When I was growing up in an industrial town in the north of England, most of the men worked in factories, and the women did part-time jobs, and managed the home. As an adopted child, I never felt I belonged anywhere, and I dreamed of escape.
Escape wasn’t going to come easy though. I had to get an education, get some money together, and make a plan. In fact it took years, which it does when you are young, but when you are young, time is on your side.
What about when time is not on your side?
My mother, Mrs Winterson, would have been 100 this week. She was born in January 1922, to parents scarred by the First World War. Born into a world where motor cars still looked like horseless carriages. A terraced house, a coal fire, and just before she was ready to leave home, the Second World War altered everyone’s lives.
In 1947 she married my father. He had come out alive from the D-Day Landings, after killing 6 Germans with his bayonet. There was no ammunition left. Like so many men, he never talked about his war experiences. Life had to go forward. That was their only chance.
They had so little life. So little money. But what they had seemed better to both of them than what they had escaped. My mother hated her father, for his brutality and casual violence to her mother. My Dad had lost his own father to drink. My Dad had been pulled out of school at 11years old to work on a milk round with his father. He never really learned to read or write. My mother, with her beautiful copperplate handwriting and typing skills, managed everything. He was content. She was disappointed. Her life wasn’t brutal anymore, but what was it? She knew there was better to be had, at the same time as knowing she would never have it. I knew that she knew that - and I never wanted to be like her.
Being adopted means that you never will be DNA-like, genetically like, your parents. That creates a semi-detached reality, even if you love them and they love you. That was not how it was for us at home. They were bewildered by their child and I was bewildered by my parents. What was I doing there?
I wrote about all of this in Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?
The pursuit of happiness, enshrined in the American Constitution, is not selfish and it is not pointless. It might turn out to be a wild goose chase, and there might be no goose after all, but the daily determination to remember your happiness - even if you haven’t found it yet- is psychologically important. I was often happy as a child, but I soon knew that my happiness had nothing to do with my family life. My happiness was in books and in nature. And it still is.
That is why I had to make a plan to live among books and nature. To be self-determined needs money and time - and the quantities of each are not fixed. Only you can work out what your life needs, though there are always helpers along the way, just as in the fairy stories, where an act of kindness to a poor person or an animal, suddenly reveals the route, or unlocks the door. That’s why I say your pursuit of happiness isn’t selfish - we always have to consider others, and to be kind to others at every opportunity, and out of that often comes another clue, a bit of help, or piece of the jigsaw. But the effort and the journey are our own.
And it takes time.
I meet a lot of people on my travels, both young and older, who fall into two camps. There’s the Want It Today camp, and then there’s the Yes But camp. Do you know some of these people?
The YBs are people who counter every proposal for the change they say they want with Yes But… There is always a reason why they can’t do the thing they want to do, whether it’s learning Spanish or leaving their husband. The Want it Today camp have probably been ruined by overnight deliveries, fast food, and the instant gratification ploys of destructive capitalism. They don’t understand why they can’t just scroll to the next thing, or go online and upgrade their life.
It helps to be a gardener. That carrot seed you plant today, won’t become a carrot tomorrow, no matter what you do.
There is magic in the world. There are miracles in the world. You can fall in love right away. You can see exactly what to do sometimes. Sometimes the door opens. Sometimes the treasure is right at your feet where you dig.
And that’s fine.
It’s better to plan it, to work for it, to work at it, to keep going, to keep trying, because all of that work changes you, develops you, as well as getting you closer to what it is you want, and now and again, you realise it’s not what you want at all. That’s not wasted effort. That’s self-knowledge
You might need to go back to school. You might need to save up. You might need to wait till the children are older. You might not be able to do it now - but you can be it now. Your commitment is made the moment you make it. Then comes the journey.
I escaped. Fundamentally, I have the life I want. Books and Nature.
People, I am not so good at, and that’s something you learn too. I will always be semi-detached. Always find it hard to read social situations. To know quite what to do when another human is facing me. But I know how to be kind. And I know how to listen. Work with what you can do. Don’t make life impossible for yourself. Accept that you have certain advantages and disadvantages, and let all the muddle live at home in the family of yourself. Don’t banish parts of you to the attic to go mad. Don’t be ashamed of the bit of you that can’t read or write. Live together with yourself and include all parts of you in the plans that you make.
And take the time.