Monthly Archives: January 2023

She’d Had Enough of Loneliness. Taking Action Meant Taking a Risk.

The need for connection is basic to our survival. Overcoming the lack of it sometimes requires courage, a lesson I learned recently from a complete stranger.

My critique partner and I were meeting at our usual place – a Starbucks inside Barnes and Noble. “Jenn” and I get together most Friday afternoons to share our rewrites and new work, and to hash out problems, like, does this paragraph even belong here? Or, how can I have two men named William in the story?

After reading aloud, and deciding to scrap, her new material, Jenn was eager for me to read a few paragraphs from a book I’d found on the library’s “free shelf” and really liked. We eventually got around to my rewrites. And as our meetings sometimes go, the conversation drifted off course; we were now discussing brain fog, that almost indescribable state of being unable to concentrate.

That’s when I noticed an older woman, maybe mid-seventies, sitting alone at the next table. She wasn’t engrossed in her books or with her phone, as are most people these days, but appeared to be observing us. I sent a nod of acknowledgment her way, and maybe a slip of a smile.

As Jenn and I continued our discussion (what the devil does cause brain fog, anyway?), I became aware of a moving figure in my peripheral vision. Then more detail: a head, slightly bent; hands meekly clasped at the waist. And suddenly, the woman from the next table was standing right in front of us, as if drawn by a magnet.

“I see you sitting here, talking to each other, and I have no one,” she said, her voice beseeching, her accent unmistakably German.

Jenn reached for her handbag and pulled out a surgical mask, mumbling something about not wanting to take any chances. I’d had Covid just before Christmas, and decided to wear one as well.

The woman’s straight, chin-length hair – which seemed not yet all gray – framed her oval face. And she wore the shy, pained expression of heartfelt longing. “I want to be like you!” she said.

Jenn and I made eye contact, a silent agreement that we would be kind. But behind our masks, our words sounded muted and distant. After several minutes Jenn mentioned that we were writers in the middle of a work session.

“I write, too!” the woman said, her face brightening with hope.

She had not taken the hint. It must have been my nod that encouraged her, I thought. Now we were either going to have to invite her to take a seat, or…what? “What’s your name?” I asked.

She came a bit closer. “Eva,” she said, her hands still clasped at her waist.

Trying to get a feel for her plight, I asked some of the usual questions one asks of a new acquaintance. As it turns out, Eva lives with a granddaughter – a busy mother of three with a fulltime job. She had dropped Eva off at the bookstore that day. And the day before.

Once again, her eyes imploring, she stated her purpose: she only wanted someone to talk to, to be included.

But what could we do, Jenn and I? Maybe there was something. Sometime in the future. I asked for her phone number and watched as she fumbled with her cell phone. She couldn’t find it – not a good sign. Instead, I took down her granddaughter’s name and number, which she managed to locate, and promised to give her a call.

Seemingly satisfied with our exchange, Eva disappeared into the store. Jenn and I resumed our discussion. But fifteen minutes later, Eva was back, her face steeped in worry, her hands moving, moving. Her granddaughter was on her way to the bookstore at that very moment, she said. And she was angry. Apparently because Eva had shared her phone number with us.

With the two women now standing at our table, we made introductions. As it turned out, the granddaughter, whom I will call “Leah,” was not angry at all. Only relieved that her grandmother – Oma – hadn’t given out her credit card information. I think it was then that I noticed that Eva’s fingers. No longer laced at her waist, I could see that they were gnarled with arthritis.

We invited them to sit. It was the only thing to do. What we proposed, Jenn and I, was sharing community resources. Leah took notes on a sheet paper that I’d torn from my notebook. Searching on her phone, Jenn found the number for our senior resource center. I mentioned local volunteer opportunities. Did we know that Leah’s grandmother had been a teacher?

“Kindergarten through fifth grade,” Eva said. The corners of her mouth curved up in a modest smile.

Over the next few days, I thought about our strange encounter. Or was it strange, really, that someone should want to join in where people are connecting with one another? What Eva is craving, I realized, are relationships. Not simply contacts. Should I invite her to tea? Or was it enough that I took time to listen?

Growing up at a time when children were not generally recognized as real people, some of us learned the very unwise lesson of keeping our needs to ourselves. Or worse yet, were made to feel guilty for expressing them. Quite often, suppressed needs follow children into their teenage years and adulthood, surfacing as social and emotional problems. Even addictions, according to Gabor Maté, MD, a well-known author and speaker on trauma and addiction. The Hungarian-Canadian Holocaust survivor urges us not to ask “why the addiction?” but “why the pain?”

When we finally start peeling away the layers, including the traumas, that created who we are today, we discover all sorts of false beliefs about ourselves, beliefs we absorbed as children. Only when we are no longer in denial about those suppressed needs can we shift the blame, and the shame, away from ourselves. We learn that using our voice is not a sin, but a gift.

I applaud Eva for expressing her need for connection. It took courage to take action, walk over to our table and say that she wanted to be “like us.” Being “like” the people we see – people who are playing, laughing, creating, sharing food and conversation – is a primordial need. It’s why babies crawl upon our laps and touch our mouths and faces with their small fingers. It’s connection, from the time we are infants, that wires our brains for life and keeps us happy. FFG