It’s always strange when the topic of one book I read leads right into the next. Jeanette Winterson’s novel, Sexing the Cherry surprised me in many ways. To begin with, I never got around to reading the back cover, so on the basis of the title I expected an erotic romp rather than a one-sentence reference to gardening terminology.
Then the book begins with a gruesome female giant and a boy she finds in the Thames set in 17th Century England – my least favorite time period. I cringed. Six pages in I wanted to toss the book in the giveaway pile because I struggled to connect with the voice of the giant. But then Winterson’s magical gift overtook me, and I was lost in a beautiful and poetic story.
The giant suffers abuse by the Puritans, and witnesses the execution of the King. “The Puritans who wanted a rule of saints on earth and no king but Jesus, forgot that we are born into flesh and in flesh must remain (Winterson, 70).” She goes on a murdering spree – the best method of attack being in a brothel where the Puritans purge their fetishes in secret.
“I have met a great many Pilgrims on their way towards God and I wonder why they have chosen to look for him rather than themselves… if the other life, the secret life, could be found and brought home, then a person might live in peace and have no need for God. After all, He has no need for us, being complete (Winterson, 116).”
The boy Jordan loves the giant, though as he grows realizes it’s not right to feel so tiny next to your mother. He dreams of becoming a hero, and eventually sails to exotic places, both in the world and in his mind – beyond time, place, existence. He finds more mysteries than answers.
“The inward life tells us that we are multiple not single, and that our one existence is really countless existences holding hands like those cut-out paper dolls, but unlike the dolls never coming to an end. When we say, ‘I have been here before,’ perhaps we mean, ‘I am here now,’ but in another life, another time, doing something else. Our lives could be stacked together like plates on a waiter’s hand. Only the top one is showing, but the rest are there and by mistake we discover them (Winterson, 100).”
I once had a professor who always said, “We lead one life, but we have many lives within it.” This is very true of Jeanette Winterson. She was adopted and grew up near Manchester, England. Her parents were working class and Pentecostal. They intended her for the missionary field and by age six, she was evangelizing and writing sermons. At sixteen she realized she was a lesbian and left home. Her mother told her, “Why be happy when you could be normal?” She took several odd jobs and eventually supported herself through an English degree at Oxford. Her first book Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit came out in 1985 and since then she has had a very successful literary career.
Winterson’s novel, Sexing the Cherry reminds us that we are all explorers of existence. It is in the distance between who we are now and who we will be by the end of our lives. Catching up to a mind and body filled with the knowledge of experience - aware that we are finite in the layers of the earth – but connected to all things in consciousness.
A friend once told me that I give her the creeps because I’m like a ghost from the 1920’s. It might have helped that at the time we were working in a Circus tent that was one hundred years old. But she was right. I have always felt more akin to a life lived in 1920’s Paris - busting at the seams with artists and writers. I keep searching to find that place wherever I go.
It’s like the feeling you get when you listen to a song that was written before you were born. You are certain you were there. You feel everything that was felt at that exact moment of time. Nostalgia overwhelms you. You almost want to go back, but were you ever there to begin with? Is it a common shared memory passed down - or do we live through other lives?
And what has really changed between the 17th century and the present? Our needs are the same - food, shelter, companionship, sex, and the need to record and understand the human experience. All that has changed is the scenery.
Everyday at my writing table I have the gift of an amazing view of Seattle. Buildings stretch out from downtown past Lake Union. The space needle looms to the right and the Puget Sound and Olympic Mountains stand behind it. I watch hundreds of cars passing everyday. And all day long people walk up and down the bridge. I see the same people over and over, but most I’ve never seen before. They are walking the dog, buying the groceries, going to work or the gym.
One old man never has a destination. He is Native American and mentally ill. He walks in circles everyday, wearing the same clothes and the same cane, yelling obscenities to keep people away. He lets life happen to him. He finds interesting things left by those who leave the past behind.
Perhaps I love the city for its endless layers. The energy is invigorating. People keep circulating within hundreds of overlapping stories. Their footsteps mark the passage of time.
the view from my window