Main Point Books and When Women Were Birds/Terry Tempest Williams: Reflections

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

This past Monday I stepped inside a brand-new independent bookstore.

Let me repeat that: a brand-new independent bookstore.

Main Point Books of Bryn Mawr provides a little extra proof (for those who doubt) that both books and those who love them are still very much with us here, in our twenty-first century. Cathy Fiebach, the store's owner and a Penn alum, has placed her shop right next door to a cupcake house (oh, those cupcakes), on the main drag of Lancaster Avenue. She has created a warm and welcoming space, a shop that, during my longish stay (in the company of the writer Sarah Laurence), was bustling with readers of all ages, and with conversations of the typography and paper sort. What do you love? What do you read? What do you have?

Find me a story.

I bought When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations on Voice by a writer who has always intrigued me, Terry Tempest Williams. Williams combines ferocity with a very particular brand of lyricism. She lives her life large (as an activist, an environmentalist) and writes it with care, and in this case her prompt—her exploration—concerns the blank journals her mother bequeathed to her.

On the very first page, we learn of the shock of that blankness. It is shortly after the passing of Terry's mother:

On the next full moon I found myself alone in the family home. I kept expecting Mother to appear. Her absence became her presence. It was the right time to read her journals. They were exactly where she said they would be: three shelves of beautiful clothbound books; some floral, some paisley, others in solid colors. The spines of each were perfectly aligned against the lip of the shelves. I opened the first journal. It was empty. I opened the second journal. It was empty. I opened the third. It, too, was empty, as was the fourth, the fifth, the sixth—shelf after shelf after shelf, all my mother's journals were blank.

What do those journals mean? What mystery do they hold, what lesson do they teach, what room do they make for Terry? Over and over again, Terry examines the possible, refutes the obvious, rejects the simple, and in doing say she tells the rough story of her own life—her Mormonism, her love of country, her marriage, her explorations beyond marriage, her one night in a jail, and a frightening diagnosis. Over and again she designates and signifies the blank journals, and then, again, she looks past her own momentary understanding.

When Women Were Birds is often stunning. It can, at times, feel rhetorical, or deliberately obfuscating, or overly mythical—but that is the point. This book offers fifty-four variations on voice, and no easy answers. It is memoir—personal and unifying, wild and precise, needled together by this simple fact, Williams' words:

Each day we begin with the empty page.


Sarah Laurence said...

Wonderful post about a wonderful new Indie! I enjoyed my 2 days helping out at Main Point Books. Cathy's warmth, enthusiasm, diligence and knowledge of books makes this new bookstore a special place. Bryn Mawr is such a welcoming community too. Thanks so much for stopping by, Beth!

And Williams is a fine crafter of words: "Her absence became her presence."

Joanne R. Fritz said...

Always happy to hear of a brand-new independent bookstore! And just recently, several bloggers have been claiming that print media is dead. Pshaw, I say.

Serena said...

ah that frightening empty page. That freaks me out...I often wonder if my own mother writes in a journal or if she ever did.

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