Sea swimming

There’s a charge to swimming in the Atlantic that you don’t get at the local leisure centre. Perhaps it’s the abrasive quality of salt, or the electric feel of the cold. Getting in is the hard part. The passive among us may let the waves do the work: a progressive submergence. The bold will run and dive, but this is rash. Showboating may be followed by an abrupt exit. Waist deep is significant progress. Then all that’s required is one duck into the water. Once you’re wet, you’re wet. You might as well start swimming to keep warm.

Once in, the waves move you and cold surrounds you, making feel connected to something larger than yourself. At Porthgwidden beach you see birds arc around the chapel, and Godrevy lighthouse bob on the horizon. Boats cut the water out beyond the buoys. It may even feel that the experience wouldn’t be as refreshing were the water a mediterranean 25ºC. Just be sure to have a warm coffee waiting when you get out.

Of the combustible and useless varieties of trees

Reading Fire Season, Philip Connors’ account of his experiences watching for forest fires in the Gila mountain range, I was struck by the following passage:

My own insights are fragmentary, fleeting. I write something in my notebook and forget it an hour later. I do not so much seek anything as allow the world to come to me, allow the days to unfold as they will, the dramas of weather and wild creatures. I am most at peace not when I am thinking but when I am observing. There is so much to see, a pleasing diversity of landscapes, all of them always changing in new weather, new light, and all of them still and forever strange to a boy from the northern plains. I produce nothing but words; I consume nothing but food, a little propane, a little firewood. By being virtually useless in the calculations of the culture at large I become useful, at last, to myself.

— Philip Connors, Fire Season.

There are a few old themes at work in this paragraph. Take Case 129 from Zen Master Dogen’s Shobogenzo: Treasury of the True Dharma Eye, compiled in 13th Century Japan:

When Priest Yaoshan was sitting in meditation a monk asked,
“What do you think about, sitting in steadfast composure?”
Yaoshan said, “I think not thinking.”
The monk said, “How do you think not thinking?”
Yaoshan said, “Non-thinking.”

A lot could be said about Connors’ experience of the moment in relation to Buddhist thought (or non-thought) but it will do to note that non-striving and mindful awareness seem prominent here. Now let’s look at his closing line, “By being virtually useless in the calculations of the culture at large I become, at last, useful to myself.”

Notice that Connors doesn’t say he is useless to the culture – he’s performing an important duty, after all – more that he is forgotten by that culture. He here echoes Chuang Tzu’s dream-parable of the useless tree. In it, an old carpenter named Shih, encounters a large oak standing in a field. His apprentice admires the tree but Shih admonishes him, explaining that the wood is so gnarled and filled with knots that it’s not worth cutting down. That night, the old oak appears in Shih’s dream to explain that trees which bear fruit are cut, pruned and interfered with, so that they cannot live long; trees that are otherwise useful are cut down for their wood. The gnarled oak reveals that it has spent many years trying to become useless and that this uselessness has indeed become very useful to it. Would the tree have reached its enormous size if it had been useful to carpenters?

Connors, P. (2011) Fire Season. London: Macmillan, pp. 52–3.
For commentary on Case 129 of Dogen’s Shobogenzo, see Schireson (2011) Zen in Fresno and Central Valley. Available online: http://kuzanzen.org/2011/04/non-thinking/ [Accessed: 02/03/2015].
For more Chuang Tzu / Zhuang Zhou try The Book of Chuang Tzu, translated by Martin Palmer, or The Tao of Nature in the Penguin Great Ideas series.

You had to be there

We were talking about travelling and a friend said that if he were to embark on another big trip, he wouldn’t pack a laptop, tablet, smartphone or a camera. Not even a notebook. We’d been in total agreement until that moment. What would be the point of travelling if you didn’t take artsy photos with an SLR? Or bore your friends and family with constant updates on your adventures? I wondered at the time. Not even a notebook…

Recently, I thought twice about taking my phone with me on an errand. Now I’m a father, that doesn’t happen as often as it used to. I remembered that conversation. What if someone needs to get hold of me? I thought. What if I see something cool and need to take a photo? To hell with it! One by one, I peeled my fingers from around the handset and left it on the counter looking like the sinister monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey.

As I was leaving town a spectacular double rainbow lit darkening clouds above the harbour. My first instinct was to take a photo, but I consoled myself in the knowledge that even a professional cameraman would struggle to capture what I could simply take in with my eyes and other senses. I decided to extend my walk to properly absorb the scene and ended up getting fairly well rained on. Really heading home now, two seals were playing in the waves. I watched them for ten minutes and understood what my friend had been talking about a little better.

Ye Olde Minecraft

My son and I took it upon ourselves to play Minecraft the old fashioned way: with wooden blocks. I put the Minecraft Beta soundtrack on the gramophone and the room took on a new aspect, that of a subterranean domain perchance akin to Plato’s fabled cave. I immediately embarked upon an ambitious scale replica of The Tyn in Prague. My son, being an eightmonth babe, cares not for building but instead lifts each individual block in turn, be it red, yellow or blue, and places it in his mouth for further inspection.

As I was about to complete the second spire, a chubby arm reached out and dashed both towers, and nor was my lad content to leave but one brick resting upon another. With my project so thoroughly levelled, the precocious imp looked up at me as if to say, “Father, hast thou not read Solomon? All human endeavour is folly, indeed, vanity”. I had no reply for my young demolisher other than to begin the project again, this time on firmer foundation.