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What’s the best escape?

When life is fraught, should you empty your mind, or engage it elsewhere? Six writers choose a way to zone out

November/December 2014

ANNE ENRIGHT NOVELIST

“My Body is a Cage”, goes the song by Arcade Fire: the problem is getting out of there without letting the door slam behind you, because the greatest escape of all, unfortunately, is death. There are day passes, of course: drugs, dissociative states, psychosis. There is alcohol and sex, also meditation, the endorphin rush of exercise, the top of the mountain and the freewheel cycle downhill. Let us not forget poetry, the touch of someone you love; there is, when you think about it, love itself. But so effortful all of them, so exhausting, this battle through the ego to escape the ego, this pushing of the body to be free of the body, when all you really have to do to escape your sad sack of bones and flesh is take your clothes off, walk into the sea, and splash.

It has to be the sea because the sea holds you up. It also slaps you and throws you about a bit, requiring your admiration, gratitude and respect. The sea is plentiful and cheap; you are, when you swim in it, connected to every other beach and rock you swam from over the years. It has to be the sea because there, chopped about by the advancing waves, is the horizon, and this does some secret, muscular thing to your gaze. After five minutes’ swimming towards it, your brain will open: simple as a window in the month of May.

It helps if the water is cold. It helps if the water is frightening; if you escape grabbing weed and the idea of jellyfish, if you turn from that grey harbour seal, with the neck of a nightclub bouncer and the eyes of a lover. You should come out of the sea as from a close encounter with the fearful and the strange; your flesh condensed by the cold, grazed by rocks, you should be bleeding quietly and freely from your big toe. After which you turn to look back at the beautiful water, remembering how you felt when you had nowhere to stand, and that was just fine.

HENRY MARSH NEUROSURGEON AND AUTHOR

The London hospital where I work is seven minutes by bicycle from my home and I consider myself to be permanently on call for my patients. So in a sense I can never escape, unless I leave the country, and even then I am pursued on my mobile phone. But in fact I escape every day since my house has a little garden looking out onto a small local park, and at the end of the garden I have built a workshop with elaborate red wooden pillars in imitation of the Forbidden City in Beijing.

The garden I leave largely to itself, so it is a managed wilderness of flowering bushes and tall hollyhocks, with a resident fox whom I tolerate provided she doesn’t dig too many holes in the flowerbeds. There were four fox cubs last year. The wisteria at the front of the house has grown over the roof and a noisy family of sparrows lives in the eaves (along with some squirrels whom I recently evicted), and this spring there was a blackbird nesting on the security light over the front door and a wren by the kitchen window. I keep bees in the garden. They swarm regularly into my neighbour Selwyn’s garden, but he puts up with the invasions with good humour. He will ring me up if I am in the hospital, and I will cycle back as soon as I can and with a cardboard box climb up to wherever the swarm has settled, catch it, and return to work.

I started making furniture when I was an impoverished medical student. My wife and I did not have a table so I made one from an old packing case. The only tools I had were a saw and a hammer. My brother admired it and asked me if I’d make one for him, and I said I would, for the price of a plane. Forty years later I have accumulated a huge collection of tools and have made many tables, beds, chests and other pieces (the early ones not very well, I must admit). I’m currently working on an oak table for one of my daughters.

This is rather different from brain surgery. For a start, wooden joints don’t heal (but nor do they bleed), and the physical manipulations involved are entirely different—although not when sawing open the bone of the skull. There is the same joy in using your hands in a useful way but without all the anxieties. Neurosurgery is always dangerous, and operations often fail, with awful consequences for patients and their families, for which I cannot help but feel responsible. At least with woodwork the only risk is to my self-esteem, and an occasional bruised finger.

The workshop looks out onto the garden and I spend two to three hours every evening making furniture or sharpening my tools, thinking only about the job in front of me, at home in my little demi-paradise. Rus in urbe.

ARIANNA HUFFINGTON PUBLISHER AND AUTHOR

“Onward, upward, and inward” is my favourite motto. And inward is my favourite escape. What makes it all the more special is that going inward is both an escape and the ultimate reality. I completely get the sense of wonder that has led men and women through the ages to explore outer space, but personally I have always been much more fascinated with exploring inner space. There is, of course, a connection between the two. Astronauts have often reported trans-formational experiences when they have looked back at Earth, a phenomenon that has been called “the overview effect”.

But, as Thomas Merton put it, “What can we gain by sailing to the Moon if we are not able to cross the abyss that separates us from ourselves? This is the most important of all voyages of discovery, and without it all the rest are not only useless but disastrous.”

Marcus Aurelius called that place I love escaping to our “inner citadel”. And, being both the emperor of Rome and a Stoic philosopher, he clearly demonstrated that you could escape into your inner citadel and rule an empire at the same time. You can be “in the world, but not of the world”.

What is beyond doubt is that I, like most of us, spend most of my life outside that citadel. The key for me is quickly course-correcting—sometimes ten minutes of meditation or even a moment of conscious breathing is all it takes. I try to do it daily, working it in wherever I find myself—at the office, in a hotel, on an aeroplane (where it can be done even when the person in front of you reclines their seat). The aim is that as I grow older I can get better at escaping back into that place of stillness, imperturbability and grace, until it becomes second nature quickly to escape to what is actually our true nature.

And there’s a bonus: this escape requires no passport, no planning ahead and no leaving home.

ADAM NICOLSON AUTHOR AND BROADCASTER

The best moment is always just after the beginning. I have a small boat nowadays, just under 16 feet long, and it is not the sort of boat people usually ooh and aah about. There’s nothing wooden in it, no delicious, polished spars. It has an aluminium mast and a fibreglass hull and all sorts of snap shackles and jamming cleats. So although I love the way all this works, sailing for me is not a kit thing. It is more about what happens when you get it all to go.

I almost always sail alone, launching from a beach, and as I push off, jump in, lower the daggerboard, grab the helm, harden up the sheets and feel the wind coming and going on the skin of my cheek, it’s then that the miracle happens: all the elements that on land had seemed half-chaotic, banging here and there, too complicated to be coherent, suddenly come into a perfect, steady relationship—with each other and with you. The sails fill, acquire their beautiful, held-bosom shape, the boat heels away from the wind, you lean out against it, tiller in one hand, mainsheet in the other, and, in that most expressive of sailing terms, you and the boat start to gather way.

The wake begins to bloom behind you; the cockpit drains gurgle; the bow-wave lifts and runs the length of the hull. In a dinghy, your own body is the governing counterpoise to the pressure of the wind on the sails, and that maybe is at the heart of why this is the greatest of escapes: there is no sitting back here. This is not an escape at all, but a plunging-in, a total immersion of mind and body in the ways of wind and sea, needing a small amount of skill maybe, but more than that a high attentiveness, a precision alertness to how things are, to the tide running around you, the shape of the gusts coming down off the hills, the rolling of the swell. That is what small boat sailing gives you: intimacy with the reality of the world.

ALAN JOHNSON POLITICIAN AND MEMOIRIST

A warm kitchen on a cold winter’s afternoon. A sharp knife lies waiting on a wooden board ready to chop an array of vegetables. Rising from the hob, the aroma of onions frying gently in olive oil. There’s a play on the radio and some 8% Riesling in the fridge, ready to be quaffed over the next couple of hours.

At some stage I will lay a table and light some candles. No one is allowed to share my kitchen, but the table will be set for two, or four, or six. I think of nothing but the job in hand. The moment for mental problem-solving comes later, over the washing up.

I hardly cooked a thing until I was well into my 40s. Never even boiled an egg. For my generation the gender divide was wider than the Humber estuary. Nowadays, I cook at least once a week to escape the stress of everyday life (aware that, for many women, cooking is an aspect of that stress)

When I decided to learn to cook I bought a kind of Janet-and-John beginners’ guide. I remember a complete page devoted to a drawing of a large vegetable with “Courgette” printed underneath in thick black type. I needed that book.

Soon I was foraging through complicated recipes like a jungle explorer seeking out ever more exotic species. I became known as the Buckwheat Kid to relatives and friends forced to endure my early efforts; and one Christmas I baked my first cake as a present for my secretary. It was basically a load of sticky fruit held together by alcohol—more Chuck than Mary Berry.

Now, I make a wicked butter bean, leek and Parmesan side dish; but my favourite is belly of pork in cider. Sadly, it doesn’t seem to be anyone else’s.

LUCY KELLAWAY COLUMNIST AND NOVELIST

Mostly, I find escaping easy. To escape my family I go to work; to escape from work I bid for things on eBay; to escape from the city I walk along the beach in north Cornwall; to escape from stress I turn my phone off.

The escape that’s hardest—and most needed—is periodic flight from myself. Holidays are hopeless as I always end up bringing myself along. Cycling in crowded London streets is reasonably successful as you need to focus almost all your wits on not being knocked off, though on familiar routes my mind returns to its predictable, unwanted ways. Only asleep do I escape my thoughts altogether, though as I’m not conscious it doesn’t really count.

By far the best waking escape I have yet found is upholstery. It is both difficult and varied—with the result that I can do it for hours without my thoughts wandering at all. There are so many different stages—gouging out old tacks, stretching webbing, banging in nails, sewing with a curved ten-inch needle, stuffing handfuls of hair (80% pig, 20% cattle) under bridles, cutting wadding to fit—and each task has to be done just so. A false move and you have a wonky spring or a tack in your finger. An upholstery project in full swing occupies your mind, your body and your house, which is given over to banging and flying hair. You escape not only from yourself but from your century, doing exactly the same things—if considerably less competently—that were done by craftsmen 100 years ago.

Upholstery has three other advantages. First, you don’t have to talk to anyone. The nearest you get to human contact is consulting YouTube when you get stuck and watching videos of an old man stitching springs to webbing, breathing noisily as he does so.

Secondly, it’s profoundly satisfying to fix something broken—to take a sagging Victorian chair and make it strong and plumply proud does the soul good.

But best of all, the beauty of upholstery is that when you are done escaping from yourself, you have something solid to sit on.

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