When I was a small boy on our farm, I often felt lonely. I was an only child who had to get comfortable with being alone. Now I see what a blessing it was, a blessing of silence and solitude. I liked to read, and I liked to watch television, and I liked to play with my toy guns, creating various scenarios of peril which required my heroism. I also loved sports, and I came up with ways to play with a basketball, football, baseball, that cast me as the star. In short, because I was an only child, I fell in love with stories, and I learned to rely on my imagination.
Thanks to my father’s temper, there was no lack of noise in our home, but on those days when he was busy in the fields, and my mother was working inside the house, I enjoyed the silence. Sometimes on summer days, I made a tent with a blanket over our clothesline, and I lay on the grass with a book, feeling as if I and its characters were the only people who existed. Yes, there were times when I had playmates, children from neighboring farms, but for the most part I was on my own.
Now, I’m sixty years old, and I find myself in a contemporary world of constant connection and stimulation. Cell phones, email, social media. All of it threatens to create a feeling of anxiety if one should find oneself alone. (Make a post on Facebook, for instance, and see how antsy or depressed you get if no one “likes” it.) Perhaps I’m romanticizing my past, or maybe I’m just an old(er) man griping about the way things are now, but I really do worry about what this climate of always being in the presence of others (even if they are virtual others), or constantly being surrounded by noise (the noise of multiple voices coming at you via text, email, Facebook, Twitter, etc.—voices that demand your participation), does to our ability to deepen our thoughts, to consider, to imagine, to reflect, to dream. That was another way I entertained myself when I was a boy; I knew how to daydream. When I started writing, I knew how to daydream a plot; I’d been doing it most of my life.
So here’s to long summer days deep in the heart of the country, where the only sounds are the birds singing in the trees, the murmur of my mother’s Philco radio playing the three o’clock news, the whirr of her oscillating fan, the soft pops of canning jars sealing on the counter, the faint rattle of the exhaust stack of my father’s tractor in the field on the other side of our woods. He’ll be at work a while longer. My mother has no need to worry about me. She’s working up tomatoes, or green beans, or corn. I’m by myself. I’m on the couch, or on the porch, or in the rope swing in the front yard. I have time. Lots and lots of time, and so I learn not to hurry. I learn to pay attention: to listen to the way squirrels bark when alarmed, to see the maple leaves turn upward and show their undersides just before a storm, to smell the rain in the air long before it comes. I’ll remember these things later. I’ll remember them all my life. I’ll remember those childhood days and how the world of my imagination came into contact with the world of the senses, and I’ll know what a writer needs: solitude, silence, time. Sometimes, I have to remind myself. I have to shut out the noise and learn, again, how to be by myself, how to listen, how to follow my leaps of imagination and thought, how to wait until the right words come.