A New Year.. A New Look… and a slightly different mission. A year ago, the three of us decided that we wanted to start the blog because none of us was writing consistently. So, we’ve blogged for a year, and then, this January, we decided we needed a new challenge. So, at least for a few months, our writings will have more focus than the ones from the last year which ranged from educational concerns, to deadlines, to birds in Florida, to pasta recipes and broken toes. It was all fun, but we think we need more direction. We have decided to change the blog look, and we have decided that we will each blog about something we are currently reading or something we have read that has stuck with us. … So that said… Here goes.
I love Christmases when I get books, and this Christmas was no different. Among my presents this year is a book on the evolution of language, Salmon Rushdie’s memoir about being in hiding, Junot Diaz’ short stories and Terry Tempest Williams new book When Women Were Birds; Fifty-four Meditations on Voice. I loved Williams’ beautiful memoir, Refuge, in which she connects her mother’s death from cancer to the rising levels of the Great Salt Lake which were destroying a beloved bird sanctuary. For me, Refuge ranks among the great environmental literature along with Walden and A Sand County Almanac. It is intensely personal, but I have long contended that all art must be personal. It is the filtering of experience through an individual psyche and individual heart.
Now, in When Women Were Birds, Williams, in some ways, picks up where Refuge leaves off. Before Williams’ mother died, she told her daughter that Williams could have her mother’s journals when her mother died. After her mother’s death, Terry Tempest Williams discovered that her mother had shelves of notebooks. When Williams opened them, she discovered that each notebook was blank. She was, naturally, surprised and deeply disappointed, but that surprise and disappointment led her to speculate about why her mother would buy notebooks and not write in them. She begins to see her mother as a person with many dimensions, a person who had both an intensely personal life and a beautiful public one.
This gives Williams a chance to imagine what her mother might have said. It gives her a chance to write about keeping silent. It gives her a chance to meditate on the idea of what it means to speak as a woman, as an activist, as a Mormon, as a wife and as a writer.
I could not put this book down. Williams writes, as the subtitle says Fifty-four Meditations on Voice, one for each year of her mother’s life. Birds flutter through this beautiful book, not just in the words, (although they are there, a painted bunting, a raven, an owl among others) but also literally on the pages. As one riffles the pages of the book, a small dark bird that appears on the right hand edge of every page, opens its wings and flies, the way action happens in old “flip” books. It is a lovely and subtle touch.
I have read this book once, and already it is dog-eared and underlined. On page181, I underlined these sentences. “Shadow and light are the children who bring us to our knees. Even so, prayer can be short.” I am not sure I know exactly what they mean, but I do know that I caught my breath when I read them. I felt, suddenly , like I was in an autumn aspen grove, surrounded by golden light and deep blue shadow. Who wouldn’t be brought to her knees by that beauty?