Dear God, if I never read this book, I would have been at a loss.
I am completely, utterly, every whimsical note of my body, indebted to Terry Tempest Williams for everything she put on that blank page while she wrote, When Women Were Birds. (In fact, I would love to see her out takes basket). This book is the landscape of writing, the geography of being a woman – how your body is indebted to fields, and seeds, and words unspoken, left mingling with the soft air puffed just before you open your mouth. I have never felt more myself, and more a woman than when reading this book. I know, I know, I have this affinity for birds and I metaphorically and literally believe women were probably once birds, but that has nothing to do with the hope, and power of the words that are voiced in this book.
I can’t even begin to type this blog. It took me twenty minutes to convince myself that I had to share this book regardless if I had the words, or not. The whole point of this book is to remind us that we’re women, and we have it, we’re made of it, we are IT. We are feathered, and skinned, and silent, and lionesses, and remarkable. If ever I wanted to know the mural of my own body, what the roundness of moles meant, and the sow of freckles, it was during this book. I mean you have to pinch yourself over and over while you read it.
Am I a woman, you say. Am I everything.
When Women Were Birds is the story of the secret lives of women. Tempest tells the historical crow etchings of women in China that could only be read by other women, her own life surrounded by wilderness, her mother, her husband and Mormon tradition. She is at one point sliced above the eye by a falcon on a river trip and so her connection to birds is physical. It begins with the Mormon tradition (of women) to write journals for themselves and their daughters. On her death bed, Williams’ mother tells Williams to seek out her journals only after she has passed. Williams finds the journals, all stacked in their leather glory, she opens every single one to the white field of blank page.
My Mother’s journals are paper cranes.
My Mother’s journals are “just after.”
My Mother’s journals are a “harmony of silence.”
A few weeks ago, a dear blogger told me that although she was gifted with her mother’s journals when she passed away, she never read them. I am the kind of daughter, and woman, that would scavenge the pages for the imperfections in my mom’s cursive. I would learn how to read shorthand so I didn’t make mistakes with the swift movements in her margin notes. I’d play a guessing game with food stains. Where was she. What was she doing while she wrote this. I would decipher her language, and like a sponge store as much of my mother’s internal life as I could.
Sometimes, when we write journals we imagine our daughter’s reading them and then the whole concept of journaling goes out the window. A journal, is a moment within yourself. A way to remember something twice, the way it was when you were there and the way it is on the page. When you journal, or you write, you get to live every aspect of your life twice, whether you’re living it in reality, or in the lie that you’ve created it to be. Writers have that odd ability to not actually live in the moment, but just secretly record everything that’s going on. I used to go to parties in college and constantly say to myself remember this moment, remember the way that boy spilled beer on the table, remember the way “musty” smells, remember the way boys bicker with each other which isn’t anything like the way females bicker. Writer’s don’t live, they soak, and prod. They create something magic between the pen and hand.
Here, I am blogging my guts, and yet, I’m not writing what I would say about my family in a journal, what my dad sounds like when he sleeps, or my mom smells like after a day at the bakery. Those are my private secrets, the ones I leave blank for you, but I fill to the brim in my stitched journal that goes everywhere with me.
Throughout this book, I was weeding quotes of Williams and salting my page with them. My journal is now covered in quotes that split the world open. Quotes like:
“My mother’s voice is a lullaby in my cells. When I am still, my body feels her breathing” (19).
“I have talked to myself for years in the privacy of my journals. The only thing I’ve done religiously are keep a journal and use birth control” (43).
“It is winter. Ravens are standing on a pile of bones – black typeface on white paper picking an idea clean. It’s what I do each time I sit down to write. What else are we to do with our obsessions? Do they feed us? Or are we simply scavenging our memories for one gleaming image to tell the truth of what is hunting us” (56).
“I want to speak and comprehend words of wounding without having these words become the landscape where I dwell” (204).
These quotes speak only a dribble of the weeping that this book holds. It makes me fascinated by my mother, by my need for words and the lines of a page to smear into my own harbored print. But mostly, it made me proud to be a woman, whether I keep silent (which is rare), or I test the waters. I yell, I screech sometimes to get a point across, but never does a screech work. I should learn to be silent sometimes, or just quiet. I should learn to listen to the birds harmonize and the orchastra of mumbles, and throat tickles. Listen to the way my father coo’s when he naps, breathing out bays of air. I shared this even though I know you are reading, even though this is my public journal, and my mother will smell like knead and yeast when she takes off her apron and throws it onto the washer machine this evening. She will have white icing stains on her pockets that look like finger-paint and the spiral print of her thumb.
I hate it when I want to talk about a book and I don’t have the words. I just watch the white space pile up like ocean froth. It’s drowning. The white expanse that I’m supposed to fill up with words that make you want to get in the car, even though it’s been a long day, and it’s bath night, and their are suds opening from the plastic bottle.
You need this book because it breathes exactly what you are. I dropped chocolate granola bar in the binding and almost called-out because I wanted the library-goer who got this book after me to find it pristine for the picking. To find their way through the book without a compass, the way all good books find you lost in the wild. I want a reader to go in wild, go into the margins, go into the cracks, and the o’s, and the words, and the steam that comes off the pages of a book that takes you across valleys within yourself.
How do you tell someone how you are changed by a book.
Do you write a blog explaining that you can’t tell them because here, it’s too personal, and here the choreography of your body has taken over. You are all feel, no reason. You are exactly what we are meant to be, human substance: cells, atoms, water, free.
I am a bird on a wire. I am wondering why the electricity is not surging. Why is it that birds can sit on the cords and not be shocked. How can they sit so still when they have wings. And how do women (or people) conquer white pages, conquer their expected roles, climb through the square face of fence binding them, conquer centuries of silence, the smell of palm when a hand covers their mouths.