moment, it sounds essential.
In Jenny Odell’s book How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, she explores this phenomenon in detail. As a burgeoning birdwatcher, she had to learn to distinguish between hearing and listening—or what composer Pauline Oliveros calls “deep listening.” Odell says the goal and the reward of deep listening to your surroundings is a heightened sense of receptivity. As Oliveros put it, “[O]ur cultural training dominantly promotes active manipulation of the external environment through analysis and judgment, and tends to devalue the receptive mode which consists of observation and intuition.” In other words, we’re drawn to blasting curated sounds into our ears instead of receiving the natural ones around us. For Odell, birdwatching required she listen to her environment in a more active way. Instead of passively perceiving everyday tweets and chirps or ignoring them completely, she listened to them with a focus that transformed them into song. The gritty sounds of New York can do the same thing (and there’s a surprising number of birds).
I still commute with music more often than I don’t—I’m as addicted to the dopamine hit as your average Candy Crush player on the subway. But I’m making a habit of leaving my headphones at home from time to time (and my phone in my pocket, too.) It reminds me that I’m a participant in my surroundings rather than a victim or benefactor of them; it connects me with people instead of protecting me from them. And most of all, it restores my relationship with the physical world, serving as a tiny rejection of the isolation inherent in living online.
It’s such a mild suggestion, possibly laughable to a certain subset of the population, but if you haven’t tried it in a while, I recommend it. Listening to the air around you is a quieter kind of satisfying, and a less immediate one. But if you listen closely, you might hear something you didn’t know you needed.