I learned two complementary concepts today, both from Rob Walker’s always excellent The Art of Noticing. And they’re especially relevant to me, given that I’ve just moved to New York City.

  • Allokataplixis. It’s a word coined by Liam Heneghan. It means “the heightened and delighted attention to the ordinary, which manifests in someone new to a place.” The word comes “from the Greek allo meaning ‘other,’ and katapliktiko meaning ‘wonder’.”
  • Inattentional blindness. The lack of attention that comes as places become more familiar, the natural diminishment of allokataplixis. “We take [our] surroundings for granted, and we stop paying close attention.” A recurring commute, for example, can become profoundly numbing.

Awe and its decline into the familiar: a natural (and necessary?) progression. Heneghan acknowledges that not everyone needs “to live a life of perpetual astonishment,” that “our daily grind is perhaps easier to endure in a state of mild amnesia.” There’s some truth to that. But “surely, there are times when we must be released from our moorings and free ourselves up to notice the peculiarities of everyday life.”

And to “notice something new” in the familiar isn’t just a goal to reclaim “the particularities of everyday life,” but it’s also a gift. Heneghan writes notes that “allokataplixis, as I use the term, is the gift, usually unacknowledged, that the traveler offers to the places they visit.”

The gift the traveler offers to the places they visit. That’s a lovely idea, and a good reminder. This morning, as I commuted to work, I tried something I don’t often do: I didn’t pull out my cell phone or even a book. I just sat there, watching, and listening. And it was startling how new everything felt. The sound of the subway, the thrum of the brakes, the faint tunes coming from music playing at the other end of the train carrying through–these all came to me. Thanks to Liam and Rob, I know now that I was offering a gift to New York City: my attention. It’s small, but I like to think it went appreciated, somehow.