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When a Book Changes Your Life

Our Reading Lives features stories about how books and reading have shaped who we are and how we live.

when women were birdsOver the last couple months, I’ve had a reading experience that is completely new to me: I finished a book and immediately started it over. When I finished it the second time, I immediately started it over a again. A few nights ago I closed the back cover for a third time and thought it was time to start making sense of what I’m doing with this book, and why. I’ve never read a book twice in a row, much less three times (and I won’t lie, a fourth read is looking mighty appealing).

The book, because it matters very much here, is Terry Tempest Williams’ When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations on Voice. Written the year that Williams was 54, the age her mother was when she died and left Williams her life’s journals (three shelves of them, and every last one was blank), it is essentially a collection of essays and vignettes. There are pieces about womanhood and family, marriage and community, friendship and motherhood and sex and nature and writing. It’s a book about what it is to have a voice, and how the ways we use and withhold our voice shape our lives and the world we live in. And somehow, for me, it has become about much more than that.

In Williams’ words, I’ve found expression of my deepest questions, greatest fears, and most intimate thoughts.

There’s this:

“Solitude is a memory of water. I live in the desert. And every day I am thirsty.”

 

And this. I know you will understand this:

“From an early age I have experienced each encounter in my life twice: once in the world, and once again on the page.”

 

The difference between perfectionism and striving for excellence has been an important lesson in the last few years of my life. I could spin my wheels writing pages about it, but why would I, when Williams has given me this?

“Who wants to be a goddess when we can be human? Perfection is a flaw disguised as control.”

 

This is meditation. It is poetry. It is an invitation.

“Democracy demands we speak and act outrageously. We can change the world if our view is long and focused with friends drawn lovingly around the place we call home.”

 

It is a revelation and a reflection.

“How do you contain within a domestic arrangement a howling respect for the wild in each other?”

 

This is a beautiful, powerful, important book, and it’s one I’ve been recommending widely, but I don’t expect it to do to everyone else what it is doing to me. Nothing I’ve ever read has done this to me. Is this what religious people feel when they pray, I wonder? Is this reading-as-spiritual-practice? Perhaps, though I don’t consider myself spiritual, really.

A friend suggested the word transcendent, and that feels closer to right, but not entirely. I don’t feel that I am connecting with something higher, something more-than-me, so much as I feel like I am–this book is–calling forth something that is profoundly interior, something that is wholly of me. Just writing about the experience makes me feel naked.

I read for many reasons, not the least of which is to learn and be challenged, and in my life as a reader I’ve encountered many books that fit the bill. But none has ever held up a mirror for me in quite this way. Williams’ words didn’t just articulate things I’ve been thinking and talking about in my personal life; they changed the way I conceptualized those conversations and how I participated in them. I spoke different words than I would have had I not read this book, and subsequently, some of the closest relationships in my life have taken new shapes. Isn’t it remarkable that a book can do that?

Terry Tempest Williams and I are not from the same place. We are not of the same generation. We have different interests and different passions and very different religious backgrounds. We don’t know each other, not even a little bit, and yet she has written something that has revealed me and affirmed me and changed me. In sharing her voice, she has summoned mine.

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