“Only connect!”
-E.M. Forster, Howards End

I am at work, replying to emails and editing various versions of documents; narratives that will compel foundation trustees to send checks, TV reporters to show up with their camera trucks and ordinary people to think kindly of the nonprofit organization where I am employed. A caffeinated Morse-coder, I tap out my thoughts to five different correspondents. I am the inheritor of a typing talent from my mother who output 100 wpm on her Selectric back in the day. Yet from beneath this frenzy of communication, this rapid-fire exchange, a dull aching feeling drifts through me. I pause to take a sip of water, sit up straight, and listen. The chatter in my head quiets and emits a single lonesome word. “Connection.” That is what I’m longing for. That is what that familiar ache in the center of my body must be. I breathe through my diaphragm the way my yogi taught me, inhale connection and exhale love. After I repeat a few times, I toss off a quick email to my best friend who lives 500 miles away and pick up the phone to make an appointment with my therapist across town. Then I leave my office in hopes of chatting with my favorite co-worker but her door is closed to shut out the noise of a meeting down the hall. Back in my office, I am tempted to call her, but don’t.

There was a time when Cope was two or three and the initial shock of parenting had worn off enough that we could think of something besides competing for an extra hour of sleep or folding tiny stacks of laundry... and what we thought of was moving. At first it was a desire to leave our 1950s house with its octagon-tiled bathroom the size of a closet and vinyl siding that made someone ask once: "Is that a double-wide?" We desired something more fitting of our antique aesthetic. I researched schools, outlining areas in pink highlighter (desirable) and green (not) on a huge map of the city spread across our kitchen table. Meanwhile, Jim surfed real estate listings. We met in the hallway, pregnant with panicked knowledge—we already lived in the best neighborhood we could afford! What’s more, we couldn’t even afford to buy our own 1000 sq. ft. house any more! 

The other reason for a move was to be closer to family. As an only child in a tiny family, one benefit of marriage was adding more members to my clan. Unfortunately, my husband’s family is rather small, too, and also far away. Possible cities to move to included Fort Worth—midway to various siblings and half-siblings and parents, but home to an oxymoronic institution of higher learning with the word “Christian” in its name. No, thank you. We seriously considered Norman, Oklahoma, nearby yet not too close to a cornucopia of relatives, including my father, with whom I hadn’t lived in the same city for 40 years. What a mansion we could afford in these dainty neighborhoods. But alas, in the end our desire for connection—someone to telephone when a tooth proudly falls out, someone to back-to-school shop with, someone to invite over for a cook-out or, dear me, someone to cook dinner for us on occasion—fell short of our deeper desire to live in Austin, city of the weird that adopted us more than 45 years, combined. 

And yet I still crave connections. It’s true that I dread opening my email much of time, celebrate when a social commitment gets cancelled due to sickness or bad weather, and have not hand-written an actual letter since 1997, the year my son was born. But that doesn’t mean I don’t get hungry to talk for hours to someone about the meaning of life, politics, world peace—or the best place to get a pedicure, buy shoes for kids with wide feet, or get a mojito. 

Over the years I’ve learned to make efforts to create a community. I volunteer at my son’s school, trying vainly to learn all the other mothers' names. When someone falls chronically sick, or pregnant with twins, we sign up to bring meals. We barbecue a mean chicken. Mornings, I swim with a team of adults with lives as complex as mine and I try to know a little of each of theirs. And I’ve learned to unabashedly talk to strangers, a trait my father has always had, earning him the best seat in a Chinese restaurant, a few more minutes in a parking place, or just the joy of learning a little more about the world from another person’s vantage point.  This fall we may start Cope playing roller-rink hockey, the first sport that’s caught his fancy. Besides the clacking of hockey sticks in pursuit of the puck, I like the idea of joining the varied families of the players, a group that at first glance seems warm, diverse, and friendly. 

I also consider with my heart the people I choose to spend my handful of time with—I choose wisely what I eat, what I watch, what I read—why not be picky with friends? Instead of waiting for the miracle of chance to occur, when there’s someone I wish I had more time to spend with I am not afraid to rearrange my dance card. The goal is genuine connection, not habit. I consider the example of my Swedish grandmother, Mammy, who didn’t meet me until I was three, because we lived faraway in Japan, and whom I saw maybe once a year—yet she fanned the connection between herself and her only granddaughter. When I was little she sent her famous sugar cookies, rabbits sprinkled with nutmeg, angels twinkling with pink sugar. As I grew she sent outfits from her favorite department store, Yonkers, an elegant gesture for a woman who lived her life on a secretary’s salary. Once she sent a scrapbook she’d made of photos of my father, favorite sayings she’d copied out, and recipes. In turn, when she turned 100, I had a pink champagne cake made, famous among her Des Moines friends. She’s been gone five years and every Christmas my son and I make dozens of sugar cookies that taste exactly the same as hers.

I’ve read that yoga means yoke, in the sense that we are all connected. I strive to believe it. Driving alone with the radio in our cars, living in our sealed up houses, learning about each other from our televisions, it’s hard to keep it in mind. And yet there are small things I can do. I make sure I stay connected to the people nearest to me—not just going through the motions. Right now that means sharing my son’s fascination with his new pocket “everything” tool and my husband’s enthusiasm for his tai chi practice. In turn, they listen to me obsess about the novel I’m finishing and, as always, what I did in swim practice. I enjoy hearing how my work friend is ridding her rental house of rats—and the vision of her boyfriend in boxers battling varmints with a golf club. And I, too, fan old connections that could easily fade away. We named our son after my great uncle Cope, who was like my father’s dad. It’s a story we share with someone nearly every week as they struggle to hear the odd name. And at the end of yoga class, when we bow over our legs, our hands raised in prayer, and say Namaste, I always take a moment to think of my grandmother, whom I imagine in a child’s version of heaven sitting above me in her now perfect body.
Robin Bradford, an award-winning short story writer and essayist, has published in Brain, Child, Glimmer Train, and many other places. You can find her in two new anthologies -- Mother Knows: 24 Tales of Motherhood and Three-Ring-Circus: How Real Couples Balance Marriage, Work and Family. Bradford works as a communications and development director for a nonprofit affordable housing provider in Austin. She lives with her husband and son, three cats and a dog in a tiny fifties house. Being the mother—of a child over the age of three!—is the best thing that ever happened to her. Contact her at motherload @ austinmama.com  And visit her site at www.robinbradford.net