The Miracle and Mystery of the UConn Swings, By Dr. Elizabeth Cracco, Ph.D.
Dr. Elizabeth Cracco is the Director of Counseling and Mental Health Services at the University of Connecticut, Storrs Campus
About 5 years ago UConn Counseling and Mental Health Services (CMHS) moved to our current “waterfront penthouse location” by Mirror Lake. We couldn’t ask for a more glorious vista of campus – cotton ball clouds on a bright blue sky lofting above the green pastures of Horse Barn Hill. But in terms of scenery, my attention has been riveted to a beautiful tree along the lake. For the past several years – in fog, snow, rain, sunshine – through the comings and goings – the arrival of eager first-year students and their parents during the summer, and now, clusters of cap and gown clad graduates posing for pictures, the tree remains a steadfast witness to all of it.
On this beautiful tree, precariously hung, were two hand-made swings. Carved in one, “Be Happy” and the other, “You’re Awesome.” The identity of the original “swing makers” remains forever a mystery. The swings were lovingly used and had fallen into disrepair, lying in a heap beside the tree.
At the same time, I happened upon a piece on CBS news about a gentleman, Frank Nesmith who placed a notebook in a mailbox along a remote stretch of the Carolina coast, and invited people to share their secrets. Thirty-five years later the hundreds of notebooks, filled with sentiments about life, death, joy, and family, occupy a special collection at the University of North Carolina. To read more about the “Kindred Spirits Journal” see: http://www.cbsnews.com/news/kindred-spirit-mailbox-in-north-carolina-collects-secrets-from-around-the-nation/
The universe handed me a happy confluence of circumstances, and so was born an opportunity to turn the swings into a mental health “installation.”
After over 20 years in college counseling I would place stock in the notion that isolation and loneliness account for a significant portion of the suffering we see in our office. Life in college is tough. Well, for that matter, life is tough. And everyone thinks everyone else has got it figured out. Walk down Fairfield Way any day, and perhaps you’ll hear something retro – actual conversation. Maybe a simple polite exchange: “How are you?” The common response, “Fine” or maybe “Stressed.”
Of course the millennial version is scrolling through images of all of your “friends” who are having the most amazing time with the most amazing outfits, with the most amazing people, all captured from just the right flattering selfie angle. No one says it enough, but these daily conventions of connection can leave students feeling like the only one who is having an unexpected downpour and forgot the umbrella- misread your syllabus-spilling your coffee on your computer-aching for romantic love like Jane Austen wrote about-kind of day. These habits of pseudo-connection can leave you feeling like you’re the only one who is sad.
This phenomenon reminds me of a passage I would put in the application materials of every student going to college if I could. It is the concept of the “Open Secret.” Referencing the Sufi poet, Rumi, Elizabeth Lesser describes it in her book (that I highly recommend) “Broken Open.”
“When we don’t share the secret ache in our hearts—the normal bewilderment of being human—it turns into something else. Our pain and fear and longing in the absence of company, become alienation and envy and competition. The irony of hiding the dark side of our humanness is that our secret is not really a secret at all. How can it be when we’re all safeguarding the very same story? That’s why Rumi calls it an Open Secret. It’s almost a joke—a laughable admission that each one of us has a shadow self, a bumbling, bad-tempered twin. Big surprise! Just like you, I can be a jerk sometimes. I do unkind, cowardly things, harbor unmerciful thoughts, and mope around when I should be doing something constructive. Just like you, I wonder if life has meaning; I worry and fret over things I can’t control; and I often feel overcome with a longing for something that I cannot even name. For all of my strengths and gifts, I am also a vulnerable and insecure person, in need of connection and reassurance. This is the secret I try to keep from you, and you from me, and in doing so we do each other a grave disservice.”
So I scooped up the frayed and moldy ropes and the cracked swings and went home to my father, a skilled craftsman, who lovingly recreated (in a premium cherry wood) two new swings. With the help of UConn Facilities they were installed along with a post, a mailbox and a journal with the simple invitation for students to leave a message for fellow Huskies. The UConn swings were back and the UConn Swing Journal was born.
Since that time, students have filled many notebooks with all of the moods and seasons of college life.
They comment on the light and mundane aspects: losing your friend’s frisbee in the lake, wishing there were more ducks, meeting new friends, laughing big belly laughs, scribbles of midnight visits, rumors of who has a crush on the person in the South Dining Hall.
They’ve left each other many heartening words of encouragement:
Dear You: In a world so big, in a campus this large – today you have decided to be small and to take the time to sit quietly (or loudly w/friends) to engage the heart of a stranger who in all honesty is not that much different from you – and to that I say, keep doing it. Be curious enough in your life to pen the random mailbox full of stories – be caring enough to listen to others with the simple reason of wanting to hear what they have to say. Sit quietly by a tree to relax your mind – and then get back up and continue on living in this crazy big world, and see people as hidden journals to be read – hidden treasures with value and see yourself like that too.
They’ve taken solace in a quiet moment and the restorative element of being in nature:
Hey, the moon is so beautiful tonight. Big and yellow and round and majestic and life is bearable. Thanks for that.
Dear Swing Journal: Thankful for the serenity of this place. Here I’ve had deep conversations that have lead to life-changing decisions and have pushed a little girl I love high into the air on a swing that calls us to “Be Happy” with each push. Here I have contemplated the complexities of life, smiled at passing ducks and people and felt joy. Today I read journal entries and overcame fear to ask a stranger for his pen so I could leave this note, here, in this journal.
But, perhaps most importantly students share their open secrets – the longing for someone to witness their struggles and, at times, their triumph:
There is nothing like being somewhere beautiful with people that you love. Recently I’ve been really struggling with myself and my life, but its moments like these that quietly erase the past, even for a moment. Close your eyes and just breathe and live in this moment and for this moment specifically. There are so many things in this world that will hit you until you’ve lost your breath. So just remember to savor these moments for what they are: Beautiful.
Wish I could let go of the past and remember the good times. I wish I could let myself be happy. One day I’ll put my own happiness before others and everything will be OK. Until then I’ll keep a smile on my face and pretend everything is OK when I’m really dying inside.
It’s okay not to be good.
Dear Swing Journal: The last time I sat under this tree was my freshman year when I was crying my eyes out because I had never felt so alone. I had a really hard transition to college, didn’t feel like I had any real friends or purpose. I remember sitting with my hood up, curled as small as I could possibly be, and begging God to make it stop. A little over a year later I’m here with the most incredible girl in the world. I’m completely head over heels in love with her, and I don’t think she realizes yet how wonderful she is.
This semester has been very hard on me, almost terrible. I’ve always felt lonely while being surrounded. One of the worst feelings.”
We have great hope in the power of research to help us evolve a diversity of treatments to address mental illness. As an agency we take seriously the charge of helping all of our students live mentally well – of teaching skills for coping with the inevitability of tough times. We know from all of the psychotherapy literature that a major curative factor is connection and the installation of hope. When I am struggling with my own open secrets as a Director, or as a human, or both, I head down to the swing and inevitably find magic. The miracle that I am not alone in my struggle. I am bolstered time and time again. The swing journal is a great example of the most powerful tool of all. The simple act of telling the truth and joining each other so that we’re not so alone. In whatever way we can.
If you or someone you know needs help, visit the Jordan Porco Foundation’s resources page.
The opinions expressed in this blog are personal, and not those of the Jordan Porco Foundation. The information in this blog post is provided for general informational purposes only and should not be construed as mental health advice from the individual author or the Jordan Porco Foundation. You should consult a mental health professional for advice regarding your individual situation.