23 April 2013

When Women Were Birds

When Women Were Birds - Fifty Four Variations on Voice
I am fifty-four years old, the age my mother was when she died. This is what I remember: we were lying on her bed with a mohair blanket covering us. I was rubbing her back, feeling each vertebra with my fingers as a rung on a ladder. It was January, and the ruthless clamp of cold bore down on us outside.  Yet inside, Mother’s tenderness and clarity of mind carried its own warmth. She was dying in the same way she was living, consciously.
“I am leaving you all my journals,” she said, facing the shuttered window as I continued rubbing her back. “But you must promise me that you will not look at them until after I am gone.”

I gave her my word. And then she told me where they were. I didn’t know my mother kept journals.

A week later she died. That night, there was a full moon encircled by ice crystals.

On the next full moon I found myself alone in the family home. I kept expecting Mother to appear. Her absence became her presence. It was the right time to read her journals. They were exactly where she said they would be: three shelves of beautiful clothbound books; some floral, some paisley, others in solid colors. The spines of each were perfectly aligned against the lip of the shelves. I opened the first journal. It was empty. I opened the second journal. It was empty. I opened the third. It, too, was empty, as was the fourth, the fifth, the sixth—shelf after shelf, all my mother’s journals were blank.

The next 6 pages of the book are blank... as if to instill in the reader the sense of panicked emptiness she faced as she turned the pages of one untenanted journal after another. 

With this startling beginning, Terry Tempest Williams brings readers on a remarkable, magical, thought-provoking, soul bearing quest.  Her book is set down in small pieces: Fifty Four Variations on Voice.  It is a number that corresponds with her age at the time of her mother's death. Coincidence?

While the chapters are no more than a few pages long, their brevity is misleading and I found myself reading these close-packed morsels over and over, wanting to savor each word and let the impact of what she was saying soak into my mind and heart, finding different meanings with each reading.  As she guides us (and seemingly herself) along on her journey, it becomes apparent that her mother's empty journals put her on the path to finding her own voice. 

I do not know why my mother bought journal after journal, year after year, and never wrote in one of them and passed them on to me.
I will never know.
The blow of her blank journals became a second death. 

Williams is a marvelous storyteller, setting down recollections of her childhood in an unsentimental but entirely evocative manner. Each ‘chapter’—both the long and the short—ends similarly: with a reflection on what her mother’s journals meant, what they symbolize, what they didn’t mean. Tempest’s conclusions shift, dance-like, as the book progresses...  deeper  and more pointed here, sympathetic and illuminated there.... each one reflecting her own growth in the multitudinous ways she comes to interpret her mother’s blank pages. She speaks eloquently of silence, of space, of what is needed to find one's voice, and how important it is to recognize and then fulfill the need to write down what we think and feel.  

When I opened my mother’s journals and read emptiness, it translated to longing, that same hunger and thirst Mother translated to me. I will rewrite this story, create my own story on the pages of my mother’s journals. 

If I had the money I would buy this book for every woman I know... my mother, my child, my friends, my aunts. There is not one woman who would not be moved, and changed, by this treatise on what it means to discover, develop, and use one’s voice.


  1. What a stunning few passages these are. I just read them out loud to my husband. Pretty powerful stuff. We will be finding the book. It's enough that you set us the path. Thank you. I'm sure I will be passing a few copies on myself. Oh what times we live. I trust your family in Boston has weathered on through the trouble. Especially your grandchildren. It's been such a troubling past year. I want spring to settle in, and I want to do a little forgetting. Hope you're doing well, dear.

  2. A lovely post - you completely drew me in with the words - I will be looking out for the book.

  3. Thank you, Jacqueline. Mercifully, everyone in Boston that I know and care about is fine, although the heart breaks for those families who cannot say the same. Spring has finally arrived here and each day is lovelier than the last, and it certainly is a pleasant distraction for all that's going on in the world. I think you will enjoy the book! It's in paperback so isn't that costly. Take care and enjoy the beautiful time of year!

  4. Thanks so much for stopping by, HumphreyCumfy, and for your kind message. I hope you get a chance to read the book. All the best to you.