“Up in the air so blue…” Robert Louis Stevenson put it so well, in a verse many of us older children grew up with. As a child I absolutely loved going up in a swing, so much so that I wanted to go even higher. In a moment of great exhilaration and trust that the forces of nature would fulfill my desire, I let go of the ropes, spread my arms and took off. Miraculously I landed on my stomach, no bones broken, just the skin under my chin split open on impact. Two small scars hidden from view are the only proof that I was once so filled with joy that I’d catapulted into the sky.
As I got older I noticed that most swings in playgrounds are too low to the ground to accommodate taller kids or adults. Some parks even have signs telling grownups not to use the swings. So heartless. But to return to the subject: attention.
Swings being magical to me, I had a rude shock a few evenings ago walking past a set of swings in a park. A young boy was being pushed by—given the family resemblance—his father. Instead of looking up at the gorgeous sunsetting sky, awash with the joy of swinging, the boy’s face was turned up and back, joyless and tentative. He was clearly waiting for the fun to happen, and if anything he seemed posed on the brink of sorrow.
As I passed in front of them, I noticed that the man was pushing his son on the swing with one hand, while reading his smartphone in the other!! His real attention was directed at what he was reading, with a fraction vaguely reserved for giving his boy a shove.
What is more, this guy had a martyred set to his jaw. A grim scenario popped onto the screen of my imagination. He was a busy important professional who resented sacrificing time he would have otherwise reserved for himself—if only the child’s mother hadn’t nagged him to take his son out to the playground before the last scrap of daylight had faded. There were no other children on the swings at that hour. But, dammit, he’d salvage his personal plans at least partially—thanks to his trusty handheld source of news updates, transmitter of memos that can’t wait.
The scene put a whole new twist on attention for me. Going up in a swing, that simple and great joy of childhood, now threatened by technology! Or, shall we say, susceptible to technology’s means of dividing our attention from those who need to feel it fully–our children, who sometimes die, literally and figuratively, without it? [See Introduction post.]
My heart went out to that little boy. Unless his dad wised up and put his whole self into pushing that swing, the kid might want to jump out of it for a reason far different than mine.