When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations on Voice

Firstly I have to thank my blog buddy Cassie for recommending this glorious oeuvre to me, her blog review is written with such passion and awe, she even inspired the author Terry Tempest Williams herself, to leave a wonderful appreciative comment.

When she wrote this book, Terry Tempest Williams was fifty four years old, the age her mother was when she finally succumbed to a cancer that first perched threateningly within her breast in her late 30’s, then a young mother of four children.

Raised in a Mormon family and heritage it perhaps should not have been such a great surprise when Terry’s mother informed her that like previous generations of women, she had left her daughter a collection of carefully preserved, beautiful cloth bound journals. A tradition yes, but a legacy, this daughter of words knew nothing of until that revelatory moment.

In Mormon culture, women are expected to do things: keep a journal and bear children. Both gestures are a participatory bow to the past and the future. In telling a story, personal knowledge and continuity are maintained. My mother kept her journals and bore four children: a daughter and three sons. I am her daughter, in love with words.

One month after her mother’s passing, Terry Tempest Williams felt ready to receive their wisdom and sat quietly opening one after the other absorbing their blessed pure message. She opened the journals to discover that the pages were blank. Every. Single. One.

Word by word, the language of women so often begins with a whisper.

I am leaving you all my journals…

Terry Tempest Williams creates an opportunity and uses those pages to reflect on the legacy her mother has left her and fills the pages with fifty four vignettes, fifty four variations on voice. She comes to understand many things about the blank page and the infinite possibilities this offers, the things her mother’s gesture may have meant. She indulges her imagination and shares a flock of realisations:

My Mother’s Journals are an expanding and collapsing universe every time they are opened and closed.

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

My Mother’s Journals are a collection of white handkerchiefs.

My Mother’s Journals are an obsession.

Part way through writing these short chapters, Williams attended a family event, which unhinged something inside. Restless, she came home and wrote a list, a list of the things she had been writing about in these pages and struggled to find a connection. Her list looked like this:

Great Salt Lake                      Mother

Bear River Bird Refuge             Family

Flood                                  Cancer

Division of Wildlife Resources    Mormon Church

Circling both lists, it seemed as if nothing connected them. Until she wrote the letters TTW underneath; then the exercise became apparent. It is she who connects these subjects, it is within her that they reside and it is through her voice on the page that we share an intimate and creative journey, like observing the beauty, the wonder and constantly evolving shape of a murmuration. A privilege to witness.

This is a book to slow read, to re-read and to ponder. This book is in every one of us. Whether we create our list first or mid way through as TTW did.

A Murmuration – click here to see two women and the most amazing flock of birds ever. Spectacular.

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16 thoughts on “When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations on Voice

  1. I heard the story of this book from a friend, and was delighted to run across it here. It takes patience and great listening for blank books to become filled with healing words. I am learning that patience in my own writing life. Thanks for the post, Claire!

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  2. Lovely, lovely review Claire. You have such a way with saying things poignantly and pitch-perfect. I always drag on and on in my reviews, but you say just what I mean in a sentence that says it perfectly. I adore that about you.

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    • Likewise I just adore your reviews written with such abandon and effervescence, all that feeling bubbling away and needing to spread itself on the page/screen and with such bodily metaphor, don’t change a thing, I love how your words are evolving and they are an inspiration to me also 🙂

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  3. Wow this book sounds very deep and thought provoking…an amazing review Claire….looks like I have another one to add to the list! 🙂

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  4. Pingback: Top Reads 2012 | Word by Word

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