Book 4 of 24: Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson

Book 4 of 24 of A Year of Books. Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal by Jeanette Winterson. Read: February 2018.

I told my version – faithful and invented, accurate and misremembered, shuffled in time. I told myself as hero like any shipwreck story. It was a shipwreck, and me thrown on the coastline of humankind, and finding it not altogether human, and rarely kind.

All throughout the book, I wonder which parts are true and which are fiction. I realize, perhaps, that fiction and truth are one and the same. That we have different perspectives mean we have different truths, and this was Jeanette’s truth. 

It was her (foster) mother, Mrs. Winterson, who asked her the question: Why be happy when you can be normal? She was caught with a woman. Her mother, religious to the letter, did everything to keep her in a box; in the same lane through and through. She isn’t even allowed to read books. “The trouble with a book is that you never know what’s in it until it’s too late.”, she said. So Jeanette hid her books under her bed, until her mother found them and threw them all away.

If this was love at all, it is a kind that I completely do not understand. And perhaps that means I am fortunate. It was fiction and poetry though, that helped her escape from all of it:

I believe in fiction and the power of stories because that way we speak in tongues. We are not silenced. All of us, when in deep trauma, find we hesitate, we stammer; there are long pauses in our speech. The thing is stuck. We get our language back through the language of others. We can turn to the poem. We can open the book. Somebody has been there for us and deep-dived the words.

Nothing can be more true. When I’m sad to the bones, I listen to sad songs and feel all the feelings. Music is poetry too.

Jeanette also attempts to define (the pursuit of) happiness:

In Middle English, ‘happ’ [means] the chance or fortune, good or bad, that falls to you. Hap is your lot in life, the hand you are given to play. Pursuing happiness… is not at all the same as being happy – which I think is fleeting, dependent on circumstances, and a bit bovine.

What you are pursuing is meaning – a meaningful life. There’s the hap – the fate, the draw that is yours, and it isn’t fixed, but changing the course of the stream, or dealing new cards, whatever metaphor you want to use – that’s going to take a lot of energy. There are times when it will go so wrong that you will barely be alive, and times when you realise that being barely alive, on your own terms, is better than living a bloated half-life on someone else’s terms.

So is her story fiction or truth?  As with all autobiographies, perhaps it is both.

Love. The difficult word. Where everything starts, where we always return. Love. Love’s lack. The possibility of love. I have no idea what happens next. 


Kindle Highlights

And I loved animals and nature. And poetry. People were the problem. How do you love another person? How do you trust another person to love you? I had no idea.

When we tell a story we exercise control, but in such a way as to leave a gap, an opening. It is a version, but never the final one. And perhaps we hope that the silences will be heard by someone else, and the story can continue, can be retold. When we write we offer the silence as much as the story. Words are the part of silence that can be spoken.

When I was born I became the visible corner of a folded map. The map has more than one route. More than one destination. The map that is the unfolding self is not exactly leading anywhere. The arrow that says YOU ARE HERE is your first coordinate. There is a lot that you can’t change when you are a kid. But you can pack for the journey.

What I want does exist if I dare to find it.

But earlier meanings build in the hap – in Middle English, that is ‘happ’, in Old English, ‘gehapp’ – the chance or fortune, good or bad, that falls to you. Hap is your lot in life, the hand you are given to play.

Pursuing happiness, and I did, and I still do, is not at all the same as being happy – which I think is fleeting, dependent on circumstances, and a bit bovine.

What you are pursuing is meaning – a meaningful life. There’s the hap – the fate, the draw that is yours, and it isn’t fixed, but changing the course of the stream, or dealing new cards, whatever metaphor you want to use – that’s going to take a lot of energy. There are times when it will go so wrong that you will barely be alive, and times when you realise that being barely alive, on your own terms, is better than living a bloated half-life on someone else’s terms.

When I was born I became the visible corner of a folded map. The map has more than one route. More than one destination. The map that is the unfolding self is not exactly leading anywhere. The arrow that says YOU ARE HERE is your first coordinate. There is a lot that you can’t change when you are a kid. But you can pack for the journey.

We always think the thing we need to transform everything – the miracle – is elsewhere, but often it is right next to us. Sometimes it is us, ourselves.

Why is the measure of love loss?

Growing up is difficult. Strangely, even when we have stopped growing physically, we seem to have to keep on growing emotionally, which involves both expansion and shrinkage, as some parts of us develop and others must be allowed to disappear; Rigidity never works; we end up being the wrong size for our world. 

The pursuit of happiness, which we may as well call life, is full of surprising temporary elements – we get somewhere we couldn’t go otherwise and we profit from the trip, but we can’t stay there, it isn’t our world, and we shouldn’t let that world come crashing down into the one we can inhabit.

In fact, there are more than two chances – many more. I know now, after fifty years, that the finding/losing, forgetting/remembering, leaving/returning, never stops. The whole of life is about another chance, and while we are alive, till the very end, there is always another chance.

This is one moment, / But know that another / Shall pierce you with a sudden painful joy.

So when people say that poetry is a luxury, or an option, or for the educated middle classes, or that it shouldn’t be read at school because it is irrelevant, or any of the strange and stupid things that are said about poetry and its place in our lives, I suspect that the people doing the saying have had things pretty easy. A tough life needs a tough language – and that is what poetry is. That is what literature offers – a language powerful enough to say how it is. It isn’t a hiding place. It is a finding place.

It took me a long time to realise that there are two kinds of writing; the one you write and the one that writes you. The one that writes you is dangerous. You go where you don’t want to go. You look where you don’t want to look.

Time is only truly locked when we live in a mechanised world. Then we turn into clock-watchers and time-servers. Like the rest of life, time becomes uniform and standardised.

I have noticed that doing the sensible thing is only a good idea when the decision is quite small. For the life-changing things, you must risk it. And here is the shock – when you risk it, when you do the right thing, when you arrive at the borders of common sense and cross into unknown territory, leaving behind you all the familiar smells and lights, then you do not experience great joy and huge energy. You are unhappy. Things get worse. It is a time of mourning. Loss. Fear. We bullet ourselves through with questions. And then we feel shot and wounded. And then all the cowards come out and say, ‘See, I told you so.’ In fact, they told you nothing.

I told her not to be frightened. I said there would be a time when we would never be frightened again. We held hands. I was wondering what it would be like to have a home of your own where you could come and go, where people would be welcome, where you would never be frightened again.

It is going dark. There are bombs exploding. Alice is losing patience. She throws down the map and shouts at Gertrude: ‘THIS IS THE WRONG ROAD.’ Gertrude drives on. She says, ‘Right or wrong, this is the road and we are on it.’

Conflict can never be resolved on the level at which it arises – at that level there is only a winner and a loser, not a reconciliation. The conflict must be got above – like seeing a storm from higher ground.

The world was beautiful. I was a speck in it.

I understood twice born was not just about being alive, but about choosing life. Choosing to be alive and consciously committing to life, in all its exuberant chaos – and its pain.

Creativity is on the side of health – it isn’t the thing that drives us mad; it is the capacity in us that tries to save us from madness.

Listen, we are human beings. Listen, we are inclined to love. Love is there, but we need to be taught how. We want to stand upright, we want to walk, but someone needs to hold our hand and balance us a bit, and guide us a bit, and scoop us up when we fall. Listen, we fall. Love is there but we have to learn it – and its shapes and its possibilities. I taught myself to stand on my own two feet, but I could not teach myself how to love. We have a capacity for language. We have a capacity for love. We need other people to release those capacities.

I won’t take no for an answer. What is ‘no’? Either you have asked the wrong question or you have asked the wrong person. Find a way to get the ‘yes’.

I had to know the story of my beginnings but I have to accept that this is a version too. It is a true story but it is still a version.

When her own mother was exceedingly old Ann found the courage to ask the question, ‘Mam, did you love me?’ Her mother was very clear. ‘Yes. I love you. Now don’t ask me again.’ Love. The difficult word. Where everything starts, where we always return. Love. Love’s lack. The possibility of love. I have no idea what happens next.

So, what do you think of this?