We gathered around the table to congratulate, reminisce and chortle as we eased the passage of a friend into his so-called retirement. It was a remarkable group of men and women of different political persuasions, and we ran the age gamut: from the fresh-faced and eager, to the mature and accomplished -- tenacious, all. I reveled in the rich company and the good-natured ribbing, and I grinned as we teased him with our mock gift. We told stories of how we'd come to meet and understand the man we'd gathered to honor and goad. Never one to sit silently while enduring adoration or withstanding a drubbing, our friend had his own chronicles to share.

He spoke of a moment, an unexpected -- yet mighty -- instance of connection. It was Dec. 15, 2012, the day after the horror of Newtown, Conn. I was, quite simply, bereft. I'd slept fitfully the previous night and had woken continuously in the dusky gloom to pitiful images of my own children looking to me for shelter. It was a night in which I tasted both my briny tears and the lingering bile my stomach churned out. When dawn offered relief, I fixed myself with a determination: My children would not see me cry. It was not a desire to be stoic in the midst of strain and struggle; I simply did not know how to talk about what had happened at Sandy Hook Elementary School. If I could not sort the horror, how could my darlings possibly manage this intolerable truth? I spent the day glassy-eyed but passably cheerful for their sake.

But then I ran into my friend at the store, and he frankly -- guilelessly -- inquired, "How are you doing?" I imagine I looked at him like a specter; I certainly felt less than human. I murmured something about the shootings in Newtown and strained to locate both my voice and an ounce of lucidity. No matter. A conversation was needless. I croaked, "I just can't get it out of my head." He nodded -- carefully, slowly, thoughtfully. In acknowledging my own inability to just "carry on," I had unwittingly invited a moment of undisguised shared humanity. There, in that check-out line, on that day and at that time, the bounds of friendship and fellowship expanded to include a new understanding of connection. We were joined in our grief for those children, those parents and for humanity writ large.

Until that point, we'd connected over political ideas, philosophical musings, and policy vision and strategy. We engaged with ideas -- principled, practical, intellectual. It wasn't so much that we imagined emotions were the stuff of the faint of heart; it simply hadn't been part of our repertoire. But a massacre of the innocents -- well, my head could not contain the misery; I needed to engage the heart and acknowledge its supremacy. He met me there, unabashed.

It was in that moment, he told those assembled at his retirement dinner, that he knew we shared an understanding of the divine. He didn't say "divine," "God" or "great mystery," but that is assuredly what he meant.

What I mean to say is this: How often does a fellow traveler honestly and tenderly reveal her unadorned fear, love and hope for the world? And when this miraculous moment manifests itself, will you be there, wholeheartedly -- without embarrassment -- to hold her and witness the divine?

Before our chance encounter on that day--a morning in which I desired nothing more than to hole up at home and sob -- I did not see how I could possibly compose my column on the Sandy Hook horrors that week. But knowing a friend -- an intellectual, a philosopher, a big-thinker--could put aside the headiness and instead settle in for the stiffer stuff of anguish and grave disappointment, gave me the courage to write.

We all spoke of connection at that dinner. How our friend and colleague relishes cultivating friendships and connecting his circles like an endless chain of Olympic rings. One chum even quipped in mock bewilderment, "He kept saying, 'I've got someone you need to meet!' and I kept thinking: 'Don't you get it? I don't actually like people!'" But there it is: He doesn't let any of us imagine ourselves to be smaller than he believes we are. When someone thinks of us as ultimately capable and adroit, when someone else acts in the service of our gifts, who are we not to rise to the challenge?

This week marks the anniversary of the utterly pointless slaughter in Newtown. Like so many friends and neighbors, I will seek solace and comfort at one of the vigils planned around our state to remember the victims. In Brattleboro we will meet on Saturday morning at 9:30 at Pliny Park. I hope it will be cold and clear and that we will stand under a vast sky of possibility and promise. I trust that we can gather in our shared humanity -- regardless of political disagreements and any persistent ire -- and make a promise to ourselves: To hold the divine -- which is just another way of saying our best selves -- and conceive a collective sense of purpose and resolve. We could say we owe it to the children -- ours, theirs, humankind's -- but truly we owe it to ourselves and to each other, because connection is all we're actually here to do.

Rebecca Balint writes about history, education and culture. She welcomes your comments at bbalint37@gmail.com. Read her blog at www.reformer802.com/speakerscorner.