Swimming with Spalding – seeking the perfect moment
Sarah Morgan Jones
I have a very old, desiccated, crumbling copy of Swimming to Cambodia by Spalding Gray.
It is a monologue by the late actor and monologuist who, long before tragically ending his life in the Hudson River, had a career high point as a small character in the film, The Killing Fields.
Writing about his experiences on location in a long-read, which was turned into a film by Jonathan Demme, Spalding (it feels right to use his first name) interweaves the highs and lows of his life leading up to this big adventure and sews a thread through the piece of the quest for the ‘Perfect Moment’.
Somewhat of a compulsive obsessive, who battled with mental health issues throughout his life, and increasingly, following a life-changing car crash while on holiday in Ireland, Spalding tried everything while on location which could potentially induce a perfect moment, from an emetic encounter with Thai stick, to a slick, slippery body-body massage, and a visit to a bar where top of the bill was a ping-pong-ball-popping woman… (you can fill in the gaps, I am sure).
But it was on the last day of his time in Thailand, when he buried his anxiety-inducing money high up on the beach, blanked out his fear of sharks, and floated out into the Indian ocean from a Shangri La beach, when he finally found the disconnect necessary to experience a moment that he considered perfect.
Describing that disconnect in his book, he said:
“Suddenly there was no time and there was no fear and there was no body to bite. There were no longer any outlines. It was just one big ocean. My body had blended with the ocean. And there was just this round, smiling-ear-to-ear pumpkin-head perceiver on top, bobbing up and down…”
And as he submitted himself, body and soul, to the ocean, in a sadly prescient moment, his disconnect was abruptly reconnected by his film-set friend, Ivan Strasberg, who cried out: “Spalding! Spalding come back, man! I haven’t tested those waters yet!”
With that, the Thai stick paranoia kicked in, along with all his life’s anxieties and he panic swam back to shore, the moment ruined.
Later, recounting his experience to South African playwright and fellow actor, Athol Fugard, the old wise man looked at him solemnly and said: “Spalding, the sea is a lovely lady, when you play in her. But if you play with her… she’s a bitch. Don’t ever play with the sea. You’re lucky to be here. You’re lucky to be Alive!”
Wrinkly and blue
I’ve always loved the sea. As a child, youngest of five and the only girl, I well remember the tortuous family ventures to the beach.
Our nearest beach was Weston Super Mare, so our parents would go further afield to find somewhere unpopulated – and with actual sea if possible – dragging us all over rocks to secluded bays so we could make the requisite noise and nuisance that accompanies a large family, without being bothered by the beach-towel beach-bodies.
Little bays with rock pools, teaming with sea creatures, places to scramble, and little warning that we were about to be cut off by the incoming tide: all part of the fun, they said.
Anyway, to avoid the torment of older brothers chasing me with huge crabs or creatures they found in the rock pools, I would spend most of any of these days in the sea, turning wrinkly and blue, diving beneath the waves before they crashed and coming out victorious, invincible, the other side.
Later, when I was 15, I went on a French exchange, sent off to a strange family in Bordeaux for three weeks, who in turn took me off to their beach house (it was a pre-fab garage full of camp beds and a primus stove) arriving as I did at the start of les Grandes Vacances.
With barely any French and battling against homesickness, I spent the days on the beach, some miles north of Biarritz, with my exchangee, Valerie and her friends, naively treating that part of the Atlantic as if it were the secluded bay near Bude.
One afternoon I had run into the sea, fearless and free, initially jumping over the waves at my feet, and then diving underneath each wave as it broke.
Unlike Cornwall and Wales, the waves on the Atlantic coast are relentless and unbroken. They stampede in, across the Bay of Biscay, like racehorses, nose to tail, wild eyes, and flared nostrils.
So with barely a breath I was back under the next one and the next one, each too strong to let me find footing, each breath less effective and within seconds no solid land in reach.
The spin cycle started, tumbling, tumbling, no access to my limbs, which flailed and buckled and bent in unnatural directions.
Peace soon seeped into my brain, through my eyes and ears…my young life floated past.
I stopped trying to swim, to touch ground. I accepted my fate.
The sea, the majesty, sensed my submission and relented.
With a wallop, I landed on the sand. Vomited out of the Atlantic onto the beach, my body parts were out for all to see, I rolled over and spewed seawater.
Dear God. Am I still alive?
Someone adjusted my pants and threw a towel over my chest. Hands moved me onto my side and drummed my back. Water, foul and salty, poured out of my throat with no retching or effort.
I am still alive.
Away down the beach, helicopter blades rotated, faster, louder, whipping up dervishes and devils, covering everyone in sand.
I opened my eyes to see it rise and swing inland, watched by hundreds of half-naked bathers, sand sticking to their oiled bodies.
Someone else was not so lucky.
It was only a couple of years later that I watched Swimming to Cambodia at a film festival at the BFI, a trip organised by school – I remember little about how we got there, only that the keenest film buffs amongst my classmates and our grandly titled ‘film society’ sat in the dark all day watching back to back films including La Dolce Vita, Manon des Sources, the brilliant Tampopo and this, Swimming to Cambodia.
I watched entranced at the power of Gray’s performance, one man at a desk with a pull down map, a glass of water and a Laurie Anderson soundtrack, and I experienced a 90 minute perfect moment.
My recent near-death event came flooding into my mind as he shared his Indian-Ocean-perfect-moment and the words of Athol Fugard settled to the bottom of my consciousness, like a key dropped in the water which settles in the sand.
As terrifying as it was, the experience had done nothing to put me off water or the sea, but hearing those words, and later reading the monologue again and again, framed for me the way I relate to the sea – playing in it, not with it, respecting it and recognising its might.
Since moving to Wales over three decades ago, I have enjoyed the sea early in the year, late in the year, an occasional but loyal friend, with whom natural conversation begins as soon as we meet up again.
As soon as I see it, I have an urge to get in it, even on the coldest days, although I don’t always succumb to that urge.
Bringing up my children close to the coast we have tried to make the most of it, my son as a young’un charging into the sea fully clothed if I did not grasp him and my daughter showing much more fear of what lies beneath, but still experiencing the call.
Of late, like so many others, the intolerable heat has led me back to the water, waking early to head down to the beach when the tide is high, and swimming, or floating…bobbing… as dark descends and the moon rises.
The benefits of cold-water swimming have been extolled far and wide, but as this summer’s heatwaves have sent us rushing towards the nearest body of water, it really does need saying that wild swimming of any kind can be risky, as several tragic events have shown.
I understand my limits, I am no point-to-pointer, or deep waterer or Ironwoman.
I make sure that even if I go alone, I am never in the sea alone, I head to where there are people, who are usually very friendly.
I have talked to countless strangers in the water, bobbing about like a smiling-ear-to-ear pumpkin-head perceiver, leaving my anxieties buried high up on the beach, forgetting about my body aches, my middle-aged paunch, my frustrations at the crazy political world and my rage… just long enough to go wrinkly and blue.
I have asked fellow head bobbers to point me at the all-year-round groups of women whose wardrobe statement piece is a dry-robe, and who glow with robust health and have no hoots to give about cellulite or wobbly bits, but rather understand that their additional subcutaneous layers give them extra time, buoyancy and protection in the water.
On my excursions so far, the surf has been low. I cannot imagine experiencing the difficulties of the Bay of Biscay and to be honest I’m not sure I would risk a tempestuous sea now.
I don’t loiter for ages, but I’m in long enough to feel relaxed yet invigorated.
On a still slack tide I experience utter contentment.
I could become obsessed with it.
A regular perfect moment.
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