Sunday, May 13, 2012

To the Community of WILD READ, Happy Mother’s Day from Moderator Terry Tempest Williams

Photo credit: Louis Gakumba 
May we honor our mothers who brought us into this world through the labor of their
love.  May we honor our grandmothers, our aunts, and sisters and our daughters with whom we cherish and challenge.  And may we honor all the women who have nurtured us and mentored us to a greater place of understanding and love for they are our beloved teachers.

Yesterday, I wrote to my friend, Jodie Evans, co-founder of Code Pink,
(if ever there was an organization that honors the heart-felt ferocity of mothers
caretaking peace, it is this one) about being at a spring pow wow:

Today, I sat on the green at Dartmouth College during their 40th Annual Pow Wow and watched the dancers -- the Fancy Dancers, the Shawl and Butterfly Dancers, all of them, in their beauty and power.  But it was the Grandmothers who moved me most.  The women who have given birth to children and lost children and raised another generation of children, alongside their daughters, the women who have never stopped dancing in their attempt to hold their families, their communities and the world together through the strength of their hearts.  When they danced, they simply stayed in place and kept their eyes focused ahead.  With an Eagle Fan in one hand and their other hand on their hip, they kept their backs straight as they marked  each beat of the drum in the buoyancy and bending of their knees, up and down, up and down, all the while, with their feet firmly placed on the ground beneath them. In their physical restraint, their power became the pulse of bloodlines -- all of life flowed through their dignified stance.

Mothers.  Mother Earth.  At the Pow Wow, both were not only acknowledged, but celebrated.

Today, I offer you a story that celebrates my own mother, Diane Dixon Tempest.  It is an excerpt from “When Women Were Birds” just published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. In the next three weeks as we engage in conversation, I thought we could begin with my mother’s journals and discuss the power of voice.  What is it?  How do we find it, use it, and honor it? 

And of course, if we talk about voice, we must also talk about silence:  the silence that sustains us like the stillness of the desert and the shadow side of silence, what it means to be silenced.

I look forward to this spirited discussion, particularly because at the heart of all things wild, there are voices beyond our own to be heard and silences to be considered.  As my grandmother Mimi used to say, “Understanding is love.”

And through love, we act.

With anticipation,

Terry Tempest Williams

Excerpt fromExcerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

 "When Women Were Birds:"     Listen     

          I am fifty-four years old, the age my Mother was when she died.   This is what I remember:  We were laying 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, Mother’s 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 didn’t 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 in the family home alone.  I kept expecting Mother to appear.  The silence that followed her passing was disorienting.  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 cloth-bound books;  some floral, 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, and so was the fourth, the fifth, the sixth – shelf after shelf after shelf, all of my Mother’s journals were blank.  


     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 Mother’s Journals are paper tombstones.
      I am fifty-four years old, the age my mother was when she died.  I didn’t realize how young she was, but isn’t that the conceit of mothers -- that we conceal our youth and exist only for our children? Placed in a circle of immunity, it is the providence of mothers to preserve the myth that we are unburdened with our own problems, and carry only the crisis 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 that our greatest freedom was 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 them.  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 believe my mother wanted her journals read, how do I read them now?


RyanPleune said...

I think voice is often misinterpreted as something that is visible or audible. For me it is the integrity of aligning with my soul's work and often that is very internal and invisible to others. Sometimes if people are mindfully paying attention they can "hear" it which is more of a noticing.

To Terry: I think you have it right here in your conversation with Tim "And that goes back to your own sovereignty of soul—of really knowing who you are, knowing what your intention is, and having the strength to go forward."..."What’s the most uncomfortable thing you can do—the greatest risk, with the most at stake? And I can’t answer that right now. But I’m going to be thinking about that, and figuring out what that next step is for me both as a writer and a person."

For me that "going forward" and being vulnerable with the "greatest risk" is what your Mom's blank journals can teach us. If they were written in, then it would be more like an old recipe book that would constantly try to recreate and it would not allow us to find our own unique "voice". An Italian cook once taught me that "timidity in the kitchen never flies" - His recipes from his grandmother had ingredients but no measurements or time.

Thanks for this work you are sharing to the world.


Katherine said...

I love the idea that your mother gave you the gift of silence rather than a gift filled with her own thoughts, ideas, feelings...perhaps where her perspective would predominate...and freed you to hear your self over the noisy gong of words, egos, identities. Isn't this how we interact with nature in spite of all its systems and processes that it asserts? Somehow wildness in the natural world keeps its presence, like a blank canvas with no labels or names, to remind us not who we are in stark relief but how much we are of the world and not in it.

JO said...

Although your mother's journals are blank, she, clearly, had a voice and was a powerful force in your life and the lives of others in her family.
Do you consider When Women Were Birds an effort, in part, to fill in some of the pages of her journal? Do you think she hoped for that...or would be pleased to think you have?
Your loving tribute to her - her wisdom, her strength, her commitment to family - is impressive and beautiful.
You have created a remarkable book about a remarkable individual. Thank you.

Really WILD READers said...

You talk about the exploration of silence. Could you expound a little bit more on your personal quest and how you could guide readers to create our own silence and "white space."

[We are at our first meeting of the new on-site WILD READ book discussion launched by the Friends of the National Conservation Training Center (NCTC)in Shepherdstown]

Nancy said...

With the wisdom of the blank journal pages, I am reminded of the old turtle and the panda in Kung Fu Panda. I know,referencing an animated movie, during Wild Read?! Hold on, besides being fun, it also has deeper meaning. The Dragon Scroll in the movie was blank. Left by the old turtle Master Shifu, according to legend, whoever read the Dragon Scroll would be able to "hear a butterfly's wing beat, to see light in the darkest cave, and would feel the universe in motion around them." Master Oogway could do these things after achieving, "excellence of self.” All the Panda saw in the scroll was his own reflection. "Therefore, the ultimate secret was to believe in yourself. "

I am thankful for my Mom who helped to instill in me to “believe in myself,” through encouraging me to have my own voice and allowing me to blossom into my best self. I am still on that life-long journey. Some mindful silence also helps along the way, to be able to hear that deep thoughtful voice of guidance within.

Thanks Terry for your wisdom in your writings, sharing your Mom's voice with us and being here these few weeks.