Wordless As God Sun, 11th March, 2018
This is a reflection on “When Women Were Birds” by Terry Tempest Williams.
This morning I’m thinking about the beautiful memoir of Terry Tempest Williams, which is filled with love, beauty and struggle. Upon her mother’s death, the writer inherits her mother’s journals, which is a critically important maternal tradition in Mormon culture. As Williams began to dig into this treasure trove of family and maternal history, she was shocked to find that every single journal page was blank. This book is her reflection on her and her mother’s lives that was lovingly written on her mother’s blank journal pages. Her mother, it would seem, had given Williams the gift of her (Williams’) own voice that now filled the pages. This book is a beautiful act of creative love, a merging of their lives.
The work overall is about women (and I can read all people who struggle to be whole and authentic) who are seeking their own true voice. But the beautiful idea that leapt out of these pages for me is the precursor to hearing your own voice: that of silence. The book I was reading was born in silence: it knew its existence only because of the invitation of the silent pages that Williams’ mother had bequeathed to her.
In reflection XVII, Williams describes this seeking of truth that grows out of silence, which is sometimes uncomfortable: “I was experimenting with voice, what I could say and still be heard in an atmosphere of prescribed [Mormon] truths.” Of course, the truth is that silence is not really silent.
Williams recounts the stunning experience of John Cage’s 4’33 concerto, which is 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence. But what she and the concertgoers heard, in fact, was not pure silence, the absence of music: what they heard was the wind and rain outside the concert hall. They heard voices. They heard the sound of their own breathing. And they no doubt heard the still, small voice of their own longing. “Silence introduced in a society that worships noise is like the Moon exposing the night,” she explains. “Behind darkness is our fear. Within silence our voice dwells. What is required from both is that we be still. We focus. We listen. We see and hear. The unexpected emerges.” (61)
Silence gives space to that which is wordless, and it gives space to allow new words and feelings to rise and take shape, like sunlight gently drawing clouds up out of the ocean. And for me, this wordlessness is God, a divine space where truth can find its voice, or even many voices.
Clouds that form may be cotton-candy cumulus clouds. But they can just as easily be black and forboding storm clouds. As I experienced myself as I struggled with the truth of my own sexuality five years ago today, listening to your true self can be frightening. Williams writes words that I could have written myself: “I fear silence because it leads me to myself, a self I may not wish to confront. It asks that I listen. And in listening, I am taken to an unknown place. Silence leaves me alone in a place of feeling. It is not necessarily a place of comfort.” (pp. 59-60)
As I began to explore my spirituality in more depth a few years ago, this was one of the first lessons I learned: being quite, making spaces in my life to just feel and think. I learned that prayer, for me, is really about making space for love and insight to enter my being. Or, perhaps more accurately, to give this small, quiet voice a stage. It was already there but needed space to emerge. This reminds me of the tradition of the Native American talking stick: Whoever holds the stick is given permission to speak, and their words will be heard without comment or judgment.
Sometimes we need to make space for the talking stick. God, in whatever form you know God, will emerge. And you might find that what has emerged is your own, authentic voice.