Overview:

Sonder is new to the English language, but it doesn't just speak to a familiar experience. It also reveals the cultural range of our wonder, and the different ways in which we might live at a remove from each others' inner truths.

Reading Time: 8 minutes

Around 5 a.m. every day, a man in his late fifties boards a non-integrated bus just north of Medellín, which takes around 45 minutes in early morning traffic to reach his stop, a 20-minute walk to a plot of public space where he will set up shop for the morning and midday. A non-integrated bus is a privately owned vehicle with fewer regulations, so decent seating might not always be possible for a person with two crutches and one leg.

When he gets to his spot, a colleague who runs a juice stand might already be there, having arrived in a beat-up old car a little past 4 a.m. to set up his oranges, his juicer, his cart of little wafers, smokes, and treats, and a bucket of water to wash in. The spot is ideal because of a sprawling tree that provides shade along this stretch of sidewalk by the highway, and a sewer grate that keeps any rain from pooling around them.

The first man takes up an awkward perch on a little concrete ledge, part of a metal-barred perimeter around a city building. Faded stickers of the Virgin Mary and other saints line the fencing. From his backpack, he retrieves two hot-water thermos dispensers and various black plastic bags of plenty: some with bags of sweets and cartons of cigarettes; others with the sugar, powdered milk, and packets of instant coffee and panela-based tea that will constitute his morning wares. Sometimes one bag contains a few rolls of bread, too, one of which will be his breakfast.

Early morning clients come quickly: people on their way to work; blue-collar men waiting for a bus or pick-up, or for the rain to stop for their motorcycles. Later there will be retirees out for a stroll, with or without their dogs, and the younger working set (medical professionals, office workers), along with those taking their children to various activities via the nearby metro.

The man prepares a few grey plastic cups ahead of the rush: each with a packet of instant coffee and heap of powdered milk, for those who want a café con leche. Sometimes three or four cups are at the ready, tucked into the handles of the dispensers. He asks how many sugars each wants. Most say “two”, and he adds the generous little spoonfuls before pouring hot water in halfway, and stirring vigorously with a little straw, then introducing the rest of the water and stirring again. The little cup is handed off with a flourish, and coin exchanges hands: about 40 cents US. For the “tinto”, the basic coffee, or the “aromática”, the tea, about 20 cents.

For those in need of nicotine, the coffee vendor uses a pin to jab and proffer the cigarettes, then lights the first in a client’s mouth. With equal warmth, he opens up his bags of sweets for clients who want a little something extra with their morning caffeine. Some of the children who come by get a candy for free, and at least one dog (with its owner’s blessing) expects its daily waxen treat, too.

While the juice vendor watches the highway and hollers back occasional quips about the local fútbol team (for which he is a diehard fan), along with intel about the passersby (who’s rich, who’s in school, who’s well educated, who’s in trouble), the coffee vendor also pulls out one last bag. An hour earlier, our soccer-head and local gossip had stuck his daily plantain to a branch on the tree. Now the coffee vendor hefts himself up onto his crutches during a lull, and shakes out half a bag of bread crumbs for the saffron finches and eared doves that gather in the shade. Teamwork.

Around 7 a.m., a lean man with crooked teeth and a warm smile arrives on his beat-up black bicycle from a nearby humble farmstead. He keeps pictures of his animals on his phone, and will tell you about the antics of his chickens and the dog that acts like their protective older brother. A milk crate is affixed to his bike, and a plastic table and chair have been tethered to it. These are for the coffee vendor. Without a word, the coffee vendor draws the table flush against the concrete ledge and with care wipes down the top before withdrawing a red-and-black checkered cloth and spreading it across. Now all the little bags of sweets and coffee wares, the dispensers and the cups, can be set out on display, along with a few snack-sized bags of crisps. The coins, too, are easier to stack and sort on the elevated surface.

At last, the man can move from his concrete perch, where he holds himself by one hand on a metal bar behind him, into a wiped-down seat for the rest of the day.

I call him, and the juice vendor, by their names with honorifics: Don I—, Don A—.

Everyone around here, though, just calls him “El mocho”: loosely, “Stumpy”, a common term for someone with a limb difference in Colombia. Or “Mochito”: an even more affectionate variation of the term.

Sonder, big and small

A few years ago, a word was added to the English language that you could be forgiven for thinking had been with us all along. “Sonder” is part of The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, which finally published in book form last fall. Its description is too exquisite to paraphrase. John Koenig defines it as:

n. the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness—an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.

The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, John Koenig

I feel this sense of sonder often. I sit most mornings with the idea of what life might be like right now for so many people in places where I’ve been, and places I’ve merely experienced through the news and books and films.

The dwindling elderly communities in rural parts of Europe, as in Japan. The people waking to dingy rooms of bare, hand-built concrete and brick elsewhere in Medellín. Families in remote mountain-towns in Afghanistan, recovering from a devastating earthquake, or on the move in Central America, trying to find somewhere safe and something to eat. The children whose days will consist of sitting by the humble street-stalls where mum or dad sells fried doughs and meats, or juices, or knock-off toys, tech accessories, socks, facemasks, and T-shirts. Folks born into sprawling suburban homes and commuting to jobs with insurance companies, banks, and start-ups, stuck in traffic with truckers, teachers, and social workers just barely getting by. The young men still adjusting to life in U.S. prison, where many have been trapped for want of bail funds, or on some maddeningly small breach of bad law.

Sonder originally described the feeling that comes from imagining strangers living more intricate lives than we will ever know… but does that notion of “stranger” not extend a little further?

But even before I moved to Colombia, I learned about a different kind of “sonder” from the displaced Colombians in Canada. Displacement from ongoing war is a difficult business. Folks who arrived from Colombia often spoke no English, so while they learned the language and the culture, they allied themselves with other Spanish-speakers in the region. That included fellow Colombians, but always with great tact and care. If you’ve had to leave home because of a credible death threat, you might be happy to see someone else who knows your cultural touchstones, and with whom you can talk about all your favorite sports teams and foods. But you’re not going to risk telling them your personal story. You have no idea whom they might know, and blab to, at cost to the rest of your family back home.

The displaced Colombians I knew in Canada had known each other for many years, and were always dear with one another over a meal, pint, and game. But they never once broached with each other the stories of what had driven them from home.

“Amigos con cervezas”, drinking buddies, is the closest term for these kinds of relationships. Everything stays on the surface, even if everyone remains warm with one another, and is happy to see each other when they do. When I moved to Colombia, I found that such relationships abounded here as well. Especially in the more traditional and humbler barrios, there are plenty of situations in which people adopt nicknames, sometimes based on obvious physical features like “La negra” or “La mona” or “El mocho”, and other times on a specific anecdote.

(For instance, I’m sometimes known as “El caldo” because I introduce myself as “Maggi(e) como el caldo” to make things easier for folks who would trip over the sounds in “Margaret”: For them, I’m like Maggi, a brand name for a popular broth. But others just call me “La canadiense” or “La mona”, Whitey, for obvious reasons.)

It’s not as though we lack for nicknames in Canada, although our power dynamics have very differently informed what is acceptable to call another person. Here in Colombia, the classism underpinning so much Western focus on getting tests to confirm invisible and visible disabilities comes into stark relief. For most of the impoverished world, it doesn’t matter one bit what diagnosis you have, when there’s no political leverage that comes with it to help you jump the queue of having to struggle to survive. Is that better or worse than our system? It’s… different.

But our nicknames often draw from deep familiarity, a wealth of shared experiences that bind us to one another, whereas in many places they create a safe veneer of connection that keeps our inner worlds protected. All the joys and intimacies of daily living in a community are allowed to flourish, without any of those friendships pushing too deeply into themes that might be painful. Families lost to war and violence. Estrangements and past lives better left unspoken.

And why not? Especially among people working in the informal economy, where a common expression is “if you don’t work, you don’t eat”, you never know when a regular might stop showing up. Moved on to a better location? A better job? Dying in a home you’ve never visited? Who knows? Good while it lasted, though, right?

Sonder close to home

I feel especially North American when I politely avoid calling Don I— “El Mocho” or “Mochito”. He’s quite content with the nickname, but all my experiences in Western culture can no more bring me to call him “Stumpy” than I would ever feel comfortable calling across the street, as many locals do, “Oy! Negro!”, to an Afrocolombiano that they know. Don I— and Don A—, those two will always be to me.

And yet, I wonder at how much our valuation of names in North America gives us to presume a deeper knowledge of the microcosms in people closer to us. Sonder originally described the feeling that comes from imagining strangers living more intricate lives than we will ever know… but does that notion of “stranger” not extend a little further? Not just to the people who stand with us at a street light for a brief window of shared cosmic time, but also to the faces we encounter every day? To some of the people who firmly shape the communities we know?

One day, I ran into the friendly fellow who for the last eight years has brought Don I— his table and chair every day in exchange for a tinto, which he takes with a bit of bread of his own. He was hauling his fruit cart home, the bike in the back with the remainder of his pineapples. I did the Canadian thing, and introduced myself properly: Maggi(e), como el caldo. His name baffled me a little, though. Dar-ah-leel? It sounded like one of the many distorted English names that some Colombian mothers give their babies without knowing the language well, creating a wealth of Darwins, Einsteins, Newtons, and conflations like Yorleidy (Your Lady).

The next day, while taking tea with Don I— and Don A—, I asked Don I— the name of his neighborhood ally. I just needed to hear it one more time, I was sure, for the pronunciation to click, and a deeper understanding to unfold.

But Don I— looked at me blankly, and shrugged.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I never asked.”

I nodded as if this were perfectly normal⁠—because sometimes, some-wheres, it well and truly is⁠—and then we got back to enjoying a brief early morning moment together, while watching a wealth of other microcosms hurry past.

GLOBAL HUMANIST SHOPTALK M L Clark is a Canadian writer by birth, now based in Medellín, Colombia, who publishes speculative fiction and humanist essays with a focus on imagining a more just world.