Pastor Li’s voice traveled through the room like smoke... But I wasn’t listening. I was replaying last night in my head, each scene grabbing me in exactly the same way it had the first time.
Fitting for a story that features a swing set, “And They Continued Swinging” is like a playground for the reader: everywhere you look there’s striking figurative language and thought-provoking reflections to appreciate. Forget the monkey bars: it’ll have you hanging on every word.
This Blink of an Eye award-winning piece takes the reader back to adolescence and constructs a pendulum between the narrator and her desires, responsibilities and struggles. Author Cindy X. claims to be the quiet person in the back of the room, but her narrative voice comes through loud and clear.
Diving into the dark side of adolescence
From juggling school with personal and family lives to stressing over uncertainty about the future and self-identity: the teen years can be more than a little turbulent. Instead of sugar coating the immense emotional weight of these pressures, Cindy bravely confronts them in this poignant narrative.
She grapples with themes of disappointment, shame, longing, rejection and more. For example, she authentically depicts how the protagonist is self-conscious about her appearance, capturing a hint of characteristic teenage irony: “During the drive, I avoid looking at myself in the rearview mirror. After years of avoiding shiny storefront windows, clean cars, metal railings, et cetera, I’d become quite a natural.” Importantly, Cindy takes a risk through her frank emotional writing, which requires a high degree of vulnerability.
In some ways this is a universal, relatable story. But as it unfolds we realize the narrator is also experiencing the loss of her mother and the ailing health of her father. These and other details let us know this is not just any teenager’s story, and put us firmly in the world of our protagonist.
I dove into their pain. I swam through it, wondering what it felt like to be so alive that it hurt.
She seeks solace and commonality in an online thread “populated with sad teenagers burnt out from bad friends, families, and lives,” but still ends up feeling like the other. In her own life, the narrator numbs herself from pain, but online she dives into the pain of others. Or, as she says, "...swam through it, wondering what it felt like to be so alive that it hurt.” All this personal strife - her practiced detachment, the angst of others - sets up the need for the narrator's secret rebellion, born out of a desire to feel alive.
Who’s swinging, and why?
It’s not until we’re two-thirds of the way through this short story that we find out who’s swinging: “I watch the mothers push their children on the swings to heights that I was always too scared to reach.” We are given a beautiful image of a park, the same one the protagonist’s mother brought her to in happier, more innocent days. “We’d stay till dark when the stars shone brighter than the lights across Lake Merritt, fling pebbles into the shallow waters.” These images infuse her memories with an air of serenity, rendering them bittersweet.
But what does it mean? While young children might be the ones physically on the swing set, it’s our narrator who feels pulled between two worlds. Her world is defined by a desire to find out who she really is and be true to herself. The world of her family, however, is weighed down by familial obligations and social pressures. Memories of the past, the tumult of the present and questions about the future add additional layers of complexity that hang, like a pin-dot constellation, over the whole of the story.
They continue swinging when Father pulls up a smile and doesn’t let it fall. They continue swinging into the Sunday dark. Until one day they can’t come down and their seats fall back empty.
We’re not quite done reading between the lines, though. Get out your magnifying glass, because there’s more insight hidden within the clever use of one of my favorite literary devices. If you’re not familiar, anaphora is when a word or phrase is repeated at the beginning of multiple sentences. There are three instances of this in this story: “So proud, huh?”, a singular “After” and “They continue swinging.”
In addition to building up a perseverant sense of frustration through internal monologue, this repetition establishes a pattern just waiting to be broken by our protagonist as she sneaks out to meet an older guy.
She is all too aware of the day “they can’t come down and their seats fall back empty.” Throughout our lives, until we get off this ride, we are pulled in two directions—the outside world and ourselves. Coming out of the shadows and feeling alive often necessitate defying gravity.
Try this: Wondering how to write a great story like Cindy? Start by trying this simple five-minute exercise. Using anaphora, write a paragraph about a time you felt pulled in opposite directions. Were you caught between school and work, your parents, or something else? Maybe, for example, you couldn’t decide between the soup or sandwich for lunch...
Important: Be sure to send us your paragraph, so we can share a selection of our favorites next week.