What is the key to an authentic life, well- and fully-lived? How do we give voice to our truest selves when words are ultimately incapable of revealing life’s deepest mysteries? These are some of the themes that weave through Terry Tempest William’s most recent work When Women Were Birds, a transcendent mix of memoir, meditation, and maternal tribute. A compact gem of a book, it is written in the form of 54 mini-chapters that burst from the pages as vibrantly as the wild birds so beloved by the author.
The book begins with a startling narrative: “I am leaving you all my journals,” Terry’s mother tells her one week before her death, “but you must promise me that you will not look at them until after I am gone.” True to her promise, Terry explores three shelves of bound journals one month after her mother’s passing. The journals—each and every one—are blank. Thus begins a beautiful and multi-faceted exploration of the power of words, the power of silence, and the evocative mystery of the blank page. What was Terry’s mother trying to tell her by saying nothing?
The interdependence of silence and voice echoes throughout the book: journal writing as a way to howl without making a sound, listening to nature’s stillness as a core step towards the language of self-knowledge. The most profound, deep dialogue begins in the self, surrounded by external silence; in the end, this may be the ultimate gift bequeathed to Terry by her mother’s journals. “I will never know what she was going to tell me by telling me nothing. But I can imagine.” This gift is passed on to the book’s readers, who will find themselves engaged in an internal dialogue as they contemplate the mystery of a mother’s blank journals and fill the void between the author’s lines with their own truth.