A Q&A with Terry Tempest Williams, author of "When Women Were Birds"
Terry Tempest William's mother told her: “I am leaving you all my journals, but you must promise me you won’t look at them until after I’m gone.” "When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice", is Terry's true-life memoir of what she has made of her mother's dying gift to her.
Readers of Williams’ previous memoir, "Refuge", will remember Terry's mother. She was one of a large Mormon clan in northern Utah who developed cancer as a result of the nuclear testing in nearby Nevada. It was a shock to Williams to discover that her mother had kept journals. But not as much of a shock as what she found when the time came to read them.
“They were exactly where she said they would be: three shelves of beautiful cloth-bound books . . . I opened the first journal. It was empty. I opened the second journal. It was empty. I opened the third. It too was empty . . . Shelf after shelf after shelf, all of my mother’s journals were blank.” What did Williams’ mother mean by that? In fifty-four chapters that unfold like a series of yoga poses, each with its own logic and beauty, Williams creates a lyrical and caring meditation of the mystery of her mother's journals. "When Women Were Birds" is a kaleidoscope that keeps turning around the question “What does it mean to have a voice?” Terry shared some of her insights on the writing of this memoir in her Q&A with EMC below.
1. This book is such a love letter to your mother. You two were enviably close and were such inspirations to one another. I took pages of notes as I read "When Women Were Birds." One particular line that stood out early on was, "My mother's voice is a lullaby in my cells. When I am still, my body feels her breathing." What a beautiful thought and I hope that our children feel that as well. Another one that touched me deeply, and that I could really relate to from the experience of losing my father, was when you wrote, "her absence is her presence" following the death of your mother. You then describe your mother's journals as the power of absence AND the power of presence. Can you explain what you meant by that?
TTW: Each of us has lost someone close to us. We have felt that physical pain within our hearts when we are broken open by death. Death is part of life. I wish someone had told me change is what we can count on, not happiness. But within loss, there is growth and transformation. Grief dares us to love once more. And what I have come to appreciate is that our relationships with our dead continue. Their absence does become their presence. We remember them, they permeate our thoughts, their words come back to us. Memories become a homecoming, the landscape where we see them, feel them, and engage with their ongoing influence.
Before my mother died, she told me that she was leaving me her journals, but that I must promise her I would not open them until after she was gone. I gave her my word. A week later she died. A month later, I found myself in the family house alone. Her absence was her presence and I missed her terribly. I thought, “Now, now is the right time to read my mother’s journals.” They were exactly where she said they would be, three shelves of beautifully bound cloth journals. Each one unique, some floral, some paisley, some in solid colors. I opened the first journal, it was empty. I opened the second journal, it was empty. I opened the third journal, it too was empty, as was the fourth, the fifth, the sixth. Shelf after shelf after shelf, all of my mother’s journals were blank.
“When Women Were Birds” is an exploration of what my mother bequeathed to me.
What did she mean by this very conscious act? Did she mean for me to fill them or were they an act of defiance? My mother left me a beautiful mystery. This book is a inquiry into this mystery.
Helene Cixous writes, “We must learn to speak the language women speak when there is no one there to correct us.” “When Women Were Birds” is an honest meditation, an autobiography of how I have come to my own voice through the voices of my mother, my grandmothers, and the women who have inspired me.
My Mother’s Journals are a generosity. My Mother’s Journals are a cruelty.
My Mother’s Journals tell me nothing. My Mother’s Journals tell me everything.
My Mother’s Journals are a celebration of the empty page waiting to be written.
2. This past Mother's Day, Every Mother Counts tried something different with our No Mothers Day campaign film. The idea was that on the one day when people think of mothers the most, we could honor them and those moms who are no longer with us in an act of solidarity by going silent. In doing so, our thought was that our collective silence would speak the loudest for all mothers. It was difficult to explain the potential effect of the power of silence to some who accused us of boycotting the holiday, which was frustrating. You write, "When silence is a choice, it is an unnerving presence. When silence is imposed, it is censorship." This is an important distinction. When you write or speak about the power of finding your voice, how do you then advise others HOW to use it, or how NOT to use it with power?
TTW: It’s such a good question. When I was writing “When Women Were Birds” I thought I was writing a book about voice: how we find it, keep it, use it. I realize now, I have also written a book about silence. My mother left me her journals and all her journals were blank. They are a testament to the power of silence and voice. They are filled with what my mother could not say, what she was afraid to say, and perhaps, what she wanted to say. I believe she wanted them read – how do I read them now?
In so many ways, my mother’s journals are a Buddhist koan, a question that can never be fully answered, only turned from one angle to another like a beautiful kaleidoscope held up to the light.
Silence is power: the power to hold an intention and the power to withhold. Both acts have consequences for women if done consciously. You give a great example, Christy, through Every Mother Counts’ decision to use silence as an act of resistance, insistence that we honor our mothers not commercially but privately and collectively, as a community to contemplate what they said and what they were not able to say. This kind of action becomes a form of civil disobedience. We choose not to spend money on Mother’s Day but to spend our spiritual capital in the form of a loving memory. Mother’s Day is not simply a holiday but a hallowed day. This is both a courageous act and a fresh form that honors the women in our lives respectfully, soulfully, while defying the expected behavior of engaging in commerce that too often exploits women instead of truly considering their value. The gift of silence is the gift of reflection.
We fear silence. We fear silence because it asks us to listen and when we listen, we are drawn into a deeper place of consideration, not always a place of comfort. But, like the sustaining silence of the desert, if we stay with it and truly inhabit that place of stillness, it can be a source of tremendous creativity and spiritual strength. Grace is the word that comes to mind.
But to be silenced is another kind of power, the power associated with abuse and control. When we are told to be quiet, to keep mute, to hold our tongue, we must ask ourselves who benefits from this kind of silence? And what are we afraid of?
We live in a noisy world. Distraction is the enemy of silence. We can continue to run away, avoid, and discount what is gnawing at our bones. Or we can stop, slow down and listen. We can embrace the fullness of silence, outside and in, that gives birth to our authentic voice.
I think about Thoreau’s statement, “In wildness is the preservation of the world.”
Inherent in wildness is silence.
3. It’s been twenty-five years since your mother's death. When do you feel her presence the most now?
TTW: I feel my mother’s presence when I am present with another human being. This was her great gift, her capacity to listen to another with her full attention. I see my mother’s presence in my nieces, her granddaughter’s that resemble her physically and carry her strength: Diane Kathryn Tempest is named after my mother and grandmother. And I think of my mother often in small ways that loom large on any given day: picking up a wooden spoon she cooked with; the day Elizabeth Taylor died because my mother adored her and shared her birth date; whenever I am hiking in the Tetons or sitting on a beach watching waves; when she appears blessedly in my dreams. My mother inhabits my heart. Her wicked humor also prompts and inspires my own. She was a great Trickster. When my father turned forty, she wrapped all his presents in black. She applauded sunsets. I miss her sense of theater. I find her presence in my own passions. I also sense her presence within my own secrets, knowing she must have had them too, and I long for another conversation.
4. I love when you write that the only things you have done religiously are keeping a journal and using birth control. Clearly the birth control was a kind of rebellion given your Mormon upbringing and the expectation to follow the norm to procreate. But, you also say that journal writing is a Mormon practice yet you held on to that one, why?
TTW: Keeping a journal is keeping my own counsel. It is where I explore the truth of my life. It is my sketchbook, my way of interacting with the world on the page. I don’t know what I think until I write it down. My journal is my place of meditation, the honest rendering of my mind. A practice.
5. What did you mean when you wrote, "If only mother had known I was her sister instead of her daughter?" It seemed to me that she did. Can you finish that thought?
TTW: If only mother had known I was her sister instead of her daughter, she may not have felt so alone in the world. Each time a woman speaks or writes from the center of her being, she betrays someone and places herself at risk and stands alone. Conversely, each time a woman chooses not to speak or write what is in her heart, she betrays herself and the power of her own voice. Courage is walking beyond our individual fears toward the understanding that what is most personal is most general and most necessary to be voiced.
The poet Muriel Rukeyser wrote, “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.”
So perhaps this is an answer to your question: “If only mother had known I was her sister instead of her daughter, we could have shared more deeply and our world would have split open.”
6. The way you describe your relationship to your adopted son Louis is beautiful and insightful. "I am not Louis's mother, but I have become a mother. Which is an unspoken agreement to be forever vulnerable." What is it that makes mothers so vulnerable?
For more info on Terry Tempest Williams, visit here.
Photo by Marion Ettlinger
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