My mother’s necklace is strung with puka shells and teardrops of abalone. It’s a bit of Hawaii that I picked out of bags full of hundreds of necklaces given to her by kind people who wanted to see her smile. My mother had Alzheimer’s disease for thirteen years, and my father took care of her at home. For more than a decade, they went ‘garage sailing’ every Saturday, so she could find delight in other people’s for-sale items, which were not booby-trapped with a history she couldn’t recall. Because she loved the color blue, the house filled with blue goblets, blue bottles, blue plates, blue stained glass in the windows, even an old blue Honda SUV she saw on the side of the road with a step so high she couldn’t get into it and a steering cable we didn’t know was duct-taped together until the insects ate through the tape and stranded my brother at the beach.
By the time the car died, she was also gone.
I keep my mother’s necklace by my bed in a wooden box that was also my mother’s. This month, I wore it to go dancing at an 80’s/90’s Freedom Party on the first weekend after both my sons left for college. It felt right with my frayed, flared jeans, my swing tank top: just like the clothes I used to wear when I left Hawaii in the 80’s for my own college experience. So on my first, empty-nest weekend, I had, not just my mother with me, but also my youth.
So what does all this have to do with writing?
Every moment in our lives contains the seed of a story. They are what I pick and choose from to make a narrative. I could tell you the story my selfless father, or the loss of my mother. I could tell you the one about the empty nest, or the purple disco ball. I could tell you a story about aging, or the displacement I still sometimes feel as a small-town girl in Brooklyn: puka shells in the City That Never Sleeps. Every day could be fractured into tens, if not hundreds, of stories. Different stories; the same life. In a letter to one of my students who is writing a memoir, I likened the process to beading a necklace. Which events make a pattern? In size, color? How do they reflect each other, work in juxtaposition; how do they build to a focal point? Which beads are beautiful but just don’t match? So there is a writing tip for you: intention. But it’s also a lesson about how we choose to live.
Just as writers very consciously shape our lives into art, we – all of us, writers and readers, people – can also learn from writing how to live. When we tell the story of who we are, we choose what to include. We create and recreate ourselves every day, and we don’t have to return to our familiar patterns, our well-worn histories, or include the definitions we were given by others. We can rewrite our reactions. We can celebrate and forgive ourselves. Many of us in our “mindfulness” culture do this is during yoga classes or meditation when we let go of the chatter in our heads and focus on our breath, but it can be hard to take that freedom back out into the world where we are the mother, or the successful executive, or the black sheep. So here is a living tip for you: when you find yourself trapped in who you think you have to be, pull out a piece of paper and write a different story.
See what happens.
For me, the story I will choose today has a woman in it, stuck in the ever-present but washed in a rain of blue light. Her daughter dances on waves from her past under a purple disco ball. They are connected – across time and space, through love – by a necklace.
Which beads of your life will you choose to wear today?
(Disco ball image courtesy of Judit Klein (cc))