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An Excerpt from When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations on Voice by Terry Tempest Williams

Terry Tempest Williams has written an astonishing memoir that takes within its embrace a mysterious mother-daughter relationship, the refreshment of birds and the natural world, and the author's quest to find and express her own values and visions. Here is an excerpt on yearning.

"A mother and daughter are an edge. Edges are ecotones, transitional zones, places of danger or opportunity. House-dwelling tension. When I stand on the edge of the land and sea, I feel this tension, this fluid line of transition. High tide. Low tide. It is the sea's reach and retreat that reminds me we have been human for only a very short time.

"I was born on the edge of the Pacific. California was paradise. My mother took me to the beach daily near Capistrano, home to the returning swallows. While my father was in the air force, my mother and I played in the sand. It is here I must have imprinted on the rhythmic sound of waves, the cry of gulls, the calm of my own mother's heart.

"It is here, on this edge of sand and surf, where I must have developed my need to see the horizon, to look outward as far and wide as possible. My hunger for vistas has never left me. And it is here, I must have fallen in love with water, recognizing its power and sublimity, where I learned to trust that what I love can kill me, knock me down, and threaten to drown me with its unexpected wave. If so, then it was also here where I came to know I can survive what hurts. I believed in my capacity to stand back up and run into the waves again and again, no matter the risk. A wave would break, rush toward me, covering my feet, and retreat into the sea, followed by another and another. This was the great seduction. There was no end to the joyful exaltation on this edge of oscillations.

"And each night the smell of orange blossoms and sea salt ignited sunsets into flames slowly doused by the sea. Not a year of my life has missed a baptism by ocean. Not one.

"Why this relationship to Mother and water?

"Breaking waters. We are born from what is fluid, not fixed. Water is essential. A mother is essential. The ocean as mother is mesmerizing in her power, a creative force that can both comfort and destroy. My mother and I came to trust each other on the beach where we sat. Between the silences, we played together. We entertained ourselves. On the edge of the continent, looking west, we came to an understanding of the peace and violence around us. Power is the sea's thundering voice, the curling and crashing of waves. Water is nothing if not ingemination, an encore to the tenacity of life. And life held in the sea is surface and depth, what we see and what we imagine. We cast a line, we throw out a net, what emerges is religion in the form of fish.

"My mother's transgression was hunger. She passed her hunger on to me without ever speaking a word. Solitude is a memory of water. I live in the desert. And every day I am thirsty.

"When I opened my mother's journals and read emptiness, it translated to longing, that same hunger and thirst Mother translated to me. I will rewrite this story, create my own story on the pages of my mother's journals."

 


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When Women Were Birds
S&P Book Awards:
One of the
Best Spiritual Books
of 2012

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