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Archive for July, 2008

Balm or Placebo?

I came across this story in the New York Times today, about Katie Reider, a young, up-and-coming singer  struck down by a terrible and apparently rare form of cancer. She left behind a partner, two kids, a best friend and a brother. She was a young woman of faith, a Christian, who, according to the story, did not seem to have a moment of doubt that she was loved by God. While the piece was poignant, what struck me most was the following:

“You can pick out the lessons you want from their story. About faith — as balm or as placebo.”

That is the battle it seems to me that any person of any faith must struggle with. I know I do, on an almost daily basis. It’s like dancing on a tightrope, balancing one’s belief in God with one’s daily reality. Sometimes I fall off the tightrope on the side of balm, and sometimes – perhaps more often that not – I fall on the side of placebo. But it is because I am intrigued by the tension and challenged by the choice that I keep doing what I do – both professionally (writing about people’s faith) and personally (exploring my own).

The young woman’s brother, who lost both his sister and his mother to cancer in a short time as well as a young child, echoed how I most often feel, I think:

“What I would have believed five years ago about God and faith is very different from what I believe now,” he said. “Christians are always throwing around lines about how God is good, God is good all the time, and my take on that is, if that’s true, God’s definition of good is very different than mine. I’m still trying to work it out.”

I am sad for this man, that he lost so much, but I am glad to read that he is still trying to work it out. That, it seems to me, is the key to surviving. The minute you are sure of something – certain you have God or anything else you may believe in pinned down – that, it seems to me, is when you are on the shakiest ground.

Balm or placebo?  I am not certain – and I think I never will be.

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I woke up this morning to open my email and find a message from Steve Riley, the best publicist in the world, that the writer of the blog Penny Carnival had mentioned my book.

That’s nice, I thought, and I clicked on the link.

Nice does not cover it. I hope you will read this Penny Carnival post – not because it is about me, me, me. It isn’t. It’s about the meaning of prayer beads and the purpose of writing about them. And the author of the blog, Megan Cooley, is very perceptive and totally gets what I was trying to convey in the book and in the CraftSanity interview. Megan, thank you so much. You have humbled me and made me so grateful for the opportunity to reach people like you.

And another lovely mention on Laura Brittain’s blog, Heart of Compassion Malas. Laura recently left a comment on one of my blog postings and said how she loved to make malas and posts some for sale on Etsy. We’re going to talk to her in more depth in a future post.

While we are talking about good things, I got this comment about my post on Seattle’s St. James Cathedral from Patty Bowman, the church’s director of outreach. She said I could share it with you:

Hi, Kimberly. Thanks so much for your email. I read your blog entry, and
was very touched to hear how much you enjoyed your prayer time at the
cathedral. We are pleased to be able to have the cathedral open all day for
prayer — for parishioners and for visitors such as yourself.

I’m also pleased that you sent this email to me, because I’ve recently
become hooked into beads and beading. I’m a lifelong Catholic, and when I
was a child, it was our family’s practice to pray the rosary every night
together. So I guess I’ve always had beads in my life as an aid to prayer,
but only recently discovered the joy of creating jewelry with beads. I like
it for many reasons: for one, it’s a very forgiving hobby, if I don’t like
how something turned out, I can simply take it apart and start over. I’m
also constantly amazed at the variety of stones that come from the earth,
which invites meditation on the wonderful diversity of God’s creation. And
then there’s the stories behind the beads, which I’m only beginning to see
— how beads were crafted, where, by whom, and what they signify in
different cultures. So much to learn!

I agree. So much to learn. And all of it from the great people I am meeting as a result of writing about prayer beads.

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My husband and I are back from our trip and preparing to go to work tomorrow. Yuck. But before I get back to writing about the growth of American Judaism and what’s new on the animal spirituality front, I have a few last prayer bead-related things to say about Seattle.

The first day I was in Seattle, I hopped a Washington State Ferry to Bainbridge Island. I had read that the ferries were a really fun (read: cheap) way to see Seattle and so I put getting on one high on my to-do list. I took a backpack and a set of prayer beads in the hope that the 35- minute ferry ride might prove to be a meditative experience. Somehow.

It kind of was. Of course, I was traveling at a non-commute time and in a non-commute direction, so there were not too many people on my boat, the Wenatchee, so it was easy to find a place to sit both inside and out where you could, if you were so inclined, slip your hand in your pocket and say a round of prayers on the prayer beads. I gave myself over to the humming of the engines, the sight of the seagulls that followed us all the way and the beautiful sight of snowy Mt. Ranier in the distance. It was too pretty to close my eyes and pray, so I used one of my old standards on all the beads: “I lift my eyes unto the hills. From where is my helpt oc ome? My help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.”

Once on Bainbridge, I set off on foot. I heard there was a bead store on the island and I went to find it. Not hard. Small place. But alas, it was closed at 11-something in the morning. Seems they are moving to a new location and the person minding the store had to step out. So, alas, I cannot give you a report on the Island’s one bead store. If you are ever there, you send me a report.

I continued up Winslow Way, Bainbridge Island’s main street, and at the top of the hill saw the white steeple of the Eagle Harbor Congregational Church, looking for all the world like it belonged a continent away on a New England green. Inside, I found a quiet, still, dim little sanctuary where I could take break with my beads. The sanctuary was so calm, so quiet that I could hear myself breathe. That inspired me to pray only with my breathe, in and out, in and out. I sat for maybe 10 or 15 minutes, my eyes on the muted jewel tones of the sanctuary’s dominating stained glass window. I left with a lighter step, I think. If you are ever in Bainbridge, check it out.

A couple of days later, with the trip to St. James Cathedral and the Japanese Garden under my belt (see previous post), I figured I had covered the prayer bead bases as best as a gal on vacation needs to. So I set off for Pike Place Market with the intention of doing nothing but eat. And yet it was here, in the middle of the bustle and trade of this most touristy and crowded of all Seattle sights, that I found one of the most interesting bead stores I have ever been to.

I was walking through one of the lower levels of the market – a floor below the flying fish, I think – and I was kind of grossed out by all the touristy t-shirts and junk for sale in many of the shops. Just as I was about to head back to the produce and fish stalls above, I saw a neon sign that said BEADZone. I must have done a double-take – Pike Place Market is the last place I expected to find a serious bead store. But I am happy to report that BeadZone is just that.

I walked in the store and was immediately sure there was something spiritual going on here. The walls were decorated with posters showing the beads and jewelry of ethnic peoples from around the world and there were malas and Buddhas, too. A glance

inside one of the glass cases under a window cinched it – lots and lots of small Buddhas, open hand “Ham-Sa” charms, Christian medals and rosaries told me someone in this store had an interest in the spiritual uses of beads. They even had actual Tibetan dzi beads – the first I have every seen up close.

The owners of the store are Nina and Ram Menon. This is Nina, on the right in the picture. They’ve been together some 30 years or so and beads are a calling for them. Ram is also interested in the healing power of prayer and told me how a recent trip to a seminar with Dr. Herbert Benson had inspired him to want to create malas that could be walked – think labyrinth but with sensory clues, like incense and chiming bells, to tell you when to move on in prayer. The Menons have a sizable and very interesting collection of beads and charms that could be used in prayer beads. While they do not at the moment have an online store, they said they’d be happy to help you over the phone with anything you see pictured here. if you call them (206-903-6196), say hi to Bella, their little white dog who lords it over the store.

On another day, I went to the Seattle Art Museum. Note to SAM: if you are going to charge $20 for admission – the same amount New York’s world class Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art charge, you had better be sure you have enough art – and enough good art – to justify it. They don’t – not in my opinion – with one exception. One of the exhibits, Inspiring Impressionism, was truly well thought out and worth the money and trouble to go. But as for the rest – I don’t appreciate paying $20 to see a painted toilet, a couple of Fords hanging upside down from the ceiling and a suspended log. But that’s me. They did have one prayer bead related painting and it was a delight because it was totally unexpected. The painting, The Virgin Presenting the Rosary to Saint Dominic, by Antonio Palomino, showed a blue-robed Mary holding the baby Jesus with one hand a rosary with the other, which is outstretched to the Catholic saint. I could not take a picture and the musuem shop did not have a postcard.

And that was my trip to Seattle. I loved it. I would go back in heart bead. HAHAHA.

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In my last entry, I wrote about the almost mystical prayer experience I had in Seattle’s gorgeous St. James Cathedral. I left there at about noon and continued my quest for good places to pray with beads in this quirky, lovely city.

For some reason, I got it into my head that after praying indoors at St. James, I should look for a good place to try out my prayer beads outdoors. Seattle is not known for its fine weather, but during the time my husband and I have been here, the weather has been positively ideal – sunny, between 74 and 80 degrees and often with a light breeze. After all the smoky skies we’ve been having in the SF Bay Area, the weather in Seattle has been like stepping out into a cool, bright morning after a night’s debauch in a cigar store.

So, after looking at a tourist map the concierge gave me, I decided I could walk from St. James to Seattle’s Japanese Garden. Surely, once there, I would be imbued with the meditative, Buddhist spirit of the place and be moved to pray.

WRONG.

I walked. And I walked. And I walked and I walked and I walked. With every step, I think a lost a little of transcendent mood I captured at St. James. By the time I stopped for some lunch in a neighborhood called Capitol Hill, I thought I must surely be within a block or two of my destination. WRONG AGAIN! It seemed that the tourist map crunched the perspective on the areas of the map outside Seattle’s downtown, because who, in their right mind, would want to venture beyond the Space Needle, Pioneer Square and the culinary lure of Pikes Place Market? So instead of a few blocks, I still had more than a mile. UPHILL.

Okay, so after a slice and soda, I set off. Soon I was walking on some pretty tree-lined streets with what I would call mansions on either side. The homes were definitely older – maybe from the 1920s or so – and some had four floors! All were gorgeous and I would dearly have loved to peek inside the humblest of them. After i don’t know how many blocks of this, I came to Volunteer Park, home of the Seattle Asian Art Museum. Asian art. Right. That goes with Buddhism. So I decided to stop there, draw some inspiration from looking at some Buddhist art before getting some more directions to the Japanese Garden.

Asian art is not my favorite. But as I was getting warm and needed a bathroom (soda – must remember not to guzzle soda when not working within steps of my bathroom) I eagerly stepped inside. And I am rather glad I did. The Museum – which is part of the Seattle Art Museum – was hosting a show called “Discovering Buddhist Art – Seeking the Sublime.” The show offered a great introduction to Buddhism, describing all the major stories about the Buddha and how the religion/philosophy spread across Asia. It had lots of statuary depicting Buddha as he is imaged in different Asian cultures, and I was on the look out for representations of him carrying malas, the Buddhist and Hindu form of prayer bead. Several of the statues of the Buddhas held little malas in their right hands, some while seated with their consort goddesses, others while crushing demons with their hands and feet. All the Buddhas and other figures in the show wore the most serene expressions on their faces, reflecting the immeasurable peace attained by true detachment from all wordly thing. Ah, yes – that reminds me – back to my quest for the the Japanese Garden where, I too, might find such detachment.

WRONG AGAIN!

I set off one more time, still almost a mile away from my destination – and with one more major hill to climb up and over. But, like any spiritual quest, it isn’t the destination, but the journey, and my journey through the Capitol Hill neighborhood was one of the highlights of the day. As I have been all week, I was stunned by the vibrancy of the flowers in this town – riots of hydrangea, roses, peonies, marigolds, poppies, pansies, fuchsia spring from the smallest garden plots and from hanging baskets that seem to be a totem of this city. And at the top of the hill, I was rewarded with a view of Mt. Ranier, snowy and cool and remote, some 90 miles away from the city.

And someone who lives on Capitol Hill has a sense of whimsy. As I walked by this one big house, the yard was decorated with “art” – painted cowboy boots, stone towers and the like. At the foot of a tree in the yard was a collection of little trinkets – sea glass, little dolls, balls, etc. and a sign that said “take a treasure.” I did – a piece of sea glass!

Downhill, downhill, downhill and then – at last! – the Japanese Garden. But I think by this point I was just too darned tired to be inspired anymore. All but three of the park’s benches were in full sun at this time of day, so I couldn’t find anywhere to sit and be alone. But I took some pictures and I show them to you here so you can see that if you do come to Seattle and you are looking for a good outdoor place to be alone with your thoughts and prayers, this will do. It is a little close to Lake Washington Blvd. for it to be totally quiet, but it has lovely waterfalls and brooks that spread the soothing melody of bubbling water throughout.

This is a brook that runs through the garden. You can sit on a rock or under a tree or on a bench – if you can find one not in the sun.

And here’s a shot of the pond – that the brook runs into – looking across to a set of bridges. There are big goldfish in the pond (I don’t think they are koi) and some turtles that come up and sun themselves on the rocks. Dragonflies dart among the waterlilly blossoms.

This is a shot of the pond from the bridges pictured above. It is nice a cool under the willows and that would me a nice place to meditate or pray.

And here is a guy who is doing what I had hoped to be doing – meditating or thinking or praying – before the brook. I am happy he found a good spot.

And these are my feet after my walk. IS IT ANY WONDER I

COULDN’T FIND THE INSPIRATION TO MEDITATE OR PRAY??

Then I did something smart. I caught the bus back to the hotel, bought an iced coffee and put my feet up.

In my next post, I’ll give you a review of a couple of Seattle bead stores I frequented and I’ll tell you about one or two more places I visited for prayer.

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My husband and I are visiting Seattle this week – he for a conference and me for the free hotel room. So while he confers, I bop around the city looking for bead stores, places to pray with beads and great yarn stores. Oh, then there’s the eating. There are way too many good bakeries in this town.

One of the accepted truisms of the religion beat is that the Pacific Northwest is the least religious place in the United States. It has the lowest religious affiliation per capita and is the place where people are more likely to say they are “spiritual but not religious” than anywhere else. So I expected it might be a little more difficult to find great places to pray. I was, I can happily tell you, totally wrong.

This morning, I walked about 8 blocks from my hotel to Seattle’s St. James Cathedral, a Roman Catholic church and the jewel in the Seattle Archdiocese’s crown. I hoped to go inside and find a nice, quiet, meditative place that would inspire me to prayer. JACKPOT.

I stepped inside the church at about 11 a.m. to find a cool, quiet sanctuary with only two or three people scattered in the wooden pews and chairs. But what immediately struck me was the music – the organist was practicing what sounded like Bach, flooding the cool, dim space with music that came from all four corners of the church. I took a seat – a wooden chair – in the second row before the altar.

Then I noticed something very interesting. The church’s interior seems to be dominated by a theme – that of the circle. The sanctuary is illuminated by a skylight – a round hole at the top of a dome over the altar. Around the skylight is written the following: “I am in your midst as one who serves.” Directly below the skylight is the altar, which is also circular, with three steps leading up to another circular dias on which the communion table sits. This, it struck me, would mean that when people come up for communion, they might kneel in a circle about the altar and table. In other words, this is a church where the action does not take place in a line across the front, with the people separated from the communion supper by a rail, but where the people are in the midst of the action. I like the inclusiveness this implies.

Then I looked about me and saw the circle theme echoed elsewhere – in the medallions that ringed the church for the stations of the cross, in the rounded tops of all the stained glass windows and the arches, in the round bowl of holy water that sits right at the beginning of the main aisle, and in the round lamps that hung over the altar.

About this time, I got out the beads I put in my backpack for my trip. I didn’t pay a whole lot of attention to what beads I was bringing with me, just throwing a set in both my purse and my backpack. I felt a little shiver run down my spine when I pulled out my beads and found I had brought an Anglican rosary with no cross, but with a glass bead that was round, smooth and cool – just like the inside of the church. If you have a copy of Bead One, Pray Too, it is the one pictured on page 28. I love it when stuff like that happens.

So, what to pray? One thing I like to do when I visit a church is to look for something in the pew that contains the congregation’s prayers. I try to incorporate one of their prayers into my own with the beads. I like to think that this links me to them in some way – I am a guest in their house of worship and wish to show my respect and thanks by using one of their prayers. I looked in the rack on the back of the chair in front of me and found a church bulletin from last Sunday. Inside, I found a verse from a song the congregation sang together, and I used it on my cruciform beads. Here is what I prayed:

ON THE TERMINAL CHARM:

Glory to the Father, to the Son and to the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be. Amen.

ON THE INVITATORY BEAD:

The Lord’s Prayer

ON THE CRUCIFORM BEADS:

Glory be to God in heaven,

Songs of joy and peace we bring,

Thankful hearts and voices raising,

To creation’s Lord we sing:

Lord, we thank you, Lord we bless you,

Glory be to God our king.

ON THE WEEKS BEADS:

Lord, Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.

I prayed my Anglican rosary three times around. When I returned to the invitatory bead, I said a Hail Mary, as I was in a Catholic Church and it would further link me to all the people who had prayed with the Catholic rosary in these same pews. When I was done, I was struck by how completely silent it was in the sanctuary. The organist had wrapped up and left – I heard him jangling his keys as he left – and all the other worshippers had disappeared. It was just me and my prayers and the presence of the divine I could feel all about me. Here I was, in the middle of a major metropolitan city, and it was utterly quiet, peaceful, calm and still. Only my beads occasionally clicked.

When I was done, I walked to the font of holy water at the front and dipped my beads. I then held them as they dried and walked around the perimeter of the church. In the Mary chapel, I lit two candles – one for my friend Darrell, whose 44th birthday would have been a week ago Sunday, and one for Sandy, to whom Bead One, Pray Too is dedicated.

When I left the sanctuary, it was only because I needed to get moving if I was going to get everywhere I needed to me today. I stopped in the church’s excellent bookstore and bought a rosary made with multi-colored crystal beads and little book of prayers written by the church’s former choir mistress. Their bookstore wad a wonderful selection of books, including an especially good section on prayer. Check it out online. And while you are there, be sure and visit the church’s excellent prayer resources. I am particularly fond of the Mary Journey page – how wonderful to have all those images of a strong woman to pray with! And note that all the images are found in St. James.

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Steve Riley, publicist extraordinaire at Morehouse, sent me a link this morning to a blog called 45 Pines with an entry called “Praying with Stones.”

It seems that the writer, named Tanya, found a copy of Bead One, Pray Too at her local library (YEA! LIBRARIES!) and came home and was inspired to make an Anglican rosary the next day. Check out the beautiful picture of what she came up with, and be sure to look at the prayers she chose! I think Tanya is off to a great start in her relationship with prayer beads.

Steve also sent me a link to a column called “By Hand” from the Bangor [Maine] News in which the writer mentions the book and describes the content. I am having trouble using the link he sent me – think I am having computer issues, so if you wanna see it, Google “Kimberly Winston” and “Bangor News”. That should do it. I would love to hear from some of you prayer beaders in Bangor.

I am on vacation in Seattle with my husband. Actually, I am on vacation, he is here working, at a conference. HAHAHAHA. So I have been bopping around the city on my own and I will begin posting a few entries about local bead stores, places of worship and good local places to sit and pray with beads. Stay tuned . . . .

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I cannot imagine why anyone would want to hear me talk for an hour, but Jennifer Ackerman-Haywood sure did. This firecracker interviewed me about a month ago, I think, on the subject of Bead One, Pray Too and crafting with a spiritual bent. We had a ball – talked for two-and-a-half hours, she from her home in Michigan, where she had just put the kids to sleep, and me in Pinole, just after dinner. I do not know how she does it – she’s a mom, a crafty crafter, a wife and has a job, too! AND SHE DOES TRIATHALONS! Really, we must draw the line somewhere! Overachiever.

This week, Jennifer posted a podcast of our interview today on her fabulous website, craftsanity.com. It is a great site, where she blogs, offers project instructions and tips, conducts interviews with other crafters and generally kicks up a darn good time. While you are on her site, be sure and check out the great pictures she has of the craft projects she does with her kids. This one – of her daughter, Abby’s, “first official stitches” – is one of my favorites. And look at the rubber band Easter eggs! Anyone who takes the time to put rubber bands on eggs gets my vote for craft hero of the year!

I am going to admit that I have not listened to the podcast – yet. I can’t imagine listening to myself for an hour or more without wanting to stick knitting needles in my eyes. But I will – I promise. Someone else listen first and email me so maybe I’ll know I don’t sound like a total idjit. Maybe I’ll download it on my iPod, mix myself a strong margarita, and head for the backyard where, hopefully, no one will hear me scream. Yikes. But I am very, very grateful to Jennifer for her interest in my work. I hope you all visit her site and subscribe – she is a terrific crafter and a great writer, too!

I have some other fun news to share. Earlier this week I received the following email from Kathleen Davis Niendorff, a literary agent I met in San Diego late last year. We were both there for the American Academy of Religion’s annual conference. We met at my publisher’s party, and when my editor, Nancy Fitzgerald, mentioned that I had just finished a book about prayer beads (I was doing the final edits at the same time I was attending the meeting!), Kathleen’s face just broke into a big smile. She said she used prayer beads – an Anglican rosary – daily and talked about how much the practice had mean to her. Well, as you can imagine, that got me going and pretty soon I just felt moved to give her as a gift an Anglican rosary I had made and had in my purse at the time. Here’s the email, which I cherish, and share with you with Kathleen’s permission:

Dear Kimberly,

When you pulled out the rosary from your purse and gave it to me in San Diego, you could not possibly have known the extent to which I would use it! Every day. And every night it is under my pillow because I generally pray myself to sleep—how sweet is that? Thank you so very much for the way in which your gift has enriched my life.

And Nancy tells me your book is doing so well—congratulations!

God’s peace, Kathleen

Anyone else got a nice thank you to share from someone they gave a set of prayer beads to?

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