When Women Were Birds

During the early part of my summer break this year, I found myself stifled by boredom.  My children and I are used to the regular rhythms of school, day care, piano lessons, soccer practices, ballet, and my teaching schedule.  Things were hectic, but I thrive on that sort of structure.  However, once summer came, my structure was gone.  I had a break from teaching classes and my children were home, expecting to be entertained each and every day.

We slipped into a rut of late breakfasts, Curious George marathons, and hot afternoons running around the yard.  I finally decided that enough was enough and started planning activities.  Actual things to do.  We visited every park within a twenty-mile radius of our home.  We went to two children’s museums, one thirty minutes south of us and one thirty minutes north.  We found coupons for the local swimming pool, attended story time at the library, invited friends over to play, did art projects, and went out for ice cream.  Summer time became satisfying.

During my quest for more to do, I happened upon a notice in the newspaper advertising an appearance and reading by Terry Tempest Williams at one of our state’s major universities.  I immediately decided that I would attend, but chickened out when I realized that the friend I usually attended such events with could not go and that I’d have to hire a baby sitter early in the morning to get there on time.  I gave up on seeing the reading, but I did put the book on hold at the library.  And now, I’ve had a chance to read it: When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations on Voice (2012).

I’d never read Williams before, and I knew little about her, but reading this book has given me a proper introduction to her, and although we don’t agree on everything, I admire her honesty, courage, and authenticity.

The premise of the book is that when her mother was dying of cancer, she gave Terry all of her journals (three shelves of them) with the condition that they not be read until after she died.  A week after her mother’s death, Williams opened the journals and found that all of them were blank.  This is the premise of her book, and she riffs on the theme of voice (and the lack of a voice) in all of her variations.  Consequently, the work comes across as both choppy and poetic at the same time.  I found myself both enthralled and annoyed with some of the obtuse language and structure, but I am glad to have read it in its entirety.  It’s a treat.

My favorite part is her exploration of voice in terms of women and reproduction.  She defends the right to abortion, but also explains the menstrual cycle and sexuality in a way that I had never been able to articulate.  She says:

“Because what every woman knows each month when she bleeds is, I am not pregnant.  Because what every woman understands each time she makes love is, Life could be in the making now.  Which is why when a woman allows a man to enter her, it is not just a physical act, but an act of surrendering to the possibility that her life may no longer be hers alone.  Because until she bleeds, she will check her womb every day for the stirrings of life.  Because until she bleeds, she wonders if her life will be one or two or three.  Because until she bleeds, she imagines every possibility from pleasure to pain to birth to death and how she will do what she needs to do, and until she bleeds, she will worry endlessly, until she bleeds.

“If a man knew what a woman never forgets, he would love her differently” (94).

That passage spoke volumes to me, and it extends for several pages before and after that excerpt.  Williams never had biological children of her own, but she explores her own motherhood through her “adoption” of a college-aged African man, whom she has guided and nurtured.  I like that although she has not had her own children, she does not exclude herself from motherhood. No woman should, for as Williams also points out, we all parent each other.

She shares other interesting experiences of finding, losing, and not sharing her voice.  She shares her environmentalist triumphs, despite the fact that senators and congressmen and women tried to ignore her voice.  The funniest line is spoken by her ultra conservative boss at her first teaching job just out of college: “Did you know that the Devil is an environmentalist?” (78).

Williams also recounts her friendship with Wangari Maathai (1940-2011), a champion for women’s rights and environmentalism in Kenya.  I read Maathai’s autobiography, Unbowed: A Memoir (2006), earlier this year, and am still awestruck by her efforts to create a better life for the people of her nation.  She had a rough life herself, but continued to fight for her cause, eventually winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004.  Williams describes Maathai’s efforts as such: “For the first time, I saw how environmental issues are economic issues are, ultimately, issues of social justice.  If women are suffering, children are suffering.  Empower women, and you empower the community” (100).  This is exactly what Maathai’s environmentalist efforts were all about.  It touched me to realize that these two women were connected.

Wangari Maathai with Senator Obama in 2006; taken by Fredrick Onyango from Nairobi, Kenya and used with permission from Wikimedia Commons

Williams also knew and worked with Wallace Stegner (1909-1993), one of the greatest American writers.  I am planning to post on his masterpiece Angle of Repose (1971) one of these days, but how jealous I am that she knew him.  Of course, finding her voice in his presence was difficult, as I find it difficult to find my own voice when in the presence of somebody seemingly my better.

Here are some of the other memorable lines, quotes, and ideas:

“I wish someone had told me when I was young that it was not happiness I could count on, but change” (86).

“What are the consequences when we go against our instincts?  What are the consequences of not speaking out?  What are the consequences of guilt, shame, and doubt?” (105).

“What is the gesture of a woman’s hand covering her mouth?  What is the gesture of a woman’s hand covering her mouth with her eyes wide open?” (113).

“Marriage is more sandstone than granite, similar to the terrain of southern Utah: the geography of mountains, canyons, and plateaus.  The weathering creates the redrock windows and bridges.  Beauty is transformed over time, and not without destruction” (161).

I highly recommend this book because of its quirkiness and oddities.  It’s also moving, beautiful, meaningful, and powerful.  I found myself wanting to have a stronger voice in certain situations because of Williams’s experiences and her ideas.  This book just may have given me what I need to face some of the changes coming up in my life.  And despite her explorations of voice, she admits, “I will never be able to say what is in my heart, because words fail us, because it is in our nature to protect, because there are times when what is public and what is private must be discerned” (208).