Updated: Aug 22, 2020
As lock-down eases, somewhat uneasily, there was a moonlight swim locally. With Kristie, Judy, Jeremy, and Pauline, in a new-rules group of six of less, distanced socially. The full moon emerges briefly, huge pink flower-moon, before disappearing behind cloud only to re-emerge later, towards the end of the swim, throwing down its ladder on the water. All very evocative, very wonderful, very Edvard Munch mid-summer light on the water. With the lake water at twenty degrees plus, it ends up like bathing in moonlight, reminding me of many moonlight swims in many places. The full moon comes around every month, Covid-19 or no. You can’t lock down the moon.
After a day of Zoom and Team calls in front of the screen, I haven’t quite made the switch to nature from the virtual. Seeing real people I haven’t seen in a while is very exciting – I rejoice in their three-dimensionality. If I were a dog I would be sniffing their bums with glee. Seeing the moon emerge makes me think of the artist Nam June Paik, who had an exhibition at Tate Modern before lockdown. He does stuff with old televisions and much more, and foreshadowed the age of virtual communication we are in now. I am minded of his ‘The Moon is the Oldest TV' – a dark room with TV screens showing the moon at different phases, eerie TV light, like, but not-like moonlight. You can see I am having trouble with reality. While Warhol said in the future everyone would be famous for 15 minutes (his is the exhibition currently locked down in Tate Modern; I’m much less of a fan), Paik said that in the future everyone would have their own TV show. Paik’s prediction comes closer than Warhol's, what with YouTube, social media and everything going around in these days – especially in lockdown. I am completely unexceptional - we are all on Zoom-TV at the moment, or Skype, or Teams, or something else. So I thought of all the digital images I have of the moon, and the very many more on the web. Paik also coined the term “electronic superhighway” for the digital-into-real place we are in now – lockdown makes everyone a motorist on this. I have come to the lake to escape the superhighway tonight – hopefully to the full shining moon. The cloud makes it disappointing so far, but the forecast is for a clear night, so let’s hope it clears before we finish swimming.
I desperately want to de-centre from all the digital exposure across the week. When in doubt, invent a ritual – I thought about this on the way to the lake tonight. When the daylight drops away, the swim is about seeing the moon, bathing in the moonlight, but also seeing the unseeable. This can’t be done without some mental exercise, some tuning in, some cutting out of noise, some zen of some kind. It comes to me through music, of a kind – I love John Cage’s music for prepared piano. He found the links between his music, poetry, visual art, film and other media. He composed the infamous 4’33” in the 1950s, a piece in which the musicians are requested not to play their instruments. Rather, the audience becomes very mindful of the sounds around them and within their bodies. I once saw it performed, and it works, creating a mindful pause and opportunity to dig into yourself, if only briefly. Mindfulness is all the thing now, usually without John Cage. Cage sought the silence of a mind at peace with itself, and found it in zen buddhism.
John Cage will be my zen master tonight – I will get in the water and swim in silence for precisely 4 minutes and 33 seconds, in homage to Cage’s 4:33, but also to tune into the sounds around and within me. The shape I choose to swim is a zen circle – drawing the zen circle represents a moment when the mind is free to let the body and spirit create. My circle is hugely imperfect, and is done in less than Cage-music time. I am not sure what I have created beyond a moment in time when I cause the water to move in a slightly different way. But it is freeing of the mind, as everyone else swimming tonight swims into the darkening distance. “I will do better next time” I tell myself. When I was in Japan in 1994 on a Japanese Society for the Promotion of Science Fellowship at the University of Tokyo, I was charged with tutoring two Master’s students. They were very talented and worked very hard but any critique of their work resulted in a bowing of the head and “I will work harder” – frustrating because they were already working hard enough. I loved Japan and I loved swimming there, usually in the University pool, but sometimes outdoors. Japanese swimmers, I remember from the pool, were impressively strong and not shy of working themselves hard. Right now I am patently aware that my mind is in Japan when it should be in zen – how to focus, to un-mind?
John Cage’s poetry comes to mind, and I recite ‘I have nothing to say / and I am saying it / and that is poetry’ mindfully while swimming trying to un-mind. Another – 'There is poetry / as soon as we / realise that we / possess nothing' – while swimming in a line, out into the darkness away from the moon. I reflect on the darkness and think upon moonlight – reflecting the sun and shining up the earth with borrowed light. I hope we get some tonight. Another John Cage poem – ‘Be open to whatever come next’. Caught in a John Cage cage in the lake, waiting for the moonlight. Cage again – 'Things - Art - Same Things from another point of view'. Swimming in a straight line across the lake – thinking of Paik’s 'Zen for Head', a zen line painted straight by Paik in black ink using his neck tie as brush, and his head, dipped in a bucket of ink, as the ink well. Rather than dipping my head in black ink tonight, I prefer to dip my body in lake water. Dipping and swimming in a straight line, I have caught up with Jeremy. We chat and watch the moon shadows of Judy and Kristie, who are swimming ahead. Swimming back, the moon makes a glorious showing, out from the low cloud and into the clear bright night sky. It has all been worth it, as we climb the moon's silver ladder just thrown down for us. Tonight, John Cage and Nam June Paik brought zen to the moonswim; it would have been wonderful however it unfurled, but the moon-show was spectacular. Approaching shore I finally get a short zen moment as I muse that, in the water right now, the very right-now, I possess nothing and have everything.