Terry Tempest Williams

Ghosts That We Knew

The Universe gently letting me know it is still watching, listening, remembering...  

A group of eight women discovering each other over salmon and fruit salad. Strangers becoming fast friends as women do - sharing intimacies of childbirth and marriage, our deepest fears and silliest thoughts - and then having to ask your first name again, because you look just like the woman who used to teach Hot Yoga at the rec center.

 

Some of us are mothers; some of us are not. Some are married as many years as we were old when we met our husbands; some have remained single. Some wonder if they had more cash, would they have they courage to walk away from failure?

 

Some drive up in Mercedes; others have no idea when the oil was last changed in the rusting Toyota pickup.

 

We come together through a love of books and a desire for fellowship. Perhaps we are new to town and keen to make friends. Perhaps we need an excuse to escape a too-familiar routine. Perhaps we crave conversation that does not center around Sponge Bob Square Pants and refusals to eat the spaghetti that was our child's favorite meal last week.

 

We discuss the book: a rare meeting of minds as eight women revile the month's read in equal measure. We marvel at our host's mad chef skills as she cracks open the baked thick crust of salt, revealing an entire salmon, steaming and tender: Pesce alla Sale à la Olympic Peninsula. Three of us run out to our cars in search of corkscrews we know are shoved into dashboard boxes or picnic tote bags. When we come up empty and are forced to drink ginger beer without a cheap Pinot noir chaser, we decide it's an excuse for another bacon-jalapeño scone. We eat tapioca pudding made with milk from the goats we milk on our farm.

 

Which leads to a discussion of breast-feeding. As discussions about ruminants do. Who is, who wishes they weren't, who misses it. Pockets of the table fall into silence as those who are secretly glad their breasts remain high and firm even as they ache with dreams of unborn children and those who simply cannot imagine the logistics of nursing a three-year-old try to find something to do with their thoughts.

 

A side conversation begins. Did you start Terry Tempest Williams's When We Were Birds?

 

It's waiting on the nightstand; I had to finish tonight's book first. I can't wait.

 

Another voice joins in, breaking away from the conversation about pitocin-induced labor. "Ooh, Terry Tempest Williams, I love her! What's this one about? What's it called?

 

"When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice. It's a series of essays she wrote after her mom died. You'd love it. It's amazing."

 

One of us curls up inside. One of us remembers a summer's night a year ago, a crowd streaming into a high school auditorium, an audience hushed as an author reads from her elegiac, elegant book of essays inspired by the journals her mother bequeathed her. Journals the author discovered, after her mother's death, were empty.

 

One of us remembers that it was a year ago tonight her womb emptied.

 

One of us marvels at the way the Universe wraps seductively around chance and feigns to be Fate.

 

One of us mourns. Mourns that she had forgotten until this night what this night is.

 

One of us sees the beauty in spending this evening in the company of women who don't know her sorrow, not yet. But if we did, she knows we would care. We sweet mothers soothe her with our stories, we childless ones smile and allow the others to reminisce, commiserate, to delight in the bounty of their creation.

 

A phone beeps with an incoming text. One of our sisters, in a neighboring state, has just given birth to her second child. She texts us from the hospital bed, proud and exhausted. She attaches a photo. It is a son.

 

One of us reads aloud the opening page to When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations On Voice.

 

One of us returns home to reread the words she wrote a year ago. These words, here: The Scariest Thing

Gore Bay, Cheviot, New Zealand

So lead me back Turn south from that place And close my eyes to my recent disgrace Cause you know my call And we'll share my all And our children come, they will hear me roar So give me hope in the darkness that I will see the light Cause oh they gave me such a fright But I will hold as long as you like Just promise me that we'll be alright

Ghosts That We Knew ~ Mumford and Sons

The Scariest Thing

"What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open."  - Muriel Rukeyser, as quoted by Terry Tempest Williams in her book "When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations On Voice" A reading given June 21, 2012, Bellingham, WA "Writers must share the scariest things about their lives." Sherman Alexie, Opening address, Chuckanut Writers Conference, Bellingham, WA, June 22-23, 2012

 

I will share something very scary with you. I will tell you a truth about my life.

But not just yet.

I attended my first writers' conference this past weekend. I entered trembling, wondering if there was a secret handshake, if I was too young or too old, if I had too few works published to be credible, if it was written all over my face that I did not have that all-important WIP or MS to offer up (writer jargon for Work-In-Progress and ManuScript). Famous Writers wandered about, as well as a Poet Laureate or two; Literary Agents took 5-minute pitch appointments; aspiring and published writers clutched notebooks and tablet computers - a life's work on college-ruled or flash-drive - hoping to be discovered.

Oh but no, it wasn't at all precious. The Chuckanut Writers Conference - held in the earnest, evergreen-and-blue city of Bellingham, perched on a bay just south of the Canadian border - was a welcoming gathering of writers of prose and poetry of every level of experience and ambition. I soaked up insights in sessions on the seduction of a sentence and packing premise into your novel; I scribbled pages of notes on the practice of story-boarding; I held my breath as a panel held court on Breathing Life Into Characters. I came away from each workshop and plenary with concrete ideas to put into practice. I was inspired, motivated, encouraged, overwhelmed and determined.

So, thank you, Chuckanut Writers Conference. I hope to see you next year. And perhaps I will have something ready to pitch. You know, the premise of My Great American Novel in fifty words or less.

But the weekend did begin and end with tears. And there's that scary thing I said I would share.

The evening before the conference began, Terry Tempest Williams - the celebrated writer of environmental literature, women's rights activist and conservationist - gave a reading in downtown Bellingham from her new book When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations On Voice. This is a lovely collection of meditative essays on motherhood, nature, faith and love, inspired by the journals her mother bequeathed to her shortly before her death at 54. Three bookshelves of journals, which the author opened a month after her mother died. Each journal was blank. When Women Were Birds is Ms. Tempest Williams's attempt to understand what her mother had written in those empty books.

One of the several chapters the author read was XXVII. It is, on the surface, an essay on the importance of women's reproductive rights. But the muscle of her words, what sent the tears streaming, is what she writes about the meaning of menstruation:

"Because what every woman knows each month when she bleeds is, I am not pregnant. Because what every woman understands each time she makes love is, Life could be in the making now. Because until she bleeds, she imagines every possibility from pleasure to pain to birth to death and how she will do what she needs to do, and until she bleeds, she will worry endlessly, until she bleeds. Because until she bleeds, repeat it again, she will check her womb every day for the stirrings of life. Because until she bleeds, she wonders if her life will be one or two or three."

 

The author writes of women who wait for the reassurance of their monthly cycles. Yet for those of us who have faced infertility, who know the devastation of miscarriage, her words resonate as deeply. For us, who have experienced such loss, this bleeding is an ending of all hope, not a sigh of relief. And so her words, they made me cry.

"Because until she bleeds she will check her womb every day for the stirrings of life."

Two days later, late Saturday afternoon, just before the final session of the conference, I dashed into the bathroom for a quick pee. I pulled down my panties and saw what I hadn't felt.

A streak of bright red blood.

I sat on the toilet with my head between my legs as the world went gray.

When I walked into that bathroom, I was ten weeks pregnant. When I walked out, I was

 

Empty.

 

The cramps began after I returned home Saturday evening. They were bad. Then they got worse. By Sunday afternoon I was writhing on the living room carpet, crying and gasping as my uterus ripped itself apart. I have never experienced such agony for so long. I refused to let Brendan take me to the hospital. Women have been giving birth to life and to death on their own since the beginning. These were the only labor pains I would ever know and it was pain I would own, pain I would remember, because I had nothing else. At 10 p.m. Sunday evening, I finally crawled into bed, my body no longer sharing space with another.

Though shocked to learn we were pregnant - we'd long since given up hope after years of trying, years of exploring alternatives, years spent healing from loss - it was impossible not to give in to joy, not to allow our hearts to swell in anticipation of meeting the life we had created. Yet we tried to prepare ourselves for heartbreak; the wounds from our miscarriage in 2009 reopened as we admitted our deepest fears.

In a moment of twisting around to look at a less-dark side I said to Brendan, "When we lost the first baby, I wasn't writing. I wasn't creating anything, I had nowhere to voice my grief and rage. But now, if the worst happens, I have a voice. I have a place to go that gives me hope and joy and meaning. At least, if the worst happens, I have that."

And the worst happened. At the same time that my intellect was pulsing with life, my body was casting off death.

 

I am very very angry.

 

I am so very sad.

 

There is no sense to be made of nor any higher purpose served by our losses; there is no "That which doesn't kill us makes us stronger" bullshit platitude that I can bear hearing without wanting to slap silly the mouth which delivers it.

There will be no next chance. I am 43. I am done with this now. My heart cannot take the pain. My body cannot take the turmoil.

Brendan took me in his arms when I returned home Saturday night. My first words to him were, "It's going to be just the two of us."

"That's fine by me," he replied.

And we cried, because nothing was fine.

But it will be again, someday.

So I work, because it gives me dignity.

I run, because it helps me make peace with my body.

And I write, because writing is how I will create life.