When Women Were Birds (A murder of crows)

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.

My journal (Quotes from When Women Were Birds)

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.

40 thoughts on “When Women Were Birds (A murder of crows)

  1. La Maga says:

    What an incredibly written post, it’s like you were whispering it all to me. I’m definitely getting this book from the library soon! It’s so true what you said about us imagining our children reading our journals — this is one of the reasons why I’ve sort of kept myself from writing more often, I’m scared to disappoint him with all my truths. But I must remember writing in my journal is a moment within myself. THANK YOU!

    My favorite part:

    “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.”

    • Cassie says:

      Thank you so much! I wasn’t feeling to great about it when I wrote it so that makes it feel much better.

      I didn’t start really journaling until I was in college and then it became this crazy outlet. However, everytime I air down to write I think about people of the future reading it and I have to quickly erase that thought. Bleh.

      Love that you’re a Journal lady! Keep it up!!! :) Please let me know how you like the book when you finish it.

      • gajenn says:

        I finished it last night and posted a solo review today (with a kickback to your gorgeous review). I loved it. Loved. Loved. Did I say loved? :)

      • Cassie says:

        I am so happy to hear that. I really couldn’t put into words why I thought women would love it, but you did such a good job with that. And I agreed with everything you said.

  2. Bea says:

    Great blog for what sounds like a great book. Whenever you find a good one, we all can tell by your words. So uplifting, thank you!

  3. lucysfootball says:

    I read your writing, and I just revel in it. You have such a beautiful command of language. Your writing is a joy and a triumph. Most sincerely. I am jealous and I am joyous, all at once, every time you publish. Jealous, because oh, I want to be able to do this. Joyous because yay! I get to read something like this, which is the next best thing.

    Can’t wait to read this one!

    • Cassie says:

      Oh gosh, I wish. I realized by writing my blogs all the time that I have this weird fascination with skin, and skin-like things in my writing. I’m constantly writing about it. Very strange. But, thank you darling. It makes me happy because I do the same things with your blogs. I have a hard time with sarcasm in writing and you are fantastic at it, and it makes you come off less asshole than just plain witty. BAH!

      But yes, please read and let me know what you think of it when you finish.

  4. angela says:

    Read about this book somewhere..thank you for the reminder. I believe I’m a failed journal writer because of self-censor. It’s too bad, too, for the hell I lived through 10-15 years ago would have made fab bits of essay.

    Now…as a library para-professional, about that granola bar…. (wink)

    • Cassie says:

      I thought of you when I was writing this one because I knew YOU would love this book.

      Could you try to write about it now and do more memoir or personal essay OR POEM now? That might make up for your censored journal. I think I’ll just do like Oprah and have my journals burned upon my passing. Hm?

      Haha don’t worry, I immediately flipped the book upside down and gave immediate CPR to get the granola bar out of it’s crease. Don’t you worry Miss Librarian.

  5. Kate's Bookshelf says:

    The way you expound on this book makes me want a copy of it right now. Clearly the book is very special to you and you bring forth that feeling by how you wrote it.

    I love the part:

    “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.”

    My journal has started to become more about me instead of always trying to write. Oh sure, I write about things that go on, but I also try to write to myself. But you are write. Writers do soak and prod, not always living. We suck everything up like a sponge to use for later.

    I read this line in a Sabrina Jeffries romance recently, “Writers were magpies– they took bits of things and wove them together to make their stories.” It’s so true.

    Well, I loved the passion in your voice over this book. I must find it now. Thank you for taking the plunge to write about it.

    • Cassie says:

      First, I haven’t thought about Magpies since I left Australia and while they got supremely annoying, they have the most beautiful lullaby sound to their call. I completely blasted past that quote and when on a memory journey of magpies – haha. She is so right though.

      I’m so happy you’re able to write about yourself. I write tidbits about myself in my journal. If something particularly happens that I know I should remember later, I’ll write it, but mostly I just doodle and write quotes in it, and poems that no can read because I purposefully make my handwriting illegible. I think that’s part of journaling though especially when the poems are about myself.

      I hope you love the book, let me know if you do. It’s a handful of quotes to save for later, really.

      Plus, I’m trying to figure out if she’s related to Mitt Romney because her great grandmother was a Romney. I have a sneaky suspicion – which would be interesting in seeing if that had anything to do with the publishing time of this book. HM.

  6. grainsifter says:

    In the flurry of my daily reading most things are skimmed and tossed, but your words always seem to pull me aside and speak to me, demanding with gentle insistence that I give them the time and attention needed to digest them slowly, to linger over their flavors and texture. What a writer you are…

  7. grainsifter says:

    Just came across this quote, which of course made me think of your post…

    “After the writer’s death, reading his journal is like receiving a long letter.”
    Jean Cocteau

  8. Brianna Soloski says:

    Thank you for sharing this review. I have requested it from the library and can’t wait to read it. I can’t wait to pepper my journal with quotes, as you did.

  9. Claire 'Word by Word' says:

    Impossible not to love this book already just from your description, so happy its up there with your other astounding, metaphor inspiring birds, love the glimpse of your journals and doodles, they almost have wings themselves your words and pics, soaring and swooping then riding the ecstatic breeze :)

  10. T T Williams says:

    My Dearest Cassie:

    Your words reach me like water in the desert. Indeed, your words ring true, “We are feathered, and skinned, and silent, and lionesses, and remarkable.” You are the reader for whom I wrote this book. You are the writer I have waited to read. Bless you for writing this review and thank you for your openness as we are sisters in birds, in words, in wonder
    and awe.

    Gratitudes,
    Terry Tempest Williams

    • Cassie says:

      Dear TTW:

      I am just honored that you read this and commented. I plan to share your book with as many women as I can find. It truly touched me and that’s rare to find in a book.

      I obsessed over writing you a comment back for a good hour. I am just so excited, I should say that also. :)

      I am so looking forward to reading your other books now and reading more of everything you’ve accomplished. Thank you. I needed the reminder that we are all made sisters.

      Cassie

  11. Deirdra Eden says:

    Great review! You have a fabulous blog! I’m an author and illustrator and I made some awards to give to fellow bloggers whose sites I enjoy. I want to award you with the Best Books Blog Award. There are no pass along requirements. This is just to reward you for all the hard work you do! Thank you so much for taking the time to read and review all these books for us authors and readers.

    Go to http://astorybookworld.blogspot.com/p/awards.html and pick up your award.
    ~Deirdra

    P.S. Since you are an avid reader I was wondering if I could interview you and get your insights into the books you enjoy. Send me an email: KnightessHope (at) gmail and I will send over the interview questions

    • Cassie says:

      Thank you so much. I love your award designs – they’re gorgeous and very fantastical. I will imagine the book girl with red hair and that she’s me. :)

      I will email you later this evening once I get a blog post under my belt. I look forward to reading the questions! I love discussing books so I am totally up for doing this.

  12. crissamj says:

    Lovely entry and details Cassie. You’ve made me want to read this book (among the 57250242 I want to read, haha)

    • Cassie says:

      Thank you so much! I have a list a mile wild. Literally, six books are on my kitchen counter just added to my list TODAY. RIDICULOUS! We book lovers are a strange, but wonderful breed.

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