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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

I agree with Larry, and he has stated more eloquently than I could have the first thought that came to my mind. Furthermore, a while ago I stopped keeping mediculous journals because I began to feel that the example of my life would last longer and be more meaningful than any words I might leave behind. To live in the moment.

As a spiritual being who happens to be amongst many things, an artist; I see your mothers journals as being many things. They reminded me of a favorite line from a psalm, Be still and know I Am God. They are an art work of love in mystical way.May God bless you and all your family . Lots of love from Brother Peter G Kimble in England.

It is hard to make a comment without knowing more about the mother;s history. The fact that she owned journals is that she meant to say something. The fact that she didn't write anything tells me that either she has not much to say or that she was not confortable saying it. For me silence works when there is a person to share the silence with. When the journals are empty I can safely assume that she didn't have the courage to sharemit. When you leave it up to people to figure out things, we the people usually mess up the interpretation of the stories. You must be clear when you want to say something, otherwise others will end up saying things you might not intended to say.

As I listened to the story of the journals, I was struck by the devotion and care Terry's mother demonstrated in creating "sacred" books. One does not invest time and attention into a project like this unless it resonates at a very deep level. I realized Terry was looking at her mothers prayers. The books themselves are a simultaneously real and intangible - so is prayer. It is a profound gift, showingTerry the depth of her spiritual Self.

Ah, I think the gift of the empty journals offer the story of a life that is beyond words. Yet, she offers Terry the gift of telling stories that should be on those pages. It's a special invitation to have Terry use her gift to write memorable stories using the blank slate that imagination offers. I also feel some sense of tragedy of when we don't leave behind the stories we don't tell before we go there's enormous loss.

Katherine

Maybe she used invisible ink. Take them to a lab.

I have many possible interpretations of Terry Tempest Williams' mother's journals and I'll share a few here. Williams' mother is from a generation of women that were discouraged from working and expressing themselves. I speculate that her mother aspired to fill those journals with her thoughts, dreams and experiences, but she did not. Perhaps she would have done so, had she not died so young. Perhaps she infused the journals with her thoughts but never made the time to commit them to paper. Perhaps for a woman of her generation, it was an achievement to aspire to keep a journal. Perhaps by giving the blank journals to her daughter, she was telling her daughter how proud she was of her daughter's accomplishments.

Regardless of her mother's intentions, perhaps there is a gift in these blank journals that is reflected in Jewish culture. Jewish tradition teaches that originally there were two Torah's - oral and written. The written Torah more or less comprises the Hebrew bible today and the Talmud is constitutive of the Oral Tradition. But for thousand of years the oral tradition was just that - an oral memory of stories, tales, interpretations and life experiences.

Many within Jewish culture call these tales the white letters of Sacred Scripture. They provided adherents of Judaism a certain freedom and energy to read between the lines. Terry's mother has given a journal of white letters minus the black ones. The gift is energy contained in the oral memory of the times they passed together - something that might be disabled in part should they be written down. Perhaps the best thing Terry could do with them after she has thoroughly read them is pass them on as is to her next generation at the appropriate time

My wife, Janet, who was raised in Ogden Utah about the same time as Terry, instantly knew what the blank journals meant. It was an expectation of Mormon women at that time to keep a personal journal of their life experiences and especially their thoughts and feelings. They were to make the actual journals as attractive as possible, in keeping with the importance of them. However, the contents of these journals were expected to keep within the strict church's dogma, and they were not allowed to contain "heretical" writings. Thus, the reason for the blank journals. Obviously Terry's mother was not/did not feel free to write what was really on her mind and heart as they were outside the teachings of the church. She must have been a rather radical and free thinker for her days in the church.

this makes perfect sense from a utah mormon perspective, i totally agree

Words are not the only means through which to have a voice. Visually Terry's mother's voice created what an be seen, if the books are laid out in a rectangle as a beautiful quilt, or as a visually interesting line, stack, or pattern if teh books are set on a shelf or, as a wonderful sculpture if teh books are piled anywhich way one on top of the otehr, like a child's building blocks. However one imagines this it can be a never ending constantly changing work of art. And, if Terry chooses to fill the pages with words or drawings what a wondeful collaboration with her mother.

Without having read any other comment, just want to speculate that perhaps her mother was using those journals as receptacles of her love and her emotional life experience. Although we may not be capable of expressing it, the emotional life of each of us is as profound in its own way as the lives of those who do find their voice. Can picture her mother holding those journals, meditating, feeling, and willing those feelings to somehow be transmitted through the mere contemplation of those white pages -- as Terry says, bearing witness to having been here. For when this planet has one day vanished, her light, her vital spark, will be renewed, just as Terry's will, just as we all will be. Language, in the end, despite its majesties, is not capable of attaining immortality. The most moving poetry ever written will suffer the same fate. The important thing is having deeply experienced life. So she was encouraging Terry to continue to use her voice, to bear witness for her and for us all.

I see the carefully chosen varied blank journals of Terry's mother as her mother's way of handing her daughter the baton. It is her legacy, her inheritance, her imperative to give voice to her mother and all of those (so many) who cannot speak.

I think of my grandmother who was one of the first women to get a masters in bio-chemistry (but who did not practice her discipline) whose presence in our lives was mostly critical, negative, and full of judgment (we were the children of her shamefully divorced son)

I wrote letters to her briefly when I was young. Her letters back to me were so mysteriously full of joy, affirmation, and
Interest.... (If only she had kept a journal!)

When we speak, we speak for not only ourselves...but also for others who for some reason cannot

We can speculate as to intention, or motive but we will really never know the truth. The real question is "What are we (you) going to do going forward?". The musical note is defined by the silence between. Words have meaning but silence is equally meaningfilled. Her mother's silence speaks loudly about what was, is, and could be. To give a value-filled voice to the silence her mother wrote is the challenge. To ignore that challenge is to be silent, but with volition those words could move the world. Courageously, move forward, Terry, with your mother's words.

I'd tend to hope that she would have left her the journals for the literal and practical reason that she simply wanted her daughter to use them, write in them. Why else would she have bought them over the years if not to use them? Maybe it was a regret for her that she didn't, and maybe she wanted her daughter to make up for it somehow. Parents so often do want their children to do what they themselves always wanted to do but couldn't. Then again, has she checked for invisible ink?

this story glimmers, in the way a small candle does in a darkened room at night, of that penumbral moment of recognition, just before or after some one loved dies, when one yearns for what should have been said, one to the other.

I am inclined to think it was a gift of love, not something unfinished or left undone. that will be for whatever way Terry chooses to take it, of course. for myself, I can picture her mother saying "here, Terry, these are yours now. do with them what you wish, and remember I love you."

I was amazed to hear this ending. I was poised for some 'answers'...even hoping that her mother's writing might shed light on my own Mother's thoughts and experiences. I caught my breath, waiting, even thinking "what if my mother had left a trail, a place for me to visit her now?" Like Terry, I was in bed with my Mother, sharing her last moments.

O.K. What if it is the simplest answer: a gift for Terry to write in these blank books? To say all that she possibly may, that her mother could or did not?

I'm grateful to Diane Dixon Tempest and for her need in her final hours to give these to her daughter. Yes, they were blank. But are they really?

I stopped in my tracks when I heard Terry recite this story, and held my breath, waiting to hear the finish. My own mother, a wonderful writer but deeply depressed, filled many journals. She eventually lost her sight and couldn't write anymore, and I moved her to assisted living. Cleaning out her apartment I found her journals –– with almost all the pages torn out. It filled me with an indescribable grief. When I summoned the courage to ask my mom why she'd done it, she said, "I didn't want you to remember me that way." I thought of all the sadness, disappointment and loneliness she must've poured into those pages. But it didn't, if you can believe it, occur to me until listening to this that she hadn't simply thrown out the journals -- they held some truth about her life, and by extension ours, she wanted us to know.

Sometimes the thing or things that we want most in life, insights into our parents and family, wisdom and visits from beyond the grave, are not tangible. I, too, had all the letters my mother had carefully saved that my father wrote her while overseas while he served in WW II. I also waited for the right time to read them. It seemed somehow an invasion into the intimacy of my parent's lives, but months after my father's death (my mother had been gone for years) I began to read them in chronological order. I haven't finished them and I may never finish them.

Not because of some awful truth or overwhelming sadness, but because of the temporal nature of those words. As Linder Asher so wisely stated, "Language isn't enough!" I would give this advice to others and maybe even my own family about words that linger around the harddrives and blogsphere after we pass...THIS THINGS WERE SAID IN THE CONTEXT OF THE MOMENT! When I read my father's thoughts on the petty indignities of his deployment, I was reading something that passed between them. As he talked of the lack of privacy, colds, and poor food, I realized that I have no context to relate to them. I wanted amazing insights on war, courage and life, but I got compliants about spam and bedding. I have since wondered if I should have even read them as they gave me only a glimpse of the unhappiness and loneliness of my father in a troubled world and time. I longed for some time to be able to read my mother's letters, but I know now that they might disappoint, as well.

My father's letters didn't capture his dry wit, his love of magic and the supernatural, or his intellect. Words do fail us, as Terry and Krista both note. Like in the making of the mosaic, it is the areas between us that make the differences. It is not what my father said or even the intend of his words in letters or words spoken to me in the anger and fear of his illness and aging, but it is the action that I take with his legacy. Do I ponder on the hurt and disappointment of my relationship or my father's relationship with my mother or do I take the lessons from our relationships and the lessons from his with my mom and use them to make my life and my children's better in some way?

What I have learned and regret is that I should have spent more time talking and listening to my parents and their stories. I can recall only a few such precious visits with my mother as the person she was melted into a person with dementia who lost her words. My father and I had a contentious relationship that grew harder as time went on. I treasure the pleasant moments between us now. We have our memories and photos and puny words to recall those who have died, but it is up to us to elaborate on their accomplishments and importance. I only have the traces and edges of their lives and words, like the outline of a fallen sparrow trying to fly through to the other side on my window. It is far too little, but it is there.

1. an artistic expression requiring a lifetime for the mother to tell the daughter, "We can see that language is not enough...."
2. a presentation of zen nothingness, a shocking assist from a master
3. the finger that points is not the moon
4. the word "love" is a metaphor for every act in every moment
5.knowing her student, the mother needed to be this present
6.her mother searched a lifetime for the gate to show her daughter and oneness, often the easy one,wasn't
An awesome story.

As a mother, I've wondered what I can leave behind for my children, to inspire and give them hope. Having lost a parent at an early age, I've experienced moments of wisdom and comfort when I remember how my father had confidence in my abilities. Terry's mother gave her an enormous gift in the form of a koan - along with the individual hand-picked journals, she prompted her to wonder, look for insight, and use her talents.

I am writing because it is so easy for me to empathize.
Not with Terry, but perhaps,-- perhaps, --with her Mother.
I lived with years, decades really, of blank journals or ones with only a few brave, though mostly vacant, cryptic lines.
Then came the day--the many growing days---thanks to living mentors who showed the way and would not relent--professors in a Master of Writing program...when I dove in, fear and ALL and found my voice, in all of its multi-facets.
I continue to meet the blank page in awe but not so much fear, every day.
Thank you for perusing this question online, though none of us (of course) cannot know...why?
Perhaps Terry's mother's legacy is still so alive in all of us that we will persevere in our own ways, to reach for answers in our own writing.

She lived in hope that she could find her voice, but whenever she tried she just couldn't do it. I think she kept buying the journals in an effort to start fresh. "This time I'm really going to write in this journal." But putting things on paper gives them power and that's scary.

I'm intrigued that she kept them all. That would be a constant reminder of failure to me.

I listened to the On Being segment on Ms. Williams, and I must say my dominant impression was that the woman is a fraud. I'm sympathetic to many of her causes, but several of the things she said reallly jangled. The idea that nuclear testing in southern Nevada was "nuking Utah" is a stretch, and the idea that her family in far northern Utah could have been seriously affected is absurd. For a woman who supposedly lives in the outback not to know what a deer stand is makes no sense. As for her mother's journals, I don't see much mystery. She bought them to write in, never got around to it, knew her daughter was a writer, and thought she could use them. She had no "voice" to speak of; most of us don't. Ms. Williams appears to have built a successful career on hyperbole and speculation, an old American tradition

I found this intriguing. Thank you for allowing me to put my two sense in to this conversation.

I have noticed that children often become what is desired but unfulfilled in the parent. On both ends this has been true for me. So, I suspect that her mother bought journals, having a longing for writing but not the wherewithal that Terry has. She realizes late in life that she will never fill the beautiful books......but knows that is the what she is passing on to Terry...the blankness of a page to write on., I love it.

Part Two!

I think she gave them to Terry to show her that she couldn't even be open with herself, so Terry should understand why she couldn't be open with her. I also think she wanted to Terry to open them after she was gone because she didn't have an answer to why she kept them. She wanted to give Terry a clue to her personality, but she didn't want to talk about it.

Terry, I think your mother left the blank journals for you to fill in. They represent what will be written, and she knew you would be the one to make something of them. Such love and confidence in a daughter. How lucky could you be? I found Refuge, btw, in a used bookstore. I read a few pages and couldn't believe I hadn't heard of it before. I bought the book and devoured it in a matter of days. I often wonder about the person who read it before me. She signed her name in pencil on the cover page. I feel connected now to her even though I have no idea who she is or where she is. I guess she's "my pelican too." People travel through our lives like birds do. It is good to know their names.

A very prolifically wise Mother... In life, those who feel we 'know' the answers on 'living life' continuously find, there is 'one more thing' we wish we had said, advice given, love shared, moment lingered...as we watch loved ones lives unfold...and so, this mother, knowing 'life' ...left behind the best 'discovery' about living life...'none.'. Her apparent feeling ..her living of life had been an open book....that Life as we live it is a blank page, bestt left to the 'wonderment'...'discovery' each moment brings, intermingled with the 'whims' as you will of our universe.

I think her mother had at one time planned to write in those journals, however she got busy with life and may have simply valued the experience of everyday living (being present) more than writing about it. I think by telling Terry she was giving her her journals, she was saying write your own story, but as you write in my journals you will feel my presence.

Terry's mother was of the generation that created through handwork and who had grown up in the Mormon disciplines inculcating that women were to be "protected" by men and who also were of the notion that women were a source of joy to men. However, her mother saw that Terry was "different" and she undoubtedly saw the possibilities of the creative spirit in her daughter were not solely "domestic" and therefore "created" the beautiful handcrafted covers for Terry's creative efforts - journaling thoughts that her mother feared to recognize. PLF

I believe her mother left those empty journals as a legacy......a legacy of purpose. I believe her mother bequethed her the purpose of journaling. She wanted her to begin to write her life.

Assuming that the journals were not written in invisible ink or that her father had destroyed any journals that had been written in or they were not kept blank as a protest against the edict to not write heresy by the Mormon elders (as previous commentators have suggested) , perhaps the beautifully bound journals themselves made by her own hand were the thing that TTW's mother was privately proud of and gave her joy and wanted her daughter to celebrate her handicraft, her personal accomplishment.

Question: has TTW discussed this with her father or other family members? What is their insight?

Yes, Terry, as you thought. She knew that you had found your voice. She did not, and she wanted to tell you how precious it is to have a voice. She wanted to show you that she believed in having a voice and struggled but did not find it for herself. She never gave up. And she knew that you have found yours naturally.
We all know somewhere, very close to the place where reality touches unreality, that there is something that we want to say. In order to say it we have to open up to that state and invite it in to where we have words, and we try our best to be true to this pre-thought knowledge. And if we have the voice, then the meaning that wants to be conveyed comes through everything, the words, the spaces between them, the music that they create and the scent, almost imperceptible, of that state from which the knowledge came. It is a gift to be connected to this because it is the place from which the love of everything comes.
By giving you the diaries she sounded her voice at last, without the words, but everything else that is in a voice was there.

I enjoyed hearing this interview, thank you. The blank journals are a deeply political act equivalent to putting tape over one's mouth at demonstrations. She was screaming her discontent with her state of being. The personal is always political.

Last night, after winning a team tennis match I wasn't "supposed" to win and with a few celebretory beers under my belt, I invited a friend to a glass of wine on my deck.

A little history of this friendship: four years ago this "friend" excluded me from an annual event that we had traditionally attended together. I discovered the exclusion in a round-about way and was deeply hurt on many levels. But the most hurtful was the mystery of the "why?" Several weeks later, I countered with a rejection of her - to an invitation for a hike. Our imperfect friendship ended abruptly - with no words, harsh or otherwise. The split haunted me for a long time.

More to the point of the question, the friendship had long been tempered by a vast political divide - so we were practiced at avoiding issues and our union was often labored - so on some levels the split was a relief. But there was also a level of trust between us that said "as long as it's not political, we can say anything and it won't be repeated." This element registered as my greatest loss.

Last night - with the luxury of time and diminishing memory - we enjoyed several glasses of wine together. At one point, my psyche said "this would be a good time to ask 'why?'" And I didn't.

I still don't know "why" because I was afraid of the consequence of asking. Perhaps Terry's mother was afraid of the consequence of telling. What is to be gained? What is to be lost? The void - or chasm - between those questions fills her mother's journals. And the void of not knowing "why" still haunts me.

I too felt her longing for a clear answer as to why they were left empty. But overall and mostly, I admire her very quiet, calm graciousness in addressing things that leave most of us full of angst and pained conflict. She has become one for me to emulate in my own life and the way I need to accept this world of immediate differences.

I enjoyed hearing this interview, thank you. The blank journals are a deeply political act equivalent to putting tape over one's mouth at demonstrations. She was screaming her discontent with her state of being. The personal is always political.

Perhaps her mom was telling her that her own story is the one her daughter has yet to write. Perhaps, she felt her life story is found in her daughter's life, body, soul, wrods, being. Her life was centered on her daughter and is now hers to write.

It was a gift. Her mother had not been able to find her own voice yet knew the profound importance of it and wanted to leave her daughter the literal and figurative space to find hers. It was brave and beautiful and generous. Thank you for sharing that story. It made me dust off my own "journal" and dig deeper into finding my voice; those inner churning whispering tentacles that guide and color our lives.

I think her mother knew she had something to say but was not "given permission" by those in her life. She knew that it was not only okay but necessary for her to write and share her knowledge, observations, wisdom but did not. She knew because she was making a place for her words, but for whatever reason was not willing or able to put pen to paper.

Her generation, the culture in which she lived may have contributed to her feelings that writing or reflecting was not valued. I feel she did not want Terri to see that she had empty volumes because it would make her sad as it did me. She knew Terri would have tried to help her begin to fill the books but at the end of life the task would be too great.

Terry Tempest Williams

Beloved Terry,

Your interview with Krista Tippett impressed me deeply. You have done well in living your life.

In response to the meaning contained in your mothers ‘empty’ journals, this came through my heart for you.

Those who know
Realize words
cannot contain
it’s wisdom.

In the East
the True Sage
takes sanctity
in Silence.

Your mom was surely a True Sage.

And I feel she recognized in you the potential to be able to understand the truth they contain and give them voice. Perhaps if you hold a journal open on your lap when in meditation something of significance will reveal itself.

Last night I listened to a discourse on this subject. You may also find it significant.

I hope someday we can meet.

Love, Devananda

I would have to know more about her relationship with her mother.
On one hand, she could have left the blank books as a statement, that her mother's life was her own (she said she was private) and that statement was that they were to stay private. Or that she was to make up her own ideas about her mom.
If her mom was cruel, and she knew that her daughter was longing to know her better, then the blank journals were just a big fuck you to her. We'll never know.

Three thoughts: her mother intended to keep a journal and felt her words were not important
Her words were too difficult to write down then later found
She everything she had to say, while alive. a lesson for us all.

Terry's mother was a private person and remained private in her own way. Coming from my perspective there seems to be a flavor of Buddhism in empty pages. And her daughter took on the voice her mother didn"t materialize on paper. Is it that our children sometimes realize their parents dreams?

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar...

Terry Tempest Williams

Beloved Terry,

Your interview with Krista Tippett impressed me deeply. You have done well in living your life.

In response to the meaning contained in your mothers ‘empty’ journals, this came through my heart for you.

Those who know
Realize words
cannot contain
it’s wisdom.

In the East
the True Sage
takes sanctity
in Silence.

Your mom was surely a True Sage.

And I feel she recognized in you the potential to be able to understand the truth they contain and give them voice. Perhaps if you hold a journal open on your lap when in meditation something of significance will reveal itself.

Last night I listened to a discourse on this subject. You may also find it significant.
The Search, Vol 1

I hope someday we can meet.

Love, Devananda

We tend to equate eloquence with words -- the choice of the right words -- but silence can be just as eloquent, depending on the context. Terry's mother's life sounds like so many "unrecorded" lives that are no less rich for having been left unrecorded. Words can reflect and express, and they can also lie. Think of all the writers whose personal conduct is said to have fallen short of the humanism they expressed on the page. To me, finding one's voice is also about finding the voice to tell a story you feel compelled to tell, that won't stop haunting you until it's shared. Those blank journals could be full of stories Terry's mother didn't feel compelled to tell. Sometimes that's all that separates writers from everyone else.

I think her mother made the Journals for her daughter to write in. Did her mother know her daughter was interested in writing?

I have a brother who is a wonderful writer, athough he has only written a few poems on paper. Yet he writes all the time, (in his head) and he will share his stories with me if pressed to do so. I, too, could imagine that once he is gone, his computer files will be empty. Maybe some things are not meant to make it to paper. Maybe the creation is within our soul, and words are merely superfluous.

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