The Void Is Always With You: A Depiction of Terry Tempest Williams’ “Refuge”

An intentional void dwells in the edifice of our hearts. This void is a barren landscape that we dare not venture; it is desolate, abandoned, and forgotten. With vast depths, we cannot seem to will ourselves to journey through it for fear that we might find ourselves lost. It presents itself in the hollowness we feel amidst moments of happiness and the similar impending intuition that this happiness will not withstand. It is the mystery that we have yet to appreciate. Our lives remain an effortful striving to conceal this void and for the most part it remains invisible, lurking just below the surface. But we have fallen victim to the misconception that this void can be filled by earthly determinations. In reality this void can never be filled in the present life, only transformed.

In her book Refuge, Terry Tempest Williams details the existence of this void as both the question and answer in life and a premeditated means of bringing us closer to our Creator. Detailing this void as part of our hearts original design, she illuminates the beauty of emptiness and fullness as interdependent. Williams depicts this void that resides within us as the result of change, manifest in abandonment, but innately hopeful, suggesting that our only way to fill this void is to abide in it.

At the start of her novel, Williams introduces the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge near Great Salt Lake as the central landscape of her life experiences. Upon hearing that her mother has been diagnosed with a terminal cancer, we see that her concern for the refuge and the lake symbolize an effort to actualize her mother’s death. Illustrating the lakes’ fluctuating water level in response to climatic shifts, Williams first introduces a “portrait of change” (Williams 6) that runs as a unifying theme throughout the novel. This portrait of change is depicted as the contributing factor that brings to life the latent void inside her heart. As she portrays the landscape of her childhood that she once regarded as bedrock as now being subject to change by her mother’s fatal prognosis (Williams 40), this void imprisons her heart.

Paralleling the submersion of this void, Great Salt Lake has similarly immersed the surrounding land; water levels have risen steadily throughout the years altering the areas ecosystem. As the water permeates the neighboring land, many migratory birds that inhabit the area are displaced from their temporary refuge. Describing her concern for a specific species of burrowing owls that reside near the lake, she details the changes in water level as a death sentence: “the burrowing owl is defined as “threatened”, a political step away from endangered status” (Williams 9). Williams uses this image of the owl’s forthcoming death to represent the insidious nature of her mother’s cancer. Just as the water levels slowly drown the burrowing owls, the cancer gradually inundates her mother’s body. As her mother continues to bear myriad physical, emotional, and spiritual adjustments, she asserts: “the only thing we can expect [in life] is change” (Williams 146). With her mother’s time on earth rapidly drawing to a close, Williams uses the landscape of the lake to describes her hearts current state: “floating in salt water, completely at the mercy of currents” (Williams 176). Her inability to alter the course of her mother’s illness has left her to face life’s unpredictability. Her powerlessness in mastering death illustrates our own need for control amidst chaos. Our failure to direct life’s uncertainties creates in us a forlorn emptiness that cannot be filled. It is our hearts resistance to change that ultimately expands the intrinsic void within.

As William’s comes to grips with the decay of her mother’s life, she articulates this void as manifest in the form of abandonment. Just as the birds of the Bear River Refuge have been forgotten, so too does she feel deserted in the face of her mother’s death. In one moment Williams parallels the relationship between a group of swans and the Great Salt Lake as her own relationship with her mother: “…I imagined the shimmering Great Salt Lake calling the swans down like a mother, the suddenness of the storm, the anguish of its separation” (Williams 122). Here Williams details a “storm” (her mother’s battle with cancer) as bringing separation, she feels a void in her heart in the form of abandonment.

During a conversation with one of her Kenyan friends at the local Baptist Church, Williams offers a conception of this void and the loneliness it brings as evident in the form of darkness. Her friend describes how under an African sky darkness was never something that she had feared, it provided clarity and definition (Williams 137). The emptiness that the darkness provides is deemed purposeful in her eyes; she understands that there is beauty to be discovered within this blank canvas, within its mystery.

Later, Williams challenges our conception of darkness in describing how it is not necessarily the dark that we fear, but the “silences contained within the darkness”(Williams 146). In light of her mother’s impending death, perhaps she does not fear death itself, but the emptiness and estrangement that death brings. Upon describing her own battle with cancer, her mother states: “We must come to peace within our own isolation”. Whereas isolation is often what we fear the most, her mother presents abandonment as holding the potential to provide peace. Just as the black night sky brings our eyes to focus on the light of the stars, so too does our aloneness allow us to feel more connected. We see that her mother is learning to adapt with life’s irregularity and is remarkably finding fullness in the presence of emptiness. Although a void surfaces in the face of death that causes her to feel forsaken, she understands that peace can be obtained in its presence. With abandonment and peace depicted as coexisting, Williams prompts the reader to believe that the void we feel in our hearts is inherently hopeful.

In a letter her mother received from a close friend, Tamra, who is also battling cancer, Tamra poses the question: “How can we be so sad and so full at the same time?” (Williams 95). This question suggests a dichotomy in the way that we experience life’s trials, that although we experience remorse, we hold onto hope. This question also alludes to the void that we feel in our hearts as holding a dual nature, one of emptiness and one of fullness. It is those poignant moments of happiness that seem foul themselves with the knowledge that the happiness experienced will not last. However, it is also those moments of sadness that hold an inkling of joy, of knowledge that something greater is obtained through the sadness. In the time throughout her mother’s chemotherapy and radiation sessions, Williams often retreats into silent settings. These places remain her solace; they hold the memories of her family. Yet when she is there she becomes overwhelmed with emptiness, these once inspiring and rejuvenating places have been transformed in the wake of her mother’s cancer. In some moments she acknowledges her inability to approach these empty places, for her “interior is bare” (Williams 158). Just as her mother surrounds herself with lush greenery, flowing water, and vibrantly colored flowers to experience life amidst the battle within her own body, Williams also craves an experience of life that these landscapes cannot provide in the present moment. These seemingly desolate landscapes that Williams approaches represent those vacant places within our own hearts that we have yet to confront. However, her time spent enveloped in neglected environments allows her to understand that the confrontation of its emptiness ultimately lends fullness in time, illuminating our own need to confront those dark corners of our hearts. One day she escapes into the Wasatch Mountains in search of strength amid the trees and colorful canyons; she begins to feed the birds of the mountains with slices of oranges. As she sucks on an orange slice she savors the moment, she feels the mountains beginning to “work” on her (Williams 160). Her feelings of peace in the presence of solitude are what bring her back to this landscape time and time again. This landscape allows her to return home with renewed vigor (Williams 160). Likewise describing her solitary travels around the northern stretches of Great Salt Lake, Williams describes the lakes “forsakenness” as providing fullness. Standing in the “throbbing silence of the Great Basin….” she understands that this barren lands “mercy” can save her soul (Williams 148). Drawing a connection with religious pilgrimages, she believes that the desert is holy because it is “a forgotten place that allows us to remember the sacred” (Williams 148). The void we experience is a creative masterpiece, a means of bringing us back into communion with our Creator, over and over again. Although the void in our hearts will endure, it can be altered by awareness that suffering and sorrow have the ability to gift a sustainable hope.

The intrinsic void in our hearts may then begin to be filled upon its embrace.

Just as the Great Salt Lake is deemed bereft of life that few traverse, those empty spaces in our heart that we dare not enter beckon to be explored. As Williams mother seeks a new understanding of suffering, so too must we. Learning to live with the trials of each day and being more “fully present”, she becomes more self-aware and more “alive” to every facet of life (Williams 116). Reflecting on the time she has left, she tells her daughter: “Until you go through this process of facing death, or the probability of it- no one can ever know that there is something that takes place. It goes beyond hope” (Williams 136). Her dance with death has allowed her to see that the suffering and pain that the void in her heart brings, ultimately provides hope. Her void is transformed little by little each day. Her whole being becomes “accelerated” and her curiosity for life intensifies (Williams136). She strives eagerly to appreciate each day and her gratitude toward life overflows. She desires to absorb everything that is fresh, natural, and alive and her understanding of life is magnified (Williams 136). As she delves further into an inner retreat, her hearts emptiness is “replaced by openness” (Williams 136).  With new eyes that see each day as a gift, her refuge “exists in [her] capacity to love…”. Because she has retreated into those lonely places of her heart, she is better able to authentically care and love for her family. With her heart awakened and attuned to its hollowness, she can now abide in the void. She confesses to her daughter that “the void is always with you”, but that we all continue on. She will continue on without her mother and become stronger each day because of it (Williams 133).

In one forbidding scene, as Williams and her mother sit on a grassy knoll, they break bread for a flock of geese around them. Reminiscent of the crucifixion, the two remain confident in hope of redemption. A holy intuition for atonement gives them the strength to move forward and face death.

The void can be welcomed once we understand that it can help to redeem us.

These barren landscapes of our heart can only be filled with life, upon death. Until then we must redefine this void, we must realize that this void can either ensnare us, or set us free.

In the end this void is our refuge, both the cause and answer to our ability to wait for, to endure without yielding, and to bear patiently; to abide. The only way to fill the void in our heart is to abide in it. For it is within our hearts where our Creator resides, luring us to retreat into an emptiness that lends fullness.

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