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I traveled to meet 50 women in 50 states. It completely changed the way I see the United States

The author in Old Greenwich, Connecticut, during a stop on his

The author in Old Greenwich, Connecticut, during a stop as part of his “50 States Project.” Courtesy of Shari Leid

From cafes to neighborhood bars to restaurants with white table linens, I found a kind of joy that is difficult to express in words. A joy woven into the fabric of shared meals, echoing the laughter and the exchange of stories that flow as easily as the wine in our glasses. This journey, affectionately known as the “50 States Project,” grew from a simple goal to a profound exploration to find happiness, belonging, connection, and a deeper understanding of myself – a profoundly linked to my unique heritage.

Adopted from South Korea by a Japanese American couple, I have always lived at the intersection of several identities. My father was born in 1922 in the basement of a rental house on Main Street in Seattle, while my mother’s roots go back to her birth in 1929 on Bainbridge Island, a 30-minute ferry ride from Seattle. Their lives, and consequently mine, were forever altered by the events of December 7, 1941. The bombing of Pearl Harbor and the subsequent internment of more than 120,000 Japanese Americans under Executive Order 9066 threw a wrench into long shadow over our family story. incorporating a careful sense of belonging that has followed us through the generations.

For my family, travel was tinged with the vestiges of these fears. Echoes of internment camps, World War II, and its lingering aftermath shaped a world where movement was monitored and the concept of belonging was complex. So my childhood was a small world anchored on the West Coast, with my father feeling like we weren’t welcome in much of the United States because we were Asian. His beliefs were based on his own experiences, during and after the war. As a child and young adult, I had unconsciously adopted these beliefs as my own.

The author (right) as a child with Henry and Lilian Aoyama, his adoptive parents, both now deceased.The author (right) as a child with Henry and Lilian Aoyama, his adoptive parents, both now deceased.

The author (right) as a child with Henry and Lilian Aoyama, his adoptive parents, both now deceased. Courtesy of Shari Leid

The creation of the 50 States Project was a declaration of my desire to transcend these inherited boundaries. It was an ambitious quest to forge connections across America and discover that the essence of belonging is not about the physical spaces we occupy but the moments we share and the communities we build.

As the United States struggles to find its place on the global happiness scale, slipping down the rankings of the world’s happiest countries, this journey seems even more poignant. It wasn’t just a personal exploration; it was a reflection on what binds us in the search for happiness.

Diving into this journey – and finding a connection in each state – was a daunting task. I started with familiar faces in my inbox: podcasters, salespeople, the kind of people you feel like you know because you’ve exchanged emails or shared a laugh on a call . Yet we had never actually seen each other – not in a real way, in the same room.

Then there were the explosions from my past: friends who had drifted into the background noise of life, voices I hadn’t heard in more than three decades. Contacting them was like digging up a time capsule buried in the garden of my youth, dusting it off and peeking inside with bated breath. From this mix of things known and long lost, I contacted 27 women from 27 different states who were willing to take time out of their busy lives to share a meal with me.

The author (right) with Kate in Old Greenwich, Connecticut, one of the stops on the 50 States Project.The author (right) with Kate in Old Greenwich, Connecticut, one of the stops on the 50 States Project.

The author (right) with Kate in Old Greenwich, Connecticut, one of the stops on the 50 States Project. Courtesy of Shari Leid

In the next phase, I turned to the digital world and put out a call for connections in the gaps of my map in a professional group I frequented online. The response was heartwarming, strangers contacted me to help me achieve my goal and sent me good wishes for my effort.

Social media was my last stop. Less than a month into my project, I had a nice, comprehensive list of women in all 50 states ready to break bread with me. This group of women—ranging in age from 20 to 60 and differing in race, education level, political and religious beliefs, sexual orientation, and household income—made the perfect mosaic for my trip.

The individual stories I encountered on this trip painted a vivid picture of the heart of America. In Connecticut, I met Kate, whose resilience in the face of her husband’s terminal illness underscored the strength of community support. Her story, set against the backdrop of palliative care and the tireless network of friends and family who support her, reminded me of the profound impact of human connection.

Maine introduced me to Cameron, whose life, marked by many moves, had found joy in the community she had built around her, wherever she was. Our time together, which included collecting lobsters from local fishermen for a shared meal at her home, was a lesson in the art of creating home wherever you are – a testament to the idea that belonging is a a question of people and not of places.

As beautiful as my experiences have been, I have also been confronted with the darkest threads of our nation’s social fabric. On part of the trip, just after arriving in Ohio, I came across a white supremacist rally that was taking place. Seeing him was a stark reminder of the deep-rooted divisions still present in our country. This encounter, as troubling as it was, underlined the importance of my project for navigating these divisions.

The author (right) with Farrah in Cleveland, one of the stops on the 50 States project.The author (right) with Farrah in Cleveland, one of the stops on the 50 States project.

The author (right) with Farrah in Cleveland, one of the stops on the 50 States project. Courtesy of Shari Leid

Despite its challenges, the project was a beacon of hope and understanding. Farrah, who was born and raised in Ohio, felt like a long-lost friend from the moment we met. She and I sat for hours at a restaurant she had chosen, and the waitress even said she thought we were best friends, not strangers who had just met. Then I kept thinking about how amazing it was to feel so uncomfortable in this state, only for someone there to make me feel so at home and so welcome. So much so that I found myself already planning a trip back to Ohio to visit him.

Then traveling to meet Twanna, who grew up in the only black family in her West Virginia town, expanded my understanding of connections beyond race. Her perspective on seeing friends as family – on the power of deep connections that transcend superficial differences – was a lesson in the joy of inclusion.

These are just a few of the women who have shared their experiences with me and changed my own life in doing so. This trip wasn’t just about checking states off a map. It was an eye-opening journey through the emotional landscapes of people’s lives and a deep dive into the recesses of my own heart that I had not explored. It taught me something essential: the places I wanted to see were just backdrops for the real adventure: connecting with others, hearing their stories, and sharing moments of real laughter and camaraderie during meals.

I transformed my belief from a fearful “I’m not welcome” to a confident “I can find people everywhere who will welcome me.” Most importantly, I learned that happiness and a sense of belonging arise from these shared experiences, from understanding and acknowledging our collective past as we weave our present and future together.

Bringing this spirit of discovery home, I made it a point to reach out to old friends and invite new acquaintances to sit down and share a meal. There’s a unique magic to breaking bread with someone, whether they share the same beliefs as you or see the world from a different perspective. Each invitation is extended with genuine curiosity – a desire to understand and connect that transforms a simple meal into a bridge between hearts.

This practice, this simple act of gathering and sharing, does not require an ambitious project or long trips. This is something we can all do in the communities we live in with each other. Imagine if each of us took the time to invite a neighbor over to share a meal and stories – how much richer and happier our collective lives could be.

The author (right) with Twanna in Beckley, West Virginia, one of the stops on the 50 States Project.The author (right) with Twanna in Beckley, West Virginia, one of the stops on the 50 States Project.

The author (right) with Twanna in Beckley, West Virginia, one of the stops on the 50 States Project. Courtesy of Shari Leid

In these times when so much in our society feels strained, even broken, this act of reaching out and fostering connection is more important than ever. The women of the 50 States Project are now connected through this experience, and we have Zoom calls every couple of months for them to get to know each other virtually with hopes of one day meeting in person.

My experience is a call to action for all of us – an invitation to create connections that can strengthen happiness and a sense of belonging in our country. So I encourage you, in your own way, to begin this journey in your own neighborhood, one meal at a time. Together, we can create a wave of connection that just might turn the tide, making our community and our country a little happier – one shared story at a time.

Shari Leid is a former trial lawyer turned life coach and the dynamic force behind An Imperfectly Perfect Life, LLC. In her thriving coaching practice, she specializes in supporting clients who feel trapped in stagnation, empowering them to shape the lives of their dreams. Recognized as a friendship expert and national speaker, Shari’s insights extend far beyond one-on-one coaching sessions. She has been interviewed on major networks including ABC, NBC, CBS, FOX and CTV, and was featured on the “Today” show in April 2023. She has written and shared her expertise with HuffPost, Real Simple, PureWow, AARP, Woman’s World, Toronto Sun and Shondaland. She is the author of “The Friendship Series,” which includes three books: “The 50/50 Friendship Flow” (2020), “Make Your Mess Your Message” (2021), and “Ask Yourself This” (2022). She is currently writing her fourth book (tentative publication date: February 2025), which chronicles her extraordinary journey across all 50 states in 2023 to break bread with 50 different women.

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