The Ultimate Backyard (Or Living Room) Swing
Simple joys—like a rope swing—are wound full of adventure.
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The other day, we hung the swing.
It’s a simple wooden disc attached to a long, thick snake of rope. When I bought it last summer for our daughters’ third and fifth birthdays, I imagined hanging it outside from the solid arm of a tree, the kids scuffing their feet in the gramma grass as they swung back and forth under a brilliant New Mexico sky.
Swinging is the simplest of pleasures, an unassailable rite—and right—of childhood. Lean back, pump your legs, feel the momentum lift and carry you, suspended and free between ground and sky. When we swing, we’re transported. We’re young again.
Growing up in suburban New Jersey, we had a metal swing set in our backyard. Not the flimsy, bought-from-a-box DIY number, but an enormous industrial steel job that look like it had been airlifted from the local school. It came with the house, and for a few years at least, we spent hours back there swinging and practicing our one-legged spins on the bar and falling with thudding regularity onto the wood chips below. Swinging, I’d hang my head back and get so dizzy I thought I might throw up. Then I’d fling myself into midair at the exact apex of my trajectory, trying to outdistance myself with each jump.
Even better than playground swings, though, are wilderness swings, the ones you chance upon in the woods or hanging above a swimming hole or in a high meadow with views in every direction, so that when you push off, you feel like you are going to sail right off the edge of the world. They seem to belong to no one because they belong to everyone.
The knotted old rope swing at Bristol Falls, outside of Middlebury, where we cooled off on hot early-summer days in college. The wooden swing tied to an enormous ponderosa above a jumble of pink granite boulders on the north side of Sun Mountain, above St. John’s College, Santa Fe. The tire swing in the Santa Fe River Canyon, where swinging sessions invariably end with one daughter or another up to her knees in snowmelt, muddy and happy, the novelty of flowing water trumping wet feet almost every time. The crude wooden plank we hung from a white pine at our cottage in Ontario the summer we got married. And too many more to remember, in the Adirondacks, the Blue Ridge, lakes, rivers, ponds, mountains, fields, farms, islands, orchards.
As soon as I had daughters of my own, I wanted to give them a taste of that same wild freedom without leaving our backyard. Their first swing was a royal blue plastic infant bucket swing, a gift from my stepmother, that we hung by chains from our side portal. As soon as they could sit up on their own, they sailed back and forth, thwacking dogs and each other, until their legs grew so long and gangly that their feet practically dragged on the flagstone, and we gave it away.
Enter the Original Tree Swing, which I found at a local toy store for about $60. Our friends had hung one from a beam in their living room, and whenever we visited, Pippa and Maisy went crazy, swarming it like tiny blonde pirates trying to wrest it from the control of its rightful owners. Over the years, more than one child and dog had been taken out by that swing. I wanted one of our own, to hang outside in the fresh air, wind in our hair, youth prolonged.
There was only one problem. After the swing was purchased and presented and received with great fanfare, we cased our yard and discovered that we had not a single tree strong enough from which to hang it. We have terrible soil—rocky, impenetrable clay—and our trees are spindly, if determined, specimens, growing upward and outward at imperceptibly slow rates that agonize my husband, Steve, a horticulturalist at heart and by trade.
Fortunately, we own one of the only pitched-roof adobe homes in Santa Fe, and our 20-foot-high ceilings look like a cross between an upside-down ship’s hull and the inside of a barn. If any house was made for indoor swing, it’s ours. I pictured the Original Tree Swing dangling artfully between our dining room bench and white Eames rocker like a hip still life ripped from the pages of Dwell.
But Steve refused to hang it. A minimalist, he didn’t want to clutter up our dining room with even the most minimal of rope-and-wood swings. Plus, he argued, it’s dangerous. There wouldn’t be enough room to swing safely without hitting walls and the living room couch. Then there’s the minor detail of our concrete floor. It’s a trip to the ER waiting to happen, he grumbled.
How could I argue with him? When I was three, I knocked out one of my front teeth on Hanging Bar, a dubious trapeze-like contraption that my mother strung up in our basement. Hanging by my knees, I slipped and augured into the black-and-tan linoleum floor. I came up laughing, but my reaction might have been different if I’d known I’d be gap-toothed and eating apples from the side until I was six.
So the Original Tree Swing sat in an unloved heap on our back patio for nearly a year. The girls forgot about it. I didn’t. When Steve went backcountry skiing at a hut in British Columbia for ten days earlier this month, I asked our friend Stewart, owner of the other Original Tree Swing in town, if he felt like hanging ours. “Sure, I’d love to drill a hole in Steve’s house while he’s away!” he agreed enthusiastically, with a glimmer of goodnatured malice in his eyes. Maybe it was payback for leaving me solo with the kids for ten days, but I swear I just wanted to hang that swing.
Stewart came over one evening around dinnertime, an electric drill in hand, his two young daughters trailing him up the walk. I’d bought a hefty steel hook and carabiner strong enough to hold 300 pounds, and pointed to the beam where I thought it should go. Stewart’s an ER doctor—a fact which hopefully won’t come in handy later—and I could see him assessing the location with a doctor’s calm, measured eye. He helped me drag out the tallest ladder we own, and climbed up. “This one’s better,” he said, pointing to a beam that wasn’t directly above the front door. “No glass to hit.”
He looped the rope over the beam first to see how it swung. It looped in a high, clean arc, clearing the couch and the sharp edge of the butcher block counter and the door’s glass panes. “Maybe we should just tie it off this way instead of drilling a hole,” he hedged, second thoughts painted all over his face. “That way you can take it down if you”—and I knew he meant Steve—”change your mind.”
He tied a bowline, tugging the braid through and looping it in a complicated way through the carabiner. Then he stood back and looked at it from different angles. Was the seat too high? What happened if they launched sideways—crunch, right into the cabinet by the door. “It’s going to rub those beams,” Stewart diagnosed, pointing to the way the rope met wood. “It’ll be OK for a while, but you should get some climbing webbing and tie it off to that.” He paused before adding the inevitable medical disclaimer: “The way we’ve got it set up is just for kids.”
That was our cue to summon our guinea pigs, who came at it so fast we practically had to fight them off. One at a time, the girls scooted on, pushed off with their feet, and sailed high into the air of our dining room. Pippa, the tallest, missed the kitchen counter by two inches. The knot held. The beam was indifferent. The seat was low enough for even the littlest in the lot.
When Steve got home later that night, he took one look at the swing and raised his eyebrows. I could see a wise crack forming in his brain: ER doc installs swing…. But it’s been a week, and no one’s impaled themselves on anything and all teeth remain intact. The girls swing at all hours of the day. They use it as transportation to get from one end of the room to the other, and for prolonged after-school pendulum sessions. Even Steve has warmed to it, sort of. When he thinks I’m not watching, I’ll catch him pushing the girls so high above the concrete floor they squeal.
But the funny thing is, after the initial surge of mania, the swing brings the energy in the house down, not up. It’s as though being momentarily airborne settles the girls more fully into themselves, and their surroundings. This works vicariously, too. I still cringe when Pippa launches off the tall barstool and alley-oops over the room, toes grazing the kitchen counter, but then the moment of suspense dissolves, leaving only pure, childlike joy and the simplest kind of contentment.
Maybe some day we’ll relocate the swing to its rightful place, outside, knotted to the branch of a weathered old pine on our island in Canada. But for now, it’s right where we want it, and need it, most.