How Do You Like to Go Up in a Swing?

Childhood’s Way to Take Flight

Over the summer my grandchildren discovered one of the purest joys a human being will ever experience. They met a swing. No it wasn’t the first time they’d been in a swing (both were plopped in the good old "wind-up Mama” almost immediately after coming home from the hospital.) Nor was it their first encounter with a playground swing, having been brought up in a family that considers regular outings to the park as essential to early toddler development as bedtime stories and Play-Doh.

When I say that Aidan and Avery met a swing, what I mean is that they met the swing – the one in every child’s life that is so welcoming, so trustworthy, so downright pleasant it allows them to let go of their fears and for the first time know what it’s like to really and truly swing!

I met my own swing when I was three years old. It was just a wide plank of wood resting in the "U” of a long rope tied to the limb of a big pecan tree next to my grandmother’s driveway. (Believe it or not, that swing was still around to entertain my own children a generation later!)  Not long ago I ran across this picture of that old swing, although to be honest I didn’t really need a photograph to recall what it looked like, any more than I need a recording to conjure up the sound of ocean waves crashing against a cliff; or a "scratch and sniff” to invoke the aroma of a Sunday pot roast. My own memory, it turns out, is a pretty reliable place to store things.

What makes a tree swing so much better than one suspended from a manmade frame, aside from obvious aesthetics, is that it typically hangs from a much longer chain or rope. The longer the rope, the greater the arc. The greater the arc, the slower the journey from back to forth; and the slower the journey, the richer the experience. Besides, swings that hang from trees are just friendlier. Everybody knows that.

I didn't have a tree big enough for a swing in my own back yard, so I had to make do with this "next-to-the-best-thing”.  No matter.  It got the job done anyway.  What I loved most about swinging was that it allowed me to defy gravity. After all, where else can you be upside down with your feet above your head one instant, and leaning so far forward that your whole body is literally parallel to the ground the next?

The big step came when I no longer needed someone to push me from behind. Once I learned how to "pump” my legs I was in total control, and could therefore tailor my swinging to suit my current mood. Some days, for instance, I barely moved, so as not to jostle my daydreams. Other times I turned myself around and around in a little circle, twisting the rope tighter and tighter, before lifting my feet and spinning wildly like a top. (The best part was staggering and falling down from dizziness afterwards, usually accompanied by a slurred rendition of "How Dry I Am” to enhance the performance – unless, of course, the audience included my grandmother, whose appreciation for fine inebriation humor was, shall we say, limited.)

On still other occasions I seemed almost maniacally driven to pump harder and faster, sometimes even standing up in the swing to maximize full power. It was in these moments that I became filled with equal parts exhilaration and fear. Was it possible to swing so high that I might fling myself completely over the top of that limb? I was bold enough to believe it could be done, yet far too chicken to ever try. The most daring feat I could manage was to "bail out” (though the ensuing ankle stingers always made me regret doing it.)

You’d think as I got older the allure of a swing would diminish, but it hasn’t. I’ve never lost that childhood thrill of being lofted heavenward, and even today whenever I happen upon an empty swing in a park or a schoolyard (and most certainly swaying gently beneath the limbs of a big tree) I am powerless to resist its invitation to take flight.

There is a poem from Robert Louis Stevenson’s "A Child’s Garden of Verses” that captures the essence of this whole experience. Rather than writing the verses out for you, I think I’ll recite them while you watch this little video of my grandchildren. It was taken, by the way, on the very day they discovered pure joy. It was taken on the day they met a swing.


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