We had one of those more unusual book groups this time around whereby all of us there loved the book we had just read on some level or other. Not all for the same reasons, but it is rare to find a book that elicits a joint vote of confidence. I loved it – very readable and written from the heart. It is a story about survival and hope. I haven’t really done a proper review – more a series of quotes from the book that I wrote down because they felt like the sort of truth I understood and could relate to. Definitely read it. It is one of those quietly life changing books I found.
“Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal” is Jeanette Winterson’s is perhaps her more “honest” version of “Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit”…the one she could only write once her adopted mother had died. I don’t blame her for waiting, she does not paint a pretty picture of her childhood that is for sure, but like all of us in life, whilst reading about tragedy we want hope and we want people to turn from victims into survivors and Jeanette Winterson certainly managed to do that. Towards the end of the book she was discussing how “monstrous and impossible” her adoptive mother was “but how absolutely right for someone like me, who, like her, could never have accepted a scaled down life. She turned inwards, I turned outwards”.
She writes about her very poor upbringing in the North and her battle to become who she wanted to be. Perhaps having books almost entirely banned in the house was the reason she had to devour all that she could. She questions life from an early age: “why could there not be experience and experiment. Why could there not be the observed and the imagined? Why should a woman be limited by anything or anybody? Why should a woman not be ambitious for literature? Ambitious for herself?
She left home at sixteen and here she explains why:-
“Sometimes you have to live in precarious and temporary places. Unsuitable places. Wrong places. Sometimes the safe place won’t help you.
Why did I leave home at sixteen? It was one of those important choices that will change the rest of your life. When I look back it feels like I was at the borders of common sense, and the sensible thing to do would have been to keep quiet, keep going, learn to lie better and leave later.
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”.
She explains how she became a writer: “there are markings here, raised like welts. Read them. Read the hurt. Rewrite them. Rewrite the hurt. It’s why I am a writer – I don’t say “decided” to be or “became”. It was not an act of will or even a conscious choice. I had to be able to tell my own story. Part fact part fiction is what life is. And it is always a cover story. I wrote my way out”.
She describes the bravery required in order to do this: “I needed words because unhappy families are conspiracies of silence. The one who breaks the silence is never forgiven. He or she has to learn to forgive themselves.”
And how she had to believe in herself and always believe in hope “What I want does exist if I dare to find it”.
Her description of happiness is one that feels right and explains the title of the book: “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.
If the sun is shining, stand in it – yes, yes, yes. Happy times are great, but happy times pass – they have – because time passes. The pursuit of happiness is more elusive; it is lifelong, and it is not goal-centred.
What you are pursuing is meaning – a meaningful life.
I agree with this sentiment too:
“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”.
The pursuit isn’t all or nothing – it’s all AND nothing.
The sense of trying to understand that the happiness has to come from within:-
“All of that has been a brutal lesson to me in not overlooking or misunderstanding what is actually there, in your hands, now. We always think we need to transform everything – the miracle is elsewhere, but often it is right next to us. Sometimes,it is us, ourselves.
Here she sounds like Scott Fitzgerald:-
“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”.
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.
I wonder if I will be the same about living with another person. Trying to find a way to share my space:-
“Home was problematic for me. It did not represent order and it did not stand for safety. I have never lived with anyone in either of those homes. I am not entirely happy about that, but when I did live with someone, and for thirteen years, I could only manage it by having a lot of separate space. I am not messy, I am organised and I cook and clean very happily, but another presence is hard for me. I wish it were not so, because I would really like to live with someone I love.
I just don’t think I know how to do that.
So it is better to accept my not quite adjusted need for distance and privacy”.
“I needed lessons in love. I still do because nothing could be simpler, nothing could be harder, than love”.
Her description about accepting and going with feelings is also very true:-
“Living with life is very hard. Mostly we do our best to stifle life – to be tame or to be wanton. To be tranquillised or raging. Extremes have the same effect; they insulate us from the intensity of life. And extremes – whether of dullness or fury – successfully prevent feeling. I know our feelings can be so unbearable that we employ ingenious strategies – unconscious strategies to keep those feelings away. We do a feelings-swap, where we avoid feeling sad or lonely or afraid or inadequate and feel angry instead. It can work the other way too – sometimes you do need to feel angry, not inadequate; sometimes you do need to feel love and acceptance, and not the tragic drama of your life.
It takes courage to feel the feeling – and not trade it on the feelings-exchange, or even transfer it altogether to another person. You know how in couples one person is always doing the weeping or the raging while the other one seems so calm and reasonable?
I understood that feelings were difficult for me although I was overwhelmed by them.
Nobody can feel too much, though many of us work very hard at feeling too little.
Feeling is frightening.
Well, I find it so”.
“I am the kind of person who would rather walk than wait for a bus. The kind of person who will drive out of my way rather than sit in traffic. The kind of person who assumes that any problem is there for me to solve. I am not capable of queuing – I’d rather give up on whatever I have to queue for – and I won’t take no for an answer. What is no? Either you have asked the wrong questions or you have asked the wrong person. Find a way to get the “yes”.
I suppose it is the forking of the paths. I keep seeing my life darting off in the different directions it could have taken, as chance and circumstance, temperament and desire, open and close, open and close gates, routes, roadways.
And yet there feels like an inevitability to who I am – just as of all the planets in all the universes, planet blue, this planet Earth, is the one that is home”.