Rahna Reiko Rizzuto
(c) John Searcy

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))

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Rahna Reiko Rizzuto is the author of the memoir, Hiroshima in the Morning, which was a National Book Critics Circle Finalist, an Asian American Literary Award Finalist, a Dayton Literary Peace Prize Nominee, and the winner of the Grub Street National Book Award. Her first novel, Why She Left Us, won an American Book Award in 2000. She is also a recipient of the U.S./Japan Creative Artist Fellowship, funded by the National Endowment for the Arts. She was Associate Editor of The NuyorAsian Anthology: Asian American Writings About New York City and is a Hedgebrook alumna. Reiko has been interviewed widely on motherhood including on The Today Show, 20/20, and The View. Her articles on motherhood, Hiroshima, the Japanese internment camps and radiation poisoning have been published globally, including in the L.A. Times, Guardian UK, CNN Opinion and Salon, and through the Progressive Media Project. She is a faculty member at Goddard College in the MFA in Creative Writing program, and is the advisor of the national literary journal, Clockhouse. Reiko is Japanese/Caucasian and was raised in Hawaii.
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16 thoughts on “UNDER A PURPLE DISCO BALL: Writing Your Life

  • Profile photo of therestlessnest
    October 4, 2016 at 11:58 pm

    Reiko, I love the thought that writing memoir is like stringing beads and looking for patterns. I also love that your dad took your mom “garage sailing.” What a great pastime for someone with memory loss. Thank you for sharing this.

  • October 4, 2016 at 11:42 pm

    Beautiful. Love the thought that writing memoir is a bit like stringing beads. Thank you, Reiko, for sharing this.

  • September 26, 2016 at 4:47 pm

    Wonderful read! Thank you for sharing this

    • Profile photo of Reiko Rizzuto
      September 26, 2016 at 7:41 pm

      Thanks! Hope you are well and having a wonderful semester, Pittershawn.

  • September 26, 2016 at 2:19 pm

    This is beautiful Reiko. Thank you so much for posting!

  • September 26, 2016 at 1:02 pm

    Today, I am the they’ll-figure-it-out-for-themselves lady . . . who suddenly has a little extra time and a great deal less guilt ;o)

    Many thanks, Reiko, for sprinkling a touch of sanity on an otherwise hectic 24 hrs.! Wonderful life and writing advice to heed ~


    • Profile photo of Reiko Rizzuto
      September 26, 2016 at 1:47 pm

      They do figure it out! Hoping for a smoother 24 hours to come for you. Be well…

  • September 26, 2016 at 1:00 pm

    Hello from Whidbey Island, Reiko! Warm hugs across the strait to you.
    This is such a valuable and beautiful piece, an important reminder that we do have the ability to unstick ourselves in powerful ways by reframing the stories we hold about ourselves. It is also timely given that as a society and culture we find ourselves at a moment in time when we have a mandate to “pull out a piece of paper and write a different story.” Thank you.

    • Profile photo of Reiko Rizzuto
      September 26, 2016 at 1:45 pm

      Hello, Rebecca! Absolutely. For me, the unsticking, when it happens, feels so natural and right that the wonder is how and why I kept myself stuck for so long! Warm hugs back to you. I have my bits of Whidbey, and my wishing stones, with me here.

  • September 26, 2016 at 12:01 pm

    I too thank you for sending these words today. The universe always gives us what we need …

  • September 26, 2016 at 11:53 am

    This really resonates with me and is just the reminder I’ve needed this morning as I wait for my car to be repaired and find myself in a strange town where no one knows who I am. I could be anyone or maintain a mystery. I could begin new today and maybe that is part of how creating and recreating begins, deciphering the essential and mostly, the essence of both self and story as we learn to arrange the fragments in our lives. I wonder how I can better live and write, meaning to continue to hold to the thread that Stafford mentioned in his poems, that unseen blue or what I interpret as voice, but a sort of creative energy too, outside oneself that surprises and arrives without demand. Maybe today I want the mystery a little longer before I return home. Writing helps me to discover my story and myself, attempt to make meaning of the world or simply put the questions on a page so I can better hold them. And I think it is memory’s work in some ways, and a going towards self, to reclaim, to recreate and in the end be the undefined. We are so much water. How to write that? How do we tell our amazing stories with that power and that clarity?

    • Profile photo of Reiko Rizzuto
      September 26, 2016 at 12:00 pm

      Laura, I love the notion of deciphering the essential and the image that we are “so much water.” I’ve been thinking about clearing everything that makes me who I am now off the table – everything – and reconsidering the essentials to determine what goes back on the table, and in what new form. Good luck with your recreation.

  • Profile photo of Reiko Rizzuto
    September 26, 2016 at 11:48 am

    Thanks Barbara. What a powerful moment. Nice to hear from you!

  • September 26, 2016 at 11:12 am

    Thanks Reiko – perfect timing as I find myself in a moment that calls for writing – as I traveled from Vermont to Oregon to gather at my parents gravesite with my three sisters to remember them…

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