I’ve been haunted by a story all week.
The story sits in the room with me, trails behind me as I walk, hovers over my spooned-in oatmeal, perches on my nightstand as I sleep. When I wake in the night I see it gazing at me hazy and shimmering. Waiting. My neck-hair prickles. My fingers feel numb. It’s wonderful. Wonder-full.
This is a true story, heard on a recent NPR podcast, Krista Tippett’s On Being. Tippett interviewed Terry Tempest Williams, an author of creative nonfiction, activist and naturalist. Before this week, I’d never heard of Terry Tempest Williams. Now I am obsessively reading her book, When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations on Voice. Me, caught up in her writing and her stories, the way I was caught up in Jeanette Winterson’s Written on The Body (oh, so many years ago). I feel feverish, tasting words as I read like blood in my mouth or ash or tears.
In When Women Were Birds, Williams explores the gift of her mother’s journals. Here’s an excerpt of the podcast transcript from On Being:
Ms. Williams: When my mother was dying, I was in bed with her, rubbing her back and she said, “Terry, I’m leaving you my journals.” And I didn’t know she kept them. And she said, “But you must promise me one thing: that you won’t look at them until after I’m gone.” And I gave her my word. She passed. A month went by. My father was gone, my brothers were out of the house. I was cleaning and I thought, “Today. Today’s a good day to find my mother’s journals.” And I found them exactly where she had said they would be, hidden in the closet. Three shelves filled with journals, each one handpicked, each one bound in cloth, gingham, denim, flowered, so on and so forth. And I took a deep breath — my mother was such a private person — and I thought, “Finally, I will be able to know what she was thinking, where she was.” And I opened the first journal and it was blank. I opened the second journal; it was blank. As was the third. All of my mother’s journals were empty.
Ms. Tippett: How do you understand that?
Ms. Williams: I don’t. And that’s the mystery, that’s the, you know, I don’t know. And that’s what’s got me thinking about voice. You know, what is it? How do we find it? How do we keep it? How do we use it?
Does that blow your mind or what? Does that make you feel faint? Your imagination is off running and spinning in all directions, struggling to make meaning? Me too! Oh, me too! Less than half-way thru Williams’ slim book (on variation twenty-four), I already find her journey into voice to be broad and deep enough for diving, and refreshingly, without answers. We are left only with questions like the ones she mentioned in the transcript above. She doesn’t know the meaning behind her mother’s gift. No one living ever will. The beauty, the gift, is in the struggle to make meaning, to understand, to frame the concepts of voice and legacy and relationship – to find the meaning we make for ourselves and to position ourselves in relation to that.
We know her mother gave her a gift. The way you explain that can tell you a lot about yourself.
I think often about my voice in relation to my daughter — how I express myself to her and in her presence, how I define myself as her mother, as a woman, a person, an artist. What am I saying, why, and how? What do I share and what do I keep private? Do I need to document my life in order to make it real, to be remembered, or I can trust my friends and family to remember me as they will? How do I encourage, stifle, ‘manage’ my daughter’s own voice? What is she learning about speaking and about keeping silent? How do I make myself known to her — is that something I even need to do? Can I let my child make her own decisions about who I am? What legacy of self-expression am I leaving behind? Is this all-consuming effort to nail down and declare who we are really a worthwhile endeavor? Maybe the worthwhile endeavor is looking out rather than looking in – spending time in relationship and letting others define the edges of ourselves, and what’s ‘inside’ is simply a mystery? I don’t know. I really don’t know.
The not knowing feels heart-breaking and beautiful.
This book makes me dream of a series of short performance pieces – variations on voice – inspired by When Women Were Birds. Perhaps drawn from multiple performance mediums – visual art, dance, film, theatre, music. Perhaps as a result of collaborations between multiple artists. Perhaps framed as a festival. Perhaps an opportunity for a community to come together to explore voice and silence, legacy and relationship. I’m dreaming about all of this accompanied by the haunting of Williams’ story. What does it mean? What will it mean?
I’d love to hear your thoughts and reactions…
4 thoughts on “My heart is haunted: silent, spoken, sung”
Love this. I’ve been thinking recently about the desire for certainty, for facts, for definite interpretations. Antithetical to art (I say with certainty…), even if very functional and more or less necessary for everyday life. To keep things in question, however beneficial and noble, is an inefficient use of cognitive resources (biologically speaking) and a luxury; it is exhausting, as opposed to the satisfaction of quick, ready, definite answers. Artists, philosphers, and scientists all succumb to this to some extent or another, seeking the best interpretation of art, of data. We tend to have a low tolerance for uncertainty when it comes to things that matter to us. (Feel the search for definiteness in these propositions!)
One of the best things about art is the opportunity that it can offer to call our values and assumptions into question. But I think there has to be education for those of all ages, especially with regard to considering multiple interpretations, where the inclination to say “This story is about ___, this painting is about ___, this piece of music is about ___” is so seductive. I would love to see a series of short pieces that forced the audience to embrace ambiguity, perhaps especially with post-performance discussion, integrated somehow with program notes. Valuing the process of interpretation over the product, or, as some have put it, *how* something means as opposed to *what* it means, which results in understanding ourselves in our relationship with the world.
Arnie, I love this comment and your ideas about supporting the audience as they are encouraged to “embrace ambiguity” via post-performance discussions, program notes, etc. “How something means” is a brain teaser for me — I love it and will think on it this week. I find certainty very seductive and will leap to a decision and a fixed point as soon as possible — and then feel so much better. :) I think it’s my natural inclination (perhaps most people’s?). However, my most interesting ideas develop from that space where everything is uncertain and in question. It’s uncomfortable and I don’t even like it sometimes, but that’s where I grow the most. Thanks for engaging in this conversation and for sharing your ideas. I wish you were here to talk this thru — but I appreciate the virtual contact too. All the best, t
Many of us are happy to offer opinions on the value of a work or a particular performance, often believing that we have recognized an objective fact about its value. But examining the process whereby we come to such conclusions — how something comes to mean what it means for us, as individuals and as groups — leads to an examination of our implicit assumptions and axioms. This can be terrifying, calling into question what we, our teachers, and our friends have long valued, but it is also liberating.
One thing that comes out of this in the case of music is the crucial role of affect/emotion as a basis of interpretation. Even if we dress it up in concepts and rhetoric, liking/disliking something proves to be liking/disliking what it makes us feel — a notion that some have an urgently negative emotional reaction to! “I appreciate [x] because of my intellectual understanding.” The value of intellect as empowering, over fear of being controlled by emotions.
I agree with everything you said — certainty feels good, and uncertainty often feels bad, and good ideas often come out of chaos. The process of interpretation can deliberately throw things into chaos and help us to understand our role in making sense of matters. It would be great to discuss such things in person. In the meantime, thanks for sharing ideas!
Yup, conversation required.