Wednesday, August 1, 2012

When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations on Voice, by Terry Tempest Williams

When Terry Tempest Williams was in her late 20s, her mother died, leaving Terry her journals. A month later, Terry began exploring the journals,only to find that they all--shelf after shelf--were blank. "The blow of her blank journals," says Williams, "became a second death."

Twenty-five years later, when Williams had reached the age at which her mother died, she returned to the mystery of the diaries to create this meditation on women and voice. (I heard her talk at the Tattered Cover last month, and she said that she really didn't think about the journals during the intervening years--but I believe the thought of them must have been marinating somewhere in her subconscious.) In a series of 54 chapters of varying lengths, she deals with wide-ranging topics. The connection with voice is obvious in some--John Cage's silent composition and Robert Rauschenberg's all-white paintings, her efforts to save Utah wilderness,  an encounter with a possibly murderous madman about which she told no one, taking part in civil disobedience at the Nevada Test Site, teaching at a very conservative school, contraception.  For me, other connections were more difficult to make--although, even while confused, I appreciated Williams beautiful writing. For example, in recounting a story of being cut by a peregrine falcon's wing, Williams says "I am marked, scarred, my skin engraved by a feather. Death's cry comes through a ventriloquist, whose lips you never see move until they are howling with laughter." What does she mean? I don't know, yet I savor  how she says. And, looking for the chapters that didn't seem to fit as I was reading, I now can't find them--somehow everything has fallen into place in a powerful exploration of women's voices.

Throughout the chapters, Williams intersperses statements about the journals:

My Mother's Journals are a gesture and a vow.

My Mother's Journals are a "harmony of silence." 

My Mother's Journals are an act of defiance.

My Mother's Journals are an act of modesty.

By the end of the book, she concludes that the mystery of the journals is a gift her mother has given her--they are a "paradox, journals without words that create a narrative of the imagination."

Favorite passages: 
We all have our secrets. I hold mine. To withhold words is power. But to share our words with others, openly and honestly, is also power.

Conversation is the vehicle for change. We test our ideas. We hear our own voice in concert with another. And inside those pauses of listening, we approach new territories of thought. A good argument, call it a discussion, frees us.

My task as a teacher was to honor the integrity of fact while at the smae time igniting the students' imagination. To create an atmosphere where each child felt free to explore their own questions without fear of being reprimanded was my greatest pleasure.

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