Author Terry Tempest Williams discovers the gift of mystery in her mother’s journals
A blank page can be a daunting prospect to begin with. But what if that’s all there is left in the end? On her deathbed, Terry Tempest Williams’ mother bequeathed all of her journals to her only daughter, with the caveat that she wouldn’t look at them until after she was gone. She told the then-30-year-old author, naturalist, and conservationist where to find the clothbound books. A week later, she died.
Since her mother was a private woman, Williams remembers saying to herself, “Finally I will be able to know what she was thinking, what she was feeling—and I’ll have this with me all of my life.”
Still, she waited until the next full moon, a month after her mother had passed, before she went to the bookshelves lined with journals.
Twenty-four years later, Williams writes an account of that night: “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.”
Though she describes the white pages of her mother’s journals as a “second death,” in pondering this emptiness over the subsequent decades she comes to realize that her mother has given her a gift. The results of this gift can be seen in Williams’ latest book, “When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice.”
In this poignant series of meditations, Williams delves into what it means to have a voice—and the difference between the power of silence versus the disempowerment of being silenced.
Williams will read excerpts from “When Women Were Birds” at Capitola Book Café on Monday, May 7 at 7:30 p.m. After the reading, she will answer questions from the audience and sign copies of the book.
“This is a book about voice—how we find it, use it, take care of it, lose it, regain it,” says Williams, speaking over the telephone from New Hampshire. “I think for every woman, our lives are a dance with voice: our struggle with voice, how we come to express the truth of our lives. I feel that this is the book I was meant to write because it’s about how we find our own power, each in our own way, each in our own time, with the gifts that are ours.”
When Williams set out to write her 14th book at the age of 54—the same age her mother was when she died—she didn’t originally intend to ruminate on her mother’s journals.
“I was thinking about writing a book about the books that had influenced me, the books that have allowed me to have a voice in the world,” she explains. “And what I remembered was the books that had the biggest impact were my mother’s journals that were blank.”
So the author began to examine these blank pages from a variety of perspectives: the poetic, the political, the spiritual, the mundane. She explores how she found her own voice through writing, as well as through the words of her mother and grandmother. She considers how sometimes silence can be a form of protection, while at other times it can put us in danger. She compares the blank pages of her mother to Robert Rauschenberg’s “White Paintings” and John Cage’s silent concerto.
“In so many ways [my mother] gave me the most powerful gift of all—and that’s the power of mystery,” she says. “And for 25 years I’ve pondered what she meant. I think ‘When Women Were Birds’ is a kaleidoscope that keeps turning the glass to see different shapes, different configurations, different possibilities of what she was trying to say to me.”
Williams writes: “My Mother’s Journals are a koan. My Mother’s Journals are a meditation. My Mother’s Journals are a stand of lotus blossoms, unfolding.”
Were her mother’s journals a symbol of power she felt in her silence, or a symbol of the disempowerment she felt by being silenced throughout her life?
In answer to this question, Williams says, “I think they represent both. I think my mother held silence very powerfully, and I also think she felt she was silenced. I also think her journals represent what she was trying to protect—both her own privacy as well as the people she loved. So it’s the complexity, isn’t it, of that word: silence.”
Terry Tempest Williams will read from “When Women Were Birds,” answer questions and sign copies at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, May 7 at Capitola Book Café, 1475 41st Ave., Capitola. For more information, call 462-4415. Photo: Marion Ettlinger