Thoughts on: Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

I finished reading Jeanette Winterson’s “Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?” I was expecting a happy autobiography, after all I had never read any of her books before and the photo on the cover of the book was of a really smiley child holding a beach ball and looking like she is enjoying her day out. What I got was instead a travel back in time (this is exactly why I like books), connecting me to her childhood and all her layers of insecurities that she carried into adulthood as an adopted and unwanted child. Unwanted because her adoptive mother was a strict Pentecostal Christian and had a fond way of loving Jeanette, by locking her outside the house and in the coal hole. Winterson was given away when she was six weeks old, to a family that looked alright on paper but was all sorts of weird in real life. She only found closure when she wrote Oranges, and became famous, and decided to find her birth mother when she was finally ready.

Her memoir reminded me of Augusten Burroughs, the alcoholic writer- they were both raised by trying mothers, both relied on literature and writing to get them through hard times, and both had a difficult education. Winterson managed to get to Oxford although she fared very badly before the A-levels, and had to work at the markets and live in her borrowed car (the Mini) because she left home when she was 16. Burroughs didn’t even get a formal university education, and he wrote that he had spelling mistakes in his copywriting when he first started sourcing for jobs.

Both survived and thrived, and left their past …I wouldn’t say behind, but it is not the main part of them. Both are not using the names they were born with. And both are homosexual, and happily (currently) married to their respective partners. When I look at both authors and their works, I don’t see brokenness, although both did consider (and attempt) suicide. I see a lot of bravery, of human imperfections and fuck-ups and cat scratches on the skin.

The parts of Winterson’s novel that spoke to me were about decision making and the bible, and how her mom was passive-aggressive and how she was a ‘working-class experiment’ in Oxford. It’s not really about how she was adopted or even her homosexual acts. For example, I really liked this bit.

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 organized, 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 am exactly the same. While I love people, I really, really, really need to live alone. I can accept housemates, but not roommates. And the house has to be of reasonable size, I need my space to roll around and do stupid dance moves. I just can’t relax around people, even my parents- I don’t like it when my mom sits at the same table as me when she is doing church accounts stuff. Not because it is church, although since a few years back the only thing my mom does/reads/talks about is church, but because I don’t like a human being to be in such close proximity. I love babies and dogs though, they are the few exceptions to my “NO ONE SLEEPS IN MY ROOM” rule. If the babies have exceptionally well-groomed hair, then two or more are welcomed.

Also, this part:

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 when I was sixteen? It was once 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 so she packed up, got into her car and started her new life. She had her girlfriend and her books, and that was enough for her.

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.

I have a tendency to work and work and not feel, because feelings complicate things. Hence, I (used to) block people online and delete everything, and throw away all my old diaries etc. But I still can’t walk that line between remembering and keeping. I remember, it is part of me- I am made from all the bits in my past. But I don’t want to keep those memories, let them be gone so that I will have space for new memories. I also don’t know what my working style will be like when I do eventually start work. There will be new people, new bonds to form, new ones to break and leave behind. Typing it out makes everything seem orderly and superficial, but in reality I will be carrying around pockets of emotions again, ready to hide them and sit on them so that they won’t affect my work.

Freud, one of the grand masters of narrative, knew that the past is not fixed in the way that linear time suggests. We can return. We can pick up what we dropped. We can mend what others broke. We can talk with the dead.

Winterson’s pain reminded me of what I watched earlier, on youtube. My newest obsession- her real name is Kristyana Truong, she is a Vietnamese American.

Peachyanas is a really honest and straightforward person, and she admits that she is selling sexual pictures to make money, to fund her long-term goals. That’s respect. I would never be able to do that, even if it delays my goals. Because I am just a really private person, I don’t want any part of me to be floating around on the internet for other people, guys and girls alike, to see. Go to her youtube account, and don’t judge her based on her Instagram photos alone haha. I love her body and her face, plus her makeup skills are really good! Sometimes she goes a bit cray but that’s fine for me.

She mentioned something that I went through last year- when I felt that I was just faking extroversion and being happy at my internships, when internally I just didn’t feel good. But I wanted other people to like me, and I wanted to impress other people. After all I am a human being living amongst other human beings, I have to at least smile when I meet people. But I knew that I wasn’t being genuine and the longer it went on, the worse I felt, because I felt like I couldn’t stop and I didn’t know how to get back to the person I was. Like there was Jessica at home, being a bit dazed from the day, and Jessica at work, trying to make it through the day. And a thick glass wall in between the two.

I am a little scared of the adult world i.e. when I start work in July, I won’t be able to take breaks like I am doing now, I won’t be able to refine my ‘mask’ because I won’t have school holidays. Hence I’m reading a lot now- it is called bibliotherapy, or the art of using books and stories to resolve mental and emotional issues. It’s not like I have any issues to resolve, and it’s odd because the books recommended online for anxiety and self-esteem, I’ve read them, like ‘The Elegance of The Hedgehog’ by Muriel Barbery or ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’ by Milan Kundera and I don’t feel that they are very relevant at all. But anyway, they are sitting on my bookshelf so I’m going to re-read them before work starts. If anything, I can memorise quotes to keep my brain occupied on the train.

I’m going to finish reading The Book of Joy by tonight and then return to the library tomorrow to find the other books recommended on the bibliotherapy website. The Book of Joy, while highly recommended by other Buddhists, is really boring for me. Sigh. I can’t seem to read it, and I usually can get through books quite quickly. But anyway. there are customized bibliotherapy services, where you fill out a form and then consultants tell you which books you should be reading. But frankly I think books speak to everyone differently. I never, ever understood 1Q84 although I’ve read it I think 2-3 times. Maybe I need to do like 10 times for each book that I do not feel for. But then I would never get through my bookshelf, LOL.

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’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.

The pursuit isn’t all or nothing- it is all AND nothing.