I’m in Firestone, East Reading Room, Seat 8. It’s late afternoon, so it’s still light out. Students sit, masked, with the ease of a Saturday afternoon: biodegradable coffee cups, phones out for the occasional Instagram scroll, indiscernible whispers with the occasional laugh, then silence.
Seat 8 is tucked away in its own little corner. I have a nice view of the bookshelves—nothing extraordinary, just orangish pinewood shelves sitting matter-of-factly in the middle of the room. What excites me is the holes—two rectangular cut-outs in each wall of books. Books, emptiness, and then on the other side, more books, hugging one another within their respective cubbies.
I don’t know which section of the library I’m in—are these histories, novels? biographies?—and I don’t know who wrote the books, or what they’re about. I’m in a room full (as full as a room is during a pandemic) of strangers—students I do not know and will likely never meet, and clusters of books I will never read. Books after books. I’m only in one small corner of the library. Underneath me there are books and above me there are books. It’s like a city of strangers, cohabitants. Endless stories at every corner.
I’m reminded of being in San Francisco with my brother.
It was mid-September; I was spending the night at his apartment. During the day we were two dots on the Yerba Buena Gardens lawn. He was reading Brave New World and I was writing my first college paper. I found it exciting because I had never written a paper of its kind before and he hardly left the apartment. (He told me he would sometimes spend entire days in bed; I was happy that he was out and about with me.)
We had a good view of the St. Patrick Church, an imposing brick presence interrupting the standard grey cityscape, and we watched birds leave the steeple to fly above Yerba Buena to an unknown destination. As the sun left our picnic spot, it grew uncomfortably cool, until we couldn’t ignore the goosebumps on our arms and took the Muni back to his place.
That evening, after we had eaten takeout in the peaceful loneliness of his kitchen, we went up to the roof. I had to push hard with all my weight in order to open the ceiling door. As we emerged from the contained apartment into the vastness of the evening—city smells and lights, occasional sights of people passing by on the sidewalk—the roof gave us some perspective. For example, his building was pretty small; you turn 360 degrees and at any point, you’re facing a windowed wall, a looming office building that shoots up into night’s nothingness.
Necks hinged back, we looked up at the smog and light pollution; as products of Silicon Valley suburbia, the vague cityishness, the otherness, excited and intrigued us. We were mesmerized by the solidity of the Financial District: the buildings were austere and rectangular, hard around the edges. It was all very practical and unforgiving.
We stood, then sat, like that for a while: just ourselves, so small. It made us feel so together and so apart, as if it were the first day we met. We felt each other’s presence from simply being in the same place, even more than from the light thread of conversation we both held onto. I was suddenly aware of my brother’s existence and my own, terrified of the truths we both held and how we would never have the time or energy to share them. How we spend so much time giving and giving, listening, learning, performing, producing—how we give and sometimes the people closest to us get very little; they get presence, but also silence. We walk around with so many buried terrors, fantasies, epiphanies, but what materializes into conscious thought? And what makes it beyond the self? I had everything and nothing to say to my brother.
“What’s that word?” he said. “Sonder.”
Sonder. I recognized the word from a Psych2Go video. They defined sonder as “the sudden realization that you can never completely know a person.” In the video, different animated people—a couple, an elderly woman, a small kid with a balloon—pass one another on a crosswalk. The voiceover continues, “It’s when you start to understand that everyone around you has their own story that you might never get to know about.” The video zooms in to one roundish, smiling figure. The grandma smiles and nods in the figure’s direction. “You realize that you can only get to know as much about a person as they’ll allow you to.”
My brother turned to face me. “That’s what I think of when I come up here.” He gestured to the smattering of lit-up windows. Conference rooms, offices—places of work, places filled with bodies staying, then passing through, places holding people only for lengths of time, then letting go. Stories in these buildings that my brother and I would never know. There had to be people working late in at least some of the rooms emitting fluorescent light. I knew of their existence simply because of the light; they didn’t know of mine. But I would never know more than the light.
What plagued these entrepreneurs and engineers, what thoughts floated into their minds on nights they stayed late? Did they notice the sun had set and it was dark all around? And did they think about their rectangular, fluorescent being, their smallness and existence suspended above city sidewalks, captured in this space and moment in time?
My encounter with sonder was twofold: the yellow windows, which seemed to replace the stars—numerous, random, charged with possibility—and my brother, a simultaneously untouchable and accessible human. I shared a shower with him as a toddler; I sat in the football stands reading The Fault in Our Stars and other seventh-grade sacred texts on Friday nights, glancing up occasionally to locate #37; my senior year of high school, when his first breakup shattered the world he knew, I rubbed his back on afternoons I came home and saw him crying.
Our relationship was built on existing in time and space together, but how much, emotionally, did we give to each other? In the thick quietness of the moment, I thought about telling him something vulnerable, something revelatory, but I didn’t. We come from the same womb; we get to know each other by occupying the same space, listening to silences that affirm sameness.
Sonder gave us a vocabulary for our existence.
“I don’t like that word, it’s pretentious,” he said. “But this is it.” Below us cars drove by, but above us everything was still. Whatever movement occurred inside, in the floors and rooms reaching upward, was swallowed by the buildings.
We’re anonymous; though surrounded by others, we are hidden. (The pandemic widens the distance between us. Masked, we only give each other our eyes; intimacy is life-threatening.) We only have—we only truly consume, console, retreat into—ourselves.
Perhaps how we know ourselves is more important than how anyone else could know us. The question “Who are you when no one is watching?” can be reframed as “Who are you for yourself?” As in, who are you on the thirty-second floor of an office building, in the safe vagueness of being a rectangular light in a sea of other rectangular lights on a sticky September night?
Up close, we’re big. We’re not the center of the universe; we are the universe itself. Matter is neither created nor destroyed; Carl Sagan said, “We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.” We look for all of life in ourselves. We have the terrain of the body, everything we love and hate about it. We have every single terrible thing we have uttered to our mothers and every gaze we’ve sent to someone across a room—all kinds—every fantasy, alive and disposed of, every morning and evening, alone and with others, every pocket of the world we’ve seen.
We can’t take any other one person along for the whole time of our being, so we—alone, yes, but all of us—are complete volumes of the self. I is a letter and a word on its own—a complete entity, like the number 1. Whole and alone and standing, not sitting—because we are on the lookout and on the move. There are always places to be.
And still, that’s only one way of seeing things, only half a truth, because we really are so small; known, but really not known at all. In a sense, we’re always seen—a face in a crowd, a box on a Zoom—but when are we really seen? Because our existence is subjected to the views of others, it can be pulled apart into multiple truths, like different ways of looking at a painting or interpreting a poem. We can be an object of deep love to one person and a mere stranger to another.
Walking to the library, a friend and I came upon a crosswalk where students were heading in several different directions. Some hugged books to their chests, absorbed in their own conversations. Some looked straight ahead and walked purposefully. Some listened to music.
We thought about it and talked about it. It’s easy to think about how we are consciously moved by our surroundings, but sights and sounds affect us on the subconscious level, too—so anything we may be doing at any given moment is a product of so much. It’s anything from the weather (searingly cold, but the sun out, too) to the color of a stranger’s sweater—so much happening to have the moment right then, exactly the way it is. Channels of sensory information deliver our current realities, but we are unable to perceive it all—just the surface of what is happening: I am walking to the library with a friend. It’s like how we don’t usually think about how we’re breathing, we just breathe. We don’t have the mental capacity to recognize the movement of all these things beyond us and within us, we just do.
And so, though quiet on the roof that night, perhaps my brother and I moved each other in indiscernible ways. And perhaps, somehow, we moved the person on the thirty-second floor of an office building, too. They moved me.
The act of writing embodies this. Like our strange, unique being—a medium for life to pass through—a collection of words is a way to hold specificities, the little things everywhere. Writing is sensitive to everything that has entered the membrane of the self—something a professor said earlier in a lecture, an outgrowth of conversation with a friend, a passage read long ago, forgotten by your conscious self but still marinating in your mind.
All these invisible things make us and hold us together. Everything we’ve been given—or, what we’ve taken, stolen, consumed in one gulp—in this life, from mothers, fathers, this land, people we once knew, people we’ll never see again. How can we be better at seeing what, or who, has been rendered invisible? Who, today, is rendered invisible, and whom from our history? How do we honor our predecessors and respond to everything we have taken from them? I think about this as I move through college life. I only have this existence because of privilege and so many people helping me stay alive, helping me live in this way.
Although I haven’t opened a book since setting my backpack down, the library has taken me to San Francisco, to my brother and that September night. I couldn’t sit still in Seat 8, but how many of us can? We refuse to be stagnant because time moves us. People move us, in ways we don’t know. We move them, too, but we hardly ever hear over the rustling of our insides, everything happening here where we are captured by the loud stillness and movement of being. Some days we reach beyond the body and find another; some days we just reach for the self. And through both, we participate in the metanarrative of life: we wake up and do it, and do it again the next day; we keep being, we keep going.
Firestone, East Reading Room, Seat 8. Books and then past that, more books. Books above and books below. Empty coffee cups. Students retiring early—after all, it’s Saturday—and exiting through the glass door.