Archive for July, 2012

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? – Jeanette Winterson

Unusually for our group, everyone enjoyed this book.

May of us identified with the author’s childhood, where she wasn’t allowed to mix with other children and where corporal punishment was so long after misbehaviour that it seemed somehow unconnected.

Mrs. Winterson is a very strange woman with some very dotty beliefs but her church community, despite an abusive exorcism attempt, is loving and supportive and she is her own woman with some intelligent views about science: ‘This life is all mass. When we go, we’ll be all energy, that’s all there is to it.’

“Mrs Winterson didn’t want her body resurrected because she had never, ever loved it, not even for a single minute of a single day.”

I can clearly envisage the scene when they are out shopping: “We went past Woolworths — ‘A Den of Vice: Past Marks and Spencer’s — ‘The Jews killed Christ.’ Past the funeral parlour and the pie shop — ‘They share an oven: Past the biscuit stall and its moon-faced owners — ‘Incest.’ Past the pet parlour — ‘Bestiality’ Past the bank — ‘Usury’ Past the Citizens Advice Bureau — ‘Communists”

There are many humorous moments, such as making money out of deposits on returned bottles – just go round the back of the shop and take a couple of previously returned bottles out of their crates. A woman loses her false teeth in the baptism pool.

The author is a strong advocate of education for its own sake rather than simply a preparation for the world of work. After all, education was her own way out of her dysfunctional family. Some kindly adults, like the librarian, were good guides and show the importance of relationships between different generations.

Some found it unbelievable, a throwback to Dickensian times, that a child would be locked out all night yet our social worker member told us that these things still happen.

Some thought that this was overkill, too introspective (though maybe part of the author’s therapy), gratuitous after Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit had covered the same ground, though maybe this book gets the record straight and fills in some of the blanks left in the other book.

There is an element of crusading in her quest to find her birth mother. Parents who give up their children have rights too. However, her reflection on what it feels like to be adopted seems to me to be profound:  “The baby explodes into an unknown world that is only knowable through some kind of a story — of course that is how we all live, it’s the narrative of our lives, but adoption drops you into the story after it has started. It’s like reading a book with the first few pages missing. It’s like arriving after curtain up. The feeling that something is missing never, ever leaves you — and it can’t, and it shouldn’t, because something is missing.”

Quotations:

“Why is the measure of love loss?”

“I had no one to help me, but the T. S. Eliot helped me.

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 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.”

“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.”

“I’ve always tried to make a home for myself, but I have not felt at home in myself. I’ve worked hard at being the hero of my own life. But every time I checked the register of displaced persons, I was still on it. I didn’t know how to belong. Longing? Yes. Belonging? No.”

“Books, for me, are a home. Books don’t make a home – they are one, in the sense that just as you do with a door, you open a book, and you go inside. Inside there is a different kind of time and a different kind of space.”

“We bury things so deep we no longer remember there was anything to bury. Our bodies remember. Our neurotic states remember. But we don’t.”

“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.”

“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.”

“To tell someone not to be emotional is to tell them to be dead.”

“She was a monster, but she was my monster.”

“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.”

“Pursuing happiness, and I did, and 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 to- 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. 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 realize that being barely alive, on your own terms, is better than living a bloated half-life on someone else’s terms.”

“I had lines inside me, a string of guiding lights. I had language. Fiction and poetry are doses, medicines. What they heal is the rupture reality makes on the imagination. I had been damaged, and a very important part of me had been destroyed – that was my reality, the facts of my life. But on the other side of the facts was who I could be, how I could feel. And as long as I had words for that, images for that, stories for that, then I wasn’t lost.”

“Yes, the stories are dangerous, she was right. A book is a magic carpet that flies you off elsewhere. A book is a door. You open it. You step through. Do you come back?”

“Truth for anyone is a very complex thing. For a writer, what you leave out says as much as those things you include. What lies beyond the margin of the text? The photographer frames the shot; writers frame their world. Mrs Winterson objected to what I had put in, but it seemed to me that what I had left out was the story’s silent twin. There are so many things that we can’t say, because they are too painful. We hope that the things we can say will soothe the rest, or appease it in some way. Stories are compensatory. The world is unfair, unjust, unknowable, out of control. 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. Mrs Winterson would have preferred it if I had been silent.

Do you remember the story of Philomel who is raped and then has her tongue ripped out by the rapist so that she can never tell? 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. 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 him or herself.”

“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.”

“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 all 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.”

“Books, for me, are a home. Books don’t make a home – they are one, in the sense that just as you do with a door, you open a book, and you go inside. Inside there is a different kind of time and space. There is warmth there too – a hearth. I sit down with a book and I am warm.”

“The more I read, the more I felt connected across time to other lives and deeper sympathies. I felt less isolated. I wasn’t floating on my little raft in the present; there were bridges that led over to solid ground. Yes, the past is another country, but one that we can visit, and once there we can bring back the things we need.
Literature is common ground. It is ground not managed wholly by commercial interests, nor can it be strip-mined like popular culture—exploit the new thing then move on.
There’s a lot of talk about the tame world versus the wild world. It is not only a wild nature that we need as human beings; it is the untamed open space of our imaginations.
Reading is where the wild things are.”

“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.”

“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 battle 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 have told you nothing.”

“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.”

“I didn’t want to be in the teeming mass of the working class.[…] I didn’t want to live and die in the same place with only a week at the seaside in between. I dreamed of escape – but what is terrible about industrialisation is that it makes escape necessary. In a system that generates masses, individualism is the only way out. But then what happens to community – to society?”

“Sometimes you have to live in precarious and temporary places. Unsuitable places. Wrong places. Sometimes the safe place won’t help you.”

“I wasn’t reading poetry because my aim was to work my way through English Literature in Prose A–Z.

But this was different.

I read [in, Murder in the Cathedral by T.S. Eliot]: This is one moment, / But know that another / Shall pierce you with a sudden painful joy.

I started to cry.

(…)The unfamiliar and beautiful play made things bearable that day, and the things it made bearable were another failed family—the first one was not my fault, but all adopted children blame themselves. The second failure was definitely my fault.

I was confused about sex and sexuality, and upset about the straightforward practical problems of where to live, what to eat, and how to do my A levels.

I had no one to help me, but the T.S. Eliot helped me.

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.”

“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 him or herself.”

“Memory loss is one way of coping with damage.”

“I did not realize that when money becomes a core value, then education drives towards utility or that the life of the mind will not be counted as good unless it produces measurable results. That public services will no longer be important. That an alternative life to getting and spending will become very difficult as cheap housing disappears. That when communities are destroyed only misery and intolerance are left.”

“…there are two kinds of writing: the one you write and the one that writes you.”

“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.”

“Life was a pre-death experience.”

“Happy ending are only a pause. There are three kinds of big endings: Revenge. Tragedy. Forgiveness. Revenge and Tragedy often happen together. Forgiveness redeems the past. Forgiveness unblocks the future.”

“Unconditional love is what a child should expect from a parent even though it rarely works out that way.”

“Where you are born–what you are born into, the place, the history of the place, how that history mates with your own– stamps who you are, whatever the pundits of globalisation have to say.”

“If the sun is shining, stand in it- yes, yes, yes. Happy times are great, but happy times pass- they have to- because time passes. The pursuit of happiness is more elusive; it is life-long, and it is not goal-centred. What you are pursuing is meaning- a meaningful life… There are times when it will go so wrong that you will be barely 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.”

“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.”

“You cannot disown what is yours. Flung out, there is always the return, the reckoning, the revenge, perhaps the reconciliation.
There is always the return. And the wound will take you there.”

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

“the past is so hard to shift. It comes with us like a chaperon, standing between us and the newness of the present – the new chance.”

“Our own front door can be a wonderful thing, or a sight we dread; rarely is it only a door.”

“Reading things that are relevant to the facts of your life is of limited value. The facts are, after all, only the facts, and the yearning passionate part of you will not be met there. That is why reading ourselves as a fiction as well as fact is so liberating. The wider we read the freer we become.”

“I wrote my way out.”

“The librarian was explaining the benefits of the Dewey decimal system to her junior—benefits that extended to every area of life. It was orderly, like the universe. It had logic. It was dependable. Using it allowed a kind of moral uplift, as one’s own chaos was also brought under control.

‘Whenever I am troubled,’ said the librarian, ‘I think about the Dewey decimal system.’

‘Then what happens?’ asked the junior, rather overawed.

‘Then I understand that trouble is just something that has been filed in the wrong place. That is what Jung was explaining of course—as the chaos of our unconscious contents strive to find their rightful place in the index of consciousness.”

“In therapy, the therapist acts as a container for what we daren’t let out, because it is so scary, or what lets itself out every so often, and lays waste to our lives.”

“Six books… my mother didn’t want books falling into my hands. It never occurred to her that I fell into the books – that I put myself inside them for safe keeping.”

“Love is vivid. I never wanted the pale version. Love is full strength. I never wanted the diluted version. I never shied away from love’s hugeness but I had no idea that love could be as reliable as the sun. The daily rising of love.”

“Happiness was still on the other side of a glass door, but at least she could see it through the glass, like a prisoner being visited by a longed-for loved one.”

“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 . . .”

“I knew clearly that I could not rebuild my life or put it back together in any way. I had no idea what might lie on the other side of this place. I only knew that the before-world was gone forever.”

“The baby explodes into an unknown world that is only knowable through some kind of a story – of course that is how we all live, it’s the narrative of our lives, but adoption drops you into the story after it has started. It’s like reading a book with the first few pages missing. It’s like arriving after curtain up. The feeling that something is missing never, ever leaves you – and it can’t, and it shouldn’t, because something IS missing. That isn’t of its nature negative. The missing part, the missing past, can be an opening, not a void. It can be an entry as well as an exit. It is the fossil record, the imprint of another life, and although you can never have that life, your fingers trace the space where it might have been, and your fingers learn a kind of Braille.”

“We heal up through being loved, and through loving others. We don’t heal by forming a secret society of one – by assessing about the only other ‘one’ we might admit, and being doomed to disappointment.”

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

“Something as straightforward as a difference could lead to something as complex as a breakdown.”

“Creative work bridges time because the energy of art is not time-bound. If it were we should have no interest in the art of the past, except as history or documentary. But our interest in art is our interest in ourselves both now and always. Here and forever. There is a sense of the human spirit as always existing. This makes our death bearable. Life + art is a boisterous communion/communication with the dead. It is a boxing match with time.”

“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 in 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 to say how it is.
It isn’t a hiding place. It is a finding place.”

“She hated being a nobody and like all children, adopted or not, I have had to live out some of her unlived life. We do that for our parents – we don’t really have any choice.”

“It is always a mistake to argue with a librarian.”

“I was sixteen and my mother was about to throw me out of the house forever, for breaking a very big rule, even bigger than the forbidden books. The rule was not just No Sex, but definitely No Sex With Your Own Sex.”

“Fiction and poetry are doses, medicines. What they heal is the rupture reality makes on the imagination.”

“Even now when I’m furious, what I would like to do is to punch the infuriating person flat on the ground. That solves nothing I know, and I spent a lot of time understanding my own violence, which is not of the pussycat kind. There are people who could never commit murder; I am not one of those people. It’s better to know it, better to know who you are, and what lies in you, and what you could do, might do, under extreme provocation.”

“Children do not find fault with their parents until later. In the beginning, the love you get is the love that sets.”

“The baby explodes into an unknown world that is only knowable through some kind of a story – of course that is how we all live, it’s the narrative of our lives, but adoption drops you into the story after it has started. It’s like reading a book with the first few pages missing. It’s like arriving after curtain up. The feeling that something is missing never, ever leaves you – and it can’t, and it shouldn’t, because something is missing.”

“I needed words because unhappy families are conspiracies of silence.”

“Her suffering was her armour. Gradually it became her skin. Then she could not take it off.”

“I was in danger of drowning, and nobody lost at sea worries about whether the spar they cling to is made of elm or oak.”

“It is better to know it. Better to know who you are, and what lies in you, what you could do, might do, under extreme provocation.”

“He was always a little boy, and I am upset that I didn’t look after him, upset that there are so many kids who never get looked after, and so they can’t grow up. They can get older, but they can’t grow up. That takes love. If you are lucky the love will come later. If you are lucky you won’t hit love in the face.”

“It is never too late to learn to love. But it is frightening.”

“There is still a popular fantasy, long since disproved by both psychoanalysis and science, and never believed by any poet or mystic, that it is possible to have a thought without a feeling. It isn’t. When we are objective we are subjective too. When we are neutral we are involved. When we say ‘I think’ we don’t leave our emotions outside the door. To tell someone not to be emotional is to tell them to be dead.”

“I have written about love obsessively, forensically, and I know/knew it as the highest value. I loved God of course, in the early days, and God loved me. That was something. 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?”

“It takes much longer to leave the psychic place than the physical place.”

“I am not a fan of supermarkets and I hate shopping there, even for things I can’t get elsewhere, like cat food and bin bags. A big part of my dislike of them is the loss of vivid life. The dull apathy of existence now isn’t just boring jobs and boring TV; it is the loss of vivid life on the streets; the gossip, the encounters, the heaving messy noise that made room for everyone, money or not.”

“Most kids grow up leaving something out for Santa at Christmas time when he comes down the chimney. I used to make presents for the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.”

“When you are born–what you are born into, the place, the history of the place, how that history mates with your own– stamps who you are, whatever the pundits of globalisation have to say.”

“What we notice in stories is the nearness of the wound to the gift.”

“Truth for anyone is a very complex thing. For a writer, what you leave out says as much as those things you include. What lies beyond the margin of the text? The photographer frames the shot; writers frame their world.”

“Time is not constant and one minute is not the same length as another.”

“The pursuit of happiness is more elusive, it is life long and not goal-centered. What you are pusuing is meaning – a meaningful life. The fate the draw that is yours and it isn’t fixed, but changing the course of the stream thats 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 your realize that being barely alive , on your own terms, is better then living a bloated half-life on someone else’s terms.
The pursuit isn’t all or nothing – it’s ALL and NOTHING.”

“Reading things that are relevant to the facts of your life is of limited value. The facts are, after all, only the facts, and the yearning passionate part of you will not be met there. That is why reading ourselves as a fiction as well as fact is so liberating. The wider we read the freer we become. Emily Dickinson barely left her homestead in Amherst, Massachusetts, but when we read ‘My life stood — a loaded gun’ we know we have met an imagination that will detonate life, not decorate it.”

“Cheer up ye saints of God,
There’s nothing to worry about;
Nothing to make you feel afraid,
Nothing to make you doubt;
Remember Jesus saves you;
So why not trust him and shout,
You’ll be sorry you worried at all, tomorrow,
morning.”

“My mother’s eyes were like cold stars. She belonged in a different sky.”

“Oxford was not a conspiracy of silence as far as women were concerned; it was a conspiracy of ignorance.”

“I have had a lot to put up with,” she said, looking meaningfully at me. “I know the Bible tells us to turn the other cheek but there are only so many cheeks in a day.”

“It seems to me that being the right size for your world– and knowing that both you and your world are not by any means fixed dimensions– is a valuable clue to learning how to live.”

“…when I was successful, but accused of arrogance, I wanted to drag every journalist who misunderstood to this place, and make them see that for a woman, a working-class woman, to want to be a writer, to want to be a good writer, and to believe that you were good enough, that was not arrogance; that was politics.”

“Our contradictions are never so to ourselves.”

“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 am an ambitious writer – I don’t see the point of being anything, no, not anything at all, if you have no ambition for it.”

“Mrs. Winterson didn’t want her body resurrected because she had never, ever loved it, not even for a single minute of a single day But although she believed in End Time, she felt that the bodily resurrection was unscientific. When I asked her about this she told me she had seen Pathé newsreels of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and she knew all about Robert Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project. She had lived through the war. Her brother had been in the air force, my dad had been in the army — it was their life, not their history. She said that after the atomic bomb you couldn’t believe in mass any more, it was all about energy. ‘This life is all mass. When we go, we’ll be all energy, that’s all there is to it.’

I have thought about this a lot over the years. She had understood something infinitely complex and absolutely simple. For her, in the Book of Revelation, the ‘things of the world’ that would pass away, ‘heaven and earth rolled up like a scroll,’ were demonstrations of the inevitable movement from mass to energy. Her uncle, her beloved mother’s beloved brother, had been a scientist. She was an intelligent woman, and somewhere in the middle of the insane theology and the brutal politics, the flamboyant depression and the refusal of books, of knowledge, of life, she had watched the atomic bomb go off and realised that the true nature of the world is energy not mass.

But she never understood that energy could have been her own true nature while she was alive. She did not need to be trapped in mass.”

“The night I left home I felt that I had been tricked or trapped into going – and not even by Mrs Winterson, but by the dark narrative of our life together.

Her fatalism was so powerful. She was her own black hole that pulled in all the light. She was made of dark matter and her force was invisible unseen except in its effects.

What would it have meant to be happy? What would it have meant if things had been bright, clear, good between us?”

“Mrs. Winterson did not have a soothing personality. Ask for reassurance and it would never come. I never asked her if she loved me. She loved me on those days when she was able to love. I really believe that is the best she could do.”

“When you are a solitary kid you find an imaginary friend.”

“Manchester is in the south of the north of England.

Its spirit has a contrariness in it — a south and north bound up together — at once untamed and unmetropolitan; at the same time, connected and wordly.”

“And our madness-measure is always changing. Probably we are less tolerant of madness now than at any period in history. There is no place for it. Crucially, there is no time for it.

Going mad takes time. Getting sane takes time.”

“I am always wondering about love.”

“What is ‘no’? Either you have asked the wrong question or you have asked the wrong person. Find a way to get the ‘yes’.”

“And here’s 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, 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.”

“And the people I have hurt, the mistakes I have made, the damage to myself and others, wasn’t poor judgement; it was the place where love had hardened into loss.”

“It was very bad for me that my deafness happened at around the same time as I discovered my clitoris.”

“In the economy of the body, the limbic highway takes precedence over the neural pathways. We were designed and built to feel, and there is no thought, no state of mind, that is not also a feeling state.
Nobody can feel too much, though many of us work very hard at feeling too little.
Feeling is frightening.”

“If someone liked me, I waited until she was off guard, and then I told her I didn’t want to be her friend any more. I watched the confusion and upset. The tears. Then I ran off, triumphantly in control, and very fast the triumph and the control leaked away, and then I cried and cried, because I had put myself on the outside again, on the doorstep again, where I didn’t want to be.”

“Reading yourself as a fiction as well as a fact is the only way to keep the narrative open – the only way to stop the story from running away under its own momentum, often towards an ending no one wants.”

“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.

And I suppose that the saddest thing for me, thinking about the cover version that is Oranges, is that I wrote a story I could live with. The other one was too painful. I could not survive it.

I am often asked, in a tick-box kind of way, what is ‘true’ and what is not ‘true’ in Oranges. Did I work in a funeral parlour? Did I drive an ice-cream van? Did we have a Gospel Tent? Did Mrs. Winterson build her own CB radio? Did she really stun tomcats with a catapult?

I can’t answer these questions. I can say that there is a character in Oranges called Testifying Elsie who looks after the little Jeanette and acts as a soft wall against the hurt(ling) force of Mother.

I wrote her in because I couldn’t bear to leave her out. I wrote her in because I really wished it had been that way. When you are a solitary child you find an imaginary friend.

There was no Elsie. There was no one like Elsie. Things were much lonelier than that.”

“I wasn’t getting better. I was getting worse.

I did not go to the doctor because I didn’t want pills. If this was going to kill me then let me be killed by it. If this was the rest of my life I could not live.”

“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.”

“Babies are frightening — raw tyrants whose only kingdom is their own body.”

“I read: This is one moment, / But know that another / Shall pierce you with a sudden painful joy.
I started to cry.”

“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.”

“Gertrude drives on. She says, ‘Right or wrong, this is the road and we are on it,”

“It was like living in a library, and that was where I had always been happiest.”

“Reading is where the wild things are.”

“The library was quiet. It was busy but it was quiet and I thought it must be like this in a monastery where you had company and sympathy but your thoughts were your own.”

“Mrs Ratlow was a widow, and she was head of English, but she still did all the cooking and cleaning for her two sons, and she never took holidays because she said — and I will never forget it — “When a woman alone is no longer of any interest to the opposite sex, she is only visible where she has some purpose.”

“Then, as now, nobody talked about the legacy of Empire. Britain had colonised, owned, occupied or interfered with half the world. We had carved up some countries and created others. When some of the world we had made by force wanted something in return, we were outraged.”

“Choosing to be alive and consciously committing to life, in all its exuberant chaos- and it’s pain.”

“I believe in fiction and the power of stories because that way we speak in tongues. We are not silences. 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 as been there for us and deep-dived the words.”

“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.
When we write we offer the silence as much as the story. Words are the part of silence that can be spoken.”

“Going mad is the beginning of a process, it’s not meant to be the end result.”

“Part fact part fiction is what life is. And it is always a cover story. I wrote my way out.”

“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.”

“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 to – because time passes.

The pursuit of happiness is more elusive; it is life-long, and it is not goal-centred.

What you are pursuing is meaning – a meaningful life.”

“They sounded like intestines, only on the outside, and the men in the Bible were always having them cut off and not being able to go to church. Horrid.”

“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.”

“Feeling. I didn’t want to feel.”

“Adoption is outside. You act out what it feels like to be the one who doesn’t belong. And you act it out by trying to do to others what has been done to you. It is impossible to believe anyone loves you for yourself.

I never believed that my parents loved me. I tried to love them but it didn’t work. It has taken me a long time to learn how to love – both the giving and the receiving. I have written about love obsessively, forensically, and I know/knew it as the highest value.

I loved God of course, in the early days, and God loved me. That was something. 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.
I thought that love was loss.
Why is the measure of love loss?”

“When love is unreliable and you are a child, you assume that it is the nature of love – its quality – to be unreliable. Children do not find fault with their parents until later. In the beginning the love you get is the love that sets.”

“I was only good at one thing: words. I had read more, much more, than anybody else, and I knew how words worked in the way that some boys knew how engines worked.”

“About her life to come, when she’d have a mansion and no neighbours. All she ever wanted was for everyone to go away. And when I did she never forgave me. She loved miracle stories, probably because her life was a far away from a miracle as Jupiter is from the Earth. She believed in miracles, even though she never got one– well, maybe she did get one, but that was me, and she didn’t know that miracles often come in disguise.”

“I decided to apply to read English at the University of Oxford because it was the most impossible thing I could do.”

“I love the natural world and I never ceased to see it. The beauty of the trees and fields, of hills and streams, of the changing colours, of the small creatures so busy and occupied. My long hours walking or sitting in the field with my back against the wall, watching the clouds and the weather, allowed me some steadiness. It was because I knew all this would be there when I was not that I thought I could go. The world was beautiful. I was as speck in it.”

“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 go to the bathroom. All my life I have been an orphan and an only child. Now I come from a big noisy family who go ballroom dancing and live forever.”

“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. The”

“The true nature of the world is energy not mass.”

“And the people I have hurt, the mistakes I have made, the damage to myself and others, wasn’t poor judgement; it was the place where love had hardened into loss.”

“Adopted children are self invented because we have to be. There’s an absence, a void, a question mark at the very beginning of our lives. A crucial part of our story is gone, and violently. Like a bomb in the womb, the baby explodes into an unknown world and it’s only knowable through some kind of story. Of course, that is how we all live, it’s the narrative of our lives, but adoption drops you into the story after its started. It’s like reading a book with the first few pages missing. It’s like arriving after a curtain up, the feeling that something is missing never, ever leaves you, and it can’t, and it shouldn’t, because something is missing. That isn’t of its nature negative, the missing part, the missing past can be an opening, not a void. It can be an entry as well as an exit. It is the fossil record. The imprint of another life, and although you can never have that life your fingers trace the space where it might have been and your fingers learn a kind of Braille. There are markings here, raised like welts.”

“Sometimes you have to live in precarious and temporary places. Unsuitable places. Wrong places. Sometimes the safe place won’t help you.”

“I am short, so I like the little guy/underdog stories, but they are not straightforwardly about one size versus another. Think about, say, Jack and the Beanstalk, which is basically a big ugly stupid giant, and a smart little Jack who is fast on his feet. OK, but the unstable element is the beanstalk, which starts as a bean and grows into a huge tree-like thing that Jack climbs to reach the castle. This bridge between two worlds is unpredictable and very surprising. And later, when the giant tries to climb after Jack, the beanstalk has to be chopped down pronto. This suggests to me that 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. The beanstalk has to be chopped down. But the large-scale riches from the ‘other world’ can be brought into ours, just as Jack makes off with the singing harp and the golden hen. Whatever we ‘win’ will accommodate itself to our size and form — just as the miniature princesses and the frog princes all assume the true form necessary for their coming life, and ours.

Size does matter.”

“A meaningless life for a human being has none of the dignity of animal unselfconsciousness; we cannot simply eat, sleep, hunt and reproduce – we are meaning-seeking creatures. The Western world has done away with religion but not with religious impulses; we seem to need some higher purpose, some point to our lives – money and leisure, social progress, are just not enough.”

“I was very often full of rage and despair. I was always lonely. In spite of all that I was and am in love with life. When I was upset I went roaming into the Pennines – all day on a jam sandwich and a bottle of milk. When I was locked outside, or the other favourite, locked in the coal-hole, I made up stories and forgot about the cold and the dark. I know these are ways of surviving, but maybe a refusal, any refusal, to be broken lets in enough light and air to keep believing in the world – the dream of escape.”

“our outside loo, known as the Betty, was a good loo; whitewashed and compact with a flashlight hanging behind the door. I smuggled books in there to read them in secret, claiming constipation.”

“When I was born I became the visible corner of a folded map.”

“Only later, much later, too late, did I understand how small she (Mrs Winterson) was to herself. The baby nobody picked up. The uncarried child still inside her.”

“My mother was in charge of language. My father had never really learned to read – he could manage slowly, with his fingers on the line, but he had left school at twelve and gone to work at the Liverpool docks. Before he was twelve, no one had bothered to read to him. His own father had been a drunk who often took his small son to the pub with him, left him outside, staggered out hours later and walked home, and forgot my dad, asleep in a doorway.
Dad loved Mrs Winterson reading out loud – and I did too. She always stood up while we two sat down, and it was intimate and impressive all at the same time.
She read the Bible every night for half an hour, starting at the beginning, and making her way through all sixty-six books of the Old and New Testaments. When she got to her favourite bit, the Book of Revelation, and the Apocalypse, and everyone being exploded and the Devil in the bottomless pit, she gave us all a week off to think about things. Then she started again, Genesis Chapter One. ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth…’
It seemed to me to be a lot of work to make a whole planet, a whole universe, and blow it up, but that is one of the problems with the literal-minded versions of Christianity; why look after the planet when you know it is all going to end in pieces?”

“He was always a little boy, and I am upset that I didn’t look after him, upset there are so many kids who never get looked after, and so they can’t grow up. They can get older, but they can’t grow up. That takes love. If you are lucky the love will come later. If you are lucky you won’t hit love in the face.”

“There is still a popular fantasy, long since disproved by both psychoanalysis and science, and never believed by any poet or mystic, that it is possible to have a thought without a feeling. It isn’t.”

“When a woman alone is no longer of any interest to the opposite sex, she is only visible where she has some purpose.”

“Pursuing happiness, and I did, and still do, is not at all the same thing as being happy – which I think is fleeting, dependent on circumstances, and a bit bovine…The pursuit of happiness is more elusive; it is life-long, and it is not goal-centered.

What you are pursuing is meaning – a meaningful life…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.”

“She had other favourite lines. Our gas oven blew up. The repairman came out and said he didn’t like the look of it, which was unsurprising as the oven and the wall were black. Mrs Winterson replied, ‘It’s a fault to heaven, a fault against the dead, and a fault to nature.’ That is a heavy load for a gas oven to bear.
She liked that phrase and it was more than once used towards me; when some well-wisher asked how I was, Mrs W looked down and sighed, ‘She’s a fault to heaven, a fault against the dead, and a fault to nature.’
This was even worse for me than it had been for the gas oven. I was particularly worried about the ‘dead’ part, and wondered which buried and unfortunate relative I had so offended.”

“I asked my mother why we couldn’t have books and she said, ‘The trouble with a book is that you never know what’s in it until it’s too late.”

“I saw a lot of working class men and women – myself included – living a deeper, more thoughtful life than would have been possible without the church… The sense of belonging to something big, something important, lent unity and meaning.”

“It seems so easy now to destroy libraries – mainly by taking away all the books – and to say that books and libraries are not relevant to people’s lives. There’s a lot of talk about social breakdown and alienation, but how can it be otherwise when our ideas of progress remove the centres that did so much to keep people together?
In the North people met in the church, in the pub, in the marketplace, and in those philanthropic buildings where they could continue their education and their interests. Now, maybe the pub is left – but mainly nothing is left.
The library was my door to elsewhere.”

“When love is unreliable and you are a child, you assume that it is the nature of love – its quality – to be unreliable. Children do not find fault with their parents until later. In the beginning the love you get is the love that sets. I”

“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, whichever 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 realize that being barely alive, on your own terms, is better than living a bloated half-life on someone else’s terms.”

“The poem finds the word that finds the feeling.”

“The photographer frames the shot, writers frame their world.”

“Books, for me, are a home. Books don’t make a home – they are one, in the sense that just as you do with a door, you open a book, and you go inside. Inside there is a different kind of time and space.
There is warmth there too – a hearth. I sit down with a book and I’m warm.”

“Love is vivid. I never wanted the pale version.. Love is full strength. I never wanted the diluted version. I never shied away from love’s hugeness but I had no idea that love could be as reliable as the sun. The daily rising of love.”

“I did not realise that when money becomes the core value, then education drives towards utility or that the life or the mind will not be counted as good unless it produces measurable results. That public services will no longer be important. That an alternative life to getting and spending will become very difficult as cheap housing disappears. That when communities are destroyed only misery and intolerance are left.”

“When love is unreliable and you are a child, you assume that it is the nature of love – its quality – to be unreliable.”

“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.”

“Whatever is on the outside can be taken away at any time. Only what is inside you is safe.”

“And I thought about women. All these books, and how long had it taken for women to write their share, and why were their still so few women poets and novelists, and even fewer who were considered to be important?”

“It takes much longer to leave the psychic place than the physical place.”

“Writers are often exiles, outsiders, runaways and castaways.”

“She hated the small and the mean, and yet that is all she had. I bought a few big houses myself along the way, simply because I was trying out something for her. In fact, my tastes were more modest — but you don’t know that until you have bought and sold for the ghost of your mother.”

“Yes, the past is another country, but once that we can visit and once there we can bring back the things we need.”

“A tough life needs a tough language – and that is what poetry is.”

“The wider we read the freer we become.”

“On the top of the hill looking out over the town I wanted to see further than anybody had seen. That wasn’t arrogance; it was desire. I was all desire, desire for life.”

“My mother told stories – of their life in the war and how she’d played the accordion in the air-raid shelter and it had got rid of the rats. Apparently rats like violins and pianos but they can’t stand the accordion . . .”

“The more I read the more I fought against the assumption that literature is for the minority – of a particular education or class. Books were my birthright too.”

“She knew full well that writers were sex-crazed bohemians who broke the rules and didn’t go out to work.”

“Written on the body is a secret code only visible in certain lights.”

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