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Hi friends,

We've now passed the longest day of the year in the northern hemisphere. It also sort of felt like the longest week.

You might have heard about the situation at the U.S.-Mexico border with parents being separated from their children. It's tough to read about, but it's also really tough to report on (shoutout to all you on-the-ground journalists dealing with it). Each day seemed to bring more bad news, but we can't even agree on what are facts anymore because of a breakdown in trust — in each other.

People are dealing with this in different ways — donating money to causes they think will help, sharing reputable news articles about this, and more. I went to see The Incredibles 2 because sometimes you can't handle more than "Num num want a cookie?" (though the Screenslaver villain was too real). Feeling the same way last year, Laurel started making plans to drive across the country with her dog instead. 

Laurel's trip stoked my interest, because she's not just going to see the national parks or Dollywood or anything like that. She's making a legitimate effort to connect with people, both online and off. After the 2016 election, many news organizations, public officials, and everyday Americans launched their own "listening tours" — but were criticized for being too little, too late. Laurel lives near San Francisco and most recently was employed at Facebook, so she's not exactly immune herself. But by pacing herself through this year-long trip — driving multiple times around the country — and making a concerted effort to connect with people, Laurel is trying. Here's what she has to say about it, from Maine.

Your friend,
Christine

P.S. Sown now officially has a website!! Check out SowingFriendship.com for the archives, more info about this project, and the signup link to share with others. Send it to your group text!
Note: Our chat has been edited + condensed for clarity. 

Christine: Tell me the backstory to this adventure. Who are you and why are you doing this?

Laurel: There were a lot of different influences for me to do this trip now. I encountered a book while traveling last summer called This Marvellous Terrible Place that I could not put down, and it was a snapshot documenting peoples lives in Newfoundland, Canada in the 1980s in a really personal way. I was also shifting in my career from business strategy to a more creative side. Seeing that book and where I was in my career, I wanted to create something like that. At the same time it was a bigger picture of where we are as a country. No matter where we go from here we’re going to look at this decade, or these particular few years, as "something very interesting is going on in the country right now.” I was ready for a little bit of a change.

It went from a crazy idea early in the summer to talking more and more with my husband about it. By November we made the call to figure out how to make it work for a year. That was the goal and the idea really is to forge, reclaim a connection with America. I was living in the Bay area and I love the Bay area — but it’s also very much a bubble, especially working in tech and living in San Francisco. I wanted to put more faces to the states and go beyond the headlines and tap back into the human side and the more nuanced parts of the country right now. I’ll finish my travels March 1, 2019.

Christine: As you’re traveling, what are you doing to meet with people? How are you connecting with the community?
Laurel: I really wasn’t sure how it would work for some of these places where I didn’t have a contact. I had a list of my strategies for if I didn’t know how to do an interview or to find somebody to talk to. I’ve been relying on articles I had read where somebody had been interviewed who seemed interesting, and in my back pocket was the cold call. I’ve also looked up places on volunteermatch.org and gotten connected that way.

It has been amazing just using Facebook and Instagram, I’ll ask people about tips and people to meet. I’ve gotten interesting leads and no shortage of intros.

The interviews are the biggest wild card for me coming into this. I didn’t want to have just superficial get-to-know-you's, where you didn’t really get into anything. I was really worried people wouldn’t open up. The biggest surprise to me is that people are always a little bit worried about if you have an angle. They’re not sure what to make of you. Usually it takes five to ten minutes of natural conversation to say you’re a normal person who is genuinely interested to hear their story and their talk. You can feel when that switch happens and you really get into the conversation with somebody.

Usually I start with asking for an overview of your life up until today. That helps give me a mental framework of when they start referencing parts of their lives. It also helps now that you have a foundation to talk about other things. It makes it feel like such an honor that you’re able to have this moment with them. They feel willing to open their heart and be very vulnerable with you. Part of that is showing that you’re really listening and that the questions you ask are not a pre-scripted formulaic thing.

Christine: What's an example of that? 

Laurel: For one of my first interviews, I actually didn’t think it would happen. It was with a person that is part of a group that typically does not share much with “outsiders”. At the very last minute it came through and I was so excited. I had no idea what to expect. I really focused on being present, showing up, being warm and asking thoughtful questions that didn’t seem too aggressive. It ended up being a 3-3.5 hour interview. The first hour was what she wanted to tell me going into it. I could tell that — and it was interesting what she wanted to talk about. Once that was done, she kept talking about the other parts of her life, but other things that came up were complete serendipity. What she had felt in the first part of conversation was her being acknowledged. We were able to keep going and I think once that happened we ended up walking around and doing more of the things she wanted to show me. She started opening up on these topics, everything from these interesting norms of these families to some really private painful hard stuff.

Quite honestly I’m not sure if they want people to talk to or connect about this painful moment, but she went there and I was so honored that she did. I try to not make it about me or share too much, but sometimes it does feel like it’s a two way thing. She was similar to me in a lot of ways except for her ethnicity. That could have been a big part of it, that we were two women chatting about things from very different backgrounds but able to relate on common things.

Christine: What is this trip teaching you about friendship and connectedness?

Laurel: I think what’s really been wonderful is when people hear you’re writing a book and you want to interview them, it’s like "okay, let’s talk." It gives you a wonderful excuse to ask them questions I wouldn’t ordinarily do if I met them on the street. It’s giving me a way to connect that I don’t think I could normally. It has given me permission to go deeper quicker with people. Here in Maine this morning I interviewed this guy, a family friend of my husband’s family. I knew of him for 10 years and he probably didn’t know my first name. But our interview was amazing. He was someone I knew the name and I knew the basics of, but we had no reason to sit down together and talk about life and the challenges we’ve had and his thoughts on reflecting back on his life.

On one hand it’s hard because it’s like what will I do when I don’t have that excuse. The bigger point is people want to talk and tell you their stories, and I found that to be so true and the stories are so interesting. I really found the most interesting stories are the people who came through a random introduction and they think they’re a random joe. It’s just that ability and that desire that people want to share and want to connect if given the right chance and the right setting.

Christine: How has this changed your own friendships?

Laurel: For this project, my husband has been a big factor in my support. But my female friendships have been critical for me in both logistics — they have a lot of amazing contacts given through friends of friends — but also emotionally talking about it with them. I feel emotionally supported and their excitement and little cheers from afar. I was worried being away for a year would create distance but it has been able to add a new dimension to all of our relationships.

Christine: How do you keep from going into social overdrive? You're driving around a lot, but you're also planning a lot of human interaction in these short periods of time in a place.

Laurel: I am a people-loving introvert as one of my friends says. This whole project is about connecting with other people. In the Southwest I think that balance came more naturally given the makeup of what I was doing. I got to the Southeast and I skewed a lot more interviews and just being out around people. I had some people visiting for a while, and I became much more aware of some days where I am alone, thinking, writing. Whether it’s related to the project or just a me day, I don’t think I had incorporated enough of that. It’s a balance of making sure I have those quiet inward moments balanced with interview times. You get so much out of the interviews, but for that moment you enter that zone where you’re thinking of that person, you’re engaging so fully, you’re giving a lot of energy and focus and all that. You need the time to give back to yourself.

Go sow: Challenge for the week. 


"The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don't have any." — Alice Walker
From Laurel: "In my 'normal' life, I’ll see all sorts of people over the course of the day that I would maybe want to talk to that I'm sure would be interesting to talk to. The potential to have those conversations is all around you. You need to have the right frame of mind and an excuse to do it.

My challenge is, if you want to have surprisingly deep conversations with a stranger, figure out some sort of premise. Say that you are exploring some of topics you might be interested in. Create your own project that gives you an excuse/permission to ask questions you ordinarily might not ask."
Write back and let me know how it goes! And add these to your friendship toolkit:
  • Follow along with Laurel and her dog, Ella, on her Instagram. She's always looking for more people to meet up with along the way!
  • Please respect my bedtime — and other questions about how to solve friendship issues answered in this podcast. 154 episodes — I better start listening!
  • Your available social time is limited, and you can either spend it face to face or on the internet,” Dr. Dunbar said. If it’s spent with people who are “remote,” whether geographically or just because they’re represented digitally, “you don’t have time to invest in new relationships where you are.”
  • Living alone and liking it: "One night, I sighed happily to a friend, 'It’s all coming together. It’s like my own real-life, grown-up…' and the phrase that nearly came out of my mouth was 'bachelor pad.'" Here's why it's not necessarily such a bad thing.
  • How I consciously transformed my friendships: "For a lack of a better word, I felt drained after seeing my friends. I couldn’t put my finger on what was making me feel this way, until one day I asked a friend if she wanted to get together and she said, 'Yes, but can we not do happy hour?'"
  • A sign for all ages about not giving up, from an elementary school classroom. 💕

Grow the Sow.

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