Updated: Oct 14, 2019
“What binds us together as a human family is our collective yearning to belong, and we need to share our stories to achieve that. Stories build bridges to undiscovered countries---each other.” - Richard Wagamese, Ojibway of the Wabaseemoong First Nation Address: Ford Hybrid, North America A couple of weeks ago I was at a friend's wedding, in the car with my good friends Katie and Danny and a new friend who we had met through the bride. "Where do you live?" our new friend asked, innocently. I stumbled over a few syllables until Katie cut in: "Danny and I live in Chicago. Kenzie lives in the world!" I love to travel, so I do a lot of it throughout the year. When it's time to jump-start a new chapter of my life, I turn it up a notch, put whatever I want to keep into a storage unit and take off for a long enough period to discover what my next chapter will be. In 2012, that meant moving to Barcelona for a year after grad school. In 2016, it meant volunteering on farms through WWOOF-USA and heading back to Austin only when I ran out of money five months later. Six weeks ago, I embarked on another one of these soul searching journeys, this time a road trip in my Ford hybrid hatchback that doubles as a camper, with plans only to drive Austin to California to Seattle at whatever pace suited me, and decide what to do from there. Listening Practice
On this trip, I resolved to practice listening every day. I planned to look out for opportunities to engage with people, listen actively, and be kind. In addition to thwarting isolation (which is easy to sink into on a solo road trip), I would be spreading some good vibes, and learning important things. I wanted this trip to teach me about empathy. So as I drove west through New Mexico and Arizona to San Diego, then up the coast to the Pacific Northwest, I fought the urge to plan out my days, and instead left time for the conversations I hoped to have. I shared leisurely campsite conversations with a seasoned outdoorsman in the mountains of West Texas, spent an evening chatting with a psychology student/photographer/artist on the cusp of her first move away from home in Las Cruces, and bar-hopped with newly engaged couple passing through Ashland. I met Kundalini yoga practitioners at Echo Park Lake in LA, each full of passion and putting what they want to see into the world, from crystal therapy and meditation to a record label and a new video streaming platform. I ran into a pair of friends on a morning beach walk near San Luis Obispo who had known each other in high school, lost touch, and reconnected after moving to the same neighborhood decades later.
I started taking selfies with the strangers I met, and posting bits of what I’d learned from them on Instagram. I didn’t actually know why I was doing it. In the first seven weeks since I left Austin, I had about 20-25 deep conversations with strangers (or at least I would have called them that before we talked), ranging from ten minutes to a few hours. The more people I met, the deeper my conviction grew that there is more that connects us than divides us. A sense of belonging beyond place began to settle in me, an unspoken reminder that my bigger family was the human race. Sharing bits of my story, and hearing others share their own, was giving me and my new friends a gift that maybe none of us were conscious of. When I was feeling lonely and foolish for willingly deciding to live out of my car, I would look around: surely there is someone nearby who needs to tell their story right now. (Well actually, first I would call a few friends to complain about being stupid with my life choices, and then I would recover my calm enough to look around and remember my connection with humanity). It turns out I wasn't the only one experiencing the positive effects of my conversations with strangers. I was catching up with my mom on the phone yesterday and she pointed out that she used to only learn about strangers on the news. Now that she was reading a bunch of positive and inspiring things about strangers from my Instagram feed, she walks around wondering what amazing and interesting stories the people around her are carrying. I feel more motivated to continue my listening practice and sharing stories knowing that it provides a counterpoint to the overwhelmingly negative portrayal of humanity on mainstream news outlets. Wanna try? Meeting and making authentic connections with strangers can reshape the way we see the people around us, and consequently how we treat each other as part of the same huge family. We don't need to have the intention of an ongoing friendship, just a conversation where you see the other person, and they see you. What would happen if we all took the time to have a real conversation with a couple of strangers each week? I imagine the results would be astounding.
If you think this might be for you, that's awesome! Make sure to do it safely, and be willing to experiment. Be aware of how you might appear to someone who doesn't know you. Be respectful in the ways you know how, and be ready to learn and unlearn. Here's some creative inspiration. Let me know how it goes! Humans of New York The Moth Kiss of a Stranger