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When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations on Voice

by

When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations on Voice Cover

ISBN13: 9780374288976
ISBN10: 0374288976
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Excerpt

I

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, Mothers 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 didnt 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 fl oral, 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 after shelf, all my mothers journals were blank.

 

 

II

 

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.

 

My Mothers Journals are paper tombstones.

 

I am fifty- four years old, the age my mother was when she died. Th e questions I hold now could not have been comprehended when I was a woman in my twenties. I didnt realize how young she was, but isnt that the conceit of mothers—that we conceal our youth and exist only for our children? It is the province of mothers to preserve the myth that we are unburdened with our own problems. Placed in a circle of immunity, we carry only the crises of those we love. We mask our needs as the needs of others. If ever there was a story without a shadow, it would be this: that we as women exist in direct sunlight only.

 

When women were birds, we knew otherwise. We knew our greatest freedom was in taking flight at night, when we could steal the heavenly darkness for ourselves, navigating through the intelligence of stars and the constellations of our own making in the delight and terror of our uncertainty.

 

What my mother wanted to do and what she was able to do remains her secret.

 

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.

 

I was aware of the silences within my mother. They were her places of strength, inviolable. Tillie Olsen studied such silence. She writes,

 

Literary history and the present are dark with silences . . . I have had special need to learn all I could of this over the years, myself so nearly remaining mute and having to let writing die over and over again in me. These are not natural silences— what Keats called agonie ennuyeuse (the tedious agony)—that necessary time for renewal, lying fallow, gestation, in the natural cycle of creation. The silences I speak of here are unnatural: the unnatural thwarting of what struggles to come into being, but cannot.

 

We hold these silences as a personal crucifix.

 

What is voice?

 

I will say it is so: The first voice I heard belonged to my mother. It was her voice I listened to from the womb; from the moment my head emerged into this world; from the moment I was pushed out then placed on her belly before the umbilicus was cut; from the moment when she cradled me in her arms. My mother spoke to me: “Hello, little one. You are here, I am here.”

 

I will say it is so: My mothers voice is a lullaby in my cells. When I am still, my body feels her breathing.

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KEB, January 1, 2013 (view all comments by KEB)
Terry Tempest Williams compassionately and unflinchingly examines her relationship with her mother through contemplations on her mother's journals. The shelves of journals that her mother left to her were all blank. Each of the 54 short chapters is a variation on voice -- and also the age of her mother when she died. Beautifully written.
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Neil Reid, January 1, 2013 (view all comments by Neil Reid)
What voice do you speak into an empty space? What voice do you hear? These are not shallow questions. You'll here discover the meaning both literal and figurative about blank pages in a book. Never have I seen, nor read, blank pages with so much meaning as here begins this quest of a book by Terry Tempest Williams. You want to touch them with your fingertips, sense the possibilities, the strength of words unwritten, the power of imagination implied. This was in part the legacy left to her by a mother now passed away, yet whose imprint is unmistakable in the spirit of relationship, mother to daughter. Here traced and burrowed and poetically ladled is Ms. Williams journey to answer that question. She thought she knew what to expect, yet now finds that path requires rediscovery. Ultimately coming to the question, what living voice of hers is there to speak into this same seeming emptiness? Here is a sky filled with wings!
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Kelly Portland, October 16, 2012 (view all comments by Kelly Portland)
Every time I read a Terry Tempest Williams book I slow down, listen to her voice resonating from the page. It is a warm and resolute voice. Words matter, the world matters. And if words matter, how will she find meaning in the blank pages of her mother’s journals? (Read the book!) I was moved by her search. It is personal, but connected to so many women’s stories. WHEN WOMEN WERE BIRDS is a meaningful exploration, a celebration.
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Product Details

ISBN:
9780374288976
Subtitle:
Fifty-four Variations on Voice
Author:
Williams, Terry Tempest
Author:
Williams, Terry Tempest
Publisher:
Picador
Subject:
Women
Subject:
Biography-Women
Copyright:
Edition Description:
Trade Paper with Flaps
Publication Date:
20130305
Binding:
Electronic book text in proprietary or open standard format
Language:
English
Illustrations:
3 Black-and-White Illustrations
Pages:
256
Dimensions:
7.875 x 5.5 in

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When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations on Voice Used Hardcover
0 stars - 0 reviews
$23.00 In Stock
Product details 256 pages Farrar Straus Giroux - English 9780374288976 Reviews:
"Publishers Weekly Review" by , "Williams, the sensitive author of Refuge, is shocked to discover her deceased mother's unwritten memoirs — shelves worth of blank pages. Under such unpromising circumstances commences a kaleidoscopic celebration and palimpsest — all metaphorical cliches but apt — on finding a voice and woman's identity beyond the silenced, selfless existence informed by children and a husband — even a family brimming with love. The empty pages of a journal manifest a hermeneutics of suspicion: the white upon which to project a lifelong journey of self-discovery. In 54 meditations (one for each year of her mother's life, and of Williams's life to date), we learn about an unusual (patriarchal) Mormon background and an upbringing that included a season of homeschooling in Hawaii, encounters with a husband-and-wife team of John Bircher's while teaching high school biology , a job at the Museum of Natural History in New York City, and the meeting of her future mate over a discussion of books and birds. Among deep influences are Nobel Peace Prize-winner and environmentalist Wangari Maathai; Helene Cixous; Clarice Lispector; the secret-women's language of China...and the soaring operas of Richard Strauss. 'If a man knew what a woman never forgets, he would love her differently,' Williams declares in her bighearted, deliberative hymn: old themes newly warbled. Agent: Carl Brandt, Brandt & Hochman Literary Agents." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
"Review" by , "The writing of Terry Tempest Williams is brilliant, meditative, and full of surprises, wisdom, and wonder. She's one of those writers who changes people's lives by encouraging attention and a slow, patient awakening."
"Review" by , "Much more than a brave and luminous memoir, When Women Were Birds is a set of blueprints for building one of Americas most impassioned and audacious writers, as well as a transcript of the moment when she stepped determinedly into the full power of her own voice. In Terry's magical equation, rage + confusion + grief + accountability = love. At some point I realized I was reading every page twice trying to memorize each insight, each bit of hard-won wisdom. Then I realized I could keep it on my bedside table and read it every night."
"Review" by , "Somehow, miraculously, Terry Tempest Williams has done it again: written a book that no one else could have, that tells the truth about our lives. If you want to understand how a writer finds her voice, read this gorgeous book."
"Review" by , "When Women Were Birds is a wise and beautiful and intelligent book, written for the women, men, and children of our times. It vibrates with the earned honesty of a great soul. It is a gift, passed on to readers with the same spirit of love and generosity with which it was first given to the author by her mother. A remarkable journey, a remarkable story."
"Review" by , "Williams narrates stories that range wide and run deep...Here, readers get a Terry Tempest Williams who is at the top of her game, the master of her craft...a gift from a writer who knows how to split the world open.
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