Jeanette Winterson: leaving home

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The Independent Culture

When I was 16 I had to leave home. As I set off down the gloomy hallway, past the coats hung like dead men, and the coin-slot gas meter that ticked and glowed like a golem, my mother called out to me. I turned, wondering if there would be some regret or a kind word. She said, "Jeanette, why be happy when you could be normal?" My mother, if she had known it, had asked me a question as wise, complex, and potentially fatal, as any fairy-tale riddle, where the right answer leads to the treasure or the princess, and the wrong answer is death by ogre.

I had made the mistake of confessing first love, love that when requited makes us insanely happy. Unfortunately my love object was a girl and my family were strict evangelical Christians. And thus my mother's question... But it was really a question about life: life choices, life savers and lifelines. It was not a question about lifestyle. There is no such thing. My family home was poor, and I took nothing with me because I had nothing to take. For the next couple of years I lived where I could, sometimes in the back of a car, sometimes in a tent, and finally in a boxroom lent to me by a teacher – I was still at school. Trying to get to sleep in the back of a steamed-up car, I thought a lot about my mother's question. It wasn't a true opposition, like hot and cold, dark and light, and in any case, I wasn't so happy now that I was sleeping in a duffel coat in a Hillman Imp.

I realised that while living by other people's rules is no guarantee of personal happiness, living outside of those rules is no Wonderland either. Happy/normal was going to take a lot of unpacking, and while I was heaving ideas around in my head, I had to deal with the pressing practical question of how to make something like a home in temporary, transient, unlikely and uncomfortable places. It's a predicament that more and more people find themselves in, as life becomes less and less stable. That old fundamental, a happy home, is something we all want, but how do we make it happen? And is it possible to create a happy home, even when you yourself are unhappy? I only know of one way to begin – and it holds for the beautiful apartment, the nasty rented room, the bed-sit, the soulless little flat, the house you find yourself left with when the person you loved has gone, the place you take on because you have to get away, the nowhere-land, the transit zone. I call it private magic.

When I was a child, a hearth rug was a flying carpet. Remembering this, in my borrowed room, I saved up some money from weekend work and bought myself a rug the size of a duster, one that folded into my case as easily as it expanded in my imagination. From then on, wherever I found myself, even in a doorway, I put down my little rug, and I began to feel calm. Better than calm, I imagined myself free. My rug became my comforter. Years later, when I was awkwardly accepting a six-month stay at a rich man's house, I rolled up the Persian carpet in my room, and put down my own threadbare Arabian night. I believe that you have to begin with one single thing that you call your own. Possessions should be objects with which you have a connection. If your life is filled with meaningless objects, you will always be unhappy.

The modern medicine for unhappiness is spending. When people are left to start again – new home, or old home stripped of its past by an abrupt exit – the obvious answer is shopping. I think that is a disaster. If you can tell me a story about every single thing in your house, then you have a home. Anyone can go shopping, but meaning cannot be bought. You can, though, buy something simple and beautiful that you will always love – a cup for your morning coffee, a vase for flowers, a lamp that stands for light in all its meanings.

Private magic is about investing ordinary objects with talismanic power. Children do it all the time, and adults forget to do it at all. I once stayed in a strange castle with the sculptor Antony Gormley. The first thing he did was to turn the portraits of Scottish ancestors, faces to the wall. Then he asked us all to make some quick drawings of our own to pin gently on to the brown paper backs. Next he went outside and hauled in driftwood to lighten and subvert the heavy Gothic furniture. Then he found a dozen eggcups and turned them upside down to act as candleholders. This was another form of private magic – the alchemy that shifts one thing into another. If you are unhappy, or vulnerable, or hurt, or lost, it is still possible to live in or to create a happy home. This isn't sleight of hand, it is magic at its most sympathetic. And because it is magic, what can't be done is a version of the past. The thing has to be new, different, unafraid, even if you, the person making it, are very afraid. Fear is not a problem. Fear of fear is a huge problem. If you walk through your new front door and feel panic like the world is falling in, the first thing to do is to create a space within your new space where you will not take your misery or fear. This can be a room, or as simple as a chair, but when you sit in that chair you can have no negative thoughts, no tears, no rage. The moment you feel anything bad, you get up from the chair. This in itself is instructive – can you feel OK for five minutes? An hour? All evening? For me, the positive space is my study. I work there, I read there, but I don't stress there. If I want to cry or shout at the cat, I go somewhere else. When I had nothing, the safe space was my little rug. I could cry myself to sleep in bed, or sit with my head in my hands at the table, but the rug, as I understand it now, was a place of informal meditation. At the time it was more like a life belt than a flying carpet, but whatever it was, it worked, because once I had named it and claimed it as a safe space, I had to believe that it was so. If you shatter the magic, it's lost – and so are you. Gradually, if you have one safe calm space, the bigger space around you becomes safe and calm too.

It is important to make some rules for yourself about your home and you inside it, and if you live by those rules, they will work for you. This takes thought, planning, self-awareness, courage, and a sense of humour. You don't need a big budget or a TV show that helps you "create your space". Rather, you need a space inside to project on to the space outside. Inner houses, outer houses, as my Jewish friends tell me. Happy/normal. Normal/happy. Home is where the questions are answered well.

My little rug is still with me. It has gradually unravelled as my life has come together. The threads are loose, the loom-work visible, but the colours are still bright and strong. It was probably 100 years old when I bought it, and 30 years have been added since. It hasn't been well-treated, but it has been well-loved. And if I had to grab a bag and run for my life, my little rug would be the one thing I wouldn't leave behind. It is both memory and courage. Part broken, part whole, you begin again.

Jeanette Winterson is the author of 'Sexing the Cherry' and 'Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit', among other novels

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