I pushed the wooden door open, stepped up, and heard the sound of wind chimes and smelled a heavy dose of nag champa incense burning. Since I was a young girl, my mom would take me to the local bead shop, this place always made me feel like I stepped out of my small town and took a journey around the world. I would spend hours exploring the textiles, tapestries, art work and beads which came from all over the globe. The beads were stored in glass jars and stocked one on top of the other in long rows of fifty across the wooden wall organized in perfect rows, by colors and regions. You'd also find a group of women seated in the back, smelling of patchouli oil, highly concentrated and serious as they squinted and concentrated on wiring tiny beads into their work of art. I too, would get focused, quiet and serious as I would study every bead, ask the store owner question after question about the history and stories behind each bead. I would buy a handful of beads, head home and get lost in trance for hours putting together my masterpiece. Later in life I would collect beads from all the places I traveled to and friends would have brought me back african trade beads, lapis lazuli from Afghanistan, gemstones from Chile, pewter, silver, bronze, beads made of ceramic, murano glass, turquoise from the Himalayas, and seed beads from all over the world. You name it, I now have collected it.
Beading has been a constant in my life, it is something that gives me focus, centers me, and keeps me in the 'present.' I find it challenging and invigorating which in turn has had me experience that joyful state called 'flow.' In order for a flow state to occur you must see the activity as voluntary, enjoyable, and intrinsically motivating.
I most recently worked on my fall line of necklaces and bracelets. I absolutely love to make 'stuff' and it's is a nice way for me to decompress and recover from lots of training and racing. This fall I have been making many malas; mala beads are a strand of 108 beads used for keeping count during mantra meditation. Malas can also be made of 27 beads, 21 beads for use in shorter meditations. They allow us to focus the mind on a single pointed task as we work through our meditation. While making my malas, again I find myself experiencing that state of flow. While stringing 108 beads, I reflect back 18 years thinking how the universal language of 'beading' helped me navigate language barriers, discover common ground and build trust with the Warmis...
It's 1997 and I am a few months into my Peace Corps service and continue to feel like an outsider looking in, the locals are very untrusting of outsiders especially foreigners. It feels like a ghost town during the daytime, the high Andes can get windy, and this is one of those days. Chickens fighting one another for their feed and pigs grunt as they eat their 'aqua sucia' (a bucket mix of food scraps and water.) Children are either in school or working the fields while the men are working in construction or garbage pick up for the larger surrounding cities. The women nowhere to be seen or working the fields. I have no direction, no guidance, no one to mentors (or so I think.) I have time, all the time in the world, life moves slow, real slow. It doesn't feel as though the community wants an American woman to live and work with them . Even though I have been getting 'yes, we will show up and work with you," yet no action nor follow through. One of the male leaders of the community shared with me that they had requested a male volunteer not a female and not sure what I would be able to contribute as a woman. I go back to the same question I had asked myself many times before, what is my purpose here? It's a few months now and I don't have solid work, no goals, doubtful of my purpose and no audience. I never felt more alone.
I decide to turn to my 'go to' -beading- as I am not sure what else to do.
I pop a squat in an open field, take a wool blanket, and sprawl out all my beads. The sun was shining down on the beads making the stones and ceramics glisten and glow. I got pulled into my beading vortex as the colors were changing and designs started to appear in my mind. I quickly place the beads in order, move things around and start to string the beads one by one and am feeling that state of 'flow' once again.
I don't have a plan, no structure, no goal, and no one to work with but in this moment, I am 'ok.' I am in the zone and lose track of time. I assume a couple of hours have passed as my neck and legs are a bit achy from sitting in one position for a long period of time.
I glance up, squinting, as the sun is in my eyes and see people surrounding me. I am startled as I was in such deep thought and my little visitors were so silent that I didn't know there was a group in a circle around me, total silence! I hear whispering and the word "mulllo' (pronounced moo-yo) being repeated many times. Mullo means 'bead' in Kichwa. One child plops down and asks if he can join me. Before I can respond, he is sitting next to me. Then a little girl, sits down on the other side of me and asks if she can also make something, I move over and make space for her. She begins to carefully design her necklace, extremely focused and breathing loud through her nose. The little boy skips the design phase and quickly throws together all the beads he can on the string and shouts out "I'm done, can I make another one for my sister?" "Yes, of course, do you want to invite your sister so she can make one too?" He takes off screaming in Kichwa and next thing I know his little sister is running full speed at us and pushes her way in to our concentric circle and starts grabbing for all the red beads.
Hours continue to go by and more and more children are gathering around the beading blanket and finding their 'flow.' One little girl leaves the beading zone running also screaming rapidly in Kichwa and then I notice her mother step outside her home, take her daughter's hand and walk together back to our group. I don't know this woman, she looks to the ground and in a soft spoken voice asks me if she can join the group too. I notice she is smiling while her hand is covering her mouth. I open our concentric circle even more and we make space for her. She too quickly falls into the zone and appears she has found her flow. The news has spread through my community as though everyone was on some sort of instant messaging :). One shy woman, would invite another friend and next thing I know, there's a group of women waiting and wanting to bead.
That one afternoon turned into a weekly beading group. We went to the big city to ask some of the stores if they'd be willing to donate beading materials to our community. Two stores gave us the scraps of seed beads and what they had at the bottom of the barrel or lose beads that were found on the floor, we took whatever we could get and were grateful! Regardless, moving forward I asked the woman to each contribute 25 cents so we could begin to save and purchase our own materials versus ask for donations. All the women showed up with 25 cents and one woman brought 50 cents! I have always believed it's important not to just 'give' but have people contribute whatever they can so they take ownership over it. Even the girls were showing up with 25 cents as they 'got it' and wanted to have materials to work with each week.
As we sit in a circle and bead, the women slowly begin to open up. They share about their lives, their upbringing, their families, their husbands, their children, their challenges and their dreams. I continue to listen as they share. I also stay quiet, hopeful I would not interrupt their 'flow.' One woman looks up and makes direct eye contact with me for the first time. I wasn't sure how to respond as the women would look at the ground and cover their mouth with their hand when talking. I looked right back at her and smiled and asked if she could help me with my necklace as I was stuck and not sure what beads to use next. She jumped up and sat next to me, grabbing my arm, pointing at some blue beads and put her arm around my shoulder.
I ask her about the significance of the golden beaded necklaces the indigenous women wear as I notice the little girls (even baby girls) all have their golden strands of beads around their neck. She explains that the golded colored beads represent the maize, the sun, wealth and wisdom. Between the ages of 7 and 11, little girls would begin taking on different roles and responsibilities in their homes. The first gift their parents would give them was a small animal such as a sheep to take care of, raise and sell. With that money the first thing the little girls would buy would be her traditional blouse and clothing to compliment her beautiful golden beads. As the little girls would grow up, they would gain more wisdom as well as more layers of golden beads around her neck. Younger the girls = less beads, the older you got the more beads you’d adquire. Especially when a woman marries, she would gain even more layers of the beads. More wisdom and age is being shown ‘around her neck’ as she is entering this new stage of her life.
Our weekly beading encounters suprisingly turned into a income generating activity as they made and sold necklaces in the big city. The Otavalen market was known as one of the largest artisan markets in South America located only 10 minutes from our community. We were already strategically positioned as tourists from all over the world would travel to Otavalo. We gave it a try and reinvested the money into our business and the girls in the group used the money to go to school and purchase school supplies. Our 'flow' led us to great things...
Prior to that windy, sunny andean afternoon alone on my beading blanket, I had spent so much time trying to force things to come together. I only knew my American way and to have the women come to a classroom setting. I learned more about their true needs and priorities through our afternoon beading 'get-togethers' versus a traditional teaching setting. I was conducting a needs assessment without a clipboard, questionnaire nor focus group but by listening to them share authentically, honestly and sincerely while experiencing 'flow.'
We came together from the simple act of beading. We come from different worlds, different upbringings but had the love for beading in common. I never would have thought that this would have been my gift or 'entry' to this community. I was insecure as I didn't have great language skills, nor technical skills and doubted my ability to be effective or to be able to bring people together. It was from that day forward that I was able to use beading as a tool to connect, communicate and educate. We would bead every week and then discuss important topics such as domestic violence prevention and response, small business ideas and dreams, health, and women's and children's rights.
The golden beads form a chain, a connection that creates a larger wheel and goes on to create more and more layers, interconnected and never ending. This has resonated with me for many years and became the foundation of The Warmi Project and its symbol. I wear those golden beads to remind me of the powerful lessons I learned about finding your flow and letting things flow. As I get older life continues to give me more and more strands of beads.
What's your flow? Write me and share, I promise to write back and will also share with the Warmis!