A few years ago when I was very sick and undergoing intensive chemotherapy, I found myself thinking a lot about the city I was born in, Hartford, and the town where I grew up, Wethersfield.
When you are in the kind of treatment I was in, there is not much you can do to occupy yourself. To pass the time I only had a few options: enjoy some kind of entertainment on a screen or follow the thoughts in my mind.
I watched movies occasionally but holding up the iPad in my hospital bed was too tiring. When I was lucky enough to be at home, I was so exhausted that the television was more background noise than entertainment.
So I was left with my thoughts.
Over time, I began to conceive of a play rooted in the world of my childhood. the result, “An Opening In Time,” will have its premiere at Hartford Stage in September. It’s my first work to take place where I grew up.
Where did this idea come from? When did I first notice my mind returning to thoughts of home? It began with memories of my late father: He’d had chemo to treat his leukemia at Hartford Hospital when I was in my mid-20s. Now I could understand what he went through. I remembered his bland, anonymous room, and the gentle nurses who seemed to genuinely know him. I had a vivid memory of a Dunkin’ Donuts across from the hospital that I sometimes went to when I’d visit him.
I retraced my drive from Wethersfield to the hospital and this simple memory awakened others: two decades before his illness, passing by the hospital as my father drove us into the city to see a Celtics exhibition game. He always took the back streets into Hartford so he could show me the different parts of the city.
Years later as a teenager, I would mimic him, driving aimlessly around Hartford and paying attention to everything that I saw. As I lay in my hospital bed those drives came back to life: the muscularity of dense city blocks, the sudden shift from one neighborhood to another, the people on the streets and the energy of constant movement.
Then home and the emergence of space and isolation, buildings shorter and farther apart from one another. My town’s streets held the earliest memories: the crunch of a gravel driveway, the gentle lift of a parking lot speed bump, the textured blur of a road I’d zip down on my dirt bike …
These memories were odd to me. I’d never thought of myself as nostalgic. If someone had asked me before I got sick how I felt about where I was from, I would have said that it was a good enough place to grow up: The schools encouraged creativity, the landscape was beautiful, the presence of history gave life richness.
But I also would have talked about the loneliness of being a gay teenager who didn’t feel he could come out. I would have mentioned conformity and cliques and narrowness of thought. At the time I couldn’t wait to leave home and go to New York City.
So 25 years later, what accounted for my sudden homesickness, my deep desire to be back on the old streets? The obvious answer is that I wished to return to a simpler time, before I really understood that sickness and death are a part of life.
But I don’t think it can just be that; for all the happiness of my youth, there was so much sadness too. It wasn’t a simpler time at all really.
Having been off treatment for a while now, I can see that the old landscapes gave me solace because in a scary time, they let me feel that however limited my future might be, my life had been long: there were miles and miles to replay in my mind, endless hours of places seen and lives witnessed.
“An Opening In Time” is my play’s title because it has a meaning particular to its characters and story. But it also carries a personal meaning for me about what I went through: In an uncertain present, I discovered within myself the limitless memories of my past. They were waiting for me if I needed them.
Christopher Shinn of New York grew up in Wethersfield. His play “Dying City” was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.
The world premiere of Christopher Shinn’s “An Opening in Time” is appearing at the Hartford Stage from Sept. 17 to Oct. 11 for more information go online to hartfordstage.org or call (860) 527-5151.
Copyright © 2015, Hartford Courant