The Arc of Life


One of the first things I did when we moved up to the farm was to build a swing set for the kids. My oldest son was 11 years old at the time so I had him help me with the project. I bought some rough-sawn eight by eights and dug holes four foot deep into the eskar in front of the house. We cut the seats to length and drilled holes through them for the anchors. He learned to use a belt sander and then an orbital to take down the grain to a soft finish, we painted them bottle green, three coats to stand up to all the use they’d see over time and then we measured the lengths of chain and attached them with clevis yokes to the cross bar at the top. We countersunk holes through the posts where the timbers met using a ratchet to tighten the lag bolts and then filled the cavities with silicon. We spaced the swings evenly, three in total, one for each child. I think that my motivation was so that my wife would soften to the idea of the farm, that she would see that I meant it when I said the most important thing we’d raise here would be our children, that this was not some hard and thankless life of drudgery, but a place of joy, where play would be equal to our work. It was one of those things that seemed like a stroke of genius, but looking back it was almost instinctual. They were for the children — and they were a magnet — not only to our own but to every child who came up that driveway in the years since we put it up, but for the adults as well. It never ceases to amaze me when I see one of the elderly visitors who stop by for eggs or pork chops eye them warily before making their way over and taking a seat. Grown men with sour faces smile when they grab the chains in their gnarled hands and gently push off the grass beneath the swing and then ride back, eyes closed in the afternoon sunlight. The swings are set at different heights so anyone the size of a toddler or taller can climb on and start their ride out above the steep hill a few feet out. If you get them going really fast it feels as if you are launching yourself into space, out above the pasture below, your feet pointing at the clouds with every swing. When the snow is deep we jump off at the apex and plunge some thirty feet out before landing in the deep drifts below, something very few people outside of the family are willing to try, but the exhilaration you feel as your hands let go at the top of the swing, the emptiness inside in the moment before gravity begins to draw you back is hard to describe. The idea is to spread yourself wide before you land so the snowbanks can absorb the weight of your body heading towards the Earth. There is a sound when you hit that’s hard to describe, a soft envelope of freezing air being rent by human form. There is always laughter, from the jumper and the ones on the hill above and it isn’t often repeated twice in a day, but it is something we all look forward to when Winter steals away so many other things we love to do.

Our youngest son has reached the same age as his older brother when we first arrived at the farm and we work on similar projects around the farm using the same kinds of tools and hardware. While we work we talk a great deal about the things that interest him or things that I remember from my own childhood that resonate with him. The other day we got around to a discussion of God and he asked me earnestly how I could be sure that he was there and I tried to explain it to him in a way I hoped he’d understand. We sat on the swings together, not actually riding them, just keeping our feet in place and we pushed slowly back and forth in place and I asked him if he could tell me what he knew about Pi. He’d been having trouble with math at school lately, not because he isn’t capable of understanding it but because they seem incapable of teaching it, so I had tried my best to intercede in showing him some things I thought he’d find fascinating. I drew a circle for him and then asked him to point out the center, which he did and then I asked him how far it was from the center to the edge. He came pretty close — we’d been working on tape measure skills and he understood how to read the inches and the feet and the fractions they were made of — and then I asked him how many times that length would fit around the outside of the circle. He squinted and after a pause where I could sense him trying to calculate the space with his eyes he answered. “Three times?” He said looking up at me. I told him that was a pretty fair guess and then told him it was 3.14159265 and stopped because I had forgotten anything more than that. I made sure to tell him that the actual number had no real end, that it ran on in an endless string of digits that never repeated themselves and that there were, as far as I knew, an incalculable number that the world’s fastest supercomputers had traced out as far as 60 trillion places without an end in sight. The solution to the question was infinite, unknowable, a mystery that mankind would never solve. He nodded, not really knowing where I was going with my explanation, and then I asked him how hard the question seemed when I first asked. “Simple.” I explained how a circle is a shape human beings were certain to encounter in their lives for a myriad of sources — watching ripples expand away from a rock tossed in a pool of water, the shape of a soap bubble blown by a child, the Sun and the Moon. “How long do you imagine it was before the first person tried to solve that simple problem, dividing the radius of a circle into its diameter?” He nodded again. I told him that to me it was a message from God, letting us know that He is there, infinite, beyond our ability to understand yet around us in the most simple things imaginable. God had to know that we would ask that question and that the answer would seem perfectly simple but would in reality be more complex than any attempt we could ever make at understanding it. He recalled an earlier conversation we’d had about the Fibonacci sequence and its carefully hidden, yet easily found patterns that were built into everything from the shape of a human embryo to the galaxy in which we lived and he said that the two seemed alike. I nodded back, smiling, the two of us tracing slight arcs in the air as we sat on the swings. “I think that they are.” I replied, believing it with all my heart.

Not too long ago I came across an old album that my Mother had put together when I was very young. The outside was old and worn and it was once white with embossed title “BABY BOOK” on the front cover. The first couple of pages were filled with deckled black and white Polaroids of myself as an infant. My father was holding me in one, standing on the front yard of my grandparents home and smiling down at his son wrapped up in a blanket against the frigid air of mid-May. There were notes written in my mother’s handwriting; my birth weight, age at first steps, first tooth lost. As you paged through the book the notes stopped and and there were fewer photographs with each passing year until I was somewhere around the age of five or six. In one of the last pictures I am standing in the backyard of our house on Columbia Avenue in Hopewell, flanked on either side by my neighborhood friends Linda Rigo and Donnie Machusak. Behind us was a swing set my father had just put up in the backyard and it brought back a vivid recollection of that day, the bright hot Sun of mid-Summer and the smell of the rich red soil. I had forgotten how much I loved that swing set, how many hours I spent kicking out my feet and bending my legs back, out and back, over and over as the lessons of physics were written on the fibers of my young body; momentum and kinetics, the pendulum and the pull of gravity, nonlinear oscillation. In the photograph there is all of that hidden there right out in the open, the small hand of mine, dirty and angled towards the camera, a worm dangling from my pursed fingertips. And behind it the swing, at rest, and the two of us nothing but a future filled with potential energy. I was, I noticed, the spitting image of my own sons. It took a few minutes to process that thought before I flipped the next page and in the ones that followed there were only a couple of more photographs and then nothing else but empty sheets after that, each one vacant, and left to speculation just like our future.

Just a few days ago, on the morning of the Winter Solstice, I walked out to the swings with the dogs close at my heels in the darkness. It was cold but not bitter and the snow was soft beneath my feet as I took each step. The house was still behind me, the children sleeping in their beds as I took a seat on a swing and waited on the Sun to rise in front of the slant of the hill. The sky was opalescent and as I waited for the glow of morning to rise above the horizon line I thought about how we all come to certain truths in life almost by accident, as if we were meant to discover them because they have been left for us to find. How the small bodies of children, still unsure on their feet, take to rhythm of the swing and delight in its lessons and how no matter our age we all remember what it feels like to rise, higher and higher with each return. This subtle understanding suffuses our being with something more profound than any knowledge we work to obtain because it is written on our souls, by our Creator. As I sat there the trees behind me lit up as if bathed in liquid gold and the rays spilled out from behind the distant hills to the southeast and fell across the snow covered pasture and I pushed off with my feet and began to swing, higher and higher with each kick, smiling all the while.

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