Sunday in the Park
June 15, 2012
The jacket is elegant, white on white, with a bit of black trim. You see it and you know already there is someone/something special inside. The white embossed feel gives way to examination. You have discovered, after the Braille-like touching, you are looking at birds, white birds on a white background. Birds of different sizes and, you imagine from the almost Rorschach-like test, perhaps different species.
The book jacket to Terry Tempest Williams’ newest shared journey on paper is something special and unexpected. You have traveled with her in the Navajo Nation where "Pieces of White Shell" defined the vibrations you felt on The Land. You ventured farther and laughed at "Coyote’s Canyon" where the trickster was/is at play. There is a level of interest, longing, discovery, trust, you experience when you journey together.
When "Refuge" came along her story of birds of the Great Salt Lake and the death of her mother and coming to terms with the numbers of Down Winders in her family who had suffered cancers you are introduced to The Clan of the One Breasted Women. And as a woman of a certain age, you have, sadly, known women who "belong" to this extended family. That book is so beautiful and haunting, you give copies of it away.
When you met this Utah-born author, on several occasions, you found, from one decade to the next, the same even, unassuming, gentle woman. Her activism, on behalf of the prairie dog and sparrow and the coyote, touch something primal within. Her boldness never falters. She continues her path from articles on the op-ed pages of the New York Times to pushing for the national monument now known as the Grand Staircase/Escalante. She succeeds in being heard.
When she travels to Spain, repeatedly, to view the triptych painting that looks at heaven and hell and life on earth and causes her to take stock of the foundations of her faith, you think the title, "Leap," is brilliant. The attention she has given this work was inspired by viewing the print as a child in her grandparents’ home. You think about the responsibility as a grandparent to have unexpected things in your home that open the way for discussions from inquiring children, who inherently trust you to tell them secrets their parents only speak of in whispers.
But now she brings you a book that hits hard. Not for everyone, you understand but for you, especially, right now. "When Women Were Birds" is a slight volume just over 200 pages. It is subtitled "Fifty-Four Variations on Voice," that being the age her mother died of cancer. That being the age she started writing this book. Her mother had bequeathed her all of her journals. Journals like those she had researched from a long line of women in her family where, in the Mormon tradition, keeping records is a part of women’s work.
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You will learn, in the first few pages that spoiler alert the journals, all of them, turn out to be blank. This discovery of intent, of willing these blank books to her daughter, the writer, haunts, Terry. And she sets out to listen to what her very private Coyote/Trickster mother meant by such a defiant act.
And so begins yet another journey with an author who takes the road less traveled each time she sets out. And you start to hear in these 54 chapters different voices that come with discovery. Like the morning song of happy birds in trees, or the cooing sound of doves at dust. The blank pages force Terry to rethink what she knew of her mother, and of her voice. The many times and places her mother spoke out, in conflict with her cultural upbringing.
You travel with her and cannot help but think of the pages your own mother left blank or filled in too deeply with too many drawings and ink spots and yellowed newspaper clippings. Black and white photos with curled edges and scribbles on the back in ballpoint that have smeared through the decades.
As a bird lover you find yourself trying now to identify that multicolored bigger bird that has been crowding others out at the feeder. You whisper to the little redheads and yellow-chested birds who hang around some mornings simply, you decide, to please you. And the trickster in you thinks how it would be to shape shift and become a bird, moving from tree to tree, flying over treetops, landing on roofs and chair backs. You take flight with your thoughts of where, exactly, you might fit in this world, as you listen to the music and the cacophony of the birdsongs.
Towards the end of the book you circle a paragraph and keep returning to land on that same page:
"Once upon a time, when women were birds, there was a simple understanding that to sing at dawn and to sing at dusk was to heal the world through joy. The birds still remember what we have forgotten, that world is meant to be celebrated."
And you promise yourself to try, try to be as present as you can when you hear those birdsongs at the start and the closing of the day, to remember to celebrate the pages of your life. You can start any day, like this very Sunday in the Park.
Teri Orr is a former editor of The Park Record. She is the director of the organization that provides programming for the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Center for the Performing Arts.