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Archive for May, 2008

Going on all the time here are Book Expo Educational Programs, panels and talks for booksellers and publishers on a variety of ways to sell books better and sell better books. I am in one right now called “Steal This Book: Selling and Promoting Literature on the Edge.” I came because I thought I might get some interesting ideas on how to market Bead One, Pray Too, but it is more about how to reach 20-Somethings who don’t always buy books in bookstores or hear about them in book review publications. Not really applicable to me, so I left early. And I REALLY don’t want anyone to steal my book!

At midmorning, I went to the autograph signing area to see my friend and colleague Donna Freitas sign copies of her first young adult novel, The Possibilities of Sainthood, which is being published by FSG in August. Donna is a professor of religion at Boston University and is perhaps best known for her four non-fiction books, including Killing the Impostor God, about the religious/spiritual/moral world constructed by Phillip Pullman in his His Dark Materials trilogy, among my favorite books of all time. She is young and thin and brilliant and we hate her (not really!). She devours YA fiction for fun and has recommended a number of good books to me, including the books of Stephanie Meyer and Tamora Pierce. Now that I have the book in my hands, I cannot wait to read it and will start tonight. The back copy is enough to pull you in – a letter written by the main character to the Pope alerting him to the fact that there is no patron saint of the first kiss and offering herself for the role. I love it!

A few lanes in the autograph session and picked up a small book by Lama Surya Das called Words of Wisdom from Koa Books. I think it is something the book industry might call a “gift book” or a “novelty book” – a small collection of witty sayings by the author, a famous Buddhist teacher. Some be appropriate as short prayers for prayer beads, like these: “What we seek, we are,” and “Life is breath. Breath is spirit. Spirit is joy” and “Surrender to what is.” Each one is stands alone on a single, small page, some decorated with drawings of scattering leaves. A nice, light book of Buddhist insights.

After half a yucky sandwich picked up in the Publishers Weekly press room (along with a more than decent brownie, so I can’t complain), I went to an afternoon session by the Book Industry Study Group in which they released new numbers about the strength of the book market. I don’t want to bore you here with sales numbers and book unit figures, but let me tell you this – of all the publishing categories this group studies, religion is the strongest in terms of dollars made, numbers of books published and numbers of books purchased by consumers. As someone who writer about religion for an industry publishing magazine, this is good news!

From there I went to a session that was billed as helping authors and publishers promote their books on social networking sites. It was only moderately helpful to me, a small author at a small-ish publishing house, and was geared more towards publishers who can purchase space on book social networking sites like gather.com. I can barely manage to answer messages left for me on Facebook and LinkedIn, so I left about three-quarters of the way through and went back to the publishing floor.

And that’s when I started to have some real fun!

Magical CharmsIn addition to there being miles and miles of books here, there are also lots of vendors offering all the other things you might find in a bookstore – journals, bookmarks, t-shirts, candles, lap desks – you name it. Among these I found Starlinks a vendor of “enchanted jewelry and gifts.” I was pulled right into this booth with its large display of pewter, silver, copper and brass charms that would, almost without exception, make fantastic terminal charms for prayer beads and rosaries. Starlinks has everything from traditional Christian crosses to symbols of the deities of Nordic, Egyptian, Celtic, Neo-Pagan, Native American and New Age traditions. I had so much fun looking at charms of dragons, fairies, Celtic knots, zodiac symbols, dreamcatchers and goddess symbols, many of them enhanced with colored Swarovski crystals. Among my favorites were the Celtic designs of metalsmith Courtney Davis, which included some unusual crosses- St. Brigid’s St. Manchan’s and a Pentney cross. Starlinks charms are very affordable, running between $7 and $70 and each one comes with a card that explains its origin and meaning and has some information about “consecrating and empowering” its energy. One ofCeltic charms these rituals suggests that you hold your charm under running water and visualize the water running straight through it. Owner Felicia Riccardo purchased the business, located in nearby Long Beach, about two years ago and it has been a transformative time for her. “I was always interested in folklore,” she told me as we looked at the cases of charms in her booth. “I truly believe this quest for new information [about new and different forms of spirituality] will take us into a New Age. I am having a great time.” Starlinks charms can be found in many book stores and purchased online through the company’s website. I strongly recommend you check it out. I think there is something here to satisfy the prayer beader of any and every religious tradition. I’m hot for the “magical charm” that will “develop intellectual abilities.”

Next I came across Tughra Books in a small booth at the back of one of the first aisles. Tugrra is a small publisher of books on Islam with offices in both Istanbul, Turkey and Somerset, N.J. There I found a lovely copy of one of the most famous and sacred of all Islamic prayers, the Al-Jawshan al-Kabir. Huseyin Senturk, the director of publications, told me this translates to “shield of power” and that this prayer, which Islamic tradition holds was narrated to the Prophet Muhammad by an angel just before one of the prophet’s battles with the people of Mecca, is highly revered by Muslims for its protective qualities and its ability to endow the reciter of the prayer with strength. Part of prayer includes the 99 names of God, or Allah, that many Muslims recite on their prayer beads. But, as Huseyin told me, there is beauty in the prayer for all “peoples of the book” – Muslims, Christians and Jews. “They can all like the book because it is all about praying to God and offering thanksgiving,” he said. “When you pray it, you are praising God. This is nothing but praising God.” In this version of the prayer, the Arabic form of the prayer is written out in beautiful calligraphy and illustrations on the right side page, while the English translation appears on the right. I asked the men if either of them had a set of prayer beads with him, and here is a picture of marketing director Ahmet Idil with his own wooden set! Prayer beads at the book show! I found them!

There was more, too, but how much information can I stick in one posting? I’ll tell you more about spiritual crafting and prayer books from Jewish Lights Publishing and Skylight Paths Publishing in my next post!

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Thursday Morning, Oakland International Airport

For the next few days – Thursday through Sunday – I will be attending Book Expo in Los Angeles, Calif. I am going with Publishers Weekly, for whom I frequently write, and will try and pick up and write several stories for them from the floor show.

But I will also be attending as a blogger and hope to file two or more dispatches about the new and forthcoming titles I see that are about prayer, contemplation and – dare I hope ?– prayer beads. Actually, I guess I don’t hope, because MY book is new and I don’t want the competition, right? That’s the smart writer’s response anyway. But the stoopid seeker inside me says hey, there’s room for us all.

So, stay tuned. I hope to post once a day, but if things get interesting, I’ll do more.

Thursday Evening, Westin Bonaventure Hotel, Los Angeles

The exhibition hall does not open until tomorrow, so I was not able to walk around and inspect the books. But I was able to go to the press room and register – or, rather, re-register, as they mistakenly had me registered as “Kimberly Winstine.” Daisy Maryles, the executive editor at Publishers Weekly welcomed me as “one of the tribe.” We got the badge mix up figured out and I am now plain old boring me again. Darn.

In the press room, I picked up some materials from publishers who produce some religion books. The most exciting book in these pages to me is the forthcoming Acedia & me: A Marriage, Monks and a Writer’s Life by Kathleen Norris, which Penguin releases in September. I read her Amazing Grace and The Cloister Walk years ago and they just electrified me. They were my first indication that the richest personal relationship with God can exist outside the boundaries of organized religion. As the title suggests, Norris discusses her own battle with acedia, a kind of spiritual depression. As some of you who read this blog know, I have suffered from depression since childhood, so I am keenly interested to see how Norris, one of my favorite writers, links depression, creativity and spirituality. Publishers Weekly gave this book a starred review.

Dinner tonight was sushi with my editor at Publishers Weekly, Lynn Garrett, and Daisy Maryles. Whenever I see Daisy, which is about once a year – I ask her what she’s read lately that excites her. She gave me a long list. Daisy is involved in The Rorh Family Foundation which awards literary prizes to young, up-and-coming Jewish writers, so many of her suggestions came from what she has read for her work there, and some of her other suggestions are just good books she picked up and liked:

The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit

Those Who Save Us – A Holocaust survival tale that moved back and forth between the past and the present.

The New Philippa Gregory

The Space Between Us by Thrity Umringer

Snowflower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See

Lynn has on her nightstand My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor. I blogged about a New York Times piece about this author, a brain scientist who suffered a stroke and after her own rehab believes people can train their brains to access bliss.

So that’s the first day. Off to bed with the show program to plan tomorrow’s events.

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Woke up this morning to this wonderful story on National Public Radio about a day in the life of a Hindu monk living in New York City. Take a listen to the story, which includes a good five seconds of the monk, 35-year-old Gadadhara Pandit Dasa, chanting while using his mala prayer beads, pictured at left. It sent a thrill down my spine – he is chanting so fast and so intently! He is a Hare Krishna, a member of the International Society for Kirshna Consciousness (ISKCON), and the first Hindu chaplain to students at Columbia University, where I went to graduate school.

You can also read the story in transcript form on the website, but then you don’t get to hear the chanting. But do scroll down to the bottom of the page where you can read more about the Hare Krishnas and, even better, about the chant and the mantra. And if you’re really ambitious, you can make one Dasa’s vegetarian recipes.

The story is the work of Barbara Bradley Haggerty, a colleague of mine in Religion Newswriters Association, and for my money one of the best religion reporters around.

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Thoughts on Blogging

On Sunday, I came across this article in the New York Times’ Sunday Magazine. Written by Emily Gould, it seemed to promise to be a story about the perils and pluses of having a personal blog. But halfway into this story, I was still trying to figure out why the magazine had chosen to dedicate thousands of words to the story, which as far as I could tell, was only about the incredible self-absorption of one twenty-something New York woman.

If you don’t have time to read the story (and unless you have half an hour to waste on a young, not very accomplished woman’s navel gazing, then don’t bother), let me encapsulate it for you – young girl out of college working in book publishing lands a job as a professional blogger for a NYC-oriented celebrity gossip site. Over the course of a year or so, she begins to blog more about her personal relationships, including an office romance. It seems to surprise her when this blows up in her face. Go figure. Moral – don’t share every choice you make with total strangers.

Much more interesting, I thought, was this story on one doctor’s controversial theory that the brain can be trained for bliss, or this story on the use of mindfulness meditation as a tool in psychotherapy. It seems to me that these are subjects worth blogging about here. Yes? No?

As much as I did not like Emily Gould’s story, it made me think I wanted to ask some questions here to you, my readers – whoever the heck you are. How much personal stuff do you want to know about the bloggers you read? How much personal information is too much personal information – not so much for me, the blogger, but for you, the readers?

I ask because these are questions that I have struggled with for a long time, and trying to answer them kept me from starting this blog earlier than I did. Part of my struggle is that, as a journalist, it just goes against my training to write about myself. The focus of my writing has always been almost entirely on other people. I am way more interested in other people than I am in myself. The other part of the struggle is that I ask myself, why would anyone care what I think? I am not clergy, an academic, a famous person, a particularly well-traveled or broadly experienced person, so why would anyone – besides my immediate circle of family and close friends – be at all interested in what I think about, say, the presidential candidates, world events or the latest installment of a certain television show? And the broader subject of this blog – the quest for a personal relationship with a divine being – is so subjective, so personal and so individual, how much of the details of my own feeble attempts at it are worth reading about?

And yet, from reading Emily Gould’s story, it seems that many readers are interested in just that. So the question I pose here is are you getting enough personal information about me and what I think about prayer beads and other forms of contemplative prayer on this blog? Does it help you when I write about something I tried or prayed and how it worked for me? Or is that TMI – too much information?

And if you struggled through the NYTimes story and had a different opinion, I’d like to hear it.

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The Sea Ranch, Monday morning . . . .

This morning, sitting in the window overlooking the ocean, I got out the packet of paper beads I ordered last month from Beads for Life. I am going to hold a Beads for Life party in June and I couldn’t wait till then to see what they were like, so I ordered a packet of loose beads. I brought them, and some other supplies, to The Sea Ranch with me so I could make a set of prayer beads with them.

First, I separated the more than 100 beads into colors – pinks, reds, yellows, oranges, green, blues and multi-colored beads. I decided I’d like a set of prayer beads where each section – weeks for an Anglican version, decades for a Catholic version – would be a different color. For the uncounted connector beads, I chose a size 8 seed bead that is yellow with small red stripes.

For the terminal charm, I chose a kind of cross that I purchased at Baubles and Beads I don’t know how long ago. It is a cross with four equal arms and has cut outs inside it. It’s kind of a Jerusalem cross. It is made of jade, I think, or some other pale green stone. I really must start keeping better records of what I buy because I forget after I get things home. I thought it would be nice because it is stone would give the paper prayer beads some heft. Also, its color reminds me of the color of waves when the light shines behind them – a kind of pale bottle green.

I decided to make a basic Anglican rosary (page 122 in Bead One, Pray Too), but there were enough beads in the packet that I could have made a basic Catholic rosary (page 125), too. But as the paper beads are all elongated, stringing the 59 counted beads a Catholic rosary requires would have given me an extremely long set of prayer beads. So I chose to go with the Anglican rosary’s 33 counted beads so the final set of prayer beads would be more manageable.

Then I just threaded a needle, strung the beads in the pattern of the Anglican rosary. I put one uncounted connector bead between each of the weeks beads and three uncounted connector beads between each set of weeks and the cruciform beads. Then I tied a surgeon’s knot (Bead One, Pray Too, page 125) and ran the thread tails back up through the beads. What do you think? Here is a picture of my new prayer beads draped on a Buddha statue that sits in the garden of the house we rented. I love it. I love the colors and the feel of the beads – both light and heavy at the same time. I cannot wait to have my Bead for Life party and hope I can encourage my guests to try their hands at making a set, too.

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My husband and I just returned from The Sea Ranch, where we went to celebrate our tenth wedding anniversary for four nights. We did not have internet access while we were there, or cellphones (yeah!), so it was a very low tech long weekend. But I did take my computer and wrote and stored some blog entries. Here is the first . . . .

Sunday

My husband and I have been coming to The Sea Ranch once or twice a year since we were married. Maybe even before. We have come alone, with the boys, with other members of our families and with friends. Everyone loves it – even the teenagers. It is just a magical place where the elements seem to be intensified in the blue of the water, the clarity of the air, the fecundity of the earth and the fire of the setting sun.

Every time we come here, I experience some sort of spiritual jumpstart. I have always found my deepest connection to the divine while looking at the ocean. Don’t know why, just do. Maybe because it seems the beauty and power and, most of all, the mystery of the ocean most clearly represents God to me. I only know that when I am at the ocean, I unfailingly feel the impulse to pray.

It is no different on this trip. We are staying at The Garden House, a small house we have rented a couple of times before. For one thing, it is a house that welcomes dogs, and Bella has come with us on this trip. It isn’t the most modern house, it isn’t the most luxurious house, but we find it a most comfortable and welcoming house. It has the most wonderful wall of windows overlooking the meadow and the ocean, and it is here that I sit right now, early Sunday morning, with my prayer beads.

Let me tell you what I see as I look out this window. There are two bird feeders on posts just outside the window, and a couple of blue birds come to eat there every ten minutes or so. I call them “pig birds” for their enormous appetites. They are the size of jays, with the color of the sky on their backs and the white of the clouds on their breasts. When they are not on the feeder, they flick around under a hedge that runs to the left of the window at a right angle. Sometimes they are joined by a pair of partridges or a pair of small yellow and black birds, and on two days we were visited by a large pheasant with a bold turquoise and green neck.

Beyond the birds and the feeders there are green and brown wild grasses, dotted here and there with yellow and some small purple wildflowers. Beyond that is some green brush that runs down in a slope to the Pacific Ocean about one-quarter of a mile away. The ocean has been alternately gray and calm when the fog has rolled in, or blue with white wave caps when it has been sunny and the wind has joined us. Today is it sunny and the blue and white of the ocean and the green of the meadow are brilliant and cheerful. A row of houses – all of weathered wood – run down to the ocean in my line of vision on the right.

Sitting in this window is my favorite thing to do in this house. It is one of the places I like best to pray in the whole world. I sit in the window seat with my back to the room and my face to the sea and I let my prayer beads slip through the fingers of my right hand one by one. I keep my eyes open, letting them fall on the birds that drop by, the waves of grass moved by the wind, the white caps on the ocean moving ever from the right to the left, from north to south. Looking at the ocean, I cannot help but feel the presence of God. My breathing soon becomes as regular as the waves, and my consciousness of my connection to the all that is and was becomes as deep as the blue of the sky.

In this state, it hardly matters what I pray, only that I pray. Sometimes, I start with something more formal – meaning I have not memorized it but refer to it in my prayer bead journal, where I write down prayers I like. This week, I have been inspired by all the natural beauty around me to pray with St. Francis of Assisi, and chose a section of his Canticle to Brother Sun, which I adapted to the Anglican rosary in Bead One, Pray Too (page 80-81). My eyes on the ocean, I repeat, “Be praised, My Lord, through Sister Water; she is very useful, and humble, and precious, and pure.” My eyes on the meadow or the sky, I say, “Be praised, my Lord, through Brothers Wind and Air, and clouds and storms, and all the weather, through which you give your creatures sustenance.” Other times, I begin with something simpler, something memorized, like, “God with me lying down, God with me rising up, God with me in each ray of light,” from the Carmina Gadelica (Bead One, Pray Too page 96). But it isn’t long before I slip into something more rhythmic, drawn by the constancy of the ocean and the awareness of my own breath. Then I pray The Jesus Prayer: “Lord, Jesus Christ, have mercy on me. Lord, Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.” And later I will change the prayer to the most basic of all, the Hindu “Ham Sa.” “I am THAT. I am THAT. I am THAT.” I lose track of time, I lose track of myself, I lose track of everything but the glory of creation and my own breath that ties me to it. I do this every day we are here.

When I am done praying, I will rise and take a shower and make some breakfast. Then I’ll sit back in the window – or perhaps on the small deck in the back yard – and wait for my husband to wake up. We’ll hike along the beach and maybe up in the hills. Then home to dinner and wine and it all starts again tomorrow. Our rhythms here are as a regular as the ocean, set by the regular slip of my prayer beads through my fingers each morning.

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Came across this story in the New York Times the other day about a major show at the Museum of the City of New York on the history of the city’s Catholic community. Is anyone who reads this blog in New York City and planning to see this show? If you do, please report here on ant rosaries or chaplets the show contains.

I was raised mostly in New York City, and if any of you have read the introduction to Bead One, Pray Too, you know that I once lived across the street from a Catholic church in Jackson Heights. It was called Blessed Sacrament and it was there that I saw my first rosaries, clicking away in the hands of the neighborhood’s Polish women. That neighborhood is now largely Latino, with most of the residents from Central America, who, I suppose, now pepper the pews on weekdays, their beads clicking away. It also has a huge Indian population. I would love to revisit the old neighborhood. Its been 15 years since my last visit.

I love this museum, too. My first trip there was as an elementary school student on a class trip, but I sure don’t remember anything specific. I just liked it. Like rummaging around in the city’s attic. I have been back several times since and it always surprises me. It has great old pictures of NYC, old firetrucks and old policemen’s uniforms – things like that. I always liked it way more than the Museum of Natural History – the other annual pilgrimage site for New York City schoolkids – because that just seemed to me to be a buncha dead, stuffed animals. Still does.

Okay, my husband and I are off to the Sea Ranch for the next five days to celebrate our tenth anniversary. So there will be a break in the blog. I’ll write entries while I am there, but I won’t have internet access, so will have to post them when we return.

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