Unexpected connections

Diagram of a network

Only connect! (E. M. Forster)

The world is getting smaller, we are told. New technologies are bringing what used to be distant, unknown, and unattainable, to our desktops and telephones; we can communicate instantly with people on different continents, sharing documents, photos, texts, songs, whatever. Even, God help us, Tweets.

Our world here in Austin has also grown smaller, but in a very different sense. It sometimes seems that hardly a week goes by without some unsuspected connection revealing itself, much to our surprise and pleasure.

For example, Heather mentioned in a previous post how in 2005, at the Sustainable Food Center’s Sunset Valley farmers’ market, she suddenly realized that the man at the Thunder Heart Bison stand, from whom she’d been buying bison meat for several years, was Hugh Fitzsimons, whose grandparents lived across the street from her grandparents in San Antonio, and with whom she’d attended St. Luke’s Episcopal School in San Antonio.

And this: many years ago, during one of my early midlife crises, I decided that I’d had enough of the word trade and quit my job at the Texas State Historical Association to try my hand as an artist. I rented a studio at a complex on Guadalupe Street between 17th and 18th Streets, moved in my easel and drafting table and paints and brushes and pencils, and waited for inspiration to strike. And waited. And waited. And waited. And waited some more.

Eventually, I came to my senses and went back to the TSHA, hat in hand, and managed to get back on the payroll, and my life returned to what passes for normal around here. But several years ago Heather met a fellow rower, Kevin Barry, and his wife Barbara; we had long since become good friends with them when we learned, quite by chance, that Kevin, a newspaper publisher by trade, had once owned a studio complex in Austin. On Guadalupe Street. Between 17th and 18th Streets.

Here’s another one: last year we met the young novelist Philipp Meyer and his wife Alex at the Austin home of our friend Jim Magnuson, the head of the Michener Center for Writers at UT Austin. We very much enjoyed chatting with Philipp, the author of American Rust and a Dobie Paisano Fellow, and some time later he invited us to a party at Paisano Ranch. Then we found out that he had been asked to write a feature for Texas Monthly on Hog School at Madroño Ranch; that article appears in the magazine’s August issue.

Then there’s this: last May we met Elizabeth Burnett, who works in development for Williams College, and she asked about other Williams alumni in Austin. I mentioned the novelist Amanda Eyre Ward, whom I’d met several years ago, and Elizabeth gasped: it turned out that she and Amanda were not only classmates at Williams, but fellow graduates of the M.F.A. writing program at the University of Montana.

Shortly after we met Elizabeth, our friend Becca Cody suggested that her friend Juli Berwald, a freelance science writer in Austin, might be an excellent candidate for a residency at Madroño Ranch. We corresponded with Juli, and among her references was (of course) Amanda Eyre Ward. Another connection! Juli suggested her friend Julia Clarke, a paleontology professor at the University of Texas at Austin, as another potential resident; after corresponding with Julia, we quickly agreed that she was a slam dunk, but it wasn’t until we finally met her in person that we determined that she and I are both graduates of the Branson School in Ross, California. Last month Juli and Julia spent a couple of weeks at Madroño Ranch, and, acting on a suggestion by Elizabeth Burnett, we’re going to host a gathering of local Williams and Amherst alumni on August 10 at which Amanda will discuss her new book, Close Your Eyes, with Juli serving as the M.C.

Here’s the best one, though. Six years ago, in the wake of Hurricane Rita, Lucy Nazro, the head of St. Andrew’s Episcopal School, asked us if we’d be willing to put up a young man named Tom Mehaffy, a student at Monsignor Kelly High School in Beaumont, who’d been displaced by the storm. Of course we agreed—you just don’t say no to Lucy Nazro—and so for several days we had the pleasure of hosting an extremely pleasant and polite young man.

Flash forward to one night several months ago, when we ran into our pal Tink Pinkard and his wife Leah with Jeremy and Alison Barnwell at Fabi and Rosi, one of our favorite Austin restaurants. That night Tink introduced us to Elizabeth Winslow, who co-owns Farmhouse Delivery, a cooperative CSA here in Austin, and who, coincidentally, also happened to be dining at Fabi and Rosi. (Tink works for Farmhouse Delivery when he’s not out fishing or hunting.)

We had been hoping to get to know Elizabeth better, especially since our older daughter started working at Farmhouse Delivery a few weeks ago, and had finally managed to make a date for her to come over and have a drink at our house in Austin last week. Then we got an apologetic email from her saying that she’d have to reschedule, due to an unexpected visit from her father and younger brother.

A few days later we got another email from Elizabeth with the subject line, “OK, so here is something REALLY crazy!” In it she wrote that last Monday, the day she had planned to come over to our house, as she and her father and brother were driving out to Lake Travis, they were recalling relocating to Austin from their native Beaumont in the wake of Rita. Elizabeth asked her brother, “What was the name of the family you stayed with?” Sure enough, Elizabeth turns out to be Tom Mehaffy’s older sister. What are the odds?

I don’t know what, if anything, all these coincidences and connections mean. Perhaps they’re simply an indication that we move in extremely claustrophobic social circles. But I find them fascinating, and inexplicably enjoyable. One of the persistent complaints about twenty-first-century life is the anonymity, the sense of isolation, of being alone in an enormous crowd. We long for connection, for that sense of being known by someone else; we want to feel that we are part of a community.

That’s the selfish little secret behind much of what we’re doing at Madroño Ranch. We’re obviously not getting rich—not yet, anyway—by offering residencies and raising bison, so people sometimes wonder why we bother. My only answer is that getting rich isn’t the only way to measure success (though we wouldn’t necessarily be opposed to it!). Connection, the sense of belonging to a community of smart, kind, interesting, thoughtful people—people like Hugh and Kevin and Philipp and Amanda and Juli and Julia and Tink and Elizabeth—is its own reward.

What we’re reading
J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
Martin: Peter Turchi, Maps of the Imagination: The Writer as Cartographer

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6 Responses to Unexpected connections

  1. Valerie says:

    “all these coincidences and connections” mean you have to be polite all of the time, because you never know who’s related to the person you’re wanting to be rude to.

  2. Kevin Barry says:

    Martin, you have identified and written well about the wonderful gift of human relationships that feed our souls. And none more fun than the serendipitous occurrences. It will always brighten one’s day, as your blog has for many of us today. Thanks for the reminder!

  3. sam wilson says:

    We enjoyed the Texas Monthly article. However, it didn’t mention some of the infectious diseases that the wild pigs carry. Proper measures should taken while processing. That being said, we look forward to experiencing the taste of slow cooked wild pig meat.

  4. I actually don’t see 21st century life as anonymous at all; I think we left that behind with the millenium. BUT I agree that you seem to be in a web of particularly rich community, one you are nurturing as well. Nicely written and nicely done.

  5. Marion says:

    The beat goes on: This link was forwarded to me by Naomi Nye; in reading it I find my friends Jim Magnuson and Amanda Eyre Ward and the complex on Guadalupe. I worked at 1705 Guadalupe many years ago.
    Yours from Baltimore, until the magic bring us together face to face,
    Marion Winik

  6. Marion: Great to hear from you since, in keeping with the “small world” theme, our sons were soccer teammates at WAYA many years ago. Hope all’s well in Charm City!

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