As the lockdown lingers, nerves fraying at the edges a bit, I am trying to imagine just swinging through. Consider Robert Frost’s marvelous poem “Birches”:

It’s when I’m weary of considerations,

And life is too much like a pathless wood

Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs

Broken across it, and one eye is weeping

From a twig’s having lashed across it open. . . .

I’d like to get away from earth awhile

And then come back to it and begin over.

I can relate, can’t you? We’d all like to get away for awhile. We’d like to come back later and start all over. Maybe we can make things better next time around.

But then, in the meantime, the poet remembers, as a boy, high in the birch trees,

He always kept his poise

To the top branches, climbing carefully. . . .

Then he flung outward, feet first, with a swish,

Kicking his way down through the air to the ground.

So was I once myself a swinger of birches. 

I remember climbing the towering eucalyptus trees that surrounded our home. Once to the top I could see for miles, I thought. I loved being up there, perched at the top of these magnificent trees, away from it all, looking out over the fields of melons and cattle and sheep. Seemed like I could imagine anything up there, maybe even starting all over again, maybe repairing everything wrong in my little world.

I once had a professor who gave an amazing talk, where the anchoring metaphor was this very boy from Frost’s poem, swinging down from the tops of spindly, bending birch trees. So often my professor would frame his stunning speeches with a guiding metaphor, often drawn from his wide love of literature. I can still remember maybe ten of those metaphors. I hope you too have one of those teachers in your life.

My professor’s name was Dr. Clem Simpson. We never referred to him by his first name. He was a towering figure to most of us. Playing off the poem that day, he talked about just swinging through, a skill he had to learn to keep up with the other kids. At an early age he was crippled by polio, a frightening epidemic then sweeping the country. One leg was left to hang awkwardly useless. We used to worry about Dr. Simpson slipping and falling on the icy sidewalks of the Whitworth campus in January.

He learned to be very skillful, and fast, navigating with those crutches. His shoulders grew massive. We could imagine his boyhood, though, never being able to play baseball, never actually climbing a tree. But there was not, ever, a hint of self-pity in this great man.

He wanted us to know he found great joy just swinging through. He refused to live with limits. I know he got pleasure out of the little things, watching birds with his wife Corrine, for example. I think he loved his students. He obviously loved being in front of the class pouring over some rich text. Maybe it was his immense imagination. Maybe he was filled with joy because he could always find just the right language.

I suspect Dr. Simpson wanted us to think about our own little challenges that day, our focus on what we were sure were enormous limitations. I am confident he wanted us to think about our own petty self-pity. Just practice swinging through, he told us. You can do it. You too can swing through, no matter your struggles. Imagine, you could actually become a swinger of birches. Imagine the joy.

I also remember that Dr. Simpson would say, about something seemingly trivial, something like “well, it was the glory of the Lord breaking through brightly that day.” Somehow, as the great prophet Jeremiah might say, Dr. Simpson was “radiant over the goodness of the Lord.”

Maybe that’s what a swinger of birches knows about life. It’s the sheer joy of discovering God’s goodness, whether it’s swinging down, whether it’s in lockdown, maybe up against some other much more serious challenge. We can always just swing through. There will be joy in the going up and the coming down, the poet says: “One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.”

Remembering my beloved professor today, even here in lockdown, I’m trying to learn so much better how I might just swing through.