I was reminded recently of an odd quirk in our human nature. When most of us travel, our senses are hyper-attuned to our surroundings. This is partially a conscious decision; the adventure of discovery is exhilarating. But part of it is an unconscious function. When we are in a new and unfamiliar environment, seldom-used neural pathways light up and allow us to soak in all the sensory data of the new place. We become alert for possible threats.
Hanging out at home —in my case, Seattle—is quite a different situation. Like everyone else around the world, my city’s streets and sounds and sights tend to blur into the background as I go about my daily activities with an acquired case of tunnel vision. So, it’s always eye-opening when a visitor comes to town. I assume the role of tour guide, and just like magic, the blinders fall away to reveal a wonderful city that I’m lucky enough to live in but rarely notice.
This strange paradox played itself out this week as I entertained an old friend from my hometown of Chicago. Given a few days of vacation time, she headed out to the West Coast to spend a few days seeing Seattle and reconnect with me. I was happy to play tour guide, but did not expect such a vivid reminder of how our minds tend to filter out so much of our surrounding, for better or worse.
The little sensory details begin to come to the fore, revealing themselves as if they’d always been hidden from view. Showing my friend the quirky, urban crush of the Capitol Hill neighborhood, I experienced with fresh senses the cacophony of street bustle and the kaleidoscope of colorful outfits on the neighborhood’s flamboyant residents. Escorting my friend through a nicely manicured green space on Seattle University’s campus (which I often cross in a hurry to get somewhere else), I noticed the eye-popping array of colorful flowers as I rarely have before. Escorting her to a popular scenic overlook, I saw with fresh eyes the beauty of the Puget Sound as it stretched out toward the Olympic mountains, the last of the fall sun setting over shimmering water.
Occasionally I wonder why I stay here. There are warmer places, less expensive places, and cities with better food and less traffic. But watching the ships following the sunset out toward the open ocean, I took a deep breath of air infused with the scent of fresh pine and suddenly remembered why I always return here.
My guest is gone now, but my love for this beautiful city is rekindled. She thanked me for showing her my city. I did the same.
Image: Howard Ignatius (flickr)