I was born into rural Connecticut solitude on June 2, 1975. For the first three summers of my life, I fell asleep near an open window, listening to the music of crickets and whippoorwills. These sounds were occasionally swallowed by the evening thrum of the lawn mower, in the wake of which would follow the smell of cut grass. And when I heard Gadbois’ tractor thud-thud-thudding down our road to the corn fields, I learned to anticipate the earthy stink of manure which somedays reminded me of baking chocolate.
Once nursery school began, I met for the first time other kids who also fell asleep beside open windows, and so we talked first about what our houses were like and if our dads mowed the lawn at night. We talked as we marveled over the wooden ice-cream maker machine, which broke the day the teachers brought it in, and we talked as we lined up in the dark to go home. We talked so much they told us to be quiet, but we had enough of the quiet during the long rural nights, so we kept talking our way into becoming friends.
We remained friends for many years, even during the times it seemed like we weren’t. For me, this separation felt like it began to happen around second grade, when I became aware that I was either holding myself apart or trying too hard to thrust myself too close. I had somehow lost the knack of how to be pals and so, some days, it felt like I returned to the rural solitude into which I had been born. This period lasted a long time—blaming a classmate for breaking my Lego spaceship in third grade didn’t help, nor did sneezing a big green goober on my desk in fifth, nor did dropping my, shall we say, used underwear, on the floor in seventh. These were the normal trials of youth, usually over and forgotten in an instant, but because I had returned to the quiet of rural solitude, I could ruminate on these events, which took on a specific gravity of their own, around which it seemed my loneliness was trapped in orbit.
“Just be yourself” is terrible advice. If everyone stayed themselves forever, we’d still be squatting in the dirt, banging rocks together in the hopes the fire gods might send us a spark. And, in the world of Salem Elementary School, I was the equivalent of a social rock-banger, with a mullet that refused to grow beyond the base of my neck and a faded Corona Light t-shirt that I snuck into school.
It was during the summer before ninth grade that I first became aware of the concept of identity as something you could make for yourself. I don’t know how, exactly, I came to this realization, though I imagine it was likely a combination of too many heroic speeches by Optimus Prime, some timely parenting, and a heavy re-reading of C. S. Lewis, Susan Cooper, Madeline L’Engle, and J. R. R. Tolkien. And so I entered East Lyme High School determined to walk like Strider, to be kind and just like Optimus, to watch for hidden signs like the Pevensie children and Will Stanton, and to be courageous like Meg Murry. Of course, I failed spectacularly at nearly all of these things—such is the risk of basing your personality off the cultural equivalent of the back of a box of Fantasy Flakes.
It was a quiet moment when I realized everything had changed. It was in late August, during a break from band practice. There were about five of us, all sitting on blue chairs in a hastily arranged circle, eating a dinner of take-out grinders and tubes of raw cookie dough from the grocery store across the street. The double doors were open to the summer air, and an occasional breeze blew in, ruffling the sheets on top of the blond practice piano and providing a cool relief the overworked fans never could. We were talking about our upcoming classes, who our teachers would be, what we were looking forward to and what we feared. And that was the moment my insecurities simply crumbled away. All it took was a couple of sandwiches and some honest conversation, and I knew I would love these people forever.
The truth was—and this is something I have never written before—that my own heart was close to hardening against the world. But with this new group of friends, I felt that wound-up, anxious part of myself relax. What’s more, afterwards, I was able to re-connect with old friends from Salem as a more mature, less volatile contemporary. In the end, these new friends helped me stitch my own short past to the fabric of my present, so by the time we graduated, I considered all my friends, old and new, bonded as family.
Looking back on all these years from age forty, I can see now how much shifted on that day in August way back in 1989. I would never have been able to become friends with my wife first, before we fell in love, if those good people in East Lyme hadn’t shown me what friendship could look like. And I would have lost my affection for my hometown, if those Salem friends hadn’t forgiven my oddities and picked up the weave of friendship we began almost as toddlers. And I never would have made it to Boston College and Harvard (yes, Seth, Extension!), let alone had the great good fortune of meeting another group of wonderful, generous people, without the confidence those high school friendships afforded me. And our lives in Minnesota and Milford wouldn’t be as rich without all the wonderful friends we’ve made in the years since.
And so I suppose, at age forty, that is where my navel-gazing ends, in a pool of gratitude for every friendship and relationship that has been a part of my life. I think the time has come to sign off, in a way, from these personal essays. I have said enough.
I still enjoy sleeping by an open window. But instead of whippoorwills and crickets, I listen to the clicking rhythm of the train, to the hushed conversations of people on the street below. I listen to my wife breathing and our daughters murmuring in their sleep. And to these sounds, I add the natural harmonies of those years of solitude, and I am content and grateful for the concert of it all.
Thank you for being part of my first forty years. I love you all, and wish you the greatest happiness life can deliver.