Other Women’s Stories: Favorite Terry Tempest Williams Quotes

As far as Rioters go, I seem to be a latecomer to the Terry Tempest Williams fan club. I had never read any of her books until I started writing for Book Riot. She wasn’t really on my radar, though one of my aunts had mentioned her to me a few years ago as someone she thought I might enjoy reading. I don’t recall now why I didn’t pick up the book my aunt was telling me about (at that time, it was Refuge). I just recall a vague feeling of being stressed out, so I’m pretty sure I had a term paper coming due soon and reading for pleasure was the last thing I had time for.

It wasn’t until years later (I am horrified to think how many), that Terry Tempest Williams came again into my awareness. This time, it was thanks to Rebecca mentioning her on a podcast. I was heading out on a road trip soon and decided that The Hour of Land would be perfect to listen to since I’d be passing through or near several places mentioned in that book. I got hooked on William’s lyrical prose and near-mystical way of describing what could otherwise be an ordinary setting. I wish I could write as beautifully as she does.

But then I realized that I’ve had When Women Were Birds on my TBR for ages and ages. I would pick it up and think to read it next several times in past years, but I always put it back down. I don’t know why. It just wasn’t the right time to read it. But now, I finally did read it. My grandmother died and it felt like the right time. It is not a book my grandmother would have enjoyed. It is not her style at all. It is quiet and and meditative and mindful. My grandma was many things, but quite wasn’t one of them. She was brash and sassy and opinionated and didn’t give one fuck if you didn’t like it. But she was also wise, and I think there are many bits of wisdom in this book which she would have recognized and approved of. So I wanted to share a few of my favorite lines from When Women Were Birds, because I miss my grandma, and because this was exactly the book I needed to read right now to help.

  1. To withhold words is power. But to share our words with others, openly and honestly, is also power.
  2. Each of us has [a voice]. Each voice is distinct and has something to say. Each voice deserves to be heard. But it requires the act of listening.
  3. A pencil is a wand and a weapon. Be careful. Protect yourself. It can be glorious.
  4. …each woman must come of age herself—she must find her true center alone.
  5. [Changing Woman] is the one who gathers seeds and plants them in the sand as dreams and calls forth the rain. She is the one who embodies the Moon, honoring the cyclic nature of life. And it is Changing Woman who is honored in the ceremony of first blood. Kinaalda is her ritual, initiating each Navajo girl into womanhood. I wish someone had told me when I was young that it was not happiness I could count on, but change.
  6. What I came to appreciate was how the transgression of Eve was an act of courage that led us out of the garden into the wilderness. Who wants to be a goddess when we can be human? Perfection is a flaw disguised as control. The moment Eve bit into the apple, her eyes opened and she became free. She exposed the truth of what every woman knows: to find our sovereign voice often requires a betrayal. We just have to make certain we do not betray ourselves.
  7. Changing Women. We begin again like the Moon. We can no longer deny the destiny that is ours by becoming women who wait—waiting to love, waiting to speak, waiting to act. This is not patience, but pathology.
  8. And there is nothing more demeaning to women than to have a man, especially a man we don’t know, define the laws that will govern our mils and blood.
  9. When women work together, everyone benefits.
  10. When we don’t listen to our intuition, we abandon our souls.
  11. In a voiced community, we all flourish.
  12. Good work is a stay against despair.
  13. What do we glean from the stories of other women?
  14. The sin we commit against each other as women is lack of support.
  15. Once upon a time, when women were birds, there was the 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 the world is meant to be celebrated.
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