Please welcome today’s guest writer, Michelle Ratering. A small town Michigander displaced in South East Asia, Michelle graduated from Calvin College in 2013. Now a resident of Jakarta, Indonesia, she spends her time teaching at an international school, learning a new language, eating tempeh, and planning trips.
When I was a child, I spent a lot of time outside.
While regular adventures into the woods were a frequent occurrence for my siblings and me, most of my time was spent in or on one of the fixtures of the backyard proper—the trampoline, the sandbox, the barn, or the swing set.
My childhood swing set isn’t one of those Walmart-purchased contraptions of rickety, hollow metal that shakes when you soar too high. Instead, my swing set is a mass of 4x4s and iron bolts, strong enough to hold two swings, a metal horse-shaped swing-glider and three energetic children.
I am not an adrenaline seeker by nature, but I loved to see how high I could swing. After the initial tip-toed launch (and a few ground-supported passes at the bottom of the arc) I would be swooping up and up and up, legs pumping, toes pointing and flexing in the familiar rhythm. While Swinger Girl, a character on the popular American ’90s show, Recess, would always attempt to swing over the beam of the swing set on her school’s playground, I gauged my success in a different way.
At the crest of the wave, as I leaned as far back as I could, with my legs straight out, I would look past my toes and chart my upward progress.
I measured my swing height by the trees.
Toes above the garage door was half way there.
Toes above the roof was a quarter way left to go.
Toes above the trees? I was practically flying.
When I was a child, I measured myself against the tallest tree. This tree, this tallest tree, it wasn’t a redwood or a giant ash. It was a white pine. The tallest tree—in my own backyard.
Now I am an adult, and my immediate environment isn’t always the basis for my self-assessment. I was launched from my backyard’s satisfying, obtainable constant into a world of dubious and unknown heights, continually shifting.
When I was a child, I measured myself against the tallest tree. Now, I measure myself against intangible unknowns: the places I have never been, the books I have never read, the relationships I have never had.
The unseen sequoias of a world far larger than my backyard.
When home, I could still swing on my childhood set, which remains firmly rooted in the same place it has for over twenty-five years, but I don’t. I am too tall to get any seriously good air because my feet scrape against the trough of the curve, and I can’t stick a mid-swing jump like I used to: my inhibitions are too great, and since my older brother no longer hangs around the backyard, I wouldn’t have anyone to impress, anyway.
Instead, I sit still on the swingset of my youth. Delicate clematis tendrils now trail up a trellis attached to the south side of the set, and a climbing hydrangea, slow but determined, is crossing over from the other side to meet it, both vines thriving in the absence of constant, youthful exuberance.
The tallest tree isn’t there anymore. I don’t quite remember, but I believe I was away at college when it came down. I imagine its downward crash as a flurry of sawdust and branches, pine cones and birds’ nests.
However, when I picture my house, I see it with the white pine tree still there, just left of the garage, and I hear my mother saying, “When we first moved here, your father could have held it with one hand and cut it down with the other.”