So was I once myself a swinger of birches.And so I dream of going back to be.
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 it open.
I’d like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.
I, too, was once a swinger of birches. And now I dream of now going back to be.
These are my favorite words from Robert Frost’s “Birches,” one of his favorite poems, and some of the most famous lines from that poem. Robert Frost wrote the poem in his third published book of poetry, Mountain Interval. “Birches” is a poem that is loosely about balance, literally about a game often played in rural New England about children swinging birches.
Swinging birches isn’t an act of going up and down, but of going back and forth. And the last two lines that “I’d like to get away from earth awhile/ And then come back to it and begin over,” are indications of going back and forth, between a dream and between the reality of life. Life, as the narrator describes, is often painful and directionless, with “one eye weeping/ From a twig’s having lashed it open” and “too much like a pathless wood.”
The narrator has responsibilities in life, on the ground, but he also has dreams and hope in the birches of escaping the weary realities of life. His “face burns and tickles with the cobwebs/ Broken across it.” Cobwebs and twigs don’t kill, so the narrator is going to survive. But they sure are unpleasant, and the narrator then wants to “get away from earth awhile/ And then come back to it and begin over,” suggesting that he doesn’t want to escape life, but rather just take a little break, have a night out, or leave life quickly in a dream. Getting away from earth a while is the same as swinging birches, living as a child, and conquering the Earth and the trees.
But maybe getting away from Earth, and transcendence into some other realm is conquering it: it is escaping it. Remember that the narrator wants to come back to it and begin over, and that is what I, too, would like to do. I am also a person who was once a swinger of birches and someone who is in the grips of life and its harshness, complexity, and anxiety. To be a swinger of birches means to go back to having the peace we had in childhood, when life seemed eliminated of complexity, uncertainty, and anxiety.
I still have elements of being a swinger of birches, thoughts, and tendencies that are childlike in nature. The yearning for quick-fix solutions to all my problems, and single cure panaceas that will change my life. Every child wants that.
The human brain, however, does not attribute its behaviors to isolated and localized areas within the brain. Our behaviors are attributed to circuits within the brain, so everything is connected. The time we spend swinging birches is intertwined to contribute to the time we spend in life, on the ground, weathering storms that never seem to end.
So we all need to be swingers of birches, and give ourselves time to go back to feeling like children. Fred Rogers, when he was alive, used to talk to adults as if they were children. He once said that “the child is in me still and sometimes not so still,” and to be a person swinging birches is to still have the child in us. To have the child in us is to remember why we’re here, remember why we toil and fight.
Bursts and surges of energy come with our swinging of birches that no one will feel besides ourselves. Perhaps we need to feel like children again and yearn for our former youthfulness that one day, we can return to the Earth again, have a fresh start and begin over with a renewed and rejuvenated sense of meaning.
For me, swinging birches means to cling to the things too precious to lose, that have been too precious for a very long time. It means to re-visit things that bring me back to those days, watch shows like “The Wire” when I lose sense of purpose, and remember what it meant to dream. I want to remember what it was like to dream of getting people to believe in themselves. I want to remember what it was like to dream of getting kids to believe they can do anything, even while they feel anxious and uncertain about the near future.
It is best to start with the lost person in the mirror. So I, too, was once a swinger of birches. And now I dream of now going back to be.
Originally published at www.theodysseyonline.com on February 27, 2019.