Call and Response: When Women Were Birds, Navigating Life, and Finding a Voice

I've had When Women Were Birds on my shelf for at least three years, if not more. I tried to read it a year or two ago and found that I couldn't focus on it; it's a book that needs to be read on its own, perhaps, and best consumed away from the grind of daily life. And so I packed it up with me to go to Greece last month, and found myself immediately absorbed in Terry Tempest Williams' reflective, philosophical, moving words:

For far too long we have been seduced into walking a path that did not lead us to ourselves. For far too long we have said yes when we wanted to say no. And for far too long we have said no when we desperately wanted to say yes.

When I look in the mirror, I see a woman with secrets.

When we don't listen to our intuition, we abandon our souls. And we abandon our souls because we are afraid if we don't, others will abandon us. We've been raised to question what we know, to discount and discredit the authority of our gut.

Not long after finishing When Women Were Birds, I picked up Navigating Life by Margaux Bergen for a review deadline. The two books are inherently different: one is a daughter's attempts to understand her mother, the other a mother's attempts to provide life advice to her daughter. But they formed a kind of call and response in my mind, as I struggle to understand how I find--and use--my voice in this world.


Williams calls:

We borrow. We steal. We purchase what we need and buy what we don't. We acquire things, people, places, all in the process of losing ourselves. Busyness is the religion of distraction. I cannot talk to you, because I have too much to do.

These words in particular give me pause: "I cannot talk to you, because I have too much to do." How often has that been the case in my own life, however unintentionally? And what, exactly, is the worth of all the doing if there is not space for talking to you, whoever you may be? 

Bergen responds:

Take it up a notch. The question is: How does one transform the daily drudgery of existence into a life sweetly and intelligently led? What kind of life are you going to lead?

Is this life of busyness the kind I want to lead?

Bergen calls:

For  a while, I had watched and waited. Or maybe I had lost my voice... So I decided to do what I should have done in the first three months... I bought us coffee and started the conversation.

Williams responds:

Unexpressed emotion will be expressed somewhere, somehow, inside or out, most cruelly as unconscious aggression delivered with a smile or a poisonous cup of tea.

Don't we know that to be the case? Do we lose ourselves when we refuse to speak, and let that unexpressed emotion find a life of its own inside of us?

Williams calls:

My mother played a role.

Many roles...

My mother refused her roles. 

Bergen responds:

I have many selfish maternal fears, one of which is that you will spend your life desperately trying not to be me. What should I want for you that is at once perfect and reasonable? A life mostly free of anguish but not complication?

Williams calls and calls and calls:

I am my mother, but I'm not. 


Writing about the role a small chapbook played in passing legislation to protect American wildlands, Williams writes:

One never knows the tangible effects of literature, but one that particular day... one could believe in the collective power of a chorus of voices.

Maybe that's the magic that's at work here: the collective power of a chorus of voices. Two different women, in two different roles, with two different intents, placed me in an echo chamber of words that resonated with me in a way I can't entirely explain. Speak, they urge. Find your voice, they encourage. Use it, they demand.

And here I am, trying.

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