Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Terry Tempest Williams and the Mysteries of Voice

Last night, I listened to Brad Listi interview Terry Tempest Williams on the podcast Other People.  I've never read any Terry Tempest Williams, probably because Tim accidentally, preemptively ruined her for me when we were living in Arizona and he was reading Refuge, which he kept calling Refuse. 

Welcome to our shameless and irreverent household!

I think Williams' lack of a sense of humor was the problem for Tim, and I can definitely see how that would be a problem.  Her physical voice in my headphones last night stunned me with its gentleness.  I found it reminiscent of a woman I knew in Colorado who gardened for a living.  I really loved the interview with Williams, and hope to remedy this gaping hole in my naturalist education by reading her soon. 

For now, I want to tell you what she said about the idea of "voice" in writing.  Her latest book, When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations on Voice, resulted from something that happened when her mother died, which is that she left Williams all her journals but when Williams opened them, each one was blank. 

This shocked and perplexed Williams.  She grew up Mormon and according to her, women are the record keepers in her community.  Were the blank journals an act of defiance by her mother?  Perhaps more importantly, was her mom just messing with her? 

As someone who grew up in the strict patriarchy of Mormon faith, Williams tried to write a book about voice.  Instead, she says, she might have written a book about silence.  In this Rumpus interview between Williams and Roxane Gay, she says:

"You ask how I create a space for a woman of faith to be heard. I think it could be argued that I am not heard, in the broadest sense. That is not my concern. My concern, a question really, is, do I have the courage to speak?"    

What a question!

In her interview with Listi, Williams said something along the lines of, "Who benefits when I stay silent?" This is also a wonderful question. 

Who benefits when we don't say what we need to say? 

My hair is sopping wet and I need to deal with other parts of life, i.e. the gutter people, and voicemails, and the fact that I can't seem to ever eat enough to settle my bones lately.  The final thing I want to say is that Williams believes all voices arise out of silence.  Does she differentiate between the silence of a repressed life and the silence of the shifting, breathing earth?  I think she does.  In my life, I do. 

This summer has been a tidal wave of chores and attentions. I usually love the opportunity to improve my physical surroundings and connect with other people, but lately I resist too much activity.  I feel worn down by nagging little items, worn out by the wheels of my mind.  Part of me longs for the quiet of winter, but when it arrives and the windows close and the light goes grey, will I miss the chatter of cardinals out my window when I wake?  I don't know.  What I do know: I need big swaths of quiet in order to thrive, to hear the words I need to hear, to repair, to breathe. 

When I heard Williams say what she said about voice arising from silence, I felt an immediate recognition.  Most of my anxieties in life come from the fear that I will run out of time, that I won't sit down in my chair enough to say what I need to say.  But the truth is, I have to roam a lot, and go quiet a lot, before I have anything worthwhile to say.  Trusting that this stillness and silence is actually a fount of energy and activity is the challenge for me.  Writing is its own practice of slowing down for me, too, so it gets confusing: when to work, and when to just listen.  I don't have it all figured out, obviously, but I wanted to say hi and tell you I'm thinking about what I'd like to tell you, and about a woman with a beautiful voice, a woman asking a lot of questions. 


Throwback to younger, hotter days!  And I do mean temperature.

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