A Little Push
Mirror Lake’s Swing Journal is penning a tradition, one entry at a time.
By Stephanie Reitz
Photos by Mark Mirko and Peter Morenus
A few steps from the rushes along Mirror Lake’s shore, a simple square mailbox atop a black post holds the collective emotions of strangers linked by their ties to UConn and their innate desire to connect with others.
Like a reverse Pandora’s box, opening the mailbox to discover the contents — a well-worn writing journal — releases into the world the stories of triumph, trepidation, joy, and anticipation from those who’ve anonymously shared their secrets in its pages.
The UConn Swing Journal, named for its proximity to the wooden swings on the nearby tree overlooking Mirror Lake, has evolved within two years from a UConn counselor’s simple idea to an established and increasingly treasured tradition. Countless students, alumni, campus visitors, local residents, and others have taken pen to paper in the journal to share thoughts or express support for others.
“There are many opportunities in a university setting that make it easy for extroverts to connect with others, be it through clubs, in residence halls, or at various events. But this is an opportunity that’s also welcoming for introverts,” says Elizabeth Cracco, director of Counseling and Mental Health Services (CMHS).
Inspired by a similar anonymous journal project in place for decades near Sunset Beach, N.C., Cracco put out the first blank composition book near the lakeside swings in mid-2015, sealing it in a watertight container and tucking it in the crook of the tree with a welcome to passersby to share whatever they wished.
The University later erected the post and mailbox nearby within easy reach of the wooden swings, one of which is carved with the words “Be Happy” and the other declaring, “You’re Awesome.” In laughing groups or in pensive solitude, people have sought out the journals and settled in the swings or nearby on the grass to share bits of themselves with strangers.
Dozens of the journals have been filled so far with stories of finding and losing first loves, making friends, planning for graduation, and visiting Storrs as a proud alum or the parent of a new freshman.
Cracco places new journals in the box as the old ones are filled; these she tucks away in her office in the hope they can someday be digitized. Many entries also are shared on social media with the #UConnSwingJournal tag, including many on the UConn Swing Journal Facebook page.
“A lot of what we do in CMHS often involves talking with students who are under a great deal of stress or experiencing heartache,” Cracco says of the campus counselors. “Seeing stories in the Swing Journal from students who have triumphed, or the words of encouragement that our students leave for others in the Journal — that gives me a boost. I think it does the same for others, and I think that’s why so many people have connected with it.”
On Love …
“I’ve found the woman I’m going to marry. I’ve never been happier. I didn’t know this constant state of bliss even existed. Pinch me.”
First love, lost love, unrequited love — it all has its place in the Swing Journal, often expressed in emotions so raw or heartfelt it would be hard for even the most stoic stranger to read without reaction.
Many are rapturous descriptions of meeting someone unlike anyone they had ever known and feeling amazement at the depths of their love. Less often but equally poignant, some entries express anguish and regret over having cheated on a partner or doubt about whether a long-distance relationship will succeed.
They may not know it, but the authors sharing these timeless emotions are linked to many of the historical figures in their college textbooks.
As they write, they’re simpatico with Queen Victoria, who poured out adoration for her husband Albert in her journal (“Oh! Was ever a woman so blessed as I am?”), or the despondent author of graffiti found on walls in Pompeii centuries after the city was buried in volcanic ash (“Cruel Lalagus, why do you not love me?”).
Some couples leave sweet notes for each other in the Swing Journal, while some people jot down messages to their secret crushes. Whether those crushes ever read the messages isn’t always known, but for many of the authors, just expressing that love is cathartic.
“Love at all of its stages is definitely one of the predominant themes in the journals,” says Cracco.
“Today, I realized that I’m absolutely in love with you and adore you more than any other girl I’ve ever met. You’ve stolen my heart and you don’t even realize … I could go on and on, but this lighter I’m using to provide light to write is starting to burn my hand. But just know I love you.”
On Homesickness …
“Dear Swing Journal: I’m having a rough week. My dad is sick and I’m failing my statistics course and I still haven’t found a job for this summer. But I’m so happy I found you.”
In the excitement of entering college, it can be tempting for students to hide their homesickness or downplay the culture shock of adjusting to their newfound independence.
While UConn has created many programs to help new students feel at home on campus, the Swing Journal has also become a de facto support system. For every student who questions whether they can cut it at UConn, several others chime in encouraging them to believe in themselves and their potential.
To help students in more serious emotional turmoil, the Swing Journal mailbox also includes several University pamphlets on mental health resources, including information about confidential help for suicide prevention, sexual assault response services, and other concerns.
“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 remember sitting with my hood up, curled as small as I possibly could be, and begging God to make it stop. A little over one year later, I’m here with the most incredible girl in the world.”
On Stress …
“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.”
The pressures of succeeding in classes, maintaining friendships and relationships, perhaps holding down a job, and making post-graduation plans can create intense stress for even the most well-balanced student.
Those pressures are evident in some Swing Journal entries, including several in which the author begins in a clearly distressed tone and works through various issues over several paragraphs, often ending on a more hopeful note.
“Research has definitely found that writing helps release what’s inside of your head and puts it outside of you, where it doesn’t have as much power. It helps a great deal with getting perspective on your situation,” says Dr. Karen Steinberg, a clinical psychologist at UConn Health and assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry.
Writing in the Swing Journal and other anonymous outlets may go a step further because it provides people an opportunity to offer compassionate words to those in crisis and get similarly comforting responses from others, she says.
“I’m so unsure of myself. I question everything I do. I don’t trust myself to do the right thing. But I’ve made it this far … Maybe I’ll be okay after all.”
Response from a stranger: “I hope you’re feeling better now. There are always people who love you!”
A Little Humor …
“The ducks here like Sour Patch Kids.”
There’s a rogue Frisbee somewhere in the depths of Mirror Lake. We know this tidbit from the UConn Swing Journal, where the owner’s friend posted a tongue-in-cheek eulogy for the wayward Frisbee among the other entries about love and life.
Sometimes, the Swing Journal’s writers just want to have a little fun, be it in the form of impromptu artwork — including many pencil drawings of trees and the lake — or tossing out random observations on snacks, music, or hair trends (“Why are man buns a thing?”).
One lighthearted topic is a constant: the ducks who wander around Mirror Lake near the swings, who are often immortalized in sketches by people delighted by their curiosity. Squirrels may hold court on the rest of the campus, but near Mirror Lake, the ducks clearly run the show.
“A duck comes closer and closer … Hello, duck! (You’re very nice!). Thanks for being part of a fantastic day.” [with illustration of ‘Honorable duck’]
It’s Welcoming …
“Your campus is beautiful and I’ve caught a few Pokemon too, LOL. From your friend at the University of Bridgeport.”
The Swing Journal’s writers aren’t limited to UConn students. Many who visit campus from other areas have stopped by to jot down a few words. They’re almost universal in their praise for the campus and their experiences.
Some of the closest visitors are from neighboring E.O. Smith High School, where groups of students often congregate near the swings after school and add their thoughts to the journal. Several were doing exactly that on an unusually warm autumn day last year, laughing about homework just a few feet from the journal’s mailbox.
“I remember writing things about being a freshman last year. My friends and I all wrote in it and put in our social media,” says E.O. Smith sophomore Breanna Maxwell, referring to many writers’ practices of putting their social media handles in their entries to gain followers.
“I’m visiting from UMass Amherst for the weekend and can I just say, y’all have the best ice cream I’ve ever tasted. And I love your groundhogs!”
Feeling Nostalgic …
“Sending love from UConn alumni, Class of 2012, XOXO. One day you’ll cherish all the memories you’re making here every day.”
Alex Katz ’14 (CLAS) of Willington loves to run on the UConn campus despite having graduated three years ago, and on one such afternoon, she noticed the box near the swings as she stretched under the tree.
“I was curious and when I pulled it out, I started to read it and thought it was absolutely the most amazing thing,” says Katz, who made it part of her regular routine to read the journal’s newest entries after each run.
Like many other alumni, she’s written messages of support in the journal to encourage students to enjoy their time at UConn and assure them that the work is worth it.
And if they ever feel alone during their journey through UConn, they have a silent but supportive friend in the form of the Swing Journal.
“Appreciate each moment you have at this beautiful place. You won’t realize what it meant until you come to visit as a graduate like me. UConn was the best time of my life and I’m forever grateful. Go Huskies!”