Terry Tempest Williams has delivered a testament with "When Women Were Birds." It's a tiny little book; very subtle; very polite; very powerful. This is non-fiction. This is not a memoir yet we travel through her life with her; this is not religious, though we are given a cat's eye view of the Mormon home; this is not a love story, though it overflows with love. This is an edict. This is a decree; a proclamation. Finally, this is a manifesto.
Chapter one begins: "[Mother] was dying in the same way she was living, consciously. `I am leaving you all my journals but you must promise me that you will not look at them until after I am gone.' I gave her my word... A week later she died." There were three shelves of beautiful cloth-bound books. "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 mother's journals were blank." Then there are twelve blank pages before Chapter Two begins.
What does it mean to have a voice?
"In Mormon culture, women are expected to do two things: keep a journal and bear children."
The physics of sound are such that three elements are required to make sound: something must create a vibration which creates a sound wave. The sound wave must then be picked up by a receiver, such as an ear or a recording device. If a tree falls in the woods and there is nothing there to hear it, there will be no sound at all. There are many loud voices in our world but none of them are heard. (All of my Mothers' journals are blank.) "When Women Were Birds" is, in part, a book about a woman's quest to find and define her voice. Ms Williams does this with a whisper. There is no blame; the experienced pain has been weighed, applied as a spiritual lesson and expressed so as to benefit our experience. Alice Parker once said, "To be certain that someone will listen you must sing softly with intensity." This is just her voice, years in the making, using our own history and human experience to suggest the ways in which we can find our own voice.
Where women are concerned, and in Williams' case, a Mormon woman, finding her voice was a quest because her mothers' journals were blank; This was a message, of some kind, directly from her mother to her. All of the fifty-four variations on voice speak of just about any issue. We join Williams in jail, incarcerated but still human. We join her as the victim of a violent crime. Still, we move on. We join her in the choice to break from Orthodoxy by taking birth control, and the pain that this choice would bring. We join her in serious, life threatening illness, the downs within a four decade marriage, the fight against the system and a male dominated board room. All of these elements of life lead to the voice.
What does it mean to have a voice?
Williams writes, `In my remaining days in the Sawtooths I wanted to tell someone, anyone, what had happened. I wanted to speak. I wanted to say how scared I was, how I was almost murdered... and it wasn't my fault, but I didn't believe it. I believed it was my fault. I betrayed my instincts. My body tried to warn me. The owl tried to warn me. But I ignored them all and walked past my intuition. When one woman doesn't speak, other women get hurt."
When one woman doesn't speak, another woman gets hurt. This is something to which we can all connect. Men and women alike, though most of us are intruded upon in regard to sexual abuse, but we all know what it means to stifle our own voice as we weigh the horror of what has occurred with the horror of what talking about it will be; we will relive the trauma and we will place ourselves and our humiliation upon a stage, lit brightly enough so that we will have no shadow and the opinions and voices of anyone who chooses can be sent our way, like a flaming arrow. This is why we battle the age old fear of using our voice in this manner. And Terry Tempest Williams is right: When one woman [or child or man] doesn't speak, another woman [or child or man] gets hurt. Williams takes responsibility for her own actions and does not judge those of us who made the same choice (and statistically that's one out of five of us) though as we think about her choice, we feel a little less alone in our own place. This is possible only because Williams choice, at last, to use her own voice.
What does it mean to have a voice?
It unites us it breaks down the walls between us; it allows us to see inside the world of another culture (it does not have to be the Mormons); it forces us to think about our own voice while respecting the voices of others. But there is no book that will help you understand your voice. You will need to take your own journey. And as a 25 year old you looked ahead at your life: the world was a blank page of possibility (just like her mother's journals) but at 25 we do not realize how quickly that life and that page will fill itself. Whether you are fifteen years old and looking ahead or sixty five and looking back, "When Women Were Birds" is a book that you must read. It's almost an obligation as a member of the race, a member of our country, a member of your gender, a member of your family and a piece of the chain of life that extends from before we know in our past all the way into the future of what is a mystery.
Our voice is important because it's a piece of the mystery that connects us. We are part of a chain of life that seeks to improve the quality of life for those who are in their present. Our voices are our legacy to them. Our obligation to our children, whether we chose to have our own or not: the unknown child who swings in the park on your street is also your child.
It is my prayer that I was able to convey the importance of this book so that you will read it yourself because why take my word for it? Read her words yourself. I choose to use my voice to encourage you to experience an emotional and spiritual journey more important than any of your life. This journey includes the way that her book turn into a flip book where a single bird approaches you then flies away over the two hundred pages; it includes many blank pages throughout for us to fill ourselves. These tools are there to make us stop and slowly ponder. We cannot find our voice or listen to the voice of others when we are moving as fast as our lives make us believe we need to move. We will not find the voice of God in heavy traffic.
James Lapin and Stephen Sondheim opened their musical, "Sunday In The Park With George" with these words and remarkable music, "White. A blank page or canvas. The challenge: bring order to the whole. Through design. Composition. Balance, Light, and harmony." And a Pulitzer Prize winning musical blooms like a flower beneath us.
Williams uses her voice both literally and as a metaphor. I was reminded of an important piece by the quintessential voice, Robert Frost, in his poem, "Choose Something Like a Star." "And steadfast as Keats "Eremite'/ Not even stopping from its sphere / It asks a little of us here / it asks of us a certain height / So when at times the mob is swayed/ to carry praise or blame too far / we may choose something like a star / to stay our minds on / and be staid."
Sometimes the only way to find our voice is to remain perfectly silent and listen to the voice of others: our parents, our grandparents, our children, the wind, the birds, the very voice of God. To do so, one must be very silent, still; /one must be staid. And then one can hear the multitudes of voices and be able to add ours to it. It won't be with trumpets blaring and canons blasting, but rather with a whisper. I would like nothing more than to learn that Terry Tempest Williams' book, "When Women Were Birds" is as big as Stephen King's "Carrie", Dan Brown's "DaVinci Code" or Jacqueline Suzanne's "Valley of The Dolls." This would mean that so many people will have lived the experience that I did. Should that not happen, it was with full sincerity and gratitude that I offer my thanks to Terry Tempest Williams as her book, with its power to change the world, has certainly changed mine.
"In the emptiness of this beloved landscape that has embraced me all my life, I hold my mother's journals as another paradox, journals without words that create a narrative of the imagination. My mother's gift is the Mystery. Each day I begin with the empty page."
Read the book and discover this gift.