Great Story Beads are a symbolic representation of the 13.7 billion year epic of Cosmos, Earth, Life, and Humanity, told as a meaningful story that embraces all other stories including one's own personal journey.
Selecting and Stringing Your Own Beads
Reflections by Connie Barlow
In early 2002, Paula Hendrick sent Connie Barlow a gift of a simple "Universe Story Necklace" that she had begun making for herself and for friends. Unfortunately, two of the glass beads were crushed in the mail. Connie turned crisis into opportunity: instead of just purchasing replacements, Connie would add a few more beads to symbolize her personal favorites among all the events over 13.7 billion years that brought us to the present. What follows are Connie's reflections and suggestions.
The project began to grow: first, Michael Dowd and I decided to construct our own, highly detailed TIMELINE of events, from which we would each then select events to represent in our particular loops of beads. Fortunately, we found two specialty bead shops nearby in Nyack NY (we were living in New City at the time).
Michael chose to commemorate virtually all the events in the timeline, plus adding in his own personal life story (totaling 270 beads). Connie's choice of cosmic, earth, life, cultural, and personal events to commemorate totaled 175.
Selecting beads was immensely satisfying. Most cost between 10 and 75 cents apiece, though a few were a dollar or more. (You can also make your own beads out of sculpey clay or found objects). The bead shop owner also helped us to select a spool of thin, flexible, and strong steel string used by professional beaders. It is just the right mix of strength and flexibility so that no needle is necessary for stringing.
Once home with our treasures, we rolled long pieces of tape (folded back on itself) and affixed these onto large papers as a way to sort beads to match with events in the timeline mixing, changing, and trading as we went along. Then one more trip to the bead shop to purchase beads keyed to moments we were still missing, and to buy small spacing beads of different colors to mark off the eons and geological periods of life.
The day we actually strung the beads (Connie's 50th birthday!) was a wondrous occasion. We kept remarking to one another, "I can't believe how much fun I'm having!" When we completed this energizing process (which felt sacramental), we could hardly put our beads down. For the first few months thereafter, they went virtually everywhere with us including hanging from the rearview mirror of "Goldie," our first van upon launching our itinerant evolutionary ministry on April 25, 2002. Connie can easily wear hers as a double-loop necklace (the beads she selected were rather dainty, and the whole loop is less than 5 feet long). Michael carries his in a pocket or a pouch, as his beads are bulkier and the whole loop is nearly 12 feet long! But he is happy to pull them out in an instant and begin teaching the Great Story to young and old alike.
When someone asks what we do, we often use our beads to answer. "This represents the 14 billion year Story of the Universe, Earth, and Life. Pick a bead, any bead, and I'll tell you its story." (Michael sometimes adds, "and how it reveals God's glory and our own true nature!") We also enjoy making a game of the interaction by holding out a segment of beads while inviting the viewer to guess which bead stands for a particular event. Michael's (then) 11-year-old daughter, Miriam, was mesmerized while Michael held her, telling the stories of the major beads. After just this initial storytelling, she was able to remember and tell others what many of the beads symbolized.
Perhaps our most amazing story was something that took place in May 2004, while we were telling The Great Story in various venues in Denver. Connie presented programs at a public Montessori elementary school (Denison Elementary School), where she had previously spoken in the fall of 2003. At this second appearance, a girl just completing fifth grade came up to Connie (Connie was wearing her beads), pointed to a brilliant purple spherical bead and asked, "Does this purple bead stand for Charles Darwin?" Connie was astonished, "How did you know that?" The girl replied, "I asked you about that bead last time you were here." What a memorable way to teach the story!!!!
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"Stories of Awakening"
to the wonder of the Universe Story,
by way of beads.
Some beads are literal representations of events: a spiral for the birth of galaxies, a miniature turtle for the birth of the North American continent (Turtle Island), a shell for the origin of shells in the Cambrian, a miniature conifer tree for the origin of conifers in the Jurassic, a thin cylindrical green bead for the spread of modern grasses in the Miocene, a clear bead dappled with yellow dots for the emergence of pollen, a tiny butterfly and flower pair for the co-evolution of flowers and insects in the Cretaceous, a golden acorn for the co-evolution of nut trees and squirrels in the Oligocene, a blue sphere for Earth looking at itself in the mirror for the first time thanks to the Apollo Space Mission in the late 1960s.
Other beads are suggestive in color: red for the increase in predation in the Cretaceous, blue-green for the invention of photosynthesis by blue-green cyanobacteria, green for the greenhouse climates of the Cretaceous and the Eocene, orange and brown striped for the birth of the Grand Canyon in the Pliocene, orange and black spotted for the origin of cheetahs in North America, carved bone for the arrival of mastodons in North America, ocean blue with a tan band through the center for the formation of the Isthmus of Panama three million years ago, gold and black beads for extinctions.
For some beads, it is size, texture, or glitter that is suggestive of the event: huge, rough beads for Jurassic sauropod dinosaurs, a multi-colored sparkly bead for the creation of elements inside exploding supernova stars, luscious "pearls" or crystals or "diamonds" for those teachers and mentors most important to us individually (e.g., Jesus for Michael, Julian Huxley for Connie, Thomas Berry for us both.)
Choosing Events to Commemorate
No one, of course, can tell anyone else what the Great Story is at this level of detail. Rather, each person (even young children) will be moved to choose particular events and beads that personalize the story for them. (Dinosaurs, yes! But let us not forget the scallops of the sea, the ferns of the land, the achievements of the bacterial realm in assuring everlasting cycling of chemical elements vital to life.) For the most recent, Cenozoic Era, one will need to choose, too, how much to focus on one's own bioregion, one's own continent. (See Connie's set of beads and timeline that she uses to tell The Story of the North American Continent, which begins 65 million years ago, as the dinosaurs are going extinct.) Another excellent short version of the beads would be a 40-BEAD string or necklace, to match the 40 stations in the 3.8 billion journey of life chronicled in The River of Life Experience.
Finally, for the last 10,000 years of human history: does one focus on direct ancestors and one's own civilization or is a global, multicultural approach more helpful, more alluring? Even for a single-civilizational or indigenous approach, there will be huge differences in choices made by people of various religious or philosophical traditions, for those inclined toward science, art, music, feminism, wilderness, literature, poetry, mysticism, cuisine, and so on.
In this way, we each get to truly experience this grand epic as our own Great Story the story that embraces and includes all the stories that are meaningful to us. Crucial, too, is commemorating the major events in our personal lives in the same string of beads. We can then begin to experience our familial and personal stories as the latest episodes in thirteen billion years of divine, cosmic creativity. Our own births, that of our children, journeys of ancestors, and other major events (joyful or difficult) that shaped who we are can all be signified in beads.
Might Great Story beads become the way that the next generations take the epic of universal creativity to heart, thereby finding evolution deeply meaningful and inspiring? What if creating personalized Great Story beads becomes as freely chosen by children as playing with toy dinosaurs? Might this idea move far beyond the schools, far beyond the reach of us elders? For example, we can envision some kids choosing to string a bead for each and every dinosaur name that they know!
One possible way for children to choose events to commemorate in beads would be to ask each child to identify their favorite plants (trees/flowers), mammals, birds, reptiles/amphibians, insects, animals of the sea, rock formations, people. And also to identify their favorite extinct creatures. The teacher or parent would then help each child determine the sequence in which these favorites evolved, plus adding on the precursor events of "The Great Radiance" (Big Bang), galaxy formation, ancestral stars, our sun, Earth, Moon, beginning of life. As the children are presented with more timeline possibilities, they may choose to expand their list of events. But perhaps just begin with their favorites of today's world and their favorite extinct creatures before introducing any pre-determined timeline.
We imagine many religious leaders welcoming Great Story beads (Michael likes to call them "glory beads") as a fun and playful way of teaching the history of everyone and everything as a sacred story, highlighting the especially meaningful events in their own tradition. Parents might work with toddlers to string their first simple beads and then recreate longer loops of beads with more story elements each year on the child's birthday, saying "And now you are thirteen billion and six years old!"
Commenting now, July 2004, after two years of using our Great Story beads on the road, we have encountered several women who expressed an interest in developing Great Story Beads as a birthday activity for their grandchildren. Each birthday, she would bring forth last year's beads, and ask the child what new events in the Universe Story she/he might like to commemorate and which events (good and bad) in their own life they might wish to signify in beads too.
Great Story beads might also be created for significant rites of passage in life notably, the passage into adulthood: teenagers would create their own strands of beads for those moments in the cosmic, Earth, life, human, and their own stories that are most meaningful to them, that would guide their journey into adulthood.
Imagine a day when we have a new way of getting acquainted: showing one another our beads and beginning to tell our stories, explain our priorities, and share our values bead by bead.
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