Every single day, I take a trip through my neighborhood at a different time. Sometimes, that means giving myself 30 minutes and jogging a new, unplanned route to a nearby park, focusing only on the smells of the city around me and the sounds of my footfall. Other days, I slow it way down and send my attention outward to watch my neighbors interact with each other from an acceptable social distance. I notice the ring of their laughter, the beginning of an argument, or how their voices change when they spot a passing dog.
In moments like this, when we’re all looking inward to find peace during a global health pandemic, finding beauty and community from a safe social distance has never been more important. And you can still feed your need for experiencing the new from the comfort of your neighborhood, no plane ride required. You don’t have to give up your sense of adventure—you just have to be a little more observant.
Last spring, I spent a few months writing a book called The Art of Flaneuring. For the uninitiated, a flaneur describes someone who practices the act of wandering with intention. There’s no route in mind, but the flaneur is constantly ready to soak in their surroundings. Originally a French term from the 19th century, it was used to describe men who would go on long walks to gather observations for party talk, essays, poetry, and other intellectual ramblings. (Women who wandered were unfortunately called other names.) If you’re hunting for more inspiration, look to Henry David Thoreau’s Walden or Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac. Both books are attempts by people to immortalize natural environments dear to them within their pages: Thoreau his watery pond; Leopold the family of plants and animals thriving on his farm.
The idea of wandering with this kind of intention is simple—on paper: Step outside with an open mind and wide eyes. In practice, trying to take in new observations from an incredibly familiar environment is tougher than it seems. Here’s how I make the most of my neighborhood wandering sessions:
Don’t get caught up planning a route.
The whole point of wandering is to avoid wrapping yourself up in a map or a route. When you’re too focused on getting from Point A to Point B, you miss all of the small moments you’re supposed to be enjoying. Bring a phone for safety, but leave it in your pocket, even when you feel yourself getting a tad lost. Give your brain a few minutes to orient itself before you resort to Google Maps.
Play a flaneuring game.
If you find it too tough to step outside without a plan on where you’re going (no shame!), establish some loose guidelines. As I was researching for The Art of Flaneuring, one of my sources shared the idea of flaneuring games with me. Here’s one: Every time you see someone wearing a red shirt or jacket, take a right turn. The very nature of this task requires you to look a little closer at your surroundings.
Leave your music at home.
When you think about the places most familiar to you, do the sounds of these spaces come rushing forward? Probably not. Adding a layer of sound to your memory of the neighborhood is a great challenge for your next walk. The easiest way to block everything else out, in my experience, is to find a bench to sit on and close your eyes. Taking the visual distractions out of the picture will immediately sharpen your other senses.
Keep a journal.
Make your wandering journal unconventional. Fill it with single words, observations, or doodles. Don’t restrict yourself to full sentences—or do, if you find yourself searching for a bit of guidance to begin. I’ll write down a single interaction, scene, or string of words to represent the most memorable moment of my walk. Here’s an example: “Three boys took turns practicing their free throw shots, one after another. From the fence, they shared encouragement and form adjustments—not the kind of sideline talk you’d expect from three teenagers.”
This may sound like just another way to keep yourself occupied without straying too far. But think of your neighborhood like an onion: full and complete, with tons of layers. And getting to know those layers will give you a whole new appreciation for the place you call home.
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