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spiralsThis bit of audio from our Terry Tempest Williams interview has us all mystified. It resulted in this "thought experiment" among our staff, which led to wildly varying interpretations.

Take a listen to this confounding story about the journals her mother left her:

What do you think Williams’ mother was trying to say about herself? To tell her daughter?

What do those pages say about “voice” to the rest of us?

I've told and retold this story to many of my friends and family, and each person has a distinct take on what it all means, but they all ask with a wrinkled brow: Why? Why? Why? I'm anxious to hear your interpretation because I can easily come up with a half-dozen theories.

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176 Comments

as an undisciplined journal-writer / collector myself, I can't speak to why they were *all* blank, but I can look at the stack of collected blanks I do have (far more than the filled ones) and see a pile of intended writing now lost to the years. Perhaps her mother meant to write her life at one point and never got around to it, and now it is too late. and so perhaps she meant for Terry to remember her in those journals, to write her mother's journals for her in some respect. Or perhaps she was telling her "don't do as I did. fill these blank pages with the memories of your own life, so that maybe one day you can pass on to your own surviving loved ones what you hoped to find here from me."

Or maybe her Mom was saying: "We all intend to write our life, but in reality any writing, like photography is inherently illusory and insufficient. Life is in the moment, the moments, it's in life, not in trying to capture the moments artificially." Just one possibility.

I think, too, that Terry's mom respected Terry's writing about her own life and experiences. Maybe she intended to write, but hesitated for fear of being judged inadequate or wondered what others would think of her. I hope Terry writes her mother's life as she can. I think that might be the message.

I also have a collection of mostly blank journals for, as you say "intended writing lost to the years". I am almost 70 now and, from that perspective, I think she was saying to Terry, 'you are gifted, able to express your thoughts in way that is meaningful. Don't be silent; do it now'. Many have been able to find a writer or a poet who can say what they feel, believe, or understand. Their journals, then, should be a posting of quotes, notes and references, and a bibliography.

Perhaps she wanted to tell her daughter to fill her own journals - to live life, to express herself. Or, how about this: she wanted her daughter to write her biography. If it were me, I think I would consider filling up the journals with thoughts of my mother and growing up.

I haven't listened to the entire interview yet, I am sure a better guess would be made if you understood the context of both of their lives.

My thoughts, without better context, would be that my mom wished for me to live my life and express myself; maybe in the pages of the journals she left blank for me. Or, perhaps she wanted to capture her biography on those pages. I'll be interested to hear what the On Being staff came up with.

I had to listen to it again...I feel that Terry was left still, painful as it must have been- with little to go on. Listening to her, I sense a longing to know her mother more deeply than perhaps was allowed. Being that the pages were blank, this unexpected discovery just lends to more wondering, a hard gift to accept- and my heart goes out to her. It seems that her mother will remain private and yet...perhaps she was saying, "You won't find me here either...get out and wander as you are apt to do and see me everywhere, still."
And from my way of thinking, in reading much of Terry's work- and absolutely acknowledging the tremendous Beauty she expresses, maybe her mother was much more wise than the rest of us, maybe she knew the best way to grieve her passing might be for Terry to keep on discovering her beyond that seeming end.
I often wonder too, why some things are left unsaid, undone and wholly undiscovered- why not? may be the only ongoing conclusion...The *Vitality of the Struggle is telling in the title- on and on it goes.
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I like what you said. I got the impression too that Terry was longing for her mother. I bought the audio version of her book "When Women were Birds" and heard a little bit. Her voice definitely shows that longing. Yes, I think whether intentionally left blank or not, it is now Terry's job to keep discovering her mother.

My first thought was that maybe her mother was trying to say that she had nothing meaningful to say about her life. But maybe she was trying to say that she didn't think or feel she had the skill or right to speak about her life. I think it would be very troubling emotionally for her daughter. Perhaps the handmade cloth coverings are all her mother could communicate?
They're not done in invisible ink, are they? I'm sincere about that, not being smart-alecky.

I thought the same thing-did her mother sew? Marking pen disappears over time (a friend's husband found out when he used one to pay the bills!).
If she in fact did not write in the journals, I think it is significant that she asked that they only be viewed after she passed. Her daughter was a writer and accustomed to putting her thoughts on paper for all to examine and know. Maybe her mother, being very private was sending a message about privacy and not divulging all one's thoughts to the world.
Or maybe she told her daughter about the journals to have her daughter fill in the pages. Maybe she is saying her daughter is the voice she never had the courage be.
There are so many unanswered questions, I guess we'll never know. I wonder what her father thought of the journals?

As intriguing as it is to interpret the passing of these journals on to her daughter, I am also pondering what her mother must have been thinking when she made these journals over the years. I too have not listened to the entire interview yet, so perhaps there is more context that I don't have, but if indeed she made the covers for them in all different fabrics and then didn't fill them, I find it very puzzling. It's one thing to see a journal you like in the store and buy it and then not fill it (I have impulse purchases like that!), but quite another to make one, then another, then another and not fill them. Did she do them all at once, with a plan that she didn't fulfill? Did she make them over the course of years? The answer to that probably has impact on what she was trying to "say" through them.

We are often thankful for the journals discovered that reveal the nuanced moments in history otherwise lost in the passing of time. To me, the lesson here is one of relationship in the present. What is it we gain in the learning of the intimate thoughts of another, through the reading of their journals AFTER they have passed, that could rival the benefits of a relationship so close we have the opportunity to share such thoughts directly with one another?

It's a beautiful story, though with a bit of sadness in it to be sure. I am only taking a guess as to what Terry's mother meant to communicate, and I may be wrong. But my thought is this -- that perhaps for many years her mother had the desire to begin writing, but faced an obstacle in doing so. She created the journals she dreamed she would write in, but never managed to begin the text. Maybe ... she was trying to communicate to her daughter in the end that (1) that she admired how her daughter could write, (2) that she too had a rich interior life, and (3) that she had long wanted to find a way of expressing her inner life, and the hand-made journals are still an expression of her dreams.

I first heard Terry Tempest Williams share this story of her mother's journals on the "Women on the Edge of Evolution" web series. The panel of women, including Williams, was speaking to the role of women as leaders and in how best to use our voice, and our wisdom, in co-creating the future of our world. I wept when I heard her share this story and for me it speaks to the ways in which women have been silenced throughout history. It wasn't so long ago that women were burned at the stake and many fundamentalist religions around the world continue to oppress women. Williams' mother, like mine, was born into an era (prior to the feminist movement) when most women didn't have a voice. So to me, the journals represent the desire to have that voice, to be heard, to share wisdom through the act of writing. I can only speculate of course, but not feeling empowered to do so, she never wrote in them. Having read all of Williams' work, she is the voice for her mother and for all those who are unable to speak out including those within the natural world. I give thanks for that.

I think the intent of the blank journals was for the daughter to use her many memories of the mother to imagine what the journals would have contained given the daughter's knowledge of the mother's personal values, belief systems, interests, habits, schedules, preferences, dislikes, friends, hobbies, travels and so on. This would be a powerful memory jogger that would allow the daughter to construct and retain more complex and vivid memories of the mother that may not have occurred without the blank pages.

I wonder if Terry's mom might be like me. I like journals, I have perhaps 10 journals with just a few "safe" entries in each. I love the "idea" of journaling. Part of me wishes I could write exactly what I think and feel, but I've managed to convince myself that I can't.
Another part of me knows very well I am capable of writing what I think and feel. Furthermore, I realize how cathartic and valuable the journaling process is. But bottom line, I don't think in death I should share those parts of me that I have not openly shared in life. I feel I'd be robbing my survivors of the person they thought they knew, if my journals revealed mysteries like those that Terry half expected to find out about her mother. Dare I die and leave my children and other survivors with a stranger they might feel they never really knew? Somehow, I worry that they would not only lose me, but also lose who they thought I was. Does this make any sense?

Yes. This makes sense. I also have many blank journals. When I sit down to write I realize that writing out my thoughts and having my family read them might be hurtful as I keep much hidden. There is a way of being in the world that looks out more than in. Neither way is better or worse.
I think Ms. Tempest's mother was saying, "Daughter, I know that you write, here are a million pages for you to fill, a small practical gift to you. I lived my life differently, but I honor your path as well."

Wow. I too wept when I listened to this story. Perhaps Terry's mom had an intention to write something a one time, but never converted that intention to that type of expression. Instead, the act of making the journals became the expression. Terry says that her mom was a very private person. Was it private in the sense of not sharing herself in words. Maybe the keeping of these journals was to say that it is the act of my life rather than my words that expresses who I am.

Thanks to Being for the wonderful interviews and ideas and especially for making the shows available online.

When I first heard this, my breath caught in my heart for a moment. Then I thought, well, there are so many ways to have voice......those carefully crafted journals, hidden away as a treasure, is a story all its own. The act of collecting the journals is voice to the experience of her mother. We can only presume the story, maybe it is saying "I am clearing the way for my daughters words" or "Everything I need to say is said by the secret act of collecting these journals, and my offering them to you". The act is rich with possibility, ambuguity, and voice. Sometimes the loudest, most profound things are said through the smallest acts. A blank book is an invitation to the newly imagined, a collected history, prayer, a roadmap of lives. There is an open-endedness to the story of this gesture, the tale that has been told and has not yet been imagined. A leagacy of continuance. Very beautiful.

I just heard the segment on wnyc. I think her mother left her journals so that she could go forward and fill them in with her own life. She may have been giving her daughter a springboard to go forth and live, maybe with experiences that she herself did not have.

A mother told her daughter where her journals were and not to look at them until she had passed. Her mother's blank journals were left for her daughter to fill in.

Perhaps this is a silly first reaction for me to have had, but did Terry check for the possibility of invisible ink?
If children can successfully use lemon juice, then a "very private" adult might certainly have found a way to keep her words hidden from all but the daughter she clued in to the secret.
Failing that, I'm completely stumped as to why the journals would be blank.

At first I thought perhaps her Mother was angry and was making a statement about having nothing more to give. After more thinking about it, now I think her Mother was making a statement about being present...devoting her life to her family, friends, in the moment and not spending hours reliving past events or fantasizing about the future. OR, maybe her thoughts, normally regulated to a journal, were for her alone. What makes this so delicious and intriguing is that we will never know. But would the collective we ever had know? No, Terry would have kept the information private. As it is, her Mom does it instead.

The facts are: She left empty journals. All the rest is the story we choose to make up about why she left them blank. So. We get to choose. Uplifting story? Crashing story? Some combination. This reveals where we are, not her Mom. This is how we, as individuals relate to each other. Can we see the facts, just the facts, separate from our perceptions of the facts? Or are we so blind by the thoughts in our own mind that we perceive the facts through that filter. Can we see our own filters? Are we interested or interesting? Are we centered enough to be vulnerable to the present or do we hide behind the safety of our beliefs because we feel afraid and are off balance internally? Are we aware of where we are inside? What an invitation this situation offers!

The first connection I made was with a famous course on Leadership, where executives were given a hardcover book titled "Leadership" the first day - and it was blank. A blank page given to someone is an invitation to find your voice. I also thought that Terry's mom crafted the journals, with beautiful materials. Handcrafts is something that women were educated for, in her generation, and allowed to do. Speaking up was something different. My own mom started telling me about writing a book nearly 30 years ago. In a symbolic gesture of encouragement, I used to buy her paper, journals, boxes of pens (before computers!) and later a computer. It was only less than a year ago, at age 81, when she decided she would do it. Now, I'm her proud editing coach.

Terry, your Mom left you a Zen puzzle. What a gift! And you're sharing it with the whole world. Thanks Terry and thanks Terry's Mom. It speaks volumes.

I think that asking that the journals not be opened until she had passed away meant that Terry's mother knew that the empty pages would convey deep sadness and a truth that could not be dealt with, but would possibly also convey an encouragement to Terry to fill her own pages, to deal with the reality and break through the sorrow, which Terry has done.

At the moment of listening, just a few minutes ago. Intuitively, as clear as sunlit rain, Terry's Mother has left them for Terry to fill. The journals are not blank; they are not empty; they are waiting to be filled - by Terry.

Having been one of Terry Tempest Williams' readers over many years, I don't think that Diane Tempest left the books blank because she felt silenced or powerless. But in Terry's remark during the interview about going beyond words, that is how I would choose to interpret her mother's actions, and I am okay with the uncomfortable mystery of the blank books. I'd say she did not want to be bound by whatever words she would write, which would more likely reflect that moment than her overall being. I am a journal writer of many years, but would be horrified to be understood by some of my worst journal entries, particularly because journals sometimes allow venting of thoughts one would not wish to have live forever in others' memories - perhaps particularly in the case of a cancer survivor who later succumbed, as Terry's mother did.

This collection of "empty" journals reminded me of a wonderfully enigmatic musical composition by John Cage from the early 1950s. It's titled 4' 33" and involves 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence. Many people have asked some of the same questions about it for many decades. Of course, what happens in an actual performance of the piece is that the everyday noise of "negative sound" (like negative space) turns into the piece itself and we listen in a new and perhaps more perceptive way to the sound environment. While I am sure that Terry's mother was not thinking of these journals as some kind of odd or experimental art, perhaps she was offering a reflective silence or a kind of mirror for those who are reading it. Indeed, there are valuable and beautiful ways for us to read such an empty journal as this like listening to silence.

Today I listened to Terry's touching account of her mother leaving her all her journals, and I read all the 11 comments below, all of which make good points. What strikes me, is the specificity with which Terry's mom, on her deathbed, instructed her daughter as to where and when to look at those journals. Collectively the journals are a kind of "tabula rasa", and I think Terry's mom may have deliberately bound them and left them for her daughter to fill in... in any way she sees fit, as her gift and as a testament of her respect for her daughter's vision and talent. Perhaps it was a way of contributing to the continuity of Terry's work as it extends into the world, beyond the lifetime of any one individual. Simply put, I think your mom shared your vision, and this was her very intimate way to support you in the future, and be there for you in the present as well. In the end, it seems to me a very loving and motherly thing to do.

The question for me is not, why didn't she write in them, but why did she give them to Terry knowing they were blank and why did she instruct her not to look at them until after she passed? Why did Terry's mother want to leave Terry with the question of "why"? Of course we can all speculate but we don't know Terry and her mother.

Perhaps her mother found words inadequate to express her every day experiences, thoughts, feelings. We cannot adequately capture in words the Spirit which blows through our lives every day. It's useless to try to do so. One might become over-whelmed. Rather let's be happy to welcome the Spirit each day and to await new revelations in our souls. Perhaps it speaks to the quiet, unnoticed (by others) relationship with Spirit we each can have. Not everyone has to write or have their voice heard in writing. Maybe her voice was in her actions so she knew she did not need to write anything and she wanted her daughter to know that. The mother would leave the writing to someone else.

Wonder...about the journals: silence is not only, or merely, the absence of voice, it is also at times, and more often than we recognize, the presence of something else. The void, the sacred space within which voice can exist, a life can be lived. Perhaps Terry's mother's journals...and oh, so many of them, so much silence, so much space...are a testament to the depth and breadth of the life she lived.
and of Life.
As for voice: I was stunned when I "happened" to awaken to hear the last 15 minutes of this interview. Stunned because the last time I heard Terry Tempest William's voice was probably 30 years ago, when she was a keynote speaker at the Institute for Noetic Sciences annual convention/gathering. And today I recognized her voice. Immediately....When first I heard that voice 30 years ago, her story,and her voice, were so compelling that there was absolute silence in the huge room where several hundreds of people had gathered to hear her speak.
Absollute silence......
Thank you Terry Tempest Williams for your voice, and your stories.

As on many an early Sunday morning, I listen to Public Radio and on this day - after re-setting the radio sleep timer - heard the last 10 minutes of Krista Tippett’s interview with Terry Tempest Williams.

First reaction was Wow! As I had that feeling of association with the mother and her departing action of leaving prepared journals - which were to be discovered without any entries.

I understand how that could be… as I like the idea of journaling and have written such. However, now as I re-read and go through my stuff, I find that there is little value to future generations in sharing any family angst or making sure “my spin” or my “facts” on events are left in print for others to reflect on.

My father wrote all the time…letters, memos, notes, etc. and when he died, left a stack of small hard bound journal books as well to which he had compiled during his lifetime. Attached to these under the rubber band was a hand written note for these journals to be destroyed upon his death. Father’s wishes were not followed as his oldest son decided to read these journals, any privacy and confidentiality for such not withstanding.

She - as I and as others - may like the idea of journaling but just hold on to that “intention” as future readers may not truly understand and attempt to evaluate those confidences & private thoughts of times now past….so the journals remain unwritten as the person does not want anybody else to really know or pass judgments on what one may have thought or what one may have noted…now years ago.

It was the gift, a lesson, a reminder of a profound truth about human beings. To be human is to be dense, mysterious, and inexplicable. Any time we think that the characteristics we could list on a 3 by 5 card describe the person, we commit violence. Any time we think we "know" someone and don't grant that they are inexhaustible mystery, we commit violence.

Words can be interpreted in the wrong way. I think that her mother believed that Terry would understand her, her life if she connected with her spiritually.

What Ms. William's mother gave her daughter was what she felt she did not have--VOICE. Her mother may have felt that she was the subject and the journals were her daughter's canvas. It was a wonderful show. Thank you for sharing Ms. Williams with us.

The message from Williams' mother seems very clear--the gift is honoring and acknowledging her daughter's many contributions and accomplishments as a writer, and an invitation for Terry Tempest Williams to fill the journals.

Perhaps she meant for her daughter to fill those blank pages?

At first I thought that her mother might have left blank journals for her to fill, but if so, why tell her to not look at them until after her death? Then I thought: Some types of ink fade quickly. Did the spines creak as if they'd never been opened, or did they fall open as if the pages had been well-thumbed? Were there impressions of a pen having pressed onto the pages, or were they perfectly smooth? If her mother was a "private person," is it possible that she used a common method of invisible writing, such as lemon juice? (The way to make it visible is by gently heating the pages.) Has Ms. Williams taken the journals to be examined by an expert?

Very inciteful. You do think outside the box.

It seems her mother was a prankster.

Without being influenced by other entries, I will write this from my intuition as I heard the story. Journals are hollow and I believe reflect a yearning to stop time and capture something that is fleeting and intentionally impermanent. As the mother of five, I want my children to know me through our every interaction, not written discourse on my interpretation of my own life. Her mother left her blank journals upon which to live her own story and find the truth of her mother through their lasting love, the part of us that is immortal...sharing everyday moments of love and connectedness.

I agree, in part, but the odd thing about this story is the vast number of journals that Terry's mother had collected. Simply put, maybe her mother felt a bit guilty about having squirelled away those blank journals, which she never used, and wanted Terry to have them to dispose of them as she saw fit. That's a rather pedestrian interpretation of what seems like possibly a mystical act. It is a fascinating story. One would have to know a lot more about Terry and her mother before coming to any reasonable explanation. But in any case,I empathize with Terry's great disappointment!

Maybe Terry's mom felt that same love for words that Terry has, but did not feel equip to use them as a form of personal expression. So she may have hand-picked those journals with the intention of giving them to Terry all along, as a sort of legacy, knowing that her daughter, this living extension of herself, had both the internal and external force to fill the pages.

I believe it to be a mystical act...what is not there is the point. Taoist philosophy tells us that the unspoken is everything, the absence is the usefulness. If a single empty page causes wonder in a daughter's mind and thereby evokes an image/essence/moment that is far greater than mere ink on paper

Mom prepared the sheets for Terry to fill in. She knew that was her daughters purpose on this plane of existence. Mothers know everything.
Beautiful show....I just wish the tears would stop now.

Loved this. As I was listening to the podcast, before Terry got to the part about the journals being empty, I was putting myself in her mother's place, thinking about what words I would want to leave to my adult daughter if I knew I wouldn't be around, what parts of myself I would want her to know about. And then hearing the revelation that the journals were black, it occurred to me that maybe her mother was saying "You know everything there is to know about me" and inviting her to draw on her memories and experience to envision words on the page.

Again, imagining myself in the place of a dying mother, I can only think of how fortunate I would be if I felt that I could leave this world with my daughter really knowing who I am.

What a rich and imaginative discussion this has sparked. I won’t add to the speculations others have offered about what Terry’s mother may or may not have intended. However, I will say that hearing Terry tell that tale reminded me of something in my own life. Years ago, after lugging heavy camera gear along with me on several backpacking trips, I abruptly decided to abandon the practice. Not only had I grown weary of the extra weight on my back, but I realized that, rather than actually enjoying the views and images I was seeing and the experiences I was having, I was instead crushing them down and processing them through a lens. The camera had become a blindfold to my eyes, a burden on my back, and a wall between me and the joys of the moment. It had made me oblivious to life itself. However, I did not immediately realize all of this. It was only after I came across a particularly remarkable tiny fungus on one of my next trips, and had stared at it with awe for a very long time. Afterwards I chastised myself for not having my camera with me, but I suddenly realized that, by not having my camera and by drinking in the wonder of that image in real time, I had burned it more deeply and vividly into my memory than any camera or piece of film ever could have. Ever since, I have been completely freed to live each moment to the fullest, with no barriers or distractions. And it has never bothered me that I don’t have photos to remind me of my experiences. Besides, a photo can never equal the experience itself. I am at peace with the fleeting nature of the moment.

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