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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

Good point Bill. I have noticed the same thing in carrying my camera around. The memories are much more important than staring at the pictures after the fact. We try too hard sometimes to hang on to the wrong things.

I also find that if you're known to lug a camera with you, people start expecting you to do that service for their events and love seeing you coming. I can enjoy the event so much more cameraless.

Silence stillness and solitude. I first heard these words from out of a book by Thomas Merton. Yet in reality everything originates from one source, The great creator that is Love. My favourite line from a psalm to meditate and pray on is, `DBe still and know I am God. Peace from Peter G Kimble in England.

I made the decision to stop lugging the camera during travels, also. It is a barrier to life at times. In the last year my parents were alive, they spontaneously started dancing in the kitchen to Dinah Washington; my 1st thought was "where is my camera", but the image is still vivid in my brain.

The point may be that keeping a journal is a noble idea, but filling it is quite another matter.

My Mom did the same thing to me. I had given her journals thru out her life time and never wrote in any of them. My take on this is She lived her life everyday and was a private person even to me on some areas and had no time to sit and write down what she was living everyday. I believe it was her way of saying live your life-your own life and if we talked about things then you have that info on me but I will live everyday and there is no time to sit and write down what I think or did. Only live it.

I was so moved by Terry's words, that the pages in the journal were blank. It reminded me of my grandmother, she used to say, when you leave this earth, you leave evertyhing, and everyone behind, so I suppose Terry's mum wanted nothing in writing, ....We begin our lives with a blank page, and her mum ended hers with blank pages. Her mum's life must have so rich, spiritually and emotionlly, and that in it self was enough, it did not need to be written. Her mum was I suppose saying, live in the present moment. mina

I thought it was an insult. A very hostile act.

People are often angry at that which they cannot understand. See Mina`s reply for more understanding. May God bless you and all your family . Los of love from Peter G Kimble in England.

I think she wanted her daughter to fill them.

i like reading all the thoughtful comments - interesting how the idea of the journals being left for the daughter to write in comes up so often - i thought of that too - i spent some time with my dad before he died , and i am very grateful for that - i'm not quite sure what it is that he left me because he could be such a mystery - i know he loved me and i know he was a mystery - i celebrate both - thank you all for sharing your thoughts and for allowing me to share mine - bye - joe

Knowing the power of Terry Tempest Williams words, I think her Mom left those empty journals for her. I believe her Mom knew Terry could put into words what they had talked about, what she remembers, what her mother meant to her and after all, isn't that what matters?
Marcia

I heard just about 15 minutes of the program today...but my heart was moved to the core.
As a Mom, myself, at 65....I thought....without doubt....this Mom was telling her daughter....no one knows me better than you....my love....you are part of me...always...and I am part of you for Eternity....take each of these journals...and turn the pages slowly...and listen with your heart...and you will hear and know every word I intended to write you. Our thoughts transcend the written word...our hearts are forever in tune....and you know better than I what would be on these pages.... with love....Mom

Knowing the power of Terry's words, I believe her Mom left them blank so that Terry could use them for her artistic use. Her Mom knew how gifted Terry's writing style is, so she provided a blank page and a blank voice to allow for Terry's interpretation. Marcia

I agree with some previous commenters that mom clearly wanted her daughter to start a journal of her own. I imagine that may be because mom had always wanted to, always intended to begin hers, but neglected to do so. At 60, I wish I'd started one when I was a teenager, there is so much I'd like to look back on now, but alas, it's too late. So that's the message I'd like to think mom was sending--start a journal now, to appreciate later, and for your children to appreciate some day.

Wonderful mystery! I think of the many things that are hidden in plain sight, waiting only for the right eyes to notice them. We are surrounded by such.

Were the journals her mother's Zen dope-slap? Are the words written in invisible ink? Or like the many journal-books I've received as gifts: too elegant and precious for my cramped handwriting and less-than-immortal prose?

I guess that before I speculated on what Terry's mom might have meant by leaving the journals, I'd want to know a lot more: were they obviously collected over a long period of time or did they seem roughly similar in age (that is, from the past few years)? were the pages, as one commentator asked, crisp and clean or care-worn and aged? what was her mother like? Terry said that her mother was "a very private person," a very telling statement. But did she feel like she knew her mother well or was she looking forward to this revelation into her mother's inner life? How did her mother relate to her career as a writer, speaker, visionary? for me, with my training, albeit novice, in mental health, the revelation was shocking, even disturbing. Three shelves is a lot of journals. And that they were all perfectly blank says something more than good intentions to write never fulfilled. I did think about invisible ink. But in the end, Terry is the one among us who knew her mother best, and her thoughts have run to the question of voice. What is it to have a voice? Which is louder: thousands of words or silence? Can a Mormon woman of her mother's generation ever possibly hope to speak her truth except with this one act of stunning silence? And what does one's interpretation of such an act (particularly Terry's in this case) say about one's voice? For isn't a reframe an exercise of voice? And hasn't that been what Terry has done so beautifully for years: to take the broken pieces and place them into shining whole by which we are all made whole. I'm very interested in where she goes with this.

May Terry's mom was wishing that someday she might get around to filling the books up, but life got in the way so she passed the empty books to her daughter so that she could start anew!!!!

I was more impressed with the fact that the mother had so many journals for her long and storied life. The fact that they were empty says to me that living her life was more important than writing about it, and the legacy she left was in not words on a page, but in the memories that her daughter, and others, had of her.

I don't know Terry or her Mom, but when I heard this story it made me laugh! I think her Mom had a great send of humor! Especially telling her not to open them until after she had died! I think her Mom must have known that Terry had lived by her Mom's wishes because no one opening all those empty journals could keep quiet about it.... ;-)

It also reminded me of a time in my own life when I was visiting a friend who was dying. He called me to him to listen and said, "I have a favor to ask you." My reply was that I would do anything for him and expected some task that I could complete just for him. What he said was, "Please don't tell anyone I'm in the hospital. I don't want them to see me this way." I felt awful for imposing a visit on him that he really didn't want, and it has made me careful now to always ask before visiting anyone if that is something they would like. Sometimes expecting an outcome that turns out very different not only adds a bit of mystery to ones life, but teaches us as well in some deeper way.

I like the idea that Terry's mom's request was a practical joke of sorts--perhaps to point out that she had always had intentions she never fulfilled, or to emphasize that journal-keeping was too much of a chore for her. It does seem odd, however, that she placed so much emphasis on them when she was dying.

Krista and Terry's conversation was invoking a deeper way of being\; the journal mystery also begs to be understood in a different way for we will never think our way to the truth. Our rich interior life is God Himself. Like crystal clear rain is His grace. His insight is our moment of knowing. We can just "ask" when we're stumped, about anything. The answer won't be what we expect and it will certainly surprise and delight. "You ask, I respond," is the covenant. We make our children, parents and ancesotrs into gods but there is no god but God Himself. Everthing is from Him, He tells us in the Qur'an.

Add my vote to those suggesting invisible ink as used by a very private person whose clever padlock is opened only with a certain wavelength light or some wet solution. Alternatively, as Katy asks @ 5:31 PM, what are Terry's mother's personality traits? Truly empty pages (no ink of any kind) could be the equivalent of creating (or collecting) the containers with intent to fill, similar to a behavior hallmark of disorders like obsessive compulsive personality (DSM-IV 301.4) with various degrees of hoarding. Some parallels here with Brook Downs's admission @ 4:27 AM about "intent to write". If Terry's mother was a perfectionist then, as Emenbensma says in reply to Brook, would not express herself for fear of her writing being "judged inadequate". Or this, some words unspoken, mother to Terry: "My journals you will find empty. I am such a private person, I would be too embarrassed to have to tell you in person why I did not write in them. Please, spare me the embarrassment, promise to look at them only after I am gone and discover for yourself they are empty."

I think her mother was saying each life is a tabula rasa, a blank tablet. The journal she kept was the life she lived. It was a living journal, written in her heart. Her heart was ever and always open for others to read. What she leaves behind is her heart. What she "wrote" is what remains in the hearts of those whose lives she touched. Here was a woman so engaged in the living of her life she did not keep a journal of words but experience and perception. She was ALIVE! That is her legacy and her last lesson to her cherished daughter.

I've collected a lot of journals because they were so beautiful, and not written in them. Perhaps that's what she did. Or, like the other Marcia said, she wanted Terry to have them so she could write in them, something she wasn't able to do. Or....she may have taken out everything that she wrote, and left just the blank pages for her daughter to start anew. I have interviewed Terry Tempest Williams as well, and consider it one the highlights of my life. She sees the future in the present.

I think the blank pages could be exactly what her mother wanted her daughter to see. Essentially, her daughter would (not necessarily literally) fill in the blank pages with memories that she had of her mother. A person exists to those who really matter in memories. Her mother, perhaps wanted her daughter to always remember her how she was during life, not how pen on paper describes her life. I hear her saying, "remember my actions, not my words."

I don't have a reason for your mother's empty journals, but I have a reason for mine. Though all my journals are not empty there are many days that are are. I have Not recorded so much of my life that I should have and wanted to and thought about but when I put the pen to the paper the words would not and do not come. I might be sitting there crying, with emotion and unable to express what I'm feeling through word. I tell myself I'll remember to write it later or that it was such a powerful experience how will I ever forget it. But I do, eventually and it goes unrecorded.
Words and thoughts are such distant relatives. Thoughts take on emotions and lives of their own without language. Words are so defined and finite. Words are a frightening way to summarize the magnificence of being.
I journal - or rather I try to - but I find I am journaling the mundane and everyday activities of my life, not the monumental moments that make it memorable to me. And really who wants to read that? My heart holds the deepest part of me and the combination of letters, words and sentences just never seem to convey my feelings.
As I write this I am crying with an ache to express what I feel, your story touched me in a way I am still exploring. If nothing else it will encourage me to be a better journalist of my own life and passion.
Thank you.

"There is no event so commonplace but that God is present within it, always hiddenly, always leaving you room to recognize him or not to recognize him, but all the more fascinatingly because of that, all the more compellingly and hauntingly...
Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery that it is. In the boredom and pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace." -Frederick Buechner

Two thoughts came to mind when I heard this. The first wasn't a thought, it was a burst of laughter and I'm surprised - and a little dismayed - that Terry couldn't find the humor in it, too. Guess what guys? It's all for naught, this life, her mother was saying.
That said, having sat by a few deathbeds of my own friends and family, I've learned that the dying are often very focused on ... themselves. After all, it's they who are leaving the party early.
Maybe Terry's mother was saying, "The reason why I never 'let you in' on my personal thoughts are that I had none.'" Or, more radically, "'Life as a Mormon woman has left me voiceless and thoughtless. Flee, child, flee!'"

My mother passed away 8 years ago this coming weekend of multiple Sclerosis. Id like to think that those journals are a metaphor for keeping someones memory alive. I continue to have a relationship with my mother, remembering her history and understanding her past perhaps more so since she has gone. Who better than a writer to give a blank page to? History shows that we can understand someone, and appreciate them more once they are no longer here. As an Agnostic it's my view of heaven in a way.

As a mother who has kept journals for over forty years I was shocked and saddened by Terry’s story. My own mother kept journals too and self published them for her children and grandchildren. I was eager to read them but then very disapointed because all I read were descriptions of placesof weather and meals, of events. Where were her thoughts about herself. What was her inner life like? Perhaps that’s all it was. Her life was her husband and her children, her close friends on the farm where I grew up. But I wanted more. I wanted her feelings about things. I wonder if Terry’s mom was telling her,”I don’t have a voice, but you must, for me and for yourself. You tell my story and yours.” I do remember times when I couldn’t put into words what was in my heart, when I felt my words were inadequate for what I felt, that my language was too simple, that I sounded stupid. Maybe looking at that open book with blank pages was just to overwhelming for her. Or maybe they were meant to be a present for Terry all along, blank, for her to fill in. What a puzzle. It is achingly unsolvable.

Because my mother always said exactly what she meant in the most concise language, my guess is that Williams' mother meant for her to put the empty journals to use, as if to say, "Fill the pages with your life, for mine has been expressed in living."

Her intent was clear. She ha things she wanted to say. Perhaps, probably she did, to herself.
My mom talked to all of writing her history, her autobiography. Immediately after her death, I searched her papers, her computer. Nothing I could recognize was there. It was a disappointment to many, as she was so well thought of. I hoped she had enjoyed it all, her own way. I wanted more from her, of course. Though she had already given me so much ... Thanks for all your efforts on our behalf. Best to you, Susan

Having lived in Utah for years and spent a great deal of time among Mormons, I am struck by the silencing of women. This is something that they internalize without knowing it. Many of my women friends are very private people (like Terry's mother) who are terrified of revealing themselves. So I interpret her mother's bequest as an acknowledgment of her daughter's ability to do what she could not: speak her truths. With "Refuge," Terry broke the taboo. I think her mother was encouraging her while also acknowledging the absence of her own voice (i.e., the blank pages).

I propose an explanation for why Theresa Tempest Williams’ mother kept and then gave volumes of vacant journals to her daughter. Note: my hypothesis is given in the manner of collapsing the wave function: Schrodinger (physics) in which a measurement - in this case, my hypothesis - provides one of an infinite number of possibilities.

Here is my measurement, my hypothesis:

A woman longs to write her story. She yearns to tell herself and, perhaps, the world what she thinks, feels, observes, does, wants, hopes, fears, loves, hates, resents, believes. But she is terrified; she simply cannot say any of it. The most she can do is to make, collect and hide the journals (handmade, one by one, added methodically, secretively, lovingly over the years) that would hold her inner life if she only had the courage to pick up the pen and write the first word. But she cannot. Someone has terrified her, paralyzed her ability to have her voice made incarnate by pen on paper. She longs for it though. The volumes are testimony to this longing.

Whatever terrified her was cruel. It was probably a person; it almost always is; it almost certainly was.

She is dying. The cruelty that terrified her and made her mute is too much to bear and she shrugs it off onto the heart of her daughter, who only wants to know her mother and knows, in the most excruciating way now that her mother is about to die, that she does not. The mother is well aware that she has been aloof, that her daughter longs to know; the mother knows she can never say who she is, or even that she is. But the mother knows that the daughter desperately hopes …

The mother merely inhabits a body, makes noises and movements that align with all the rest. She can never reveal herself. She knows that and holds that at the same time she knows her daughter’s desperate need to know her. She is terrified to reveal herself, and this is the result of some human cruelty which she can bear no more, especially now on her deathbed when it is all too clear that the daughter wants to know her.

(Shakespeare could not have done a better job crafting a plot at this point.)

Like a forward pass, the mother hands off the cruelty that was foisted upon her to her daughter by promising her - and this promise occurs as they both are lying in the mother’s death bed - the secret knowledge when she knows, by design, that the empty journals will be a perpetuation of the cruelty of silence, the cruelty of no voice, the cruelty of infinite silence forever - passed on to her own daughter!

This was a bad thing to do. Now, it takes great strength and courage to see the cruelty of what the mother did, to accept the cruelty of it for what it is: evil. But here is the gift of it, as I see it: we can hardly know ourselves well, even after decades trying. Can we really know anyone else? Would filled up journals have helped all that much, or perhaps muddied the waters further?

What the daughter, Theresa, can do is to begin to write in those journals herself! Fill them with memories of her mother, of her own childhood. Do what her mother could never do. Do it! Take those journals and rewrite history.

And while you’re at it, poke around in the family archives and find out what the historic cruelty was, and who did it. Write that into the journals.

And then re-write the story: you find the journals that your mother has so kindly finally left to you as your rightful inheritance and they are all filled with stories and memories about you, the daughter, Theresa. The journals are all about you. Write beautiful stories about yourself. From what little I have learned about you, listening to the interview with you today, I know those stories are magnificent and myriad.

Do what your mother could never do. Do it for her and for yourself.

And that’s what voice is.

There are things I don't tell my daughters because I want to protect them. Things I don't tell them because I think they won't understand. Things I don't tell them because I think they won't care. But really, there are only things I don't tell my daughters because I am afraid of being judged by them. And this often-disguised self-protection really only serves to keep my daughters and I from being as deeply connected as we could be.
There are many things my own mother, a wonderful, open,creative, spiritual person and my greatest role model, still doing her creative, spiritual and intellectual work at 83, has never shared with me. And it has only been in hearing this story of the empty journals, and reflecting on what it means to me, to all of us, that I have gotten in touch with how sad I am at not really knowing my mother's heart and not sharing mine with her.

Those empty journals made me ache for that connection to my own mother, and for Terry's connection to her mother. Why have we, as strong, articulate, activist mothers and daughters, kept our wisdom from each other? Do we still not trust our own voices?

As one who journals (and speaks) less often and less openly than I used to, I find myself incredibly challenged by those empty journals. I hope that Terry's story,and her willingness to share it publicly, will give me the courage to open my heart to my daughters, and to ask my mother to open hers to me. Thanks.

Perhaps Terry's mother collected these journals (or accepted them as gifts, or both) in the same way that people keep adding to their collection of cookbooks, each one seen as the first act in realizing the dream of producing all those wonderful dishes for family and friends.

But what makes it so difficult to understand is why Terry's mother would ask Terry to promise not to look at the journals until after she had died. Embarrassment, perhaps? It's certainly plausible that she would have been embarrassed about collecting so many empty journals, but still felt that Terry, as a writer, would finally make good use of them. Maybe it didn't occur to her that Terry would feel such anguish at finding each one empty.

Or was she under the delusion that she had actually written in them?

I unfortunately think that it's possible that Terry's mother always intended to write in the beautiful journals that she had so lovingly created, and that as she was dying she imagined that she had recorded her most personal thoughts and feelings therein. I'd take the gift of the journals as a sign of love, any way Terry might look at it.

I think that the Mom's urging to read her (blank) journals after she has died, demonstrated the sorrow of all the lost voices of relations, nature's inhabitants, our ancestors, and voices for compassion and collaborative work aiding and supporting all beings who live amidst one another. I quietly wept for the voices I wish I could hear of my dead ancestors and loved ones and for wolf, whale or bird or pets. Especially for wise grandmothers and grandfathers to talk via journals. Theresa's mother's voice is gone for whatever reason, but she wanted her daughter who can write and love to continue her work. Oh the sorrow of our lost voices for us today. What a poignant symbol her mom gave to her and to me and to us.

maybe...well...maybe her mother, for whatever reason, couldn't find the voice to fill those journals. And maybe prompting her daughter to 'read' them after she was gone was a way of leaving a legacy...find your voice, daughter, fill those pages in a way that I couldn't.

Her mother begins to become a writer, a historian of the family. Funny how the journals in the above image do not match the image from the podcast. I imagined numerous cloth covered, clean paged journals all the same size, the size that you buy in the Hallmark stores, 7x9 or a little smaller.
As a parent you try to write. Getting the day finished, with children and a husband and a deathly landscape that they live in, how can that be written about unless there is a distance, that allows clarity. Maybe she didn't have the time.
Terry becomes a writer, and her mother feels relieved that the books will go to "good use". But to speak about the books before she dies, would require an explanation. Journals arrive as gifts, and all with fabric covers (correct?). Fabric, that would reference much of her day. Clothing her family.
She knew Terry would use them, in whatever manner, and being a private person, the mother simply let the gift be an new opportunity. Not the past, but the future.

It is hard to really know what to make of the story of the empty journals without knowing more about Terry's relationship with her mother and more about Terry's mother herself. Terry described her mother as very "private". From listening to Terry's "voice" during this program, she seems to be a very insightful and observant person. It appears that she has spent a lot of time considering her closest relationships and their dynamics. She would know more about her relationship with her mother than anyone else, (I guess that seems obvious!), so, if she feels confounded and hurt by the fact of the empty journals, she may well have reason.

So, I would like to carefully offer my impression, with all respect to Terry and her incerdible openness in sharing this very personal story with us.

It wasn't clear in the telling of the story if the journals were hand made or purchased, or some combination, (ie. she bought journals which she then personalized). I am not sure if this makes any difference, but it seems to me that such a large collection of journals indicates a great affinity for journals or the making of journals. If she bought/made a journal with the intention of writing, it is hard to believe that they would all be completely empty. It makes sense to me that she would have at least attempted an entry at some point. And, if one empty page seems intimidating, how much more intimidating would be hundreds of blank pages? It just makes sense in my mind, that the intention here probably never involved actually writing in them.

I admit it is confusing that she directly instructed Terry not to look inside them until after her death. I didn't get the impression from Terry's conversation that, as has been suggested here, that her mother was a jokester, but perhaps she was. I am thinking that perhaps she was generally a very practical person and felt inside herself, that it was frivolous to have a collection of anything, much less a collection of journals, never intended to be written in. I get this idea from the fact that Terry had no knowledge of this collection and that she kept it hidden in her closet. But it seemed close to her heart, because she kept it protected. And in passing this to her daughter, she was bestowing her very private and treasured secret. So, maybe that is why she didn't want Terry to know, because it made her feel frivolous and this embarrassed her.

But additionally, knowing how Terry loves to write, maybe it made her mother feel connected to Terry, to provide a blank template for Terry to feel her mother's presence for years to come, while engaging in an activity that is so close to Terry's heart; to think of Terry writing in her treasured items long into the future. And how perfect a complementary activity it was, to enjoy collecting/making empty journals, and to have a daughter that loves to write?

I have learned so much from listening to Terry this week, (and Krista every week!). Thank you both for sharing, and I wish you peace.

In his poem "Missed Time" the novelist and poet Ha Jin offers what seems to me the only way to understand blank pages:

MISSED TIME

My notebook has remained blank for months
thanks to the light you shower
around me. I have no use
for my pen, which lies
languorously without grief.

Nothing is better than to live
a storyless life that needs
no writing for meaning--
when I am gone, let others say
they lost a happy man,
though no one can tell how happy I was.

As I heard this story, I was reminded of a short story at the beginning of Eknath Easwaran's book "Your Life is Your Message": in it he speaks about how Gandhi was getting on a train and was not speaking, a practice he would do to save his voice. Someone asked him a question and he responded by scribbling the note "My life is my message." I believe Terry's mother was telling her daughter that her life was her message. No thoughts written down, no letters received from others, no clippings from newspapers would provide any greater understanding. It's up to each and every person who knew her to weave the quilt, form the mosaic that comes together and represents her life- her words aren't needed to help form the work of art that is her life. She was too busy living to stop and write. These are my thoughts without reading other comments. Thanks for a wonderful program Terry and Krista.

As an active mormon who seeks to stretch outside of the box I feel the pressure of ecclesiastical conformity. I can imagine how it would feel every time I recieved a lesson in Sunday School on journal writing, that I would feel the pressure to start writing in my Journal. 2 nephi 4:15 "And upon these I write the things of my soul,...." Each new journal was new attempt to fullfill that commitment. Each day is a new attempt to bring myself closer to God and each night is a check on my limited success. A continual 4 steps forward to 3 steps back. God as not interested in the speed of my of my arrival but in the constant effort and direction.

I don't know. Without knowing Terry's mother I can guess, but add little to what is expressed above. However I would like a) to join the conversation and b) suggest that it has taken me a long time to find my voice. And that I see my son, at 23, moving far beyond me. So it would seem logical and reasonable to conclude that Terry's mother was saying 'Here are my journals. Fill them. You are my legacy."

It seems that Larry's first sentence - "I don't know." - will always be true. Beyond that I think we are all the recipients of the enigmatic blank pages that Terry received from her mother, and we're all filling them with our own reactions. At first I thought the fact that she asked that they remain unopened until she had passed signified a secret so dark that it could not be expressed, but now I imagine that perhaps the artisanship in the construction of the bindings was the main thing, and that the pages when opened are blank is Terry's mothe's way of laughing at death.

This was my second reaction to Terry's mother's charge to Terry. In a very simple way, perhaps her mother was asking Terry to use the journals as she herself had never used them. Maybe her mother even wanted Terry to interpret her (the mother's) intellectual and spiritual heritage for others.

Terry's mother is telling her that silence is more powerful and more meaningful than words. She learned how words can twist and distort reality, how they are in the end, incapable of conveying the profundity of life, of Being. This is a powerful lesson, one that she wouldn't have been able to convey with language to her daughter (if for example Terry had asked her about them while she was still alive). Terry would have to discover it on her own. That's the beautiful message of her journals, of her life.

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