The little world that happens in the week*

March 11, 2014 § Leave a comment

In normal life we know how to be in relation to everyone else. We have a set of relationships that take up much of our time. And we know how we’re likely to be treated by other cyclists, the barista at our regular coffee shop, train ticket inspectors.

I recently took a mini-break from almost all my regular relationships, on the Jupiter-moon-like island of Fuerteventura (the name means ‘strong winds’, and it’s true – the island is often strafed by a breeze that cuts through the warmth of the sun, and sometimes deposits waves of Saharan sand on the east coast).

I’ve never been on a retreat before and, though I’ve often travelled alone, have never spent a week in such close contemplation of and relationship with myself.

The ‘being just with me’ was emphasised by the physical practises, yoga and Pilates, which concentrated on the physical body, often with eyes closed. There was a lack of emphasis on the group, which I didn’t mind, but which was a reminder of how different are most experiences to the theatre work of my early training and after, which emphasised being in a space, and sensing the group within it, above everything else.

Also during the week away, I left off reading news, which constitutes my daily work, and instead read The News by Alain de Botton, which critiques it.

Which made me realise that news is a way we connect – very often spuriously, but also imaginatively – with other people. Especially with other people we don’t know. Many people dream of “escapes” – retreats, holidays, moving to the countryside and starting a farm. But I don’t know how many dream of a total cut-off from the feeling that we’re part of everything.

And, by extension, that we matter.

Whether or not we matter was heightened, as a question, by the landscape of the island.

Between the towns, roads traverse plains of rock and sand. Out of the treelessness, volcanoes rise, all dormant (until the next surprise). There are few plants other than cacti, and many of the gardens consist of raked black rock. The aridity is softened, sometimes, by a green patina of lichen, just the colour of oxidised copper. We’re told that in a couple of weeks, wildflowers will spring up everywhere.


Fuerteventura is one of the Canary Islands, a place where the actions of one group mattered a great deal – Spanish settlers arrived in 1402, and since then the islands, on the same latitude as the border between Morocco and Western Sahara, have been held loosely or tightly in the embrace of Europe. But aside from the mainly British establishments in our nearest town, Corralejo (offering full English breakfasts and ‘rehab’), it doesn’t feel like Europe. It feels like Io.

Something else that called into question matter – both in the sense of value and also the physical body – was surfing.

I’ve surfed twice before, in Sennen and in western France, and each time there are similarities. The sense, after a while, of having eyes for no reason other than to look out to sea. The terrifying power of waves, when even small and gentle ones can send you rushing to the shore, or roll you under and amongst the shingle until you don’t know in which direction is the necessary air.

Though I can barely stand on a surfboard, I think I can tell where the addiction lies, or would for me: the feeling that you can be part of something as massive and as powerful as the sea; and at the same time that you make as little impression on it as a flake of ash landing on a lava flow.

So long as we’re known to some people, perhaps we like to be subsumed, sometimes, by the massive incomprehensible energy of the news machine, or the ocean. We like it, if we know we can ultimately escape.

*On the plane home, my friend used this to describe the retreat’s small society, which next week, and every week, will be re-made.

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