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Why I Make: Healing Beads

African trade beads, Creative Commons

African trade beads, Creative Commons

African trade beads, Creative Commons

Photo gallery (1 image)

Kenya, May 1991. My husband came home from work and found me in a low chair by the window. On my lap was a tray of African beads, and in one hand I held a partly finished necklace - Ethiopian silver threaded between amber and old Venetian trade beads. The jacaranda tree outside was catching the last of the light, its froth of mauve flowers gathering a tinge of pink. The call of a Hadada ibis lingered in the air. I, who am sustained by the beauty of nature, was not moved. Instead I felt stung by nature's indifference, by the fact that this beauty continued as though nothing had changed.

Graham called out his usual greeting, knowing nothing until I spoke. My response was flat and clipped, I'm sure, as though any intonation, any lingering on a vowel, would be too painful. He crouched at my side and looked into my grief-flattened eyes and pressed his lips on my swollen eyelids, my stiff mouth.

I had learned about the accident in the morning, how a huge truck had crashed into their car on the Naivasha Road in the Rift Valley. They did not die instantly, but of their terrible wounds. She went first. He was still uttering garbled apologies to her when he died two hours and 20 minutes later. He was my friend and business partner, an energetic, upbeat German who had lived in many parts of the world. She was Canadian, working in the High Commission in Nairobi. Their two small children had not been with them and were at home in the care of ayahs, or nursemaids.

A friend had come to my house in the morning to tell me the news; we had no telephone. I could not call Graham to tell him or share my grief with others. Instead, I found myself pulling out the collection of beads I had gathered during those first months in Kenya. I'd been immediately drawn to the strings and bowls of rare and beautiful beads in the open-air markets and crowded duka stalls around Nairobi. While others were bargaining over painted masks and baskets, I was handling old amber and well-traveled strings of beads made from bone and horn and learning about millefiore trade beads and Ethiopian Coptic crosses. I had collected the beads without a purpose in mind; I had simply fallen in love with them. The day I learned of Bernt and Patricia's deaths, I sat by the window fingering my collection and began to design necklaces. I immersed myself in the ordering of beads into patterns that pleased and comforted me.

I continued beading for months, and then, as other things filled my time, I stopped making necklaces. But I continued to buy beads, draping them around lamps, displaying them in bowls and flat baskets, dropping them into boxes and drawers.

In 2001 we moved to America, to North Carolina. And so did my beads. I dedicated a chest of drawers to them, but otherwise set about creating a new life for myself in yet another new place. Four years later, a phone call in the night. My beloved father had died. I flew to South Africa for his funeral. Ten months later my mother fell ill. Again I boarded a plane, and for a month I watched as she died. I stayed on alone to sort out belongings, pack them away, make decisions, scatter ashes. Then I flew back to North Carolina.

Before I had shaken off jet lag or even had time to feel the depth of my emotional pain, I pulled out my beads and began creating necklaces again. It was months before I made the connection: I realized that something in me had instinctively reached out to those beads as a way to help me deal with grief. I had known intuitively that this was what I needed. It was not a conscious decision.

I know it was the process that was helpful to me - the creative energy, the quiet time allowing reflection, the satisfaction of making something beautiful, and the pure tactile pleasure of handling the beads. But, as time has passed, I have begun to understand that, for me, the beads themselves have a power to heal. I have taught myself about the beads, learned of their histories, of their journeys, of the strange and powerful ways in which they have been used and prized. My respect for them grows. When I have been forced to face loss and the impermanence of life, these small mysterious bundles of history and energy have brought consolation and peace. In my hands they exude permanence and strength, a connection with far-off people and places. I feel humility and a deep gratitude that they have entered my life.


Bridget GlendayBridget Glenday is a writer, a traveler and a jewelry designer. She grew up in South Africa and lived and worked in London, Toronto, and Boston before moving to Nairobi. During her 12 years in Kenya she wrote a travel book and developed an addiction to rare and beautiful beads. Bridget now divides her time between North Carolina and Cape Town and shares her experiences and perceptions in her blog, Bridget's Best.

Why I Make is a guest series exploring the human impulse to create. Read more posts in the Why I Make archives or submit your own story.




Loved this essay all over again - thank you - Libby

This is a moving article. Would love to see some more necklaces and beads and hear more stories about your searching, the origins and making of these beautiful necklaces.

i like beadwork because it is so beautiful. thanks

The restorative power of the beads, and this story, is remarkable. Very moving, and the colors and textures in the pictures are wonderful. More!

What a beautiful story. Creating with beads can have such a peaceful, calming effect. Handling the various textures, and looking at all the different colors of glass, metal, and stone beads can make one feel so much better.

I was intrigued by this beautiful and touching story so I visited your blog. I was stunned by the incredible photos and writing that made me feel like I was there in person! Thank you and I look forward to more..

Somehow the impermanence of life and the permanence of beads have worked some magic in your life, Bridget. I look forward to hearing more of your captivating stories.

I found this piece very moving. As a beader myself, I can relate to how Bridget is drawn to them in tough times. I love how they have helped her heal. Please print more of Bridget's work - she is a wonderful writer.

Now I wonder...the story behind the beads in the necklace I love to wear....

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