When my mother was angry with me, which was often, she said, “The Devil led us to the wrong crib.”
Adopted children are self-invented because we have to be; there is 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 feeling that something is missing never, ever leaves you—and it can’t and it shouldn’t, because something is missing.
I liked best the stories about buried treasure and lost children and locked-up processes. That the treasure is found, the children returned and the princess freed, seemed hopeful to me. And the Bible told me that even if nobody loved me on earth, there was God in heaven who loved me like I was the only one who had ever mattered. I believed that. It helped me.
We were matched in our lost and losing. I had lost the warm safe place, however chaotic, of the first person I loved. I had lost my name and my identity. Adopted children are dislodged. My mother felt that the whole of life was a grand dislodgement. We both wanted to go Home.
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. The pursuit of happiness is more elusive; it is life-long, and it is not goal-centered. The pursuit isn’t all or nothing—it’s all AND nothing. Like all Quest Stories.
Think about, say, Jack and the Beanstalk… [the beanstalk,] the 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 hopped 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.
I’ve 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 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.
The tent was like the war had been for all the people of my parents’ age. Not real life, but a time where ordinary rules didn’t apply. You could forget the bills and the bother. You had a common purpose.
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 don’t know why [Mrs. Winterson] hated Accrington as much as she did but she did, and yet she didn’t leave. When I left it was though I had relieved her and betrayed her all at once. She longed for me to be free and did everything she could to make sure it never happened.
I think Mrs. Winterson was afraid of happiness. Jesus was supposed to make you happy but he didn’t, and if you were waiting for the Apocalypse that never came, you were bound to feel disappointed. She thought that happy meant bad/wrong/sinful. Or plain stupid. Unhappy seemed to have virtue attached to it.
We were not allowed books but we lived in a world of print. Mrs. Winterson wrote out exhortations and stuck them all over the house Under my coat peg a sign said THINK OF GOD NOT THE DOG. Over the gas oven, on a loaf wrapper, it said MAN SHALL NOT LIVE BY BREAD ALONE. Those who sat down [on the toilet] read HE SHALL MELT THY BOWELS LIKE WAX. When I went to school my mother put quotes from the Scriptures in my hockey boots. Cheery or depressing, it was all reading and reading was what I wanted to do. Fed words and shot with them, words became clues. Piece by piece I knew they would lead me somewhere else.
Were we endlessly ransacking the house, the two of us, looking for evidence of each other? I think we were—she, because I was fatally unknown to her, and she was afraid of me. Me, because I had no idea what was missing but felt the missing-ness of the missing. We circled each other, wary, abandoned, full of longing. We came close but not close enough and then we pushed each other away forever.
I began to realize that I had company. Writers are often exiles, outsiders, runaways and castaways. These writers were my friends. Every book was a message in a bottle. Open it.
What would it have meant to be happy? What would it have meant if things had been bright, clear, good between us? It was never a question of biology or nature and nurture. I know now that we heal up through being loved, and through loving others. We don’t heal by forming a secret society of one—by obsessing about the only other “one” we might admit, and being doomed to disappointment. It was a compulsive doctrine, and I carried it forward in my own life for a long time. It is of course the basis of romantic love—you + me against the world. A world where there are only two of us. A world that doesn’t really exist, except that we are in it. And one of us will always fail the other.
The past is so hard to shift. It comes with us like a chaperone, standing between us and the newness of the present—the new chance. I was wondering if the past could be redeemed—could be reconciled.
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.
Mother is our first love affair. And if we hate her, we take that rage with us into other lovers. And if we lose her, where do we find her again?
I understood something. 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 pain.
A few months later [the creature and I] were having our afternoon walk when I said something about how nobody had cuddled us when we were little. I said “us,” not “you.” She held my hand. She had never done that before; mainly she walked behind shooting her sentences. We both sat down and cried. I said: “We will learn how to love.”
We have a capacity for language. We have a capacity for love. We need other people to release those capacities. In my work I found a way to talk about love—and that was real. I had not found a way to love. That was changing.
Happy endings are only a pause. There are three kids of big endings: Revenge. Tragedy. Forgiveness. Revenge and Tragedy often happen together. Forgiveness redeems the past. Forgiveness unblocks the future.