The art of living

I plop down on my green swing, plugging in my headphones to listen to Pandora. I kick off the ground made of dirt, beginning to pump my legs to get higher in the air. The black plastic is tearing off the chains, but I don’t care.

The sounds of One Republic and Bon Iver vibrate in my ears and the rays of sunshine warm my skin. I feel alive and free.

I stare up at the sky, watching planes fly by. I wonder if I’ll ever get the chance to ride in one, to go to a new and foreign place.

Little did I know I would spend a month of college doing journalism in Guatemala.

I did my best thinking on that swing. Whenever I needed to make a life decision, whether that be which boy to date or where to go to college, that swing is where I kept going back to.

Me on my backyard swing set on March 24, 2012. I was 14 years old.

The old wooden A-frame swing was built by my dad and his friend when I was much younger. My younger brother and older sister would swing for a while, but would get bored and end up going to do something else.

But I was different. Once I started pumping my legs, I wasn’t getting off that swing for hours. Part of it was my love for music. Part of it was my love for seeing things from a new and different perspective.

I never really thought about why I kept going back to that swing, even when I “grew up” and probably got too old to be swinging on an old swing set. It seems my siblings outgrew it, while I couldn’t seem to let it go. Maybe it’s because so many things were changing in my life, and going back to the same place gave me a sense of stability in a world of chaos.

Swinging helped me to acknowledge and appreciate the trees around my neighborhood in South Saint Paul. There was the tree whose branches made the shape of a huge carrot. The pine trees, whose needles helped me to see that even when people leave and things change, God and nature still remain.

Swinging helped me to connect with nature. I always felt the higher I swung, the closer I could be to speaking to the trees. How many stories they could tell about the things they’ve seen.

As Barbara Kingsolver said in Knowing Our Place, “It’s a privilege to live any part of one’s life in proximity to nature. It is a privilege, apparently, even to know that nature is out there at all. In the summer of 1996 human habitation on earth made a subtle, uncelebrated passage from being mostly rural to being mostly urban. More than half of all humans now live in cities. The natural habitat of our species, then, officially, is steel, pavement, streetlights, architecture, and enterprise – the hominid agenda.”

Although I technically grew up in a small suburb of the Twin Cities, I always felt like I was lucky to be surrounded by so much nature. The nearest park was only about a 7 minute bike ride away, and the tree in my front yard always turned the prettiest shades of red, orange and yellow in autumn.

The juxtaposition of the concrete sidewalks and tar on the streets made me appreciate the beauty of nature even more so, I believe. Neither a city girl nor a country girl, I couldn’t be put into a box – and neither could my sense of place. It was neither building nor nature, but a combination of building a swing set from the tools that nature provides us.

I looked over at my neighbors house, where my brother and I spent hours playing under the tree in their backyard. The alley was the only thing that separated us.

I felt independent on that swing, ready to take on the world, dreaming about where my next adventure would be and where God would take me in my life.

But I also felt safe, knowing that my mom would peak out our kitchen window to make sure no one had kidnapped me, or that the swing hadn’t collapsed on top of me.

I stayed on that swing until after the sun set behind my house, creating beautiful shades of purple and red to reflect on the clouds until the night settled in.

“So far as seeing things is an art, it is the art of keeping your eyes and ears open,” John Burroughs said in The Art of Seeing Things. “Can you bring all your faculties to the front, like a house with many faces at the doors and windows; or do you live retired within yourself, shut up in your own meditations? …If you are occupied with your own thoughts, you may go though a museum of curiosities and observe nothing.”

A dragonfly that landed on the rings of my swing set on June 5, 2015. “Every detail of God’s creation amazes me,” I said when I posted this on Instagram.

When you spend so much time in one place, I think it’s easy to become indifferent. The familiar seems to become boring, and you long for new places and faces to see.

But there’s something sacred about going back to a familiar place, with familiar faces. You start to notice more, and you understand that place better than anyone.

“After long experience I am convinced that the best place to study nature is at one’s own home…no matter where that may be,” John Burroughs said in Nature Near Home. “At home one should see and hear with more fondness and sympathy. Nature should touch him a little more closely there than anywhere else. He is better attuned to it than to strange scenes.

Familiarity with things about one should not dull the edge of curiosity or interest. The walk you today today through the fields and woods, or along the riverbank, is the walk you should take tomorrow, and next day, and next. What you miss once, you will hit upon next time. The happenings are at intervals and are irregular. The play of Nature has no fixed programme.”

Burroughs’ points caused me to rethink how I perceive home. It flipped a switch in my mind and forced me to see a new perspective, similar to what swinging did for me.

How often do we rush from place to place, not really thinking about where we are in that moment? Especially in this technology-age where everyone you follow on Instagram is going on a new adventure to a new place every month, or so it seems.

But are we really living if we’re only existing to post new pictures on Instagram of the latest exotic place we’ve been? I’ve never really seen anyone post photos of places from home that really mean something to them. It’s almost like we’re embarrassed to be caught reminiscing on the past when our culture is so focused on moving on.

The “moving on” that our culture projects, however, seems to be never-ending – and almost, if not completely, strips the meaning away from places and people that have become sacred to us.

No time to process. Just one thing to the next. Wishing you were in one place while you’re in another. And when we’re on social media (although a useful tool that I continue to use), we’re caught never really living in any moment fully. Our attention is always divided between multiple worlds, places, and people.

So what’s the solution?

Learning how to see and acknowledge again is the first step, instead of simply skimming and looking. And there’s a difference between looking and seeing. Seeing requires observing for the purpose of trying to understand something. We need to learn how to do that again with nature and people.

Letting ourselves take a break from the constant pressure to stay connected to everything all at once. Allowing ourselves space to breath, to bring our faculties to the front like John Burroughs talked about. To retrain our short-attention span minds to appreciate the art of seeing things.

The art of being in the moment.

The art of being where you’re at.

The art of truly living.


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