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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 think her mother meant for Terry to write in the journals that she made for her daughter. Did her mother know that Terry was interested in writing?

I don't know why her mother didn't have a voice but I think by telling her daughter that she was leaving her those journals which turned out to be empty she was saying to Terry- write it all down.

Ether she felt her life could not be captured in words or she knew her daughter had the words and abilities to fill in the blank pages!!!

I believe it is the passing ofa journey. Explaining those places that connect the parent to the child. A continuation of 'one' into other.

As I listened to your program earlier today on WABE-FM in Atlanta, I literally felt an ache in my stomach upon hearing of Terry's discovering that her mother's journals were blank. I lost my mother when I was 15 and as I was listening to the story, I thought "what a gift that Terry could get to know her mother so intimately after her passing." I would have given anything to have my mother's written words to learn about her and about myself over these last 34 years since she passed. Upon realizing that Terry didn't have her words, a multitude of emotions washed over me. I was so angry at her mother for intimating this promise of her words, only to leave her no written words. Then I began to wonder if the lesson from her mother was to empower her daughter to fill those journals with her own words?

Empty space "screams" for own filling...

Might leaving a diary with blank pages for your children when passing away not be the most inspiring diary that can be passed on?

I am sure, I would be initially very surprised and likely disappointed when finding empty pages. But I assume I would feel so “touched” that it would motivate me massively to think - the open space "screams" for being filled...

Could her mother ever have written entries into her diary that could be as powerful and (valuable to her) as Ms. Williams own imagination and ideas? In a way, the empty pages can be seen as a motivation to fill the pages herself, with her own experiences, to paint her own picture of the world.
A positive side of losing my father at the age of three was that I got to imagine my father exactly the way I wanted him to be since the passed away. In that sense, I had/have a dream father as in my imagination he became my ideal – that I (unknowingly) set up for myself.
In the same way, Ms. Williams can fill the pages exactly the way she wants. The diary can be exactly how she want's it to be. Can her mother say anything more valuable then to live her own life and go out and discover the world for herself?
At least from this perspective I find that her mother did her the biggest favor she could have for Ms. Williams own life and her own development. She told her to move on, live on, Iive her own life. It is a very modest way of putting the interests of her children above her own.
How much has this experience inspired her thinking, her intellectual curiosity about life? Could any words on these pages have enlightened her fire of curiosity for life more?

OK, this is a real stretch but I'll throw this theory out there.

Terry's mother is either an atheist or she lost her faith over the years. Christians (eg. Mormons, Catholics etc.) believe in life after death. Perhaps her late mother sensed that death is finality, nothing to follow. Terry's anticipation of learning her mother's hidden thoughts turned into disappointment, bewilderment when the journals were empty. Faith has been shattered!

Perhaps Terry's mom was leaving her beautiful, articulate daughter an invitation to write her own journals. Having a daughter myself whose sensitivities constantly amaze me and open my heart and mind to understandings I did not previously recognize I knew, I see great wisdom in this gift. There may be some useful ideas or understandings I can yet impart to my daughter, but honestly: I would not want to think of my daughter spending much time reviewing my experience of my life---Her purpose in this world is her own life, her own learnings---not mine. Terry's mom clearly gave her daughter all the understanding she had of what it means to live and to love. The blank pages are perhaps an expression of Terry's mother's faith that the most valuable thing Terry can do is write her own life and pass on her own love.

Perhaps Terry's mom was leaving her beautiful, articulate daughter an invitation to write her own journals. Having a daughter myself whose sensitivities constantly amaze me and open my heart and mind to understandings I did not previously recognize I knew, I see great wisdom in this gift. There may be some useful ideas or understandings I can yet impart to my daughter, but honestly: I would not want to think of my daughter spending much time reviewing my experience of my life---Her purpose in this world is her own life, her own learnings---not mine. Terry's mom clearly gave her daughter all the understanding she had of what it means to live and to love. The blank pages are perhaps an expression of Terry's mother's faith that the most valuable thing Terry can do is write her own life and pass on her own love.

I haven't yet read the other interpretations about Terry's mother's blank journals. While listening to the story just moments ago, I experienced one of those rare "ah ha!" moment. The opportunity to share in your conversation that brought me to mindfulness and deeply touched my heart as well as my mind, is wonderful. Thank you for it!

I will add that I missed the first 15 minutes of the conversation, but I'm going with this gut knowing. The reason for my "knowing" is because upon her imminent death, Terry's mother meant to teach Terry a profound lesson. The journals were empty because the past is over. We have our store of memories that we carry within. Terry's mother will always be with Terry in Terry's "now." Someone said, "all that's left is love,"--can't recall who, but that was the lesson. Life is to be lived and we can only live it in the present. I've gone on too long, and I haven't adequately worded my "knowing" because it is too newborn.
I now look forward to reading all the previous posts. Again, thank you!

I reviewed Terry's gorgeous memoir for the Boston Globe. Hee's my review. I think Terry said it best when she described those unfilled pages of her mother's journals as "blank tombstones."
http://www.bostonglobe.com/arts/books/2012/04/11/when-women-were-birds-terry-tempest-williams-presents-meditation-emerges-mother-women-nature-and-family-blank-pages-mother-daughter-story/t4l5IJQmHPwNiIWAZ9SfKK/story.html

Trent Gilliss's picture

Thanks for sharing this link, Judy. Was it supposed to be "paper tombstones."

Here are some notebooks for you to fill in your own thoughts, not to look for someone else's compilation

Once she found the perfect book with the perfect paper, she would write. (I'm curious if she also had a collection of pens) She had so much to say, she didn't know where to begin. She was uncertain of own voice...So much so she couldn't use words to tell her daughter. She tried and tried and tried to tell that most horrible thing that she experienced. She wished she had led an entirely different life than the one she chose. Whatever her reason for the blank journals isn't so much the point as the gifting of them to her daughter. The sadness in Terry Tempest Williams' voice says it all. And her mother spoke of it...in volumes.

Having spent many years in the art/academic world, I immediately thought that because Terry is such a typical example of the many self-absorbed and superficially charismatic hustlers who inhabit that environment, her mother, who may well have been literally sick to death of her, wanted to have the last laugh. Telling Terry that she had secret journals was a clear suggestion that the contents could be mined for future books, lectures, and interviews, thus benefitting her daughter's career, but then it turned out there was nothing. Silence can be eloquent.

Trent Gilliss's picture

This seems to be a particularly harsh assessment, non?

I found this so sad. The anticipation of opening the journals that day to finally get to know her "private" mother better, then finding the first one blank, then the second. My first thoughts were invisible ink, which I'm sure Terry has already checked for, and then the implication that something very bad had happened to her mother which her mother had been unable to talk/write about (which in retrospect is probably far-fetched). I don't really see the journals as a gift to Terry to write in. Why would the mother be so secretive about that and why would she give Terry the impression they were "her" (the mother's journals), which means one thing to most people (journals filled with the author's words). I hope one day Terry can understand this act. Thanks for sharing it with us.

I'm thinking it was a joke, a good-natured, loving mother-to-daughter joke, but more: it was saying what couldn't be said with words. She had said it with her life. It's like what the New Yorker editor-friend said about the limitations of words. Mormon-Zen.

I think her mom may have been as busy as the rest of us and although she meant well in attempting to write in a journal, she just didn't have time. In leaving them verbally and physically to Terry, I think she knew that Terry would find a way to convey what was taught to her by and through her mother to tell us and give her a place on which to put the voice from within. I am looking forward to hearing Terry's voice and what she has to say. I certainly enjoyed what I heard this week on your show! Thank you for sharing her thoughts with all of us.

She might have meant that she didn't have a voice. I think, more likely, It's useless to speak out; no one listens or people hear only their own voices or interpretations/thoughts.

They are like pop-up books. Something is arising from each page...

I was also quite astounded by Terry's story of her mother's legacy of three shelves of cloth patterned journals, all blank. Terry did not say but I imagined the journal covers were hand made, the patterns and fabrics carefully chosen and sewn. Perhaps, even the journals were made by hand. I imagined Terry's mother as an artist, creating a book in the way that she could and that her artistic voice was present in every journal cover she created. As for the blank pages, it would seem that her legacy of colorful cloth blank journals might be vessels to hold the varying rich patterns of her daughter's creative voice. Thank you, Terry, for this moving story.

Maybe the blank journals are a testament of holding: holding handmade journals without giving away as gifts,holding any words that she might have written, holding the collection until after she dies and holding their meaning from her daughter. Was this act so mysterious because it did not fit with a life of giving?

I don't know, but I know it made me feel sad. Say what you need to say to people----don't ask them to guess. It seems to be a thoughtless act before making The Great Escape........"Please read my journals.........ha! They are empty." I'm glad she wasn't my mom. It's difficult enough when people die to move on from the loss.

An un-cracked journal is physical manifestation of endless possibility. The purchase of which is the joy of embracing the essence of the blank page. Maybe this delight was all she desired. The words would only limit her perfect set of books. Words would have the focus change from infinite magic, to the endless derivations of the question “why”. One is a pathway to the infinite, the second a trap for the soul.
Why tell Terry. Surprise. I read her work for the surprises she hides on each page. I love the way she can turn a shard of glass, cold, or a breath into a touchstone to a facet of my heart that I had never paid any attention. Her mom gifted us all by presenting Terry a mystery that she knew Terry would examine. Unearthing a treasure only Terry has the skill to find. Mom wanted one more surprise, with her, just her, in the middle.

i was moved deeply by this show and especially the story of the journals. i am a singer and voice teacher, understanding the voice from its most obvious forms to its most profound - literally finding 'the self' and being able to communicate from that place - is my life's work. for me the story of her mother's blank journals (knowing that i know nothing of her mother's life, so this is conjecture at best, and perhaps projection) is about a generation of women and mothers who sacrificed so much in so many ways - and indeed sacrificed their very selves for motherhood and being a wife. moving beyond what is hard to say into what is impossible to say, i see the making of the journals as her mother's profound movement toward birthing her voice and the 'blankness' of the pages speaking loudly to a paralysis beyond measure. i see her effort to bestow these journals to Terry as a blessing and generosity toward Terry's own writings and birthing of her own voice and self into the world. we stand on the shoulders of many who have come before us, but perhaps this is most true of our mothers. finally, i see the mother's gift as an address of the fierce privacy she held, in the end she didn't share with Terry and other what was in her deepest self, not because of withholding but because of her own struggle to find the words. in a way, i see the journals as an apology and explanation for this (in addition to Blessing Terry's works).

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