Terry Tempest Williams’ books include Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place; An Unspoken Hunger: Stories from the Field; Desert Quartet: An Erotic Landscape; Leap; Red: Passion and Patience in the Desert; and The Open Space of Democracy. Her writing has also appeared in the New Yorker, New York Times, Orion Magazine, and many anthologies concerned with ecological awareness, community, and social change. Her most recent book, Finding Beauty in a Broken World, will appear in 2008 from Pantheon Books. Williams has received a Lannan Literary Fellowship, a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship in creative nonfiction, the Robert Marshall Award from the Wilderness Society, and the Wallace Stegner Award from the Center for the American West. She is the Annie Clark Taylor Scholar in Environmental Humanities at the University of Utah. She divides her time between Wilson, Wyoming, and Castle Valley, Utah. She was interviewed by Heidi Hart.
Image: In the past several years you’ve moved from the desert of southern Utah to Wyoming. How has this change in “home ground” influenced your creative and contemplative life?
Terry Tempest Williams: I would say that we haven’t moved, but we simply took a sabbatical. In October 2005, my husband Brooke took a job at the Murie Center in Moose, Wyoming, as executive director. Mardy Murie was a mentor of ours. We had a thirty-year friendship with the Muries, who were among the great conservationists of our time. Both Brooke and I felt privileged to be able to serve their vision. We imagine ourselves in Wyoming for three or four years, and then we’ll be back to Castle Valley in Utah. I have loved learning the vocabulary of another state and the region of the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem. Wyoming has been part of our migratory path. My father has a place in Jackson. We have deep friendships here, and it’s where we lived when we were first married in 1974 and worked at the Teton Science School. Coming back to Wyoming has been a full circle. But Utah is home. The desert is our home ground, and that is where our family remains.
Image: Can you tell me about your Weather Report project with students in Wyoming?
TTW: This past year, I have been fortunate enough to work at the University of Wyoming. The legislature created a position called “Eminent Writer-in-Residence,” and I was the first to fill this post.
I believe in writers engaging in civic dialogue. Wyoming is a state in tremendous flux right now, with the oil and gas boom and the delisting of the wolf and grizzly, alongside population pressures of development. It felt like a great time to go out into the state and see what the communities are thinking. And so, we came up with the idea of “Weather Reports”—going into rural areas and towns taking the pulse of the people. Graduate students in the MFA program and I have visited eight communities—Cheyenne, Laramie, Rawlins, Pinedale, Casper, Gillette, Riverton, and the Wind River Reservation. I’ve also been to Rock Springs, and we’ll head up north to Cody before we’re done. Each visit takes the form of a two-day residency. On Friday night we give a reading, then we turn the microphone in the other direction for community conversation. On Saturday, we have a writing workshop where members of the community can come and work on their stories in a written form.
We’ve created a website called Weather Reports [www.uwyo.edu/ttw/WeatherReport], where people can contribute their thoughts. In Rawlins, which is one of the areas most heavily impacted by the oil and gas boom, a gentleman who is a warden at the prison stood up and said, “We as human beings will be defined by what we choose to sacrifice, and right now we are sacrificing people and the land.” The place was packed that night, and most of the people there were over sixty. They were seniors concerned about the future, concerned that the town was being bought off by the oil and gas executives. The interior west really is the focus of the Bush administration’s energy policy. I certainly don’t want to see the government drilling in the Arctic, but by the same token, when you see 1.2 billion gallons of water every year being taken out of the Pinedale watershed and returned in a toxic condition, where benzene is present in wells, where water tables are falling, where the migratory path of the pronghorn is being truncated—well, it not only breaks your heart, but it makes you question the very process of democracy. The interests of oil and gas seem to take precedence over the interests of the community at large.
With this project, it’s been eye-opening for graduate students whose focus has been on creative writing to move into a political arena, to say: “We’re in a real place with real people who are struggling with some of the most critical issues of our time. How do I use my tools as a writer to illuminate these issues in the name of social change?” It comes back to the question of how can we be of use? What is the role of writer as witness? How might story bypass rhetoric and pierce the heart?
Image: How has the role of witness—in a public sense—sat with you since your essays in The Open Space of Democracy made headlines in 2004?
TTW: Writers bear witness. We take what we see in the world and try to make sense of that on the page. But I don’t necessarily see myself as a public figure. It’s always a surprise when someone comments on my work. I write out of my solitude.
But in the fall of 2004, I had been asked to be the convocation speaker at Florida Gulf Coast University. The Open Space of Democracy had been chosen as a common reader for the freshman class. Because of the contents of the book, specifically comments about George W. Bush which had been taken out of context, I was asked not to come. The president of the university, William Merwin, was a very committed Republican. This was a crucial county for the Florida presidential election. FGCU’s board of trustees were largely appointed by Governor Jeb Bush. Dick Cheney spoke on campus two weeks after my visit had been cancelled. Student outrage erupted. I was re-invited to campus by the students and asked to participate in an open forum. They rose to the occasion and spoke out on behalf of their own education and freedom of speech. They didn’t have to read The Open Space of Democracy; they embodied it.
One of the student leaders, Brandon Hollingshead, is now a graduate student at the University of Utah in environmental humanities. It is very gratifying to witness his personal and intellectual growth born out of social activism. It always comes down to relationships, doesn’t it? For him, as a freshman at Florida Gulf Coast University, that was his moment of politicization. As hard as the experience was personally, being under attack publicly and being demonized in the Florida papers, when you look at what came out of that, in terms of a real grass-roots defense of freedom of speech, you see that democracy is still very much intact in this country. I love these young, powerful, soulful students. I see them as a very brave and pragmatic generation who are living their values and making choices commensurate with their commitment to a sustainable world.
Image: Your books demonstrate a balance between honoring the Mormon faith in which you were raised and what the scholar Laura L. Bush has called “faithful transgression.” How would you describe your present spiritual orientation?
TTW: In the end, it’s all spiritual, isn’t it? Writing, for me, has become my spiritual path. In Pieces of White Shell, I was really asking the question, “What stories do we tell that evoke a sense of place?” As a Mormon woman, I was raised around the table of stories. My grandmother, Lettie Romney Dixon, was born in Colonial Dublan, Mexico, her parents and extended family having fled Utah because of polygamy. The family story is that they had to leave in a hurry because Pancho Villa was coming through. My great-grandmother was in such a rush that she left a cake in the oven. She saddled her horse, put my grandmother in front of her, and they rode to El Paso (she was pregnant with my Aunt Bea). The men stayed to defend the community. After arriving in El Paso, they became refugees. The United States government gave them a one-way ticket to the town of their choice, and they returned to Salt Lake City.
Family stories, we all have them. When I was working on the Navajo reservation with the Diné, my focus was on the practice of storytelling. What stories do they tell that evoke a sense of place? They have a rich cosmology and belief system, and that was hugely influential in terms of my own spiritual evolution. I realized that my own creation myth of Adam and Eve was not so different from Monster Slayer and Child-Born-of-the-Waters or Changing Woman. I remember reading Marie-Louise Von Franz’s book Creation Myths and thinking: This is what it means to be human. It’s not that we belong to one true religion, but that as human beings, we see the world through story.
Image: How do you relate to the figure of Jesus?
TTW: My relationship to Jesus Christ has been formed most recently by two influences. First, the readings from the gospel of Saint Thomas, where Christ is portrayed as a brilliant provocateur who asks questions about the nature of our soul rather than holding all the answers. You see him as not only a revolutionary intelligence, but as a great teacher and commanding presence. Thomas Merton said, “There is no god outside of us.” Jesus seemed to know our divinity resides within us and is revealed through our brave and loving actions. The second influence was my brother, Steve. He had a deeply personal relationship to Christ that I admired greatly. The suffering of Jesus brought meaning to his own suffering and allowed him to live with joy and a commitment to be in the service of others. His faith humbled me. He believed in the atonement of Christ as an open door beyond death. I remain agnostic. I don’t know. I believe in a “God beyond God.”
Image: You write through your questions. Can you elaborate?
TTW: Questions for me create the seeds of inquiry.
With Refuge, my question was: “How do we find refuge in change?” Great Salt Lake was rising; my mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. What I had always counted on as bedrock—the lake, the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, my mother, my family—suddenly turned to quicksand. My religious beliefs went through an emotional and intellectual shake-up. I realized through my mother’s process of dying that my peace was not being found through orthodoxy. I wasn’t being emotionally sustained through my religion. My authentic path of spirituality was being born out of direct experience. This was both a transition and a revelation for me. I began locating peace through uncertainty.
With Leap, I was confronting the question that followed the dissolution of my conditioning: What do I believe? This led me to watching a medieval triptych. Call it a seven-year meditation in front of the painting The Garden of Earthly Delights in the Prado Museum in Spain. I had been raised under the panels of heaven and hell, never knowing that the center panel, the garden, the body of the triptych, my body, existed. This was a wonderful and unexpected exploration through Hieronymus Bosch’s expansive and endlessly strange visual narrative. It allowed me to question the institutional mind in favor of an original one.
It was also a way for me to find my voice again after my mother and grandmothers had died, following my political decision to cross the line at the Nevada Test Site on behalf of the Clan of One-breasted Women. I believe Hieronymus Bosch not only moved me spiritually to another place of being—but allowed me to move physically. In 1998, we moved from Salt Lake City to Castle Valley, Utah, from the city to the open space of the desert. The spiritual erosion that I had undergone became mirrored and matched by the physical erosion that surrounded us. It was terrifying. It was beautiful. It was liberating. There was no place to hide. In a sense, we were found. We were able to live our lives in a much quieter frame of mind. We had seven years of deep contemplation in the red rock desert. The word stillness comes to mind.
After Leap, at the beginning of the Bush administration, on that clear bright morning of September 11, 2001, life took another turn—for all of us. We were asked to embrace the war on terror: On October 7, the president announced that we had bombed Afghanistan. We felt the drumbeat of war that would lead us, a year and a half later, into Iraq. During that year, I made the decision to speak. There are many forms of terrorism, and environmental degradation is one of them.
We were still living in Castle Valley in the heart of the Colorado Plateau rich in oil and gas, and we knew that a transparent land management process was not happening, that the BLM was giving priority to oil and gas leases without public input. We had heard that oil and gas exploration was going on a few miles east of Arches National Park in a wilderness study area called Dome Plateau, part of America’s Red Rock Wilderness Act. Some friends and I went to investigate, and luckily for us, one of the thumper trucks (these forty-thousand-pound machines that tamp down on the desert with a metal plate and produce a seismic jolt, to measure what’s below) had fallen off a cliff and crushed a tire. We watched a helicopter fly over us carrying the replacement tire on a long iron cable, making it easy to find them. We walked with the thumper trucks for several miles. I thought my teeth were going to fall out from the seismic shaking of the plates on the ground. You can only imagine what this was doing to the eardrums of the kangaroo rats and all the other desert creatures. They kept proceeding on their path of destruction, crushing the cryptobiotic soils until they were heading directly into a riparian zone. I thought, certainly they’re not going to barrel through these cottonwoods, so fragile in the desert.
Fortunately, a BLM staff person arrived, and we thought, “Thank God, at least somebody’s watching.” What we didn’t anticipate is that they were called out of their office to monitor us. Not the oil and gas industry, not the thumper trucks, but the public concerned about what was happening on public land. We were asked to leave. We said, “Certainly you’re not going to tear through this riparian zone.” They could easily have gone to the right and averted that kind of damage to the river bottom, to the young cottonwood sprouts, but they just roared right on through. I remember the BLM manager saying, “I’m sorry. We’ve had this staked out since September 11.”
I wrote about this experience, and it appeared as an op-ed piece in the New York Times. Life got infinitely more complicated. I couldn’t get on planes. We were hassled through the IRS. This was not uncommon in the build-up to the Iraq war. Many people in this country experienced this kind of “inconvenience.”
Then, on September 10, 2002, I was in Maine on vacation, and I realized that in this year of speaking publicly, my rhetoric had become as brittle as that of those I was opposing. I had lost my poetry. I went down to the shore—it was just after dusk—and I said prayers. I stood before the rising tide and said to the sea, Give me one wild word that I can follow.
I stood in silence for some time, and the word the sea rolled back to me was “mosaic.” I followed that word for seven years. It led me to Ravenna, Italy, to a workshop on mosaics. It was such an unexpected gift to be working with my hands, simply breaking stones with a hammer and a hardie. My lifetime obsession with prairie dogs became part of my inquiry of mosaic. It became clear to me that prairie dogs are part of an ecological mosaic in an increasingly fractured and fragmented world.
This exploration, ultimately, led me to Lily Yeh, a community artist who helped to create the Village of Art and Humanity in a poor, forgotten neighborhood of Philadelphia. She works with mosaics as a mode of taking that which is broken and creating something whole. In March of 2005 she asked if I would be her scribe for a project she was working on in Rwanda. My brother had just passed away from lymphoma, and the last place I wanted to go was Rwanda, which for me embodied terror, regret, and shame. I said no. She didn’t take her eyes off me, and then I heard myself say yes.
And this has made all the difference in my life. I never could have imagined in 2002 that asking for one wild word would lead me to creating a genocide memorial out of mosaic literally from the rubble of war with women survivors of the war in Rwanda. I love how life carries us so unexpectedly to our next incarnation of the self, how if we just follow the leadership of words we will find ourselves inside a new story, mysterious and full. That one wild word, “mosaic” ultimately led Brooke and me to a different configuration of family. We now have a Rwandan son.
This is the only spiritual path I know—the path of presence—of paying attention to where we are at any given moment and responding. Courage is moving beyond our fears to a place of engagement. If we dare to write the book that threatens to kill us, something holds us together beyond our personal terror. Fear is replaced by a purpose beyond ourselves. I trust the truth of my questions that allow me to write in the direction of all I do not know. It’s the unlearned moment. It’s trusting the unknown territory of the heart that has a wisdom all its own, shedding our conditioning in favor of the mysterious. I trust my instincts. They have voice that defies logic.
In 2005, the door was open for Brooke to become director of the Murie Center, we said yes, and the day after I got back from Rwanda, we moved up to Jackson Hole. I’ll never forget it: We were staying in one of the Murie cabins. We were asleep, and suddenly a sound that had been so familiar to me all of my life, the bugle of the elk in autumn, became a scream of humanity, women’s voices wailing in a war-torn country, and I realized I was forever changed. Rwanda was my reckoning, a synthesis of all things wild and human at once.
Image: It seems to me that your spiritual path is very much about listening, whether it’s listening to the sound of the elk, or the thumper trucks, or the word the ocean gives you. It seems this isn’t so much a set order of belief but an openness and receptivity to the world, wherever it takes you.
TTW: I hope this is true. I do believe in the power and potency of listening. Anything becomes possible. It allows us to live from a place of presence and trust, rather than from a place of expectation and knowing. Listening honors the mysteries among us. We can respond openly, rather than simply imposing ourselves on the situation at hand. It certainly makes life more interesting if we embrace the questions rather than simply harboring answers. Listening, by its very nature, creates a space of transformation.
Image: There’s a wonderful moment in your forthcoming book about making a doll out of willow and driftwood in the desert after your brother’s death. This leads me to ask how you put this manuscript together. Could you describe your creative process?
TTW: Speaking of listening, I have just changed the title of the book. It was going to be called Mosaic, but I’ve let that go. The title is now Finding Beauty in a Broken World. Why not tell it straight? Get to the point. The word “mosaic” served me well as a powerful organizing principle, but now that the book is finished, I no longer need it. The word embodies the book; it doesn’t have to announce itself on the cover.
I wanted the structure of this book to mirror what I feel in the world. I feel we are in a moment of fragmentation. I have created a book of fragments. Paragraphs become pieces of cut glass like the tesserae of a mosaic. How do we move toward wholeness? How do we take that which is broken and create something whole, something new, something beautiful? I wanted the structure to mirror the question.
Bones are a common motif in Finding Beauty—the bones of prairie dogs, the metaphorical bones of my brother, and the bones exposed through the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. Bones are not only the scaffolding of a physical life, but what remains.
We can create beauty, even in the midst of death and suffering. In Rwanda, the construction of a genocide memorial embellished with mosaics created a sacred space of remembrance. The bones of the beloved are now buried and finally at peace. Maxine Hong Kingston has said, “In times of war, create something.” This is the impulse behind this book.
Image: Reading the manuscript, I was moved by Lily Yeh’s moment of creative crisis, of self-doubt. This made me think of the writing process, which is so up and down. It sounds like this book took a long time. Were there moments when you wondered if you could stay committed to this difficult material?
TTW: Every day. This book has taken eight years, and every day I thought, “Where am I going?” I didn’t know, but I just kept trusting the words and staying with the idea of brokenness and beauty.
I don’t think I really knew what this book was about until recently. I’m a great revisionist, and there have been dozens of drafts. Last fall, I had pneumonia. Brooke was out of town. I was flushed with fever. At three in the morning, I saw the book in my mind and knew it was all wrong, too constrained. I got up in this altered state, went to my desk, and unmoored the whole manuscript. I took out all the chapter divisions, all headings, any signpost that was there for the reader. Free verse. We don’t have chapter headings in our lives. We don’t have contrived titles that give us a sense of security. I wanted to mirror the truth of a creative life where we honestly don’t know where we are going. It is having the faith to follow the leadership of the heart.
I gave the manuscript to my father, and he said, “This is the most boring book I’ve ever read. No one’s going to stay with you for a hundred pages of prairie dog observations.” He may be right, but I wanted the reader to go through the same process I did when I was doing field observations on prairie dogs in Bryce Canyon National Park. Each day we would rise at six-thirty in the morning, climb the tower, and begin to observe. When you’re sitting in a tower and responsible for five-minute observation notations, you learn to engage on a very different level. We are all addicted to speed, to distraction. I certainly am. During the first couple of days there were times when I thought I was going to go mad, but by the third day, I found myself becoming part of this living, breathing ecosystem. Suddenly, I was seeing with new eyes. To slow down is to be taken into the soul of things.
In the morning, prairie dogs would come out of their burrows, stand, and face the sun for thirty minutes. Then they would disperse and go about their business for the day. As the shadows would lengthen at around eight o’clock in the evening, they would return to the mouths of their burrows, press their paws together, and watch the sun go down. This is true. Every day, these prairie dogs are rising to greet the sun and honoring the sun when it sets. This is the kind of attentiveness that belongs to a Pleistocene mind.
Less than a hundred years ago, millions of prairie dogs inhabited North America. Their towns stretched 250 miles in any direction, part of the great prairie ecosystem, along with bison and pronghorn, black-footed ferrets and rattlesnakes, mountain plovers and burrowing owls. Over two hundred species lived as part of this prairie complex. Today prairie dog towns are few and far between, replaced by our own communities with names like “Prairie Flats,” or “Cottonwood Heights,” after what we’ve destroyed. How does this come to be? Will the prairie dogs disappear? And what does this say about us as a species if we cannot find a way to live together as a vibrant mosaic on earth?
Image: Years ago you spoke about trying to order your life according to natural rhythms. How do you order your life now? How do you balance the inner and outer worlds?
TTW: One of the paradoxes of the writing life that I struggle with is that I write to create community, but in order to create community on the page, I’m pulled out of community in the world. In the end, it’s me and the solitude of my own desk. Writing takes time. And I have to guard my time, which I do, fiercely.
Still, I try to create some semblance of balance. In winter, “the dreamtime of the bears,” I’m underground, at home. Winter belongs to me as a writer. It’s my favorite season of stillness and clarity. Blue light on snow. Spring and fall are more public. That’s when I’m teaching. Summer is family time, when I just need to be outside and play, nothing scheduled. Summer, interestingly enough, seems to be the most inviolate. I have to have this time outside, whether it’s in the desert or by the sea, with family. Summer and winter are private.
I don’t write every day. I don’t have that kind of discipline, and I’m too committed to a life engaged, whether it’s teaching or political activism or travel, to be so rigid and sedentary, with such a formalized schedule. And I’m certainly not organized. I write in intense blocks. Call it my own sense of balance: intense time at home, intense time away. It takes me a long time to write. Seven to eight years to complete a book. All writers have their own creative rhythms, and mine happens to be very slow. And as I said, I never know where I’m going. I simply write out of the truth of my life and the questions that keep me up at night.
I’m excited to get back to the desert, because the desert affords me this kind of slowness. We were just back there for two weeks, and I felt like a cocaine addict at first. How to slow down? How to calm my mind? Then, after a couple of days, like when I was watching prairie dogs, I woke up and thought, “Ah, I feel whole again.” The land carries us into that more tranquil state. We’re so easily distracted. Because I’m curious, I love wherever I am and I have tremendous energy for all manner of landscapes and their inherent gifts. I love cities and all the dynamic energy and synergy that they offer, but eventually I need to return to that place of natural calm held in wild, open spaces.
Image: What are you reading now that you find nourishing?
TTW: Right now I’m reading John Berger’s Hold Everything Dear for the third time. It is so wonderful. I’ve used it in my classes at the University of Wyoming and the University of Utah. Don’t you love this passage: “Desire is a short parentheses experienced from within, a transcendence”? And this: “The promise of a movement is its future victory, whereas the promises of the incidental moments are instantaneous.” That is at the heart of Finding Beauty. Berger says, “I am writing at night, even though it is day.”
I’ve also been re-reading T.S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets” and “The Waste Land.” In many ways that’s been the scaffolding of my book: These fragments I have shored against my ruins.
Another text in my classes has been Hélène Cixous’ Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing. She speaks about the importance of apprenticeship and writes from “The School of the Dead” to “The School of Dreams” to “The School of Roots.” She maintains that if we fail in this century it is because we are afraid. I understand that. Fear and doubt. I think that’s what I know most as a writer. I never know if I’m on the right path, but I just keep going. You risk everything you have in the name of an unnamable hunger. Chekhov says, “The two qualities a writer needs most are faith and stamina.” Yes. Yes. Yes.
Hannah Arendt’s essays are important to me. I’ve been struck by her definition of totalitarianism: Totalitarianism exists when the people feel they no longer have a voice. We are there now in our own country.
Another book I’ve just read is Alexander Fuller’s The Legend of Colton H. Bryant. It is exquisite, a story about a young Mormon cowboy from Evanston, Wyoming, who works and dies on the oil patch outside Pinedale. It shows us the societal costs of a failed energy policy.
I just finished a collection of short stories by Roberto Bolaño, and last night I re-read one of Stegner’s short stories, “Bugle Song,” about a young boy who shoots gophers. I’m still thinking about that. The only time he stops killing is when his mother’s song comes to him. Here is a young adolescent who’s carrying around eight hundred forty-three tails of gophers yet loses himself in the trance of his mother’s song. It is only through the voice of the feminine that the killing stops.
Reading feeds me, makes me feel less lonely in the world. My conversation with the world is the dialogue I have in the margins of a book with the author.
Image: There’s a moment in Finding Beauty in a Broken World where you write about “genocide music” in Rwanda. Could you describe that music and what it meant in context?
TTW: Music is a significant part of the collective mourning each April. We were in Rwanda during this month of remembrance. This is the only time that Rwandans allow themselves to grieve publicly. The rest of the year the genocide is not openly discussed. Music becomes the backdrop. There’s a particular singer named Deudonné whose haunting lyrics you hear constantly throughout the country on the radio, in homes and on the streets. The musical phrases are repetitive, a refrain and a melody at once. We were told each song tells a story. Many are graphic accounts of the genocide. Others are requiems, elegies. Another musician, Jean-Paul Samputu, sings: “Where were you, God, during the genocide? Why did you abandon us?” There’s a saying in Rwanda: “God travels the world during the day but comes back to Rwanda to sleep.” Music embodies the pulse of grief felt throughout the country. Within each province, a procession begins in the morning and continues through the afternoon, culminating at a particular memorial site. That pilgrimage is aided by music as tens of thousands of people walk the path of memory. The people stop, the music stops, and a story is told about who once lived here, who was killed, how, where, why. There is a moment of silence, and then the music begins, and the procession continues as people walk this storied landscape. Music accompanies memory. It is an homage to those who died and those who remain. This particular music is played only during the month of April.
Image: In our own political situation, in an election year, what do you sense our country is most in need of—not only politically but on a deeper level?
TTW: Inspiration. I think it’s interesting how the media is downplaying this need as though it is not a valid hunger. When you look at a candidate like Barack Obama, who is inspiring so many people with hope, especially young voters, critics and candidates alike are saying, “But these are just words. Do we want words, or do we want actions?” Politics is all about words. Words inspire actions. I think it’s been so long since we’ve been inspired that we don’t even recognize that feeling anymore, and so many fear it, don’t trust it. Inspiration is at the core of leadership. A beautiful speech with soaring imagery and language that asks us to imagine a different way of being—this kind of speech can lead us to a more enlightened democracy. To me, that’s what emancipatory leadership is: a leadership that is akin to water that seeps into all levels of the citizenry and quenches the thirst caused by cynicism and apathy.
Obama’s speech on race was nuanced and brave. How long has it been since we, as a nation, have been asked to seek our highest and deepest selves? George Bush asked me to go shopping after September 11. Inspired consumption over inspired compassion.
Again, this goes back to community. To me, that’s where the real work lies. It’s why I choose to take prairie dogs as my mentors. The reconstruction of Rwanda is occurring community by community. The stories I am most interested in are stories of construction, not destruction, stories of courage, not fear. The seedbed of these narratives of faith and hope can be nourished through the arts and humanities. Art is a spark for social change. Beauty is not optional but essential to our survival as a species. As Gregory Bateson says, “The pattern is the thing.” The arts and humanities are a conversation about patterns, the interconnectedness of all our relations.
Image: Your book includes the visual and the tactile as well as language. Mosaic-making is a contemplative act, a way of understanding the world with your hands. What did this approach teach you?
TTW: Mosaic-making is hand-work, indeed. There is tremendous satisfaction in making something by hand, something tangible and real, nothing abstract. So much of the writing life is about abstractions. I am weary and wary of my mind. The body doesn’t lie. I trust flesh, blood, bones. How do we write embodied text, embodied music? We feel it when we encounter it, don’t you think? One of the central motifs of Finding Beauty is hands. Cutting the stones by hand, placing the tesserae on a particular surface by hand. Hands raised and hands put to work. The power of creation through construction. The prairie dogs with their paws pressed together, facing the light. Their burrows dug by hand. There is also the shadow side to work done by hand. One million Tutsis murdered by hand. Machetes in hand raised and wielded by Hutu extremists. Neighbors butchering neighbors with farm tools. How do we create peace by hand? A hand on another’s shoulder, a hand caressing a cheek, hand across our hearts? I don’t know.
I think of Nadine Gordimer’s challenge: What is the “essential gesture” right here, right now, in the twenty-first century? I don’t know. I just know that I want a more hands-on connection to life. I want a life of direct experience, not secondary experiences. I want to limit my time on the computer chasing e-mail. Let’s talk voice to voice, eye to eye. Let me touch your arm and you touch mine. Perhaps this is the essential gesture we are looking for: direct contact. It’s the difference between being an observer and a participant. I don’t want to be mired in the abstract anymore. It’s very isolating. When my brother was so sick in the hospital, my sister-in-law and I would knit. We must have made a hundred scarves between us. There was something about the texture, the color, the movement of the needles—not needles going into skin but needles creating something beautiful together. We could create something tangible, even useful, marking time with our hands. In our creations, we found an inner calm, a way to redirect our energies from worry to solace. To be of use.
Image: There’s a Quaker tradition of knitting during meetings for business, which are as much a spiritual process as silent worship is. You see lots of people knitting as the community unravels and ravels back together. It’s a contemplative act.
TTW: And something comes of it. So often we ask, “What comes of a spiritual life? What comes of a spiritual practice?” What comes of it is a rearrangement of form, internal and external. One of the things that moved me so much in Rwanda was seeing the power of the harvest. Women in Rwanda are farmers. They hoe the ground. They plant their seeds: beans and maize. In time, their labors will feed their families. Rwanda’s quilted landscape is the handiwork of women. One of my favorite photographs that our translator Louis has of his mother is a picture of her sitting on top of hundreds of ears of yellow corn. This is her identity, her labor, her love.
In Rwanda I was interviewed by a young woman named Clementine. She had two questions for me: “What do you cultivate, and how many children do you have?” I had to say: “I don’t cultivate anything. The food I eat, I buy. And I don’t have any children.” I remember how puzzled she was. She looked at me and said: “Then I have no further questions.” I realized in that moment, metaphors are not enough. I may cultivate ideas, but what about the cultivation of food? Can I redirect my priorities? And if I do, what might the outcome be, physically and spiritually? And what has been the source of my own birthing process? My books? These are humbling questions. In the brokenness, the distractedness of our lives, we see a poverty of another kind. Even in that war-torn country, there was a wholeness and integrity that was tied to the land through the women.
And yet they’re undergoing a transformation also, asking tough questions of their own. With a majority of women in parliament, the Rwandan government is now saying, “We must think about family planning.” This has been hugely controversial. Some women are saying, “If you have us engage in family planning, that’s another form of genocide.” But a younger generation is saying, “We must consider what the land can sustain.” The roots of genocide are complex, not only tied to colonialism and racial preference—Tutsi versus Hutu—but also a poverty tied to the land, tied to density issues, deforestation and erosion.
These questions become the concerns of us all, local and global dilemmas that ask us to engage creatively, constructively, and to employ a depth of listening we may not have known before, one that cultivates authentic relationships that inevitably give birth to meaningful actions. We are hungry for communion, bright and full conversations, many conversations within our communities that can lead us to a conversion of cooperation, not conflict. I believe this is a very creative time for humanity, not just for Americans or Rwandans, but for all of us living on earth. To serve and to sacrifice on behalf of the common good, to see ourselves in loving relationship with the Other—this will allow us to create concentric circles of regard and respect toward all species, not just our own. To be of use. To help and be helped. To engage in humble work that creates humility not hubris. Art. Music. Conversation. What we choose to cultivate. These are just some of the sources essential to our survival that can sustain and support an ethical stance toward life. I think this is why I fell in love with mosaic not only as an art form, but as a form of integration. Finding beauty in a broken world may be creating beauty in the world we find. Patterns. Colors. Shapes. Reflection. There are rules to mosaic. The first rule of mosaic is light.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.