When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice

Guest post by Terry Tempest Williams, who will be reading in Bellingham on June 21 as part of our “Nature of Writing” series with Village Books. More info at www.ncascades.org/events.

“I thought I was writing a book about voice. I thought I would proclaim as a woman that we must speak the truth of our lives at all costs.”
— Terry Tempest Williams in When Women Were Birds

On her deathbed, Terry Tempest Williams’s mother told her, “I am leaving you my journals. But you must promise me that you will not look at them until after I am gone.” Weeks later when Williams went to read them, longing to hear her mother’s voice again, she found each one was blank—three shelves of blank journals. Throughout When Women Were Birds, Williams meditates on why her mother might have left the journals unfilled. What did that signify to her mother? What was her mother telling her?


In the arid foothills of the Wasatch Mountains, the Milky Way arched over us. It was the nightly path our eyes crossed before we went to sleep. This was my personal universe, with its own inherent truths. Truth, for me, was based on what I could see and hear, touch and taste, more trust­worthy than any religious doctrine. Indoor religion bored me; outdoor religion did not. Rufous-sided towhees scratched in the understory of last year’s leaves; lazuli buntings were tur­quoise exclamation marks singing in a canopy of green; and blue-gray gnatcatchers became commas in an ongoing nar­rative of wild nature. My inspiration was winged. Magpies, evening grosbeaks, and scrub jays were family. Turkey vul­tures soared overhead, casting unexpected shadow s during summer heat. Rattlesnakes were our complication to a life lived outside. We heard them first; saw them second, coiled; and before we counted to three, we ran. Clouds became our focal point for change.
The minute school ended, our game of “Capture” began. It was our form of Treasure Island in the mountains. Chil­dren in the neighborhood begin building and rebuilding last year’s tree houses in the scrub oak.
I cannot tell you what the point of this ongoing game was, only that it consumed us from the moment we awoke until dinnertime. We spied on one another, girls against boys, from the vantage point of trees. The sweet pleasure of imag­ining I was someone else living somewhere else was enough to capture me for an entire summer.
We made up our own language. We drew maps. We bur­ied them. We created a community with our own currency from found pieces of glass. Green and brow n shards were common. Lavender was sought after, blue glass was rare, but red was the gleam you looked for beneath the hot desert sun shining through the understory of sage.
One day, however, as I was sitting in our tree house, I spotted a white bird perched directly above me. It was unlike anything I had ever seen. I went into the house to call my grandmother, still watching the ghost bird through the glass sliding doors that faced the trees. I explained the size and shape of this mysterious bird to be that of a robin, only with­out a brown back, black head, and red breast. She listened carefully. We both had our bird books in hand. “Perhaps it is an albino,” she said. “A bird without pigmentation, even its eyes without color.” That very word, albino, was a revelation to me. She might as well have said of the spirit world.
It was indeed a robin, the most common of birds, free of its prescribed dressings, white with red eyes. I was inspired and called her “the Holy Ghost.”
When I reported this finding to our local Audubon chap­ter as an eight-year-old bird-watcher, the president said that because of m y age, he could not legitimately count it as “a credible sighting.”
My grandmother simply shook her head and said, “You know what you saw. The bird doesn’t need to be counted, and neither do you.”


What needs to be counted on to have a voice? Courage. Anger. Love. Something to say; someone to speak to; someone to listen. I have talked to myself for years in the privacy of my journals. The only things I’ve done reli­giously are keep a journal and use birth control. My first jour­nal had a lock and key. It was a diary made of light blue leather embossed with a gold border. My thoughts and secrets were safe from my brothers. It was a gift from my great-grandfather Lawrence Blackett, Mimi’s father, to commemorate my eighth birthday and baptism into the Mormon church.
A diary differs from a journal in expectations. A diary asks for a daily entry. This I could not do. Almost immediately I transformed my diary into a journal, where I could write in its pages at will. I still recall one entry in particular because it was written in code:
Decisions . . .
Decisions . . .
Decisions . . .
We finally made it to Jackson Hole.

It conveyed a descending sense of disappointment, and then resolution. The reason I can retrieve this passage almost five decades later is because of the dilemma it posed. Do I tell the truth on the page or disguise my feelings in words that will be understood only by me? This required skillful­ness. I would protect myself and those I loved, giving noth­ing away. I didn’t want to criticize my father.
I didn’t want to whine (forbidden in our family). But I needed to define my frustration. I called on style, symbols, and shorthand. I learned early how to cover myself as a writer should the lock be picked and my words read.
What I wanted to say was that in our family, work came first. We never knew one minute to the next whether we would ever go on vacation until we were actually in the car. Uncertainty was certain. Everything depended on the state of the Tempest Company, a family-run pipeline business. If Dad was needed, we stayed home. When he was free, we were on the road. Tense negotiations between our parents often surfaced beyond their bedroom. Would Mother drive us up alone? Would Dad come up later? Or would they drive up together the next day, with my brothers and me traveling earlier with our aunt and uncle and cousins?
I was frustrated. We had been waiting all day. Finally a decision was made. Yes, we would be going to the Tetons. I had a record of my complaint.
“What’s in those diaries then?”
“They aren’t diaries.”
“Whatever they are.”
“Chaos, that’s the point.”
—Doris Lessing,
        The Golden Notebook
Mormon women write. This is what we do, we write for posterity, noting the daily happenings of our lives. Keeping a journal is keeping a record. And I have hundreds of them, hundreds of journals filled with feathers, flowers, photo­graphs, and words. Without locks ,open on my shelves. I have more journals still with field notes from the Arctic to Africa, to days spent at the Prado, to time shared among prairie dogs. Day books with calendars, shopping lists, and account­ing figures are strewn across our home. I cannot think with­out a pen in hand. If I don’t write it down, it doesn’t exist.
Mother knew this about me. She also knew and more than understood the Mormon promptings to become a scribe. In our possession, passed down from mother to daughter, we have many journals written in the most elegant script b your forebearers, especially women who practiced polygamy. I take personal pride in a journal entry made by my great-great­-grandmother, who chastises her husband for taking a third wife who was “a pretty but sickly little thing, unfit to lift a hoe in the fields or bring in a bushel of sugar beets, adding to my burden of household chores . . . one can only speculate why she was brought home in the first place.
Mother was a private woman. She would often say, “I don’t like people knowing my thoughts.” She was a Coyote, a trickster, a woman deflecting an interest in her to an interest in others. In my mother’s presence, you were heard. And she always left knowing a lot more about you than you knew about her. She preferred it that way. She was warm and gra­cious in public, but she was a master at maintaining her pri­vacy. Intimacy was on her terms.
When Mother did share, and she shared deeply with those closest to her, her eyes were penetrating. “What do you think?” she would ask. It makes sense that what she be­queathed to me was a mystery.
My Mother’s Journals are an act of defiance.
My Mother’s Journals are an act of aggression.
My Mother’s Journals are an act of modesty.
To be read. To be heard. To be seen. I want to be read, I want to be heard. I don’t need to be seen. To write requires an ego, a belief that what you say matters. Writing also requires an aching curiosity leading you to discover, un­cover, what is gnawing at your bones. Words have a w eight to them. How you choose to present them and to whom is a matter of style and choice. Yet the emptiness of my mother’s journals carries the weight of a question, many questions.
My Mother’s Journals are an interrogation.


My mother’s journals are a love story. Love and power. What she gave and what she withheld were hers to choose. Love is power. Power is not love. Both can be brutal. Both dance with control. Both can be intoxicating, leaving us out of control. But in the end it is love, not power, that endures and shows us the consequences of our choices. My mother chose me as the recipient of her pages, empty pages. She left me her “Cartographies of Silence.” I will never know her story. I will never know what she was trying to tell me by telling me nothing.
But I can imagine.
Most of my injuries come from the stereotype.” These are not my words. I plagiarize. I will not tell you who wrote them. Instead, I will claim them as my own because I have so thoroughly inhabited them; they could be written by no one else but me.
We borrow. We steal. We purchase what we need and buy what we don’t. We acquire things, people, places, all in the process of losing ourselves. Busyness is the religion of distraction. I cannot talk to you, because I have too much to do.­
I cannot do what I want, because I am doing what I must. Must I forever walk away from what is real and true and hard?
When it comes to words, rather than using our own voice, authentic and unpracticed, we steal someone else’s to shield our fear. And in my mother’s case, she let me fill in the blanks.
This is my inheritance. I am my mother, but I’m not. I am my grandmother, but I’m not. I am my great-grandmother, but I’m not. Patterned behavior alternates like shadow and light. Pain in love is a pattern that repeats itself until we recognize it as destructive. “No one lives in this room without living through some kind of crisis. No one lives in this room without confronting the whiteness of the wall.” We can change, evolve, and trans­form our own conditioning. We can choose to move like water rather than be molded like clay. Life spirals in and then spirals out on any given day. It does not have to be one way, one truth, one voice. Nor does love have to be all or nothing. Neither does power. What is positive and what is negative is not absolute.
“Let it go—” Mother would say whenever I asked her what I should keep or give away. Her answer was always the same.
Empty pages become possibilities.
Excerpted from WHEN WOMEN WERE BIRDS by Terry Tempest Williams, published in April 2012 by Sarah Crichton Books, an imprint of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2012 by Terry Tempest Williams. All rights reserved.

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